Article — From the August 2006 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the August 2006 issue
Liberal or conservative, Americans seem born to love the apocalypse, even though it jilts us every time. Both Peak Oil and _Left Behind _are mere froth on a deep historical sea of doomsaying that stretches back to the Puritans, and possibly before, if one includes the apocalyptic predilections of Christopher Columbus himself.
We have built lifeboats before, for example. Ann Lee (1736–84) moved from England to upstate New York in 1774. Her followers, snidely referred to as the Shakers, considered her the second coming of Christ; the establishment of their communities was to be the creation of a kind of heaven on earth and the preparation for Judgment Day. There were similar movements by other sects, and communities were founded in Amana, Iowa, and Oneida, New York. A group called the Harmonists founded a colony in Indiana; and when they moved to Pennsylvania, they sold their property to Robert Owen (1771–1858), a British textile magnate who tried, unsuccessfully, to start his own utopian community there. All of the settlements shared much with the planned lifeboats of the Peak Oilers, including dense housing set in the center of commonly worked land and a sense of the community members as involved in a special and near paradisiacal undertaking.
 Would that the world had seen “the Devastator,” an invention that Owen introduced during an 1855 meeting he held on the topic of the Millennium. The device was meant to destroy armies and thus put an end to war. An onlooker reported: “It was fixed upon six wheels, and worked by steam, both for moving itself about and for working its guns. In shape it resembled a kind of Noah’s Ark. The upper part appeared to be constructed of corrugated iron. There was one tier of guns all round, and the wheels had large sithes [scythes] projecting from the nave [hub], like what is seen in the engravings of some of the old war chariots of Rome. It was stated to possess powers of destruction incredible and hitherto unheard of, and that it could discharge from its guns many thousands of shots per hour, and that it could propel itself without danger or delay over every description of road where any ordinary carriage could be moved. It had been submitted to the war authorities, and after some consideration by them was finally rejected.”
Peak Oil springs, too, from a fertile line of scientifically based arguments for a collapse. Malthus was perhaps first in this, positing “the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it,” and though his grimmest predictions have yet to be borne out, they have increased the supply of doom-minded books, including such bestsellers as _The Population Bomb _(1968) and _The Limits to Growth _(1972). The latter popularized the term “overshoot,” which means that point at which population can no longer survive and must die off catastrophically; the general drift of such calculations is a recurrent theme among the Peak Oilers, who often point to the insurmountable gulf between predicted post-Peak food supplies and current populations.
Another recurring bit of science is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Developed in part by William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, in 1851, the Second Law details the inevitable dispersion of energy and the accompanying principle of entropy. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution was applied to society, so Kelvin’s general approach was seized upon in America by intellectual get-ready men. Among these was Brooks Adams, of the famous Adams family, whose influential Law of Civilization and Decay (1895) suggested that societies prospered in direct proportion to their access to energy, and would decay in the same manner. More recently, Jeremy Rifkin’s Entropy (1980) explained how the center of the industrialized world could not hold, anticipating the Peak Oil books almost argument for argument.
Nor are we strangers to exact end dates, usually arrived at after prolonged study. Among American prophets, one of the most popular was William Miller, a farmer from New England who spent years calculating the exact date of the end, drawing largely on the Book of Daniel. Eventually he announced that it would happen sometime during the year following March 21, 1843. He was soon lecturing on the topic across the country. March 21, 1844, passed, however, and the world persisted. The Millerites were more than willing to be wrong again, though, and—after some recalculations—a new date, October 22, 1844, was set. The movement rebounded and prospered. As many as 100,000 were convinced; farmers abandoned their fields, and shopkeepers closed their doors, quite sure they would not see the end of the year. The day after would be dubbed the Great Disappointment.
Being wrong does little harm to a good apocalyptic movement. The Millerites soldier on, in the form of their descendants the Seventh-Day Adventists, father to David Koresh and his prophecies. The apocalyptic worldview, in fact, is like that awful beast in the old science fiction movies—blasts from the ray guns of history only make it stronger. This odd paradox was partially explained in 1956 by a trio of sociologists from the University of Minnesota, led by Leon Festinger. In When Prophecy Fails, Festinger and his co-authors explained that a committed believer, faced with irrefutable evidence contradicting his belief—with what Festinger called a “disconfirmation”—would redouble rather than diminish his efforts to defend his view. Stranger yet, the more harshly reality dealt with a belief, the more feverishly the believer would work to convert others.
As scientists, Festinger et al. needed to test their theory, and their unwitting test subject was a middle-aged homemaker in Lake City, Illinois, with a deep interest in the occult. They call her Marian Keech, and in 1954 she began receiving messages from a being called Sananda, of the planet Clarion, which she relayed to a small group of followers. The transmissions included much about aliens, Sananda’s relation to God, paths to enlightenment, and also the news that the world would be flooded on December 21, 1954. Only the pure believers would be saved, spirited away the night beforehand in flying saucers.
In expectation, members of the group—which had been infiltrated by Festinger’s crew—neglected their families, quit their jobs, and moved, leaving bills unpaid. On the night of December 20, Keech and her followers assembled in her back yard to wait for the saucers, which failed to arrive, as they always do. After a few hours of dismay and confusion, however, Keech said she had just received a new message that clarified some of the earlier information. The group had, in fact, averted the flood by way of their advanced spiritual development. It was identical, as Festinger points out, to the behavior of Miller and his followers a century earlier. As Festinger writes: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Peak Oil has already met with a major setback of its own: the peak is overdue. Hubbert, as noted, expected oil to peak by 2000. But worldwide production of oil, which in 2000 averaged 68,344,000 barrels a day and did dip slightly in 2001 and 2002, was by 2003 slightly greater, at 69,154,000; 2004 and 2005 were greater still; and by March 2006, production was averaging 73,761,000 barrels a day. In response, Peak Oilers point out that Hubbert did not anticipate the OPEC crisis and the ensuing energy-conservation movement, both of which have delayed the peak. It is a sensible rebuttal—and we may find that the peak looks more like a plateau in the end—but it also fits Festinger’s mold precisely.
More from Bryant Urstadt: