Leadership in the post-carbon era

I’m getting cranky, judging from several comments on this blog and on Facebook (where my latest entries have been posted and then re-posted by contacts there). Not to pick nits, but I’m getting crankier. But, like all rationalizing animals, I have a good excuse. As my awareness grows, hopefully along with the awareness of other humans, about the depths to which we are plundering the planet to support our greed, our behavior seems to change in exactly the wrong direction.

I’m reminded of this quote from Lily Tomlin: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” And lest you think cynicism is a bad thing, here’s a reminder from George Carlin that closely corresponds to my own view: “Scratch any cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

Knowing how badly we’re destroying the living planet on which we depend is bad enough to make me a little cranky. But I’ve been there for years. Consider, for example, this line from a book I wrote in the autumn of 2003: “Americans often initiate military conflict in foreign lands with no apparent role except to secure natural resources or further political careers, and the United States government continues to sell these acts of aggression to a willing public that desperately wants to deny its own role in mass murder.” What’s really elevated my crankiness during the last couple years is the degree to which we are willing to stoke the planet’s fossil-fuel furnace, even to the point of destroying habitat for our own species. Add to that the astonishing number of people who just don’t give a damn what we’re doing to the planet, and ourselves, and who present no alternatives to bringing the industrial machine of death grinding to a halt, and I’m a little surprised I haven’t (1) gone postal or (2) been placed in confinement by the government. I don’t doubt, though, that every dissident will soon be considered a terrorist.

I thought we were too self-centered to destroy habitat for human beings on this most wondrous of rocks. But apparently the nature of our self-absorption is entirely too personal. We are perfectly willing to destroy our species, and every other one on Earth, if the few of us in the industrialized world can have the latest piece of technology.

I passed cranky a year ago. At this point I’m outraged, along with anybody who’s actually paying attention. If I could only believe in political solutions, I’d be back at cranky. If I could foolishly believe we have 300 years of long descent into a technologically poorer but biologically richer world, I’d be a happy man. But instead, I see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. I see no chance of a decent uprising from the masses, hence no chance to prune the tree of liberty in my time (much less every generation, as Thomas Jefferson suggested). I see us stuck in our proverbial, planet-raping ruts, too content with the bread and circuses of the Technomessiah to bring about change through action.

The failure of leadership in light of peak oil and global climate change is comprehensive. At this late juncture, there is no politically viable solution for either phenomenon. Once, perhaps, there was. But we let the solutions slip away.

Actually, we didn’t so much let them slip away as we drove them away with the biggest whip we could muster. We banished Jimmy Carter from office, and from the political conversation, the moment he uttered a series of solutions to our fossil-fuel addiction. We never stood a chance with respect to runaway greenhouse: As soon as we committed ourselves to infinite growth on a finite planet by selecting fossil fuels instead of rational behavior, we destroyed any reasonable chance of dealing with our fossil-fuel addiction and therefore destined ourselves and the living planet to a leap from the political frying pan to the fires of hell.

We’re left with two politically unviable choices: economic meltdown or extinction of our species (and many others). To the maximum possible extent, we are choosing both heinous outcomes. But at some point, the ongoing economic meltdown reaches its inevitable completion at the hand of peak oil. Regardless of the specific timing, the Renaissance will need leaders, and those leaders are with us today. Among the relevant questions: Who are they, and how will they lead?

It’s too late for leadership from my generation, which failed miserably. We created the twin disasters now unfolding. We brought you Ronald Reagan and all the selfish bastards who followed in his shoes, right up to the current Warmonger-in-Chief. We brought you abysmal leadership beyond the Oval Office as well, including Congress, state and local governments, entrepreneurs, heads of corporations and non-profit organizations, and pathetic, growth-addicted “educational” institutions. I’ve no doubt I missed many of the parties responsible for the crises we face, but there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the failure of leadership is overwhelmingly comprehensive and comprehensively pathetic.

As I’ve indicated previously, evolution clearly dealt us a bad hand. It pushes us to the “flight-or-fight” response of survival. The survivors are driven to procreate. Those who survive and procreate then are driven to accumulate material possessions. Is it any wonder the financial elite run the industrialized world? Or that they are leading us to disaster?

Where has this evolutionary play led us? And, equally importantly, where do we turn from here? Who will lead, and how?

During the last few years, I have interacted closely with about a hundred individuals between the ages of 18 and 34, including many students and a passel of nieces and nephews. These young people represent the pool from which post-carbon leaders must come. It is their future, and they are now reaching the age of leadership. Somehow, people must emerge from this pool to lead us to a brighter tomorrow, sans electricity.

