The impending collapse of civilization should, as Samuel Johnson said about being hanged in a fortnight, wonderfully concentrate the mind. For most of the interview subjects whose responses Matthew Schneider-Mayerson analyzes in Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (University of Chicago Press), that collapse is inevitable, if not already underway.
“Peakists” skew, on the average, pretty far to the left of the stereotypical American survivalist in ideology, but there is a meeting of minds on strategy. Peak-oil activism -- as the author, an assistant professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, presents it -- consists mainly of: (a) stockpiling necessities, (b) consuming less and (c) blogging while you still can. This sounds awfully unambitious, even by the standards of a politics of diminished expectations.
Schneider-Mayerson’s questionnaire drew responses from about 1,750 committed adherents of the peak-oil scenario in 2011. That year now looks like the end of peak oil’s era of maximum public exposure. My own unscientific survey of otherwise well-informed people suggests that the whole concept is less than universally familiar, so first a word of explanation.
The claim that oil production has peaked, or will soon, is grounded in a hard ecological and economic reality: as the pool of oil in a well shrinks, it takes more effort and expense to pump out. The return on investment will eventually hit zero. An enormous amount of petroleum remains underground, but the energy consumed in extracting each barrel will exceed the energy produced by burning it. And once we reach that point on a worldwide scale -- as must happen, sooner or later, when the last untapped deposit has been located and exploited -- the effect can only be catastrophic.
Over the past 150 years or so, petroleum has been both abundant and relatively easy (hence profitable) to extract. Huge, complex and interlocking institutions and technologies became possible thanks to eons’ worth of solar energy condensed in liquid form by the decay and burial of vegetation over untold millions of years. The next 150 years do not look quite so promising.
Nor do the next 15, really, if some of the peak-oil extrapolations are valid -- in which case the Mad Max films may count as utopian, since Mel Gibson at least had some functioning oil rigs to protect. (More than three-quarters of Schneider-Mayerson’s respondents indicate that they had seen the films, and it’s a fair guess more than once.) Quite a few counterscenarios come to mind, including the development of other energy sources or of more efficient ways to extract, and use, the black gold itself.
But peakists can always point to the undeniable reality that advanced industrial societies are dependent on a fuel that must run out. And facing that inevitability “was often revelatory,” the author says, noting that “the gulf between their conception of the future before and their conception of the future after their awakening is so stark that this moment often cleft their lives in two.”
Those who filled out Schneider-Mayerson’s questionnaire in 2011 tended to be middle-aged, middle-class white American men with higher educations (more than 43 percent had postgraduate degrees). They characterized their views as “liberal” or “very liberal” (about half) and reported their religious preference as “none” (also about half). They constituted “a vibrant social formation that existed from roughly 2005 to 2011,” when the largest peak-oil news sites and blogs were drawing hundreds of thousands of readers per month. At least one novel set in the postpeak future, James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008), was widely reviewed, with the author laying out the premises in an interview on The Colbert Report.
The flourishing of this subculture coincided with the doubling of the price of gasoline in the United States throughout this century's first decade. And the demographics of Schneider-Mayerson’s interview population suggest that anger at the George W. Bush administration -- in particular its foreign policy -- may also have spurred interest in scenarios of life after petroleum. The movement seems to have reached its own peak in the wake of the 2008 credit crunch. The new decade brought aggressive campaigns to promote and exploit alternatives to drilling (coal, natural gas, tar sands). And not having enough hydrocarbons to burn is not exactly a pressing issue as the reality of anthropogenic climate change sinks in.
But a follow-up questionnaire, in 2013, found that only 10 percent of those whom the author surveyed in 2011 “had significantly questioned their dedication to peakism, and the vast majority stood firm in their convictions and life course.” Peakism has been called a sort of Left Behind for liberals, and apocalyptic sects are known, after all, for proving remarkably resilient.
The language of religious conversion is hard to avoid. The crisis underscored by peakism is in large measure an existential crisis, even a crisis of faith. Believers experience a moment of truth -- of grasping that the values and ways of life they have taken for granted are embedded in, and reliant on, a society that depends on a substance that cannot be replaced. The literal meaning of the word of apocalypse is “uncovering,” and what the peak-oil scenario uncovers is something like an abyss.
Schneider-Mayerson notes that around two-thirds of respondents indicate that they’ve found it difficult to talk about their beliefs with others, who often take it as an attack on their own lifestyles or an obnoxious display of pessimism. And the subculture seems both inward turning and remarkably asocial. More than 60 percent of respondents indicated that they had never attended in-person meetings with others who shared their concerns. Almost a quarter said they visited peak-oil website more than once per day. The very word “movement” seems out of place. Movement is exactly what peakist ideology did not encourage, even at its height -- unless you count buying a more fuel-efficient car, which is really stretching it.
Schneider-Mayerson interprets the tendency towards insularity and inactivism as a sign of the peak-oil subculture having accepted more of the dominant mentality of the past few decades than one might expect: in particular, a deep distrust of collective action, and of the state as capable of doing anything without screwing it up, combined with fatalism and an abiding sense of powerlessness. And feeling powerless, one places no demands on those who do have power (the first step toward gaining any). The belief in an inevitable collapse and disintegration of society is stupefying, if not self-fulfilling. “There is no alternative,” it says. “Let us tend our gardens.” But that's no strategy, just a symptom of decline.
A faculty member at California State University at Fullerton is fighting back after he was reprimanded for assigning affordable textbooks in a math course, The Orange County Registerreported. Alain Bourget, assistant professor of mathematics, reportedly picked two textbooks -- one priced at $76, the other free -- in an introductory linear algebra and differential equations course over the $180 textbook co-written by the chair and vice chair of the math department. The decision "violated policy and went against orders from the provost and former dean of the math and sciences college," according to the newspaper. Bourget, who did not respond to a request for comment, has filed a grievance and will attend a hearing on Friday.
Every so often in a Victorian novel or the biography of someone of that era, you will come across a mention of “Lyell on geology” that often implies something momentous and perhaps a bit mind-boggling for the person grappling with it. Or it might be to someone so old-fashioned as to have been unaffected by the challenge. It evinces an odd image of ladies and gentlemen in their drawing rooms, wearing heavily starched clothing and excited, or distressed, by something involving rocks.
At issue was the three-volume Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell -- an international best-seller published in the early 1830s and still much discussed upon the author’s death in 1875. While hardly the first natural philosopher to challenge the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, Lyell made the most far-reaching and cogent argument that the earth’s features (mountains, gorges, the course of rivers, etc.) could be explained by slow changes over extremely long periods of time. Among Lyell’s readers, no surprise, was the young Charles Darwin, who studied the Principles while voyaging on the Beagle.
One way to put it is that Lyell sank Noah’s Ark. But the damage to orthodox religious belief was only part of the Principles’impact. There was also the strain of imagining the scale of time implied by “Lyell on geology” -- a phrase we should probably read as implying more than the replacement of “catastrophism” by “uniformitarianism” (terms introduced as the accepted explanation for environmental change). For it was also the moment when human history shrank to an almost inconceivably tiny aspect of natural history, like a speck of dirt atop a mountain.
Reading Paul B. Wignall’s The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinction, from Princeton University Press, can induce something of that perturbed feeling. It did in me, anyway, as I tried every so often to picture a timeline of the catastrophic events that Wignall and his colleagues have reconstructed. (The author is a professor of paleoenvironments at the University of Leeds.)
The geologically unsophisticated layperson will probably anticipate new ideas or evidence about what killed the dinosaurs. But that’s an index of how limited an impact Lyell has had. We still imagine change on too constricted a scale. The rise and fall of Jurassic wildlife are, for Wignall, something like last week’s news might seem to an ancient historian: interesting enough, sure, but the author would really prefer to stay focused on the past and not get sidetracked chattering about recent trends.
The catastrophic events covered in The Worst of Times affected life on Pangaea, the vast landmass that took shape 300 million years ago and disintegrated into pieces that drifted across the globe to form the continents we have now.
