Saturday, July 24, 2010

Super Mega-Doom

The day before yesterday, an on-line article caught my attention. It claimed that BP had set in motion a process by which an enormous methane bubble would erupt from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico sometime in the next six months and reprise the Permian extinction. The author of the piece spun a scenario in which the Earth's atmosphere, saturated with explosive concentrations of methane, catches fire and exterminates 95% of life on Earth nearly instantaneously. BP and the US government, goes the article, have imposed a total news blackout enforced with draconian punishments in order to hide the extent of the damage and the danger from the public.

I posted a link to the article before I'd even finished reading it. For my blog post, I paired an image of the Futurama character Proffessor Hubert J. Farnsworth with the title, “Good News, Everyone.”  (The character of Professor Farnsworth owns an interplanetary delivery service, and he frequently introduces an episode's MacGuffin by walking into the Planet Express conference room and announcing some disastrous news to his assembled employees. He always prefaces the bad news with, “Good news, everyone!”)

I later read the entire article aloud to a group of Ecovillians (the affectionate nickname that Farmies use to refer to denizens of the Ecovillage Training Center) in the ETC kitchen. Paul, a C-Realm listener turned ETC permaculture apprentice, asked me how serious a worry I thought this was. Even before I read a thorough-going debunking of the article, I told Paul that I wasn't the least bit worried about this scenario. The situation that Cormac MaCarthy envisions in "The Road," wherein civilization collapses and a dwindling population of humans struggle to prolong their miserable existence by consuming the remnants of industrial society and by consuming each other, is deeply troubling. A scenario in which a single nearly instantaneous event poisons the atmosphere and sets it alight so that everyone is dead by day's end doesn't trouble me at all. That seems like a pretty easy way out. The only Doomsday scenario that I find less frightening is one in which some experiment in high-energy physics tears the fabric of reality and destroys the universe in an instant.

The notion of near instantaneous annihilation gives me comfort, as I know that I'll never have to live under a brutal local warlord. I'll never have to endure delousing at a FEMA camp. I'll never have to see my children victimized, starving, or suffering from diseases that only affect people who lack access to clean drinking water; diseases which were easily treated in the late Petroleum Age but which have become a leading cause of childhood mortality.  Instantaneous annihilation means that I'll never suffer discomfort, indignity, or even inconvenience.

Minutes after I posted a link to the BP methane doomsday article, someone posted a comment that included a link to a convincing refutation of this particular set of wild-eyed claims of impending doom. The whole premise of methane super-mega doom hung on the claim that earlier mass extinction events mentioned resulted from a single methane escape event. Far from being scientific consensus, this isn't even a minority view in the scientific community. Annalee Newitz , the author of the debunking article puts it like this:

Another fishy fact in the methane bubble doomsday story is Aym's description of how methane bubbles are what caused the End Permian mass extinction event 250 million years ago. Many scientists do believe that atmospheric changes and ocean anoxia (de-oxygenization) were to blame for that extinction - but even Gregory Ryskin, the scientist whose highly speculative work is cited in the article, doesn't try to claim this as the sole cause, nor does he believe that one bubble of methane could bring down the biosphere instantly. The End Permian extinction took millennia to happen. 

Newitz goes on to point out that methane leaks may very well lead to cumulative misfortune over time, but, “who wants to hear difficult, complicated pieces of information, when we could just be screaming about doomsday?” Really. If it takes decades for the harm to become apparent, how is that any different from the rise in prevalence of asthma, diabetes, and forms of cancer which used to be rare but which have become more common? How is that any different from climate change or abstruse claims about the long-term non-viability of petro-chemical agriculture or fractional reserve banking? If climate catastrophe doesn't play out in a matter of hours as in "The Day After Tomorrow," or if haphazardly disposed of chemical weapons don't spawn a hoard of flesh eating zombies, then who cares? If it happens slowly, then any harm to human health or the biosphere will simply be the new normal.

Newitz's article appears on the site io9 which seems to be devoted to topics that obsess Comic-Con attendees. The comments section consists almost entirely of self-satisfied derision of anyone who would be gullible enough to be concerned that a rapid change in the composition of the atmosphere might be a matter of grave importance. None of the comments addressed the fact that the supposed “BP/Obama Administration news blackout” escaped Ms. Newitz's debunking.

Oil industry financier and analyst, Matt Simmons, claims that the oil leak that BP recently managed to cap and which has been the star attraction in the carefully orchestrated disaster response puppet show playing out on TV and computer screens the world over is just one of three Gulf of Mexico oil leaks that BP has been struggling to bring under control for months, and that the one that BP has managed to cap was never the most serious of the three. A friend of the C-Realm posted a link to an interview with an investigative journalist who claims that the Deepwater Horizon rig which blew in April and has since starred in the big puppet show was actually a relief well for another blowout that occurred earlier in the year but which BP managed to keep from the public eye.

Is that true? I don't know. I don't even know how I would find out or how I might choose between the various disaster porn, PR sleight of hand, and conspiracy narratives which will remain on offer for as long as I have any interest in this story.  What seems particularly telling, for me, is that when it comes to debunking, the claim that BP and and the Obama administration are selectively releasing information and imagery in order to manage the public's perception of the spill doesn't seem particularly important. That is to say, the claim that we're being lied to isn't controversial enough to warrant debunking.