Although I’m typically unremitting in my optimism about economic collapse and therefore dodging the bullet of human extinction, my optimism wanes when I think about leadership in the post-carbon era. Of those hundred or so individuals I’ve come to know reasonably well, fewer than a handful give me cause for hope. Fewer than a handful possess the necessary traits to survive economic collapse, much less assume a leadership role on the other side.

Survival alone requires the proper psychological outlook, physical stamina, and a decent dose of intelligence. The first criterion alone eliminates at least eight of ten potential candidates. Almost nobody under the age of thirty is willing to deal with a low-energy, poverty-infused personal reality if it means forgoing his cell phone. Despite plenty of opportunities to observe non-industrial cultures in the world — arguably, more opportunities than any people in the history of the planet — a vast majority of today’s youngsters cannot envision economic collapse even when it surrounds them. A life without electricity, cheap food at the grocery store, and water coming out the taps is as foreign as a day without i-Pods and online porn. The hyper-indulgence of the generations has ratcheted up nearly beyond belief, and certainly beyond the point of comfortably returning to a life where a walk in the woods is viewed as a privilege instead of a burden.

While the ability to deal with the real world was plummeting to its current near-zero nadir, the notion that physical stamina is meritorious has largely disappeared from American life. Somewhere along the way, bicycling came to require a spandex uniform, and walking was relegated to losers who could not afford a new car. Meanwhile, living close to the land became a quaint notion mutually exclusive from a culturally important position in life (cf. texting and playing video games). For the vanishingly small proportion of individuals who are physically fit and willing to deal with an unfamiliar set of circumstances in the years ahead, the ability to exert intelligent leadership represents a daunting challenge. The challenge appears far too great for most of the people I know, nearly all of whom are wondering how they can scam the current system instead of wondering how they can help build a new one. The idea that the new one should be based on service to Earth and impoverished humans hasn’t yet entered the collective consciousness of the new “me” generation.

Obviously, I don’t know who will fill the leadership gap, or how they will do it. But I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from over-indulgent children who are unwilling to grow up. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from youngsters who think the placement of their tattoos is more important than the placement of their gardens. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from ill-mannered children who dress for dinner in clownish clothes, untied shoes, and sideways baseball caps. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from people who think cars of the future will save us, instead of further destroying the living planet and our chances of survival. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from thoughtless automatons who irrationally believe technology will solve all our problems, instead of recognizing that technology is self-defeating. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from people who believe cities to be the apex of life on Earth, and who believe rural living is for bumpkins.

It’s not that I blame these overgrown children for whom maturity is a mirage. They are products of culture, and culture has led them into the misguided belief that the fossil-fuel fiesta is just getting started.

Instead, the best party on Earth is about to begin. Personally, I couldn’t be happier about it. But I’m guessing the children won’t be pleased.

Comments 11

  • ProfEmGuy:


    Speaking of nephews we have good news and bad.The good news is that we are still here.The bad news is that your precocious nephew 5N a/k/a Court can crow about that and say”I told you so”.

    We need to learn the sound lesson that he has been preaching:It is impossible to predict both an event,and a time line for that event.
    I know I’m also guilty here.My New Years resolution is to never do
    it again—it simply cannot be done.

    Thank you 5N

    I believe economic collapse and human extinction will happen coincidently.They are inextricably connected.

    Damn !, I just broke my New Years resolution.

    Double D

  • The powers that be will probably ride it out, although most of their subjects won’t. That’s the only thing which counts.

    Like what I have said before, the political leaders will redirect the anger and outrage to other groups, while remaining safe and sound behind the smokescreen.

    Germans were outraged when their country was economically ravaged. Hitler directed that anger to other nationalities, and made the German industrialists safe from the popular outrage. And, guess what, the industrialists eventually rode out Hitler as well and continued to prosper in postwar West Germany and now.

    I do think that it’s beyond saving now; after a period of murder and madness, the group which created this mess will crawl out from their shelter and reimpose their control. After all only they have experience ruling others , and they know how to subjugate others for their gain.

  • At long(?) last, welcome to reality, Guy! :( Just as 99.99…% of this world’s “human” population are too ignorant, self-serving and lacking the faculty of reason to be honest or honorable, the concept of “my fellow American” (or “fellow man”) is abjectly without meaning or merit.