Two mass extinctions -- defined as “geologically brief intervals when numerous species go extinct in a broad range of habitats, from the ocean floor to forests, and all latitudes, from the Equator to the poles” -- had already taken place in very distant pre-Pangaean times, but the formation of the super-continent seems to have accelerated the pace of disaster: in the period between 260 and 180 million years ago, two of Earth’s five known mass extinction events took place, along with four other extinction episodes of smaller scale or impact.
That leaves one mass extinction unaccounted for: the crisis following the impact of a giant meteor hitting what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, 65 million years ago, ending the reign of the dinosaurs, among other species. That was a good 100 million years after Pangaea’s fragmentation got well underway, and the continents that existed during the fifth mass extinction event are recognizable in their current form, if not location, from one of the maps on the U.S. Geological Survey's website.
The very idea of Pangaea has always fascinated me (insert nerd emoji here) yet the evidence suggests it was a difficult place for evolution to happen. In fact, that is an understatement: Wignall’s reconstruction of the deep history suggests that Pangaea was not just the scene of disasters but also a major factor in their scale and frequency.
The issue was volcanoes, and not just the piddling sort of modern times that could wipe out a city or two. The biggest volcano of the last thousand years produced about 30 cubic kilometers of magma, while a given Pangaean volcano (one of an untold number) threw out millions of cubic kilometers. The eruptions filled the atmosphere with carbon dioxide while also setting off chain reactions that created hot, de-oxygenated, acidic oceans, killing off much marine life.
The fracturing of Pangaea did not mean a complete end to monster volcanoes and their sundry terrible side effects (including periods of climate change, up and down in temperature). But Wignall suggests that the supercontinent’s eventual dispersal into smaller landmasses created better conditions for evolution -- and even for simple survival.
“A huge continent has vast areas in the interior that are too far away from the sea to receive much rain,” he writes. “In contrast, smaller, more fragmented continents receive precipitation over a greater area …. Continental runoff also supplies nutrients to the oceans, which stimulate plankton growth that removes more carbon dioxide, which gets buried as organic carbon in marine sedimentary rocks.”
Which, in turn, makes for relatively more moderate short-term changes in climate. One benefit of studying volcanic activity of the Pangaean era is that it created “effects that may be akin to modern anthropogenic activity, such as the emission of huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” The author avoids speculating on the more dire potential implications, but indicates that having dispersed continents now is at least some advantage.
As a side note, let me mention the surprise at seeing a geologist use the word “catastrophism” in a neutral way. Evidently uniformitarianism is no longer quite the bedrock principle that it seemed in the wake of “Lyell on geology” -- a development that believers in Noah’s Ark seem to find encouraging. But catastrophism as Wignall and his colleagues understand it means recognizing that the unimaginably vast stretches of time in which the earth changes slowly have been punctuated, on occasion, by cataclysmic events lasting a few hundred thousand years. On the grand scale, that counts as sudden change. But 40 days and 40 nights it isn’t.
A novelist and English professor named Samuel M. Steward was fired by DePaul University in 1956 for the offense of running a tattoo parlor on Chicago’s Skid Row. He did not have the option (so readily taken for granted these days) of explaining it as full-immersion ethnographic research, nor did the fact that he’d practiced this sideline under a pseudonym, Philip Sparrow, count as mitigation. By then Steward was in his late 40s and had been teaching for well over 20 years, but his academic career was finished.
It was a moment of emergence, however, not of decline. Within a few years, the defrocked professor moved to California. His artistry with the ink gun put Philip Sparrow in demand among the Hell’s Angels, whose standards are rigorous and exacting to a degree academe never quite manages. (Being thrown out of the Angels can include relinquishing one’s tattoos, a process that sometimes involves a blowtorch.)
In the late 1970s, he went back to using his given name and under it published, among other things, a collection of letters from his friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But use of a pseudonym seems to have permitted the flourishing of aspects of his creative identity that might have gone unexpressed. Besides his renown among tat connoisseurs as Philip Sparrow, he also wrote a considerable amount of pornographic fiction under the name Phil Andros -- which was kind of a meta pun, splitting the Greek components of “philanderer” (a man who has sex with a great many women) and repurposing them for gay use (“lover of men”).
He died in 1993 at the age of 84, leaving behind the papers that allowed Justin Spring to write Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a National Book Award Finalist for 2010. The big online booksellers show the fiction of Phil Andros to be available and in demand, although nearly everything Steward published under his own name has long since gone out of print. But the University of Chicago Press has now added something to his stature as an author by publishing Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist, edited by Jeremy Mulderig -- who, by a nice bit of karma, happens to be an associate professor emeritus of English at DePaul University.
Occasionally a book’s subtitle all but defies the reader not to have a look, and in this case the photos of the author on the front cover alone are pretty striking, given Steward's resemblance to John Waters. The contents of the volume are selected from the column Steward wrote, under the Philip Sparrow byline, for the Illinois Dental Journal between 1944 and 1949.
So the publisher’s description says: I did not make it up, nor could I. While Justin Spring’s biography of Steward from five years ago had been widely and well reviewed, I had not heard about it, and so I suspected, for a moment, that Philip Sparrow Tells All was a prank, either by the University of Chicago Press or on it. The essays of a tattoo artist recovered from 70-year-old issues of the Illinois Dental Journal? Come on.
Exercising due diligence, I learned just enough to confirm that the author actually existed -- then decided to stop reading more about him. First, I wanted to read some of the essays themselves. The world is full of colorful characters who try to write, but eccentricity and adventurousness are not, in practice, qualifications for authorship. (To their credit they sometimes recognize this and offer to tell a writer their stories, in exchange for a share of the advance.) So I skipped the book’s introductory matter and the headnotes the editor had prepared for each piece and went right to Steward’s own prose.
The first selection, his inaugural column, was indeed written with the publication’s audience in mind: “The Victim’s Viewpoint: On Sublimated Sadism; or, the Dentist as Iago.” The tone or manner is approximately that of Robert Benchley:
“We have opened our mouth widely for many of these torturers, from Maine to Montana, and we are ready to swear that on more than one occasion -- as we have been approached, lying there helpless and trembling -- we have seen a diabolic gleam in their eyes as they reached for their tools. There is one certain prober, doubtless invented by Beelzebub, which they use when they begin their preliminary surveying. It is shaped vaguely like a sophisticated corkscrew, and is evidently intended to search out the secret places of one’s heart; we personally have felt it go even lower, and are sure it once left a scar on our right kidney. … but let us draw a curtain over this painful scene; even in thinking of it we have worked ourselves into a cold dribble.”
Something like this essay probably appeared at in every college humor magazine in the country at least once per issue for a decade on either side of its January 1944 publication date. It seems well-enough done for what it is; the best that might be said for it is that the author cleared his throat.
An abrupt shift in topic and style comes with the following piece, “On Cryptography,” published that October -- a sprightly introduction to a matter of great wartime interest. The title sounds like an allusion to the essays of Montaigne, and where the Iago reference in his debut seemed arch and contrived, here Steward’s use of classical and contemporary references (e.g., calling Suetonius “the Walter Winchell of ancient Rome”) proves both humorous and apropos. The next month’s column “On Alcoholics Anonymous” -- explaining the principles of an organization just beginning to catch the public’s attention -- comes about as close to memoir as possible without violating the distance implied by the authorial “we.”
It’s a remarkable progression in just three essays, and it doesn’t end there. With the measure of safety provided by a pseudonym -- and also by the less-than-mass circulation of the Illinois Dental Journal -- Steward experimented with the comic, personal and confessional modes of the casual essay in ways that might have been difficult to risk otherwise.
After sampling enough of the book to determine that the columns were of interest in their own right, rather than as the supplement to the author’s biography, I started reading Jeremy Mulderig’s introductory material. It clarifies a great deal, beginning with the essayist’s venue: Steward was attracted to his dentist, who happened to be the magazine’s editor. Its more typical fare was articles with titles like “Important Considerations in Porcelain Veneer Restoration,” but a column written from a nonprofessional vantage point seemed worthwhile, if only for variety. The dentist accepted Steward’s offer to write for the journal, though not, it seems, his other propositions.
