Surveying the Pit

Posted: February 8th, 2011 by: h2

In the previous posting, I took a look at the notion of humanity digging itself down into a pit. The more I consider this view, the better a model I find it to describe the actions, thinking, and economic/political activities of modern humankind.

I’ve been following, as I noted in the previous posting, the writings of a wide variety of so called Peak Theorists/Commentators, and began to note certain… how to put this nicely?… let’s call it, oddities, about their views. Certain things don’t fit the facts, that is. This is not to discount the actual substance of the analysis presented, for example, as this recent WikiLeaks Cable clearly shows (story), the views criticized by the establishment as ‘nutty’ or ‘deluded’ are in fact basically exactly right. In this case, the leaked cable shows that the Saudis admit they have both overstated their reserves, by about 40%, exactly as it was said they had, and are lying about their ability to generate new supplies in terms of daily production rates.

So there’s no problem with most of the core engineering facts related to various so called ‘peak’ issues.

No, the problem lies much more deeply in my opinion, and that problem is rooted in how we as humans are chosing to view this situation. By projecting everything upwards, we in turn manage to suggest we are progressing. But we are not progressing, if we were, our planet would not be losing its ability to support life, the resources we are extracting at breakneck speeds would not be hitting extraction maxima, the ecosystem would be thriving, not dying off and losing diversity at record rates, and so on.

There is another serious problem with viewing matters as if we had attained some height, and that is that it suggests that all we need now to do is to step down from the peak and make our way back to the lower realms. In other words, don’t worry, gravity will pretty much take care of things for us.

I’ll be investigating these matters for a while, so I hope a few of you will bear with me, and possibly even contribute thoughts of value to the process. Please note that repeating dogmas and propaganda generated by the corporate media, especially the right-wing corporate media, is not a positive contribution, but it will be one of the areas I examine in the coming postings, if things go as planned.

The Nature of the Pit

First, I will admit an immense, and growing, frustration, with the entire tone of the discussion you find online, and in print, from Heinberg, who tends towards reasonably sane if somewhat dull views, to open polemicists like James Howard Kunstler.

I have been searching for the source of this frustration, and I believe I have finally found it. All of these people, more or less, buy into the myth that we have ascended, or have reached a peak, of culture, etc. I would like to suggest that this view is not just slightly wrong, it is horribly, and almost perversely wrong.

The doom these people are dreading/awaiting anxiously, has already happened. It has been ongoing for centuries, maybe millenia, depending on where you are looking. And this doom comes and goes, some areas recover from it, others are essentially destroyed for all time.

However, it does little good to just say the words, I think a bit more is called for, and since this is merely an online blog, I’m going to use it to explore some of these ideas a bit, veering here or there as opportunities present themselves, or as evolving events suggest new or old directions to look into.

What does it mean, then, to say we are in a pit? First of all, it serves to de-mythologize our activities. What we do, in essence, in our culture, is to dig things out of the ground, to break and open and reveal, to extract (a process we sickly, and somewhat egotistically, call: production) finite materials. We dig drainage ditches, we dig foundations, we create structures made out of materials almost exclusively mined or pumped out of the earth.

This is what we do as industrial humans. We dig subways, we clear land of life and replace it with monocultures, we fill the oceans with waste, and the skies with the offal of burning hydrocarbons, coal, oil, natural gas, etc. We then call this process ‘progress’.

The value of viewing this not as a positive achievement, i.e., ascending the peak, from which we look outward in Randian glory over our dominion, but as a negative one, is that things begin to actually make sense. It is also worth noting that the English language embeds such notions into our daily speech, for example: we are digging ourselves down into a hole, we are digging our way out of this mess, and so on. The examples are probably uncountable.

It was long ago noted that to understand reality, listen to the words average people use to describe it. I am buried under a mountain of debt, and I need to dig my way out. For example. My house’s mortgage is now underwater. These are accurate examples, and accurately describe the situation.

So my premise is that we are not at all on any peak, nor are we staring out from the hilltops like Ayn Rand’s teenage jerk-off fantasy books masquerading as serious thinking would have us believe. No, we are in a pit, and we are digging this pit deeper and deeper, with greater and greater intensity.

Think of, if you have read or watched old films, HG Wells ‘The Time Machine’, where he arrives at a time in the future where the controllers are subterranean beings, the Morlocks, who control the naive and enslaved surface dwellers. This was a nice metaphor, by the way, and it’s not surprising to find a guy like Wells writing those words, especially if you read some of his less known works.

