The Long View 2005-06-13: The 34th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC)

Hubbert's upper-bound prediction for US crude oil production (1956), and actual lower-48 states production through 2014 – By Plazak - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Hubbert's upper-bound prediction for US crude oil production (1956), and actual lower-48 states production through 2014 – By Plazak - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Peak Oil was an interesting idea. I can see how it seemed compelling: it was based on data and experience, and the model fit the data reasonably well. However, the model and it's assumptions always struck me as wrong-headed. It turns out I was right about that, but I can't claim any special prescience about the mechanism that really drove the stake in: fracking

I had forgotten about this reference to Rammstein. For a guy 25 years older than me, he continually surprised me with his cultural references.

The 34th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC)


I have been a member of the ISCSC for some years, but the only other annual conference I attended was one held at the Newark, New Jersey, campus of Rutgers University, which is just a few minutes away from where I live. This year's meeting was at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 9th, 10, and 11th. The only full day I was there was the 10th. I was importuned to come to this one so I could do a stand-up routine about Oswald Spengler. The conference theme was "Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival," so the obvious thing to talk about was Spengler's notion of the "Second Religiousness." Well, obvious to me.

I had never been to the Twin Cities before (Minneapolis-St. Paul). As big airports go, Lindbergh International (which is not to be confused with Humphrey) is not perhaps exceptionally huge, but it certainly looks that way, because the terminals are integrated into a single structure. I did actually check to see if there was an Amtrak route I could use. There is, I found, and it's cheap, but it would take 20 hours from New Jersey. I don't like to fly, but I don't not like to fly that much.

The University of Saint Thomas is a middle-sized Catholic institution. It dates to the late 19th century, but most of the plant seems to have been built since about 1970. It felt oddly familiar. Finally I recognized that it reminded me of Farleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey: both are "urban universities" located in leafy neighborhoods that are not particularly urban. Saint Thomas, however, is just a few blocks from the Mississippi, which is quite spectacular even so far north.

* * *

The ISCSC is in no way a politically radical group. It was founded by macrohistorians, but my own interest in macrohistory has become rare, except among some of the Japanese, about whose country Toynbee spoke so highly. Most of the papers were on aspects of globalization or on regional issues. Nonetheless, there were times during my stay when I found myself channeling Ayn Rand.

Just after I arrived, I walked in at the end of a presentation by an elderly prelate who was talking, as far as I could tell, about the role of religious groups in negotiating an end to armed conflicts. During the question-and-answer session that followed, he said he thought that the United States destroyed the Baathist government in Iraq in order to eliminate a successful model of socialism. Well, one does not heckle elderly clerics, especially when you walk in at the end of their presentation, but I was under no such inhibition at another presentation on "Peak Oil."

It wasn't a bad presentation. The thesis was that world oil production could be expected to peak in a couple of years, and that there would be economic and social disruption as prices rose thereafter. Unlike the topography of St. Paul, however, I recognized right away what this reminded of: I was hearing a scarcely updated version of one of the Club of Rome Reports from the early 1970s.

I have every confidence that an increasing scarcity of oil will have us scrambling to built new power infrastructure in fairly short order, but there is something terribly past-sell-by-date about all this. The imperative need for population control; the organization of resource use on a transnational level; the decentralization and localization of economic activity: all of this needs to begin now, the story goes, by government subsidy and coercion. When I first read this analysis and prescription in The Limits to Growth in 1972, it also sounded plausible to me. The future in Soylent Green looked plausible to me, too. Since then, the statistics have changed, but the story never does. It does not even change when, as in the case of Europe and Japan and China, something very like the Club of Rome prescription has been instituted and the societies involved are actually starting to die.

When you see that a policy prescription stays the same no matter how the facts change, you realize that the prescription is the point, not the problem it is supposed to remedy. Socialism, as the old saying goes, is the name of their desire. The only novelty is that socialism has realized it cannot create prosperity, so now it insists on mandatory poverty.

Thoughts like this make for awkward interventions in a public forum, especially when, as in this case, I was called on last, after a dozen supportive questions. I started civilly enough, though:

"Excuse me, but why would you expect command economics to work any better in the 21st century than they did in the 20th?"

"Well, you are right: it's a difficult issue. Still, I would offer Cuba as an example of a country that has successfully planned the transition to a more organic, low-energy usage society."

"What happened in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union was not a planned transition; it was a national catastrophe. (Shouting) To made the current state of Cuba a national goal would be lunatic public policy!"

I think I got a little applause at one point. In any case, I went down to the front of the auditorium to apologize afterward. I tried to explain that you don't actually need hot-spots for geothermal climate control.

* * *

One session that might have been of interest to many readers of my blog included a presentation by one Peter O'Brien (of, I believe, San Diego), who argued that America has become sufficiently different from Europe that America must be considered a separate civilization. Among other things, he said that when Europeans said "we," it was a "we" that did not include Americans.

We have blogs so we can offer responses that we did not think of at the time. So, let me mention here that I was recently quoted in a Dutch English-language newspaper, the Amsterdam Weekly, in an article by Paul Burghout about the recent referendum on the European Union Constitution. The title of the article was "They, the People."

And what about that Rammstein song, Amerika? ("We all live in America")?

* * *

After I delivered my own paper, entitled The Second Religiousness in the 21st Century, it seemed at first that I was not going to get any questions. It turned out that the presentation had not produced indifference, but about 10 seconds of stunned silence. Then I got much better questions than I deserved, including one from an old theologian who was familiar with both William Ernest Hocking and Philip Jenkins. I got to quote C.S. Lewis on the potency of religion for good and ill ("Demons are not made from corrupted mice, but from corrupted archangels") and the Talmud on the perils of trying to engineer a religious future ("Do not force the Messiah.") I did wax a little incomprehensible when I tried to explain the relationship of metaphysical immanence to American constitutional jurisprudence, but nobody seemed to mind.

* * *

The ISCSC is meeting next year in Paris, to talk about intercivilizational bridges. I think I will give that one a miss.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site