After writing several pieces for “The Victim’s Viewpoint” (the column’s title for most of 1944), Steward decided to reboot it as something more wide-ranging. Which explains the nine-month gap between the first and second selections in Philip Sparrow Tells All, and the marked change in the writing itself. Including just one piece from the column’s beta version seems like a wise choice on Mulderig’s part. The wit and whimsy of dentistry as seen from the patient’s-eye view must have been stretched pretty thin after a couple of months.
Many of the columns take on a more humorous quality when you know that the author had a sex life active enough to impress Alfred Kinsey. And no doubt that will be a selling point for the book. But the tension between overt statement and implicit meaning can have effects other than amusement, and in the case of one essay, that tension seems especially powerful.
Published in February 1945, it anticipates the difficulties ahead as American society tries to reabsorb returning servicemen (and vice versa). Here is one passage:
“Only those who have been shot at can love and understand each other. We at home can never comprehend the powerful fraternalism that unites the men who belong, by reason of their experiences, to the ghostly brotherhood of war. When death is behind a bush that trembles, when it explodes in burning phosphorous to kill the friend who was joking a moment before, when it surrounds you with bodies black with flies and bloated by the sun until they at last explode, when your foot slides upon the stinking decayed intestines of a thing that was once a man -- only then, after the bony fingers have inscribed the membership card with your name, and you have looked into the fearful emptiness of the sockets in a fleshless skull, are your dues paid and you yourself a member of the League of War. … They have their own code of morals which we cannot possibly understand, and which will baffle and dismay us utterly. They will be startled and chagrined by what they will consider our indifference, but is really only our own inexperience slowly woven around us in our geographically and emotionally isolated chrysalis.”
Meaningful enough as these lines are on the most manifest level, they take on even more significance in the light of Alan Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (Free Press, 1990). Bérubé showed how important the experience of the war was to the formation of a sense of gay identity and community in the United States.
Steward himself was a Naval enlistee but did not see combat. There is an ambivalence, intimacy, pain and sadness to the essay that can be felt by a reader who knows nothing about the author. But it seems clear that the traumatized fighting men he depicts weren’t sociological abstractions but friends and lovers.
It bears reiterating that the name under which he published the essay, Philip Sparrow, was the one he later used as a tattoo artist -- and the one he preferred to go by for some while after being expelled from the groves of academe. It was the identity he assumed at the limits of permissible expression. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Every few years, somebody notices that Martin Heidegger was a Nazi -- and it all starts up again: the polemics, the professions of shock, the critiques of his philosophy’s insidious role in the humanities. At times the denunciations have a rather generic quality, as if a search-and-replace macro had been used to repurpose a diatribe again John Dewey or Jacques Derrida. Calls for a boycott of Heidegger’s writings are made, issued by people who cannot name two of them.
The Heidegger bashers tend to be the loudest, but there are counterdemonstrators. Besides the occasional halfhearted search for mitigating circumstances (the Weimar Republic did not make for clear thinking, after all, and the man’s thought was normally pitched at stratospheric levels of abstraction rather than the grubby domain of party politics) there is the sport of itemizing the anti-Heideggerians’ lapses in scholarship. Every line of argument on either side of the dispute was established during the controversy provoked by Victor Farias’s Heidegger and Nazism (1987), yet l’affaire Heidegger has been recycled on at least three or four occasions since then. It’s as if the shock of the scandal was so great that it induced amnesia each time.
The most recent episode (Heidegger Scandal 5.0?) followed the publication in Germany, last year, of the first batch of the philosophical and political musings that Heidegger began recording in notebooks from 1931 onward. An English translation is forthcoming, so count on the outrage to renew in about six months. In the meantime, let me recommend a sharp and succinct overview of the Heidegger matter that may be of interest to anyone who hasn’t caught the earlier reruns. It appeared in the interdisciplinary journal Science & Society under the title “Notes on Philosophy in Nazi Germany.” The author, V. J. McGill, was for many years a professor of philosophy and psychology at Hunter College. “In the midst of the disillusionment and insecurity of postwar Germany and emerging fascism,” he wrote:
“Heidegger saw in care (Sorge) and anxiety (Angst), the basic substance of man. Instead of offering a rational solution of some kind he devoted himself to fine-spun philological distinctions, to an analysis of the pivotal concept of ‘nothing’ and to a subtle exploration of ‘death’ of which he says that we experience it only in the mode of ‘beside’ -- that is, beside death. History, culture, freedom, progress are illusory. He finds our salvation in the recovery of a primordial sense of coexistence with other beings, that is, a bare feeling of togetherness, deprived of all the amenities and hopes which make social life worth while ….