Or look at C.S. Lewis, who authored a very interesting science fiction trilogy, the last book of which occurred here on Earth, That Hideous Strength, and featured an evil corporate type system that was engaged in a vast excavation project, the purpose of which remained murky to almost everyone involved, and the members of which all struggled to achieve status and good reviews but never actually received anything of real value in compensation. An interesting analogy that one too, and a very accurate one, we see this happening every day as people sell themselves to corporations in order to receive chits to give them the right to consume the products of these corporations.

C.S. Lewis had it right I think. And he’s not the only one, history goes far back with people who began to suspect things were not quite as they appear.

But our concern is not the distant past, nor the murky future. The present will be the focus here. And the activities of our present show us digging a lot of holes.

You can find fascinating engineering type stories in this site, and anywhere else you chose to look, oil wells drilled down to 35,000 feet, vast mines, monstrous extraction rates achieved in coal, copper, iron, and even geologically preserved aquifers, that is, very deep groundwater extracted to irrigate, non-sustainably, places like the US Midwest (look up the ogallala aquifer for a prime example, though there are many such found globally, Saudi Arabia gets most of its fresh water this way, for example.)

Extraction everywhere we look. Renewal, improvement, nowhere. Can you show me a case? Now and then a smart farmer, not run by an agribusiness entity, that is, will actually make attempts to stop the extraction of the top soil resource, but really, where did his water, fertilizer, tractor, combines, etc, come from? Extraction everywhere we look.

So with this mass of extraction, let’s just call this as it is: humanity is digging itself a vast hole. The hole is not fully global, but it is becoming so now, with the climate and oceans themselves changing, which is pretty much the end of the road for this notion, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop.

No, this is why I think it’s more useful to view humanity as having descended, and as being in the active, and self-generated process, of increasing the rates of descent.

This is not a difficult idea to grasp I think, and it’s actually very useful to help us understand why people are acting in such a bizarre way today, and why the political discourse is growing increasingly out of touch with reality. Or is it?

The World of the Pit

The first thing to understand about the world of the Pit is that it is human activity that digs the pit. It is humans who decide to improve the extraction tools, to find better drills, larger shovels, more powerful explosives, etc.

So the first thing to understand about the Pit is that we make it with our activities. This is a really key point, and one that much peak type thought tends to sort of ignore, or simply view as too obvious to state.

When we decide to extract our latest favorite substance, say, oil, it is not a random event. In fact, every time we expand the power of our energy sources, we correspondingly expand our ability to dig, deeper, further, and more critically, wider.

Imagine a mine, then imagine hitting the point where a lot of the desired mineral is to be found. The mine spreads out, into galleries, using the stone to support the ceiling, which is the rock itself.

Our mining activities always work in this way, as for example the excellent series done by Heading Out from the OilDrum every Sunday often covers, re the engineering of coal, oil, gas, etc, mining/drilling.

To say that our actions are leading us upwards, to say we have progressed, to say we are ascended, or are higher than earlier copies of humanity working in vastly different ways (though the tendency to dig ourselves down into holes seems to happen most of the time we construct what we call ‘civilizations’), is really very self-aggrandizing.

In fact, I would suggest that the only person who could make such a statement would be one who has already lost sight of natural reality, ie, someone who lives breathes loves dies in a pit.

Our thinking is the thinking of decay, of decadence, not of aspiration, of freedom. It is the thinking of people without real horizons, only darkened and rapidly steepening walls surrounding them.

When we seek ‘higher’ things, we admit this, almost openly. People who lived in natural environments did not in general seek higher things, since they were already there. It is only us, who have dug ourselves down this deep, who must look upwards to find our way out.

Music, Art, are supposed to ‘elevate’ us. To raise our spirits. This raising would not be necessary if we lived in an elevated condition. Or, better put, not elevated, merely not depressed, sunken, darkened. Our Gods live up there, not down below. The gods of people who lived more or less in contact with the Earth’s surface tended to live right around them, like neighbors. As we began to dig, they began to appear to be higher up, like the Greek gods, on Olympus, for example

And they began to become abstractions, distance had made it difficult to see. The further we dig, the more abstract they become. Everything takes on this darkened quality, in fact. Christianity even went so far as to invent a god of the pit, Satan, which was a strange takeoff on the older notions of Hades, another construct generated by an earlier time, when Cities began to exist, the polis sprang into being, and the walls began to rise around us.

I want you to note that as much as possible, I am trying to avoid using too much metaphor here, as you know, by simply looking at your wall, the walls really have sprung up all around us. This wall is a reality, one of Pink Floyd’s biggest selling albums was called The Wall, in fact. All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall…

It is the task of Art, Music, etc, to tell the truth as best they can. So sometimes it’s worth giving a listen or look.

Daily Life: Dig baby Dig

Once I started to change my perspective, things that had made little or no sense began to become much more reasonable, almost instantly.