    In the movie “The Matrix” (which I’m presently enjoying for the umpteenth time), Agent Smith utters a profound insight to the captive Morpheus. To paraphrase, Smith concludes that our species is decidedly not mammalian as all other mammals on the planet attain some level of equilibrium with their environment while humans only multiply, decimating “local” resources, then expand into other regions to continue the destruction. Thus, “we” are more akin to a virus or the alien invaders of “Independence Day.” Too few realize the programming, or indoctrination, to which they’ve not only been subjected but been recruited to propagate and “develop.” More for me, less for you. Too bad for you, hurray for me. So “evolves” the culture of self-delusion and self-destruction. Too few recognize that they are aiding and abetting, via their “employment,” their own inevitable demise let alone that of their progeny and most other multi-cellular organisms.

    The exponential function can not, will not, be denied! Perhaps most telling, the “masters of the universe” controlling the reins of finance and power seem to believe that their nefariously obtained wealth will somehow insulate and exclude them from this fate. This speaks less of “genius” and more of arrogant ignorance. The butterfly has flapped its wings and the mother-of-all-“storms” (and I’m not talking hurricanes or typhoons) IS on the horizon. All the belief, faith and optimism on the planet will not, can not, alter reality. The E.L.E. has begun and is ruthlessly accelerating and can not be ameliorated anymore than the Mt. Everest-sized asteroid penetrating the outer extent of our atmosphere. Like the planet, itself, nature will not “miss” us.

  • Welcome to 2010 Guy! If this entry is any indication of what is to come this new year, then I eagerly await more intellectually inspiring writing!

    I thought I enjoyed your last entry, but this one blows the other one away. I love the emotion and feel inspired to write . . . and even change some of my teaching habits (see, maybe we’re getting somewhere!).

    Frankly, I’m delighted your cranky. If you weren’t cranky, I’d be worried – and I worry for those who are not concerned about our future. Of course, I hope you are not in a cranky mood all the time – it won’t be good for your mental health. Don’t give them an excuse to haul you away!

    Anyway, I had a coworker refer to my generation as the ‘me’ generation. I was immediately insulted. WHAT? Not ME! After calming myself (or course I was only thinking and not reacting in this manner), I had to laugh. And I laughed when I read about the ‘me’ generation in this piece. We can’t live without technology, power, or all those delightful treasures. You want to talk about being cranky Guy?! It makes me cranky when I’m without electricity and/or my computer. I consider myself techibetic – and I need my insulin to keep me going. Sad, but true.

    In my position, I teach students about technology and how to use it. They also create models as we learn about math and science concepts. We conduct many experiments throughout the year too. Sounds like fun right? It is – I have the coolest job on our dying planet! However, there is a moment when I wonder what’s going to happen when these students get into the real world. The ‘fun’ and learning in my classroom centers (for the most part) around teamwork. For more than half of the students, teamwork is a struggle. Simply sharing responsibilities is a burden. I’ve had students tell me “I don’t want to work with anyone, can I go on the computer?! It breaks my heart to think they’d rather give up then do the cool activities. Sigh. Is it the me generation Guy? Is it the lack of teaching our students how to work as team players? I now (because I realize that I need to step up and provide direction) make it a point to discuss teamwork every day for every class I see. Sometimes it just tips, sometimes ‘open forum’ or students role playing various situations.

    As for leadership, we need to encourage our young friends to develop good moral character. Get past the ME phase – and yes, I want to believe it’s a phase! – be a team player, a listener . . .

    Perhaps we really need character education courses – it’s the whole child we need to educate.

    There must be an app. for that!


    Thanks for letting me ramble Guy – it felt good. :-)

    Keep writing!

    Your fan,


  • Guy —

    I heard interesting interviews from Denmark during the Copenhagen debacle meetings. The Danish people responded to the “Arab Oil Crisis” of the 1970’s far differently than did the Americans (and much of Europe also did better than us). Among other things, the public agreed to very high rates of taxation to pay for infrastructure that would be energy efficient, renewable in use of energy, less and less dependent on fossil fuels, and socially beneficial to the overall public in terms of universal health care, universal higher eduction, etc.

    By contrast, the American public treats taxes as repugnant, even while demanding freedom of choice to rwhich new way to rule and ruin the world, military interventions against all threats, real or perceived, and giveaways to the rich and famous. We eschew efficient governmen-oriented health insurance in favor of wasteful, greedy private insurance. Un-fricking-believable!

    I really do not think most Americans can think straight. They vote against their best interests and are led like lemmings over the cliff by making choices that violate their own best interests and do so emphatically (remember the Town Hall grumbling sessions over health care “reform”?

    No, America will get what it richly deserves.

