Nearly a year ago, we published “A Pirate’s Life for Me.” It’s become one of our most popular articles (though I suspect that might have more to do with people pirating our bandwidth for that picture of Johnny Depp). It made the case that the pirates’ lasting, romantic allure lay in the fact that they represented a kind of primitivism, or as Captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts put it, “In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not ballance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto.”
Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden—quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.1
Piratical primitivsm was no accident, nor even evidence of the universal longing for the genuine human condition; rather, pirates emerged in the New World out of relationships with indigenous groups, along the periphery of colonial society. Many authors have noted that the ideals of freedom and independence that Western countries today pay so much lip service to arose in the colonies, as oppressed Europeans came into contact with genuinely free primitive peoples. Piracy grew up along one such edge.
This sort of dropping out and going native was not always accidental. The buccaneers of the Caribbean originally got their name from boucan, a practice of smoking meat they had learnt from the native Arawak Indians. The buccaneers were originally land squatters on the large Spanish owned island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic)—they turned to piracy following Spanish attempts to oust them. On Hispaniola they followed a way of life essentially identical to the native peoples who had preceded them. This sort of ‘marooning life’ was very clearly identified with piracy—apart from the buccaneers of Hispaniola and Tortuga the main other group of European dropouts in the New World were the logwood cutters of Bay of Campeche (now Honduras and Belize), a “rude drunken crew” who were considered by most observers to be interchangeable with pirates. They consciously chose a non-accumulative life living in independent communal settlements on the world’s periphery.2
Howard Pyle’s “The Buccaneer”
That periphery was key. The “Golden Age of Piracy” occurred after the era of exploration, but before the complete subjugation of all the newly discovered areas to European control. The lands were claimed, but the empires were still struggling to develop the force needed to enforce those claims. In that pocket, the pirate as we know him emerged. Peter Lamborn Wilson (a.k.a., “Hakim Bey”) coined the term “closure of the map” to refer to the elimination of non-state peripheries and frontiers. In The Trial of Socrates, Socrates makes the argument that he must abide by Athenian law because he had accepted it tacitly by living in Athens his entire life. This argument has remained, more or less unexamined, even as its fundamental assumptions have failed. Today, there is no place on earth that can support human life, where one can go to escape the rule of one state or another. Socrates’ case assumes the frontier, an assumption that held right up to the beginning of the last century, to one degree or another. The “Golden Age of Piracy” occurred at precisely the time it did, as the most recognizable expression of a particularly attractive pocket outside of civilization. This is what attracts Lamborn’s attention, and why he has so much to say about “pirate utopias.”
We were taught in elementary school that the first settlements in Roanoke failed; the colonists disappeared, leaving behind them only the cryptic message “Gone To Croatan.” Later reports of “grey-eyed Indians” were dismissed as legend. What really happened, the textbook implied, was that the Indians massacred the defenseless settlers. However, “Croatan” was not some Eldorado; it was the name of a neighboring tribe of friendly Indians. Apparently the settlement was simply moved back from the coast into the Great Dismal Swamp and absorbed into the tribe. And the grey-eyed Indians were real—they’re still there, and they still call themselves Croatans.
So—the very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban. They dropped out. They became “Indians,” “went native,” opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London.
As America came into being where once there had been “Turtle Island,” Croatan remained embedded in its collective psyche. Out beyond the frontier, the state of Nature (i.e. no State) still prevailed—and within the consciousness of the settlers the option of wildness always lurked, the temptation to give up on Church, farmwork, literacy, taxes—all the burdens of civilization—and “go to Croatan” in some way or another. Moreover, as the Revolution in England was betrayed, first by Cromwell and then by Restoration, waves of Protestant radicals fled or were transported to the New World (which had now become a prison, a place of exile). Antinomians, Familists, rogue Quakers, Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters were now introduced to the occult shadow of wildness, and rushed to embrace it. …
It is simply wrong to brand the pirates as mere sea-going highwaymen or even proto-capitalists, as some historians have done. In a sense they were “social bandits,” although their base communities were not traditional peasant societies but “utopias” created almost ex nihilo in terra incognita, enclaves of total liberty occupying empty spaces on the map.3
The pirate utopia of Tortuga became home to the Brethren of the Coast, which maintained effective control of the island. In 1645, the acting French governor imported roughly 1,650 prostitutes in a hope to settle the pirates down. It is a bit ironic that the name Tortuga means, “Turtle Island”—the very same name the Haudenosaunee gave to the continent of North America. In some ways, we can see Tortuga as a sort of microcosm of the hopes of freedom and the lure of the “state of nature” that the New World beckoned with—how both piracy and the colonial promise of freedom died with the expansion of the state.