If we are digging ourselves down, this should, and in fact is, one of the cornerstones economically of our social system. And so it is. No deep drilling, no open face coal mines, no iron ore extraction, denies this fundamental fact.

So taking a fairly materialist position, our views of politics and social systems can become more reasonable.

Starting with the far right, heavily connected to, no surprise here, natural resource extraction, mining, drilling, and so on. See for example the ultra right Koch brothers. These are the diggers. They see only digging. They do not see the light above, only the task at hand, digging further. To say these people have no vision is not quite fair, they do, they see the next hole, how to expand another one, how to widen the mine face, how to dig down 12,000 feet, then spread a web of horizontal drill holes to suck the maximum material out at the minimum cost.

The diggers somewhat rightfully view themselves as the cornerstone of our society. And so they are, without this ongoing extraction, the hole would not be deepened.

More recently, and in a very weak form, some people have begun to question the wisdom of deepening the hole, and call for a slowing of the digging processes. This is generally now termed as ‘green’ thinking. Almost no green thinking is concerned with anything beyond slowing the pace.

To make a visual representation, the primary diggers and resource extractors want to extract and dig at maximum rates. They are not concerned about the angles the walls take, the dangers of cave-ins, and so on. They merely want to dig more, for to dig more confers some social status and power on them. They cannot see beyond this. So that is a limit that it’s important to understand. Such people view issues such as climate change/disruption with extreme suspicion because they absolutely correctly intuit that such a change challenges their primary and core access to social status and power.

How they explain this among themselves is not all that important, it’s like hearing mining engineers debate optimal drilling strategies or angles of descent.

Mingled among this crowd, but currently largely intrinsically hooked into this mindset, are some who are questioning the rates of digging, the structural integrity of the walls, the quality of the pipes used to line the drill holes, and so on. These are what we call ‘progressives’. The diggers tend to look on progressives, or reluctant diggers, with suspicion and often scorn, since almost everything the progressives do is dependent on the output of the diggers.

You’ll note, none of these are questioning the real wisdom of digging further as the walls above us are destabilizing.

A tiny minority of both groups is beginning to note that the actual walls are in fact beginning to bend, warp, destabilize, and an even smaller minority out of that group are beginning to question the nature of the entire digging project itself.

But since the series of interconnected pits, mines, and drill holes we have constructed is largely determining our daily existence since birth, the perspective required to see outside the hole simply cannot be generated in any convincing way.

Everyone, after all, knows that what we do is dig, and that the purpose of existence is digging, down, out, expanding the mines, carving out vast ornate galleries, piling the tailings up as far as we can make them go, to form what we call sky scrapers, digging massive tunnels to make transport more efficient, and so on. We even launch vessels made from materials we have dug up, fueled by other materials we have extracted from the Earth, into the skies, and flatter ourselves that by so doing we have left our foundations behind. But these are all just balloons held down by cords that are of an absolutely indissoluble character. Fantasies, fictions, flight without wings remains something we are allowed only in our dreams.

Bit by bit, we have dissolved everything into acids used to enable more rapid excavations, we use the fuels we extract now to extract more, faster, more furious, more desperate, for to stop digging, we are told, over and over, is death, the end of all things, the beginning of nothing, a fate worse, far worse, in fact, than death. So we dig, more, deeper, wider.

The caverns begin to fill with people, each is given a shovel, each is supplied with minimal foods, of a quality lowering by the year, enough to allow them to extract the shovelfuls they have been allotted as overseers peer over their ledgers and performance reviews, scribes with scraggly beards making entries to notate the required allocation of chits for the performance of the task achieved.

Some dig sideways, branching out the caverns into catacombs, the light provided by harsh electric bulbs, until soon many are born without even a hope of ever seeing the sun or moon.

The overseers nod their heads, urging on greater performance for the sake of maximal efficiency, the best of the bunch are handed engineering degrees and massive stacks of chits, claims on wealth, a portion of the extractions that are twisted and pulled into new shapes and soon to be discarded flavors are handed out like rewards given to good puppies while the digging never stops, the grind and groan of rocks and metal, shrieks permeate the air as machines generate greater and greater degrees of consumption, a vision from hell you might think but we are told it is our present, and that this is the greatest achievement mankind has ever reached, the greatest heights, the dream of man to be a god is now realized, we are told, but not by any god I can recognize as such.

The digging mass forms itself into religious units, which look up, to find the sky further each year, a bit more distant, and as it grows faint, they raise the cry of fundamentalist return, of absolute truth, of sin, of redemption, and all the litany of other false promises cast upon the water by those who may even truly want to be of use.

And so it goes, on and on, deeper and deeper.