As Charles Eisenstein details in his book, The Ascent of Humanity, we live in a matrix of lies. Every advertisement, every utterance by a public official, every name assigned to businesses, buildings, and neighborhoods by marketing professionals constitutes a lie, and the knowledge that we are being lied to provokes no particular emotional response from us. We know we're being lied to, and we are beyond caring. The abuse of language (and all other forms of symbolic communication – especially images) has continued for so long and has saturated public discourse so thoroughly that our ability feel outrage or indignation at being lied to is simply spent.

Eisenstein writes:

Why do we as a society seemingly accept our leaders' gross dishonesty as a matter of course? Why does the repeated exposure of their lies seem to arouse barely a ripple of indignation among the general public? Where is the protest, the outrage, the sense of betrayal?

The answer to these questions lies deeper than the machinations of one or another faction of the power elite. It lies deeper than the subversion and control of the media. Our society's apathy arises from a subtle and profound disempowerment: the depotentiation of the language itself, along with all other forms of symbolic culture. Words are losing their power to create and to transform. The result is a tyranny that can never be overthrown, but will only proceed toward totality until it collapses under the weight of the multiple crises it inevitably generates.

So here we are, back to collapse; inevitable collapse. And again, to echo Dmitry Orlov, collapse is the optimistic scenario. Without collapse, we have the perpetual matrix of lies and the continued degradation of our ability to feel much of anything other than a fleeting sensation of titillation when we see images of boobs or butts for the first time in a few hours, or a short-lived fascination with images of Mega-Disaster on TV.

Unfortunately, one power that words still retain is their ability to stoke rage. Pundits for one or another faction of the power elite seem as capable as ever or using words to invoke anger at the avatars of the opposing faction. Wildfire memes like the BP Methane Mega-Disaster stoke rage against corporations. Stories about pimps using government-funded aid agencies to help them house illegal immigrants working as prostitutes focus the rage of working stiffs on the only people in society who wield less influence and have less control over their own destinies than they do. But nothing constructive springs from this kind of factional animosity, and if the ubiquitous abuse of language and symbolic communication has left us unresponsive to everything except the pricking of our neurological rage circuits, then once again, the eventual, inevitable collapse looms ever larger.

But maybe that's just sour grapes on my part. I was pretty optimistic about our collective destiny when I lived in a big house and drove a Lexus SUV. Maybe this focus on lies and cynical manipulation is just my own expression of the Doomer's Curse. That, if all goes according to plan, will be the subject matter of the 216th episode of the C-Realm Podcast. I hope you'll join me.


  1. While the old saying goes, "the revolution will not be televised", I don't think collapse will be either. Mostly because it is so uninteresting and takes place in the laborious budget processes of town halls and state legislatures. Maybe there will be a methane death cloud but I'd say that it is highly unlikely.

    But even post-collapse, the roving bands of cannibals that scour the post-collapse landscape are primarily just a figment of our current mythology. Many believe that there are teeming hordes of would-be thugs held in check by the state. This is mostly untrue. I enjoyed this recent BikeCast on that topic: which points out that the non-middle class in the US already face this reality on a daily basis and that current fears about it extend from anxiety about living in a society where we all have to interact as peers.

  2. Good stuff, KMO !

    The rich and powerful of today, are more rich and powerful than ever. The stand above us like outsized Collasi, towering above the ordinary man with their wealth, and their ability to pervert the elected leaders. They have shaped the system so that it continues to feed their wealth, even as the economy as whole shrinks. The financial sector was once an servant of the economy. But then it grew and grew, with its profits rising from under 10% of US GDP, to over 30% recently. Such concentrations were unthinkable, and could only be achieved when finance chiefs tore down the old restrictions, and were allowed to build an economy that operates like a giant casino. The banks make their money by constructing wagers, and selling us all gambling chips. Mostly this activity adds nothing to the wealth in the country, it merely enhances the parasitic growth of the banks themselves, at the expense of their customers.

    The average working many gets poorer and poorer in America every year, while they watch workers get wealthier overseas. In countries like China and Vietnam, they manufacture the products that our debt-fueled consumers buy, using bank credit which vacuums up the wealth and sucks it onto bank balance sheets.

    In the Washington of today, like the Imperial Rome of 2,000 years ago, no one seems to notice. The spending continues, and the banks, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury, all pretend that the growth can be maintained, even as growth itself has become a fiction, which would disappear in honest statistics, if they existed. But the leaders dare not reveal the facts, or the party that the leaders are living may come to an aburpt end. So the truth gets spun aggressively, and the "can gets kicked down the road" yet again. Everyone pretends that the "old normal" can be restored, even as the the reservoir of future debts to be paid runs over and spills blood red into the streets. spoiling our lives, scaring our creditors, and undermining our future livelihoods.

    Slowly, it begins to dawn on the rich that the game cannot go on forever, and the next stages will mean that the government apparatus that has served them, will turn on its masters. The middle class tax base that it has fed off, is being destroyed, and the hunger of the state will have to turn on the rich, and begin to devour them too. So the rich quietly pack their bags, exchange their passports, and get ready to "depart from Dodge", before the bullets fly. Who will be left to pay the bills, in a town where all the money has been removed from the banks, and is on a stagecoach out of town?

    - Dr Bubb, from GlobalEdgeInvestors dotcom