Pirates, like the colonialists, found freedom in their sheer distance from the state. The wars of the time and the Atlantic Ocean between them made it difficult for European empires to exert their will upon those in the New World who dared defy that power. It was in the space thus created that the “Golden Age” of piracy took place, and when that space began to close, piracy, too, ended.
The second generating force behind the TAZ springs from the historical development I call “the closure of the map.” The last bit of Earth unclaimed by any nation-state was eaten up in 1899. Ours is the first century without terra incognita, without a frontier. Nationality is the highest principle of world governance–not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets. This is the apotheosis of “territorial gangsterism.” Not one square inch of Earth goes unpoliced or untaxed…in theory.4
Last year’s original article was published at the same time that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest came out in theaters—a reminder that what so many people found so alluring in such swashbuckling films was the life of freedom they remembered in their bones, an appeal to the shared human heritage of primitive life. Of course, I expected such ideas to provide only a subconscious theme for a major Hollywood film; I did not expect to find any treatment of the weighty matters of freedom and the state that the pirate truly personifies.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Not that Pirates of the Caribbean should be noted for its depth, but the second film wrapped the narrative in a larger social context about the expansion of state power, typified by the East India Trading Company, and the character of Lord Cutler Beckett, who is shaping up to be the series’ primary villain. Lord Beckett makes several explicit references to filling in the blank areas of the map—and thus eliminating the space in which piracy can survive. Near the beginning, he states, “Jack Sparrow is a dying breed. The world is shrinking; the blank edges of the map filled in. Jack must find a place in the new world or perish.” (Another of Lord Beckett’s quotes in the movie could hardly put the difference between a civilized, market economy and a tribal, gift economy in starker terms: “Loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm. I’m afraid currency is the currency of the realm.”)
Trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
To what extent movie trailers can be trusted, the third movie promises to concern itself even more explicitly with the theme of the closure of the map, with a central theme turning on the notion of some mythical, piratical last stand against the final closing of the map and the end of the age of piracy.
In the fantasies of Hollywood, who can say how such a confrontation would turn out? But the cold forces of history would resign such a battle, had it ever actually happened, to the list of romantic lost causes. The closure of the map was a simple question of energy. Though societies can sometimes rearrange the allotment of intensity of complexity and the spread of complexity, no society is capable of holding its complexity back as its energy grows: the variability of human nature would not allow such a thing. While some might hold back, others will choose not to, and all it takes is a single abuser to bring about the tragedy of the commons. Pirates were trying to stay ahead of the age of exuberance, the post-Columbian expansion into the New World that re-energized an overpopulated, diseased Europe teetering on the brink of collapse, with the fruits of the New World and virgin soil.
Once that had run its course, civilization might have returned to its normal pattern of decline, starvation, plague, and eventual collapse, but for the dynamic created in London, where a large population had become wealthy coordinating the colonial trade that dealt essentially in seizing the enormous wealth of the Americas for Europe, using enslaved populations from Africa to supplement the decimated Native population. This created a rare moment in civilization’s history where human life was not cheap. For most of civilized history, endemic overpopulation meant that it was almost always cheaper to impress others into servitude as slaves, serfs or other labels for forced labor, since human life was cheap, and fuel was often expensive, as in the case of the northern European timber crisis that predicated the shift to coal. England found itself in a strange position in the 1600s and 1700s, in which humans were expensive, and coal was cheap. For a rare moment in the history of civilization, technological innovation made economic sense. The result was something we call the Industrial Revolution.
Yet the fossil fuels that made the Industrial Revolution have never been properly appreciated. The levels of energy they provided allowed for the final closing of the global map, and an explosion of human population driven by an even greater explosion of energy use. Swayed by the insanity of economists like Julian Simon, we’ve come to think that oil, coal and natural gas matter little in the grand scheme of things; they are merely fuels that provide energy, and economic equivalence suggests it should be a simple matter to find other fuels of similar economy. When the market needs an alternative, the pressure to find one will lead us to do so, right in the nick of time.
