Once upon a time, there was a mountain that rose high above an island in the middle of the Great Ocean. A village perched on the side of the mountain. It was a peaceful village, filled with a gentle, industrious people. The ground was fertile, the rains were plentiful, the sun was warm, and everyone was happy.
Then one day, the mountain rumbled, and grumbled, and exploded. It threw burning rocks into the air while a river of lava crawled down the mountain directly toward the village.
Most of the villagers panicked and ran every which way. But a small group — the wisest and most far-sighted members of the village — had foreseen this. They swiftly gathered their families and ran to the deep caves they had filled with dried food and cisterns of clean water. They called out to the other villagers as they ran, for there was space and provision for all. But the others had lost their reason and did not listen.
Alas, these wisest and most far-sighted of the villagers had overlooked the smallest of details: the tiny cracks that led from the roof of the caves to the surface. The lava seeped through the cracks into the caves and burned the wisest villagers and their families all to a crisp.
Now a third of the less-wise and therefore unprepared villagers ran thoughtlessly into the lava and perished. Another third ran screaming into the sea and drowned. The final third ran blindly around the mountain to the far side of the island, where they bumped into the villagers who had run in the opposite direction. There, they all fell to the ground and cried themselves to sleep.
When they awoke the next morning, there was no lava where they had slept, for it had all run down the other side of the mountain. Nor was there ash, for the winds were favorable. They built a new village on that spot and had many children and passed down stories through the generations of how clever their ancestors had been to run around the mountain and thus outwit the Lava Gods.
The idea of seeing the future is part of the human experience. It’s built into our basic brain structure, and all of us do it. We try to predict exactly where the ball will pass over the plate as we swing the bat. We try to predict what the boss will say when we tell her for the third time that the project has fallen behind. We try to predict whether the company where we are applying for a job will lay us off before we pay off the house, or whether the employee we are interviewing will steal office supplies and get the secretary pregnant. We are always trying to predict the future.
We’re not very good at it, though we like to pretend that we are.
The word “seer” is often used to name people who “see” the future. They are the “see-ers.” We place great stock in those who claim to do this well, because we believe that seeing the future will be profitable to us — it will help us to succeed. After all, if you could see the outcome of a horse race, or the rise and fall of commodity prices, you could make a fortune! You’d be set for life. You’d be successful.
I find the story of the villagers a useful corrective when I get into this mindset. As Robert Burns put it, “The best-laid plans o’ mice and men, gang aft agley.” Seeing the future, even if the vision is accurate, is often worse than no vision at all.
Consider that you are on the Titanic during its maiden voyage, and in a dream which you understand to be a true vision of the future, you see the iceberg and the watery death of the great ship. What can you do?
If you try to warn the Captain, he will indulge your fancy with the appearance of listening, but he will do nothing. He knows these waters; he has spotters who watch for icebergs; his ship is the largest and strongest ever built, and the design engineer — who is aboard, mind you — has pronounced it “unsinkable.” The Captain will do nothing with your vision.
You could try to steal one of the lifeboats. But then, timing is everything. If you steal it a bit too soon, you will be stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the freezing Atlantic Ocean, and any rescue ships that might have been in the general area will be miles and miles from you as they rush toward the larger disaster. If you try to steal it a bit too late, you will be caught in the chaos — your vision will have given you nothing but heartburn.
Once the ship has set out with you aboard, your fate is sealed: your best chance is to brave the chaos and simply let things play out. You may live, or you may die, but your personal chances are no better for having foreseen the future.
Suppose, then, that you received this dream before you boarded the Titanic. You could, of course, simply not board the ship, and you would live while others who took your ticket would die in your place. But then you have the question: do you know for a certainty that it will be this voyage of the Titanic that fulfills your vision? Perhaps you saw a later voyage. Perhaps it wasn’t the Titanic at all, but one of her sister-ships that hasn’t yet been built.
Now your vision starts to become a phobia. It shuts you out from ever taking a cruise on a great steamship, fearing that it might be the doomed ship you saw. It restricts choices, opportunities. It stunts your life.
Seeing the future is not nearly as beneficial as it might seem.
Then there is the most important lesson: the best-laid plans o’ mice and men, gang aft agley. Like the wise and far-sighted villagers on the mountain, you lay plans that will surely carry you through the catastrophe you have foreseen. Then plans go agley: you missed one, tiny, crucial detail in your planning, perhaps a detail you could not possibly have known, and that detail makes all the difference. You lose even the one-in-three chance of those who panic and run wildly, and instead doom yourself with a vision-guided, well-planned … mistake.
I’ve been discussing the future with a number of people for quite a few years. Many of them are brilliant and knowledgeable. Many of them know much more than I do, are smarter than me, and are better synthesists. They are better seers.
I’m not sure how helpful this is.
I’m already aboard the Titanic. My paternal grandparents boarded it over a century ago, my maternal ancestors a century or two before that, and I was born en-route. I will likely die of old age before we hit the bigger icebergs — those will be something my grandchildren and their peers will experience first-hand. A lot of them will drown, if it plays out the way the seers say it will. But a lot of them will live. Many of those who live will do so, not because they had good seership and sound plans, but because they panicked and got lucky. They’ll pass the panic genes to their offspring, as well as stories about how some random, senseless, panicky behavior saved them and outwitted Fate. Their descendants will write learned treatises on the “deep wisdom” in these stories, turn the stories into systems of philosophy and morality, perhaps even claim the stories were handed to their ancestors by their gods.
So what good did it do to see the future?
Let’s take one of the most certain of the icebergs that is coming: peak oil. Anyone who studies this knows that gas prices will go up and down from month to month, but over time, they will go up — without limit. Eventually, petroleum will become too expensive to burn; bulk gasoline, kerosene, and diesel will no longer be manufactured as fuel, because no one will buy it as fuel even if sold at cost.
What can I do with this knowledge? As it turns out, nothing.
Conserving gasoline at a personal level is pointless: I won’t use as much gasoline in my entire lifetime as DHL, UPS, FedEx, and the Teamsters Union together use every minute. I could stop driving altogether, or drive twice a day to the mailbox a half-block away, and the effect on global gasoline consumption would not be measurable.
Would it matter if everyone conserved gasoline at a personal level? Perhaps. But the only thing that will cause everyone to conserve gasoline will be rising prices. Until they rise, universal conservation simply won’t happen.
Furthermore, widespread conservation won’t lower prices: demand and supply are locked in a post-peak economic embrace, so conservation — reduction in demand — will simply accelerate the rise in prices.
Of course, we actually want gas prices to rise, so that other technologies can begin to compete with oil. We just don’t want them to rise too quickly. People like to talk about oil-producer conspiracies that suppress radical new inventions. The biggest conspiracy of all is price. Oil is so cheap that nothing else can compete with it.
I can’t do anything about the demise of the oil economy. But knowing about it doesn’t help me to plan my future, either.
Hybrids and electric cars aren’t ready for prime-time, yet — they’re “first adopter” technologies, i.e. overpriced and underperforming. They may not be viable at all: shifting the entire burden of transportation from the refinery to the electrical grid would burn out every generator in the country within minutes, and most of those generators run on oil anyway. Solar and wind power can’t begin to touch that additional electrical burden.
The practical replacement for the car in a post-oil economy is the same as what it was in the pre-oil economy: the horse-drawn cart. But it isn’t practical for everyone to keep one or two horses in their two-car garage for the occasional trip to the grocery store. So we’ll likely see a need for better shoes and local bakeries and grocers within walking distance of every home, and a return of the draft-animal-drawn delivery cart. With a substantial reduction of stress on the transportation grid, maybe we can also have electric cars powered by sun or wind — if there’s any market for them at that point.
The further you walk down this road of speculating what the post-oil world will look like, the closer you get to a simple truth: we’re all dependent on each other.
We’re dependent on the infrastructure that makes the “city” possible — water, transportation, food — as it is used and maintained by thousands of other people. How we live in the future will depend entirely on how everyone else lives in the future, just as how we live now depends on how everyone else lives now. No one planned the infrastructure that we have. No one will plan the infrastructure that we have a century from now. We can speculate what it might be like, as a fictional pastime, but until it actually happens — until the villagers run, screaming, around the mountain to found the new village in some random location on the opposite side of the island — we can do very little to prepare for it.
Most people are blissfully unaware of peak oil and its consequences. They sit on the promenade of the oil economy, where the orchestra plays. Dinner is being served: roast duck and a delightful Chablis.
The only real consequence of knowing that the oil economy is taking on water and is headed to the bottom, is that I don’t get to enjoy the lovely dinner.