Then One Day the Machines Slow, the Digging is Threatened

The first voices are cautious, careful not to disturb the great powers that generate the incredible quantities of extraction and production, but still, there is that nagging problem. Science, a powerful tool, designed to maximize production, make efficient extraction, help catalyze this or that into some other agent never before dreamed, control and regulate processes for greater efficiency, now and then sees what it should not see, the vision parts, and a hint is quietly published, spoken, discussed among the more arcane levels of the academies.

Maybe in Sweden early 20th century, when someone notes that the temperatures appear to be rising globally, already then detectable, already then understood clearly as to the causal agency, release of too much Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. But then the voice is stilled, allowed to speak but not heard, it fades, only to return later, then more forcefully, the air in the pit is now growing noticeably warmer, agencies are noting that financial repercussions, insurance payouts, issues are not working well, what is the problem? The digging goes on as the voices begin to join, the word stop is heard for the first time but does not fit, digging cannot stop, it must not stop, the hole is not completed after all!

Then other warning signs appear, oil fields begin to enter advanced stages of depletion, production rates plummet, replacement rates as well, like a hamster running in its wheel, it can’t get ahead. Oil field depletion is a problem noted by all competent professional petroleum engineers for decades. Depletion is a term designed to describe but hide the underlying truth, the pipes, the tubes, the sucking is slowing, the machines have spread, the hole is growing wider, there are few spots left on the planet left at surface levels, everything is sinking, but it is not a passive sinking, it is fueled always by non-renewable sources of energy, always the demand to extract, profit, oil, coal, life itself fails, species begin to lose their ability to function at the depths we are creating, one by one they snuff out, faster and faster, the rate is noted by many but nobody can offer a solution, the digging must go on after all, there is no way to stop, the walls themselves are now held up by machines, to stop means the walls will fail and the pillars will crumble, the situation requires more digging, and more manpower, there is no other solution, we will craft massive metal plates to shore up the walls, and we will cast monstrous pillars of cement and rebar to hold up the sagging and groaning ceilings of the caverns we excavate to contain the people who must dig more.

But the lack of planning is showing, now a well here, another there, is running dry, that field is slowing, oil is growing dear, and without oil the machines simply do not run well. The sun no longer shines directly on the land we farm, the fields require massive amounts of oil, of fertilizer, of water, to produce the crops required to feed the populace, themselves groaning now more and more as materials become harder to come by, more expensive, a new term is invented, demand destruction, to explain the fact that now some people are unable to pay the costs, and sit shivering in their caves, chipping away at walls in hopes of finding a small bit of coal to burn in their fireplace to cook their gruel.

Still we dig, drill, spread nets deep into the seas to catch and kill and then eat everything we can get our hands on, the oceans fill with waste and garbage, in areas larger than large US states, hopelessly drifting, dead zones appear, things are not looking so good, but we no longer see, we are buried, we know only our tunnels and tubes, our cement/asphalt lined avenues that cover the living, digging down a bit deeper every day, we see problems but tell ourselves we will solve them by digging a bit deeper, by widening the caverns, adding a few more people in key areas, but the land is failing, never here, always somewhere else, not our problem we tell ourselves, but their caverns are now starting to intersect with ours, tendrils spread across the planet, connecting, joined, vibrating, we call this creature the internet, and marvel that we can now talk to other caverns without even stepping out of our walls.

All so amazing, so there is talk about sending more rockets up to Mars, maybe Titan is promising, they say it may have water, so that’s a start, no?

The pumps begin to strain, we have hit a wall, there is no more oil per day now, production has maxed, the shrill diggers scream, drill baby drill, oil explodes from the bottom of the sea, so deep we feel right at home, remote robot craft are our eyes and arms and legs, we can do this, we tell ourselves over and over, a bit more drilling, dig over there, we haven’t tried that yet, so that should solve the problem.

But oil production is stubborn, it stays at the same level, we can’t pull out any more, and other countries have embarked on their own massive excavation projects, at scales never before dreamed, China jumps ahead almost overnight but oil does not, and then we have hit the wall. Digging projects are canceled no money today to pay the bills, one grinds to a halt, then another. Existing producers promise to expand production, but their expansion increasingly fails to even cover the depletion rates, game over signals red flashes, over and over, flashing red warnings, ignored, we can do this, let’s just fix it, dig over there, we missed a spot, the ice is melting anyway, so we can drill up in the North now, that should solve the problem.

But overall, the speed of the digging has slowed, and that is a problem, because we have constructed a world that is totally dependent on not just digging, but digging at a certain rate, we need to go down a certain number of feet per hour, remove so many cubic yards of material per second, a larger shovel, bigger trucks that should do it, so what if the quality of the ores is declining rapidly, we will just dig more out, we can process it, and that will help expand the hole anyway.

That’s where we find ourselves today. Stay tuned for further reports.

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