This is why fossil fuels have never been properly appreciated for what they are. The Law of Conservation of Mass/Energy is one of the most fundamental laws of our universe, and it says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed. As a consequence, most energy sources have an EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment) of something close to 1:1. This is the norm because of the Law of Conservation of Mass/Energy. Oil was once available at an EROEI of 100:1, because it represents essentially a geological savings account of solar energy accumulated over hundreds of millions of years.
Civilization used that energy to close the map. Some areas are much harder to reach than others; it may be a matter of geographical distance from productive civilized centers, or it might be other geological factors. The Allegheny National Forest, for example, remained relatively unexploited even well into the 1800s, as eastern industries were driving the settlement of the American west. Yet the forest remained difficult to settle, despite its proximity, because the soil made agriculture difficult. It took the expansion of the railroads before the Allegheny National Forest’s map, just a hundred miles north of Pittsburgh, was closed. Such pcokets abound. Even today, there are pockets of relatively untouched wilderness where the map is only barely closed.
Today, we are very likely at the peak of civilization. No energy source known provides the kind of return fossil fuels do, and the madness of economic equivalence aside, it does not follow that any such source must exist simply to meet the demands of the market. Meanwhile, every oil province—even the earth as a whole—peaks as a function of diminishing returns. The rate of oil field discovery peaked in the 1960s; since then, we have discovered fewer new oil fields each year than the year before, and those we discover increasingly tend to be smaller, poorer, more remote, or more difficult to exploit. The global Hubbert Peak was probably passed in 2006.5 Ghawar, the “super field” that supplies a prodigious amount of Saudi Arabia’s oil (and thus, a prodigious amount of the world’s oil), is showing signs of depletion,6 and Saudi oil declined as a whole by 8% in 2006,7 a rate that was wholly unexpected and enormous in its possible consequences.
The implication of a peak is not only that it represents civilization’s zenith, but that the future must necessarily entail contraction.
During the Age of Exuberance, Utopian thinking was adaptive, to use ecologists’ jargon: it encouraged people to think big at a time when imperial expansion, technological progress, and soaring availability of fossil fuel energy made explosive growth pay off. As the Age of Exuberance ends around us, the equation is reversing. In a world of political and economic regionalization, technological stasis or regression, and dwindling supplies of all nonrenewable resources, those who move with the curve of industrial decline will be just as successful in the future as those who rode the waves of industrial growth were in the past. It’s time, and past time, to learn again how to think small—and that process will be much easier if we say farewell to Utopia and focus on the things we can actually achieve in the stark limits of time and resources that we still have left.8
This means that as the energy available to civilization declines, most of the historical patterns of civilization will begin to run in reverse, including the closure of the map. In decline, we will see a new phenomenon: the opening of the map.
This will not strictly unfold as a function of distance from civilized centers, because the map is drawn not only across dimensions of distance, but the energy it takes to reach and exploit those areas, versus the energy they return. The map will open unevenly, just as it closed; in fact, we can learn a great deal about how the map will open from the way it closed. The last areas to close were precisely those areas that took the most energy to reach and exploit, and returned the least energy for the effort. These will likewise be some of the first areas of the map to close. The Allegheny National Forest is today within a day’s drive for half the U.S. population, yet it was one of the very last places for the map to close: the railroads, and then the highways, opened the forest to civilized exploitation. As the fossil fuels that allowed that closing decline, the map will open up again there.
Today, at civilization’s peak, we dream of the free life once enjoyed by pirates—the primitivists that plied the waves in the age of exuberance. They lived in the empty spaces of the map before it closed. But the decline of civilization will run many of its historical processes in reverse, and the map will open up again, just as it once closed, and in the empty gaps, the romantic example of the pirate will no doubt inspire many with the freedom of their existence, just as they were once inspired by the freedom of Native life. So, perhaps a Pirate film is not entirely as useless as it first appears, for in the romantic example of the pirate, now pushed by a thousand corporate conglomerates to sell pirate-themed merchandise, we have a chain of inspiration (if not reality) that connects North Americans today to the original freedom once enjoyed by the Natives of Turtle Island, the example of Croatan, and the heritage of liberty that has stood in defiance of civilization from its very inception. Such images owe more to romantic fantasy than to reality, but if Einstein was right that imagination is more important than knowledge, then I can only cheer the swashbuckler’s example that sounds so clearly even at civilization’s peak, and inspires us to open up the map again.