    We are in the late stages of capitalism. We are no longer manufacturing much of anything real except for hamburgers. Our biggest corporations make their fortunes now in financial manchinations, including the automotive industry, which for decades has made more money financing automobiles than manufacturing them, and now which is destined to build fewer and fewer new autos and trucks as financing dries upp and people can not afford to pay cash for their rides.

    City and state governments are increasingly bankrupt and curtailing services. There is no hope of resurrecting the past services that many used to take for granted. It will only get worse. And it will cascade downwards relentlessly until collapse.

    Yes, the powers that be will use any means necessary to prop up the system with baling wire and duct tape so that it will continue chugging along as long as possible. People will go to work as long as their jobs remain. They will buy and sell and a hollow economy will function for a while longer. But oil production will drop relentlessly. Wages will continue to drop over time. The jobless will increase and will become increasingly beligerant until poverty and indebtedness is made a crime and they can be literally locked away and thus silenced.

    The young have no frame of reference for a return to what used to work. Young people working at McDonald’s can’t even make change without the machine telling them how to count out the balance due rather then the balance owed from the cash offered. People are beguiled by technology even as it strangles their brains into noodles.

    “Science Friday” today celebrated the use of computer applications for field use in birding, as if having online field guides and electronic bird calls was the ultimate in ornithology! The same technology makes possible the exploitation of the resources on which all life depends, so the untold story is to use it and then lose it, because that is the way the real world works.

    I think the thing to do is to try to squeeze all the pleasure out of life and the natural world as we can for as long as we can. Future generations of earthlings will not have the bounty we enjoy now. The young do not mourn what has already been lost because it is already forgotten.

    I only hope that when the grid goes down and life turns upside down for the myopic, that death will come quickly and painlessly for most of them. Maybe they will have a chance to send a final text “goodbye” to someone they love across the ether, but never met personally. It will be a fitting end to a losing way of life.

    Stan Moore

  • Hi Guy, happy 2010, although of course it is not 2010, it is more like year 4,000,000,010….this Gregorian calendar is for the birds! SMILE.

    In reading your Dec. 11, 2008 blog post …again….today….in my files….was wondering, you said “indus civ will be the 23rd civ to hit the dust,,,,” …what are the other civs, their names, is there a website that lists them somehwere, wiki maybe?


    danny bloom, the polar city guy

  • Thanks for your comment, danny bloom, along with the link to your polar cities website. I’ve been parroting anthropology literature for the number of civilizations. Wikipedia offers the following, along with others and a comprehensive discussion. The numbers don’t quite add up, and I am unable to put my hands on my original list of 23 (but I’m not sure that’s the most important point here, regardless).

    Africa: Kemet/Ancient Egypt, Nubia

    Ancient Near East: Mesopotamia/Sumer, Levant/Canaan, Elam, Minoan civilization, Indus Valley Civilization, Prehistoric Armenia, Helladic Greece, Classical Greece, Ancient China, Ancient Korea

    New World: Caral of the Norte Chico, the oldest known civilization in the Western Hemisphere, Norte Chico, Caral, or Caral-Supe Civilization, Olmec, Toltec, Kingdom of Cusco/Inca Empire, Zapotec civilization

  • Leaders will appear. Things just shake out that way. Wondering who’s going to lead the teeming masses is irrelevant, as there won’t be teeming masses ad infinitum.

    If you collect hand tools and know how to use them, if you know how to grow food and can store it, if you can start a fire and dress a deer and dam a stream and keep a VW running and sail a barque and shoot a thief and don’t much mind cannibalism,
    you’ll be just fine.
    Oh, and can tell a good story, and play the bongos, and brew hootch. Those too.

    In with the ‘teens!

  • Vertalio,

    I guess your a follower of John Muir too. Guy would suggest that our only hope is that we run out of oil sooner rather than later so I guess you will be brewing hootch for the VW as well as for keeping the local teens from looking at you and licking their chops.
    It sounds like a start except for the cannibalism (but then the guard dogs have to eat).

    As to leaders, remember 95% of the population are from elsewhere and most are closer to what you suggest than we are.

    Michael Irving

  • Leadership is the ability to entrain one’s followers’ agendas in the furtherance of one’s own agenda. If the follower’s agendas after the bottleneck (this bottleneck having no direct reference to the art of brewing} are anything connected with the extant cultural phenotypes described by Dr. McPherson, it would be well-nigh a miracle. Most of these phenotypes might be expected to go extinct in the bottleneck. That’s why it is a bottleneck.

    Let’s hope the bottle is uncapped.

  • But why is this, Guy? Why is it that nature bats last? Why is it that people sit in complacence, while the 1% live off of their work? Change must happen from the bottom first – “a rising tide lifts all boats…”