“The hundreds who flocked to Heidegger's very popular lectures in Freiburg learned that anxiety is the final, irremedial substance of man, and left with such esoteric wisdom as their main reward. Heidegger's philosophy was not distasteful to the Nazis, and when he was made rector of the University of Freiburg, he gave an address praising the new life which animated German universities. In recent years a rift has occurred. But philosophers can fall out with the Nazis on other grounds than their ideas and doctrines.”
McGill’s article was published in 1940. Over the intervening three quarters of a century, additional details have emerged, including documentation that Heidegger was not just an ally of the Nazi Party but also a full member from 1933 to 1945. And interest in his work on the part of several generations of philosophers who never showed the slightest bent towards fascism has meant much debate over the validity of reducing Heidegger’s philosophical concepts to their political context. But for all the anger that simmers in McGill’s discussion of Heidegger as an academic lackey of the Third Reich, his account is matter-of-fact and nonsensationalist, and little of the recent commentary can be said to improve upon it.
The Black Notebooks, as Heidegger’s private ruminations are known, sound ghastly on a number of fronts. The volumes published so far cover the years 1931 through 1941. Those covering the rest of the war years are being edited, and Heidegger is reported to have continued keeping the notebooks until his death in 1976. Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University and a translator of Heidegger’s work, identifies 19 passages (out of about 1,200 pages) that attack Jews in terms that might as well have come from an editorial by Joseph Goebbels. After the war Heidegger claimed to have become disillusioned with the Nazis within a couple of years of joining the party -- and the notebooks show this to have been true, strictly speaking. But his objections were to the boorishness and careerism of men who didn’t share his lofty understanding of Hitler’s ideology.
As with the anti-Semitism, this does not come as a revelation, exactly. His reference to “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” in a lecture from 1935 remained in the text when he published it in 1953. Beyond defiant, it was a gesture indicating a certain megalomania: Heidegger hadn’t betrayed the Fuhrer’s vision, the Nazis had!
But as David Farrell Krell, a professor emeritus of philosophy at DePaul University, suggests in a recent issue of Research in Phenomenology, the Black Notebooks reveal not just disappointment with the regime (combined with perfect callousness towards its brutality) but levels of rage, bile and despair that keep him from thinking. Heidegger cannot challenge himself, only repeat himself. “From day to day and day after day,” Krell says, Heidegger “entirely forgets that he has written the same things over and over again with the identical amount of dudgeon.”
Heidegger loathed Freud and psychoanalysis, which only makes it tempting to subject him to a little armchair diagnostics. But Krell's point, if I understand him correctly, is that the repetitiveness is more than symptomatic; the Black Notebooks document Heidegger not as a philosopher seduced by totalitarian politics, but as someone who has quit blazing a pathway of thought and instead become trapped in a maze of his own fabrication. Unfortunately, he is not the only one so trapped:
“At least part of the allure of the ongoing Heidegger scandal,” writes Krell in a passage that lights up the sky, “is that it distracts us from our own appalling national stupidities and our galling national avarice -- our own little darkenings, if you will. It is so much easier to fight battles that have already been decided and so lovely to feel oneself securely moored in the harbor of god’s own country. Not the last god but the good old reliable one, who blesses every stupidity and earns interest on every act of avarice. … The irony is that Heidegger’s Notebooks themselves reflect this dire mood. Perhaps by condemning him and them, we hope to gain a bit of space for ourselves, some impossible space for ourselves? That is the shadow these Notebooks cast over those who are so anxious to condemn. And that would be the Notebooks’ most terrible victory: it is not that the last laugh laughs best, for there is no joy and no laughter in them, but that their helpless rage recurs precisely in those who rail against them.”
Remember that next spring, when the controversy starts up once more.