Thursday, August 31, 2006

Problems and Predicaments

One of this blog’s regular readers posted a comment a few weeks back hoping aloud that I would say a few words about what people can actually accomplish in the face of the present predicament of industrial civilization. It’s a fair request. So far, most of what I’ve put into The Archdruid Report has focused on exploring the predicament itself, tracing its roots among some of the commonplaces of modern thinking, and showing that too many of the usual assumptions about what is happening and how to deal with it are founded on fantasy and misunderstanding. That’s crucial work; as Buckminster Fuller was fond of pointing out, it’s a mistake to get down to brass tacks when you haven’t yet settled whether you need tacks at all, much less whether brass is the best choice of metal for them. Still, sooner or later these theoretical issues need to give rise to proposals for action.

Such proposals are common enough these days, to be sure. There are plenty of people who insist that replacing the rascals in power with some other set of rascals more to their liking is the first step toward solving the problems facing industrial civilization. There are plenty of others who insist that the problems can’t be solved at all, industrial civilization is doomed to crash and burn, and the only appropriate response involves holing up in a cabin in the hills with a cache of assorted Road Warrior paraphernalia. A third approach envisages a partial solution via the construction of ecovillages and a sustainable economy, supported and funded by individuals and local communities, in the hope of having enough of an alternative infrastructure in place before the existing set falls apart. I’ve argued elsewhere that the first two projects are futile at best. I’m minded to be less dismissive of the third, so long as it steers clear of the temptation to fantasize that the American middle class can maintain the privileges and perks of its lavishly subsidized lifestyle for much longer.

Despite the differences between them, though, all three proposals conceptualize the situation in the same way – as a problem in need of a solution. This may seem like common sense. It’s not, and a historical parallel may help point up what’s going on here.

Imagine, then, that some ancestor of mine shows up in a prosperous farming village in the English Midlands on a bright autumn day around 1700. It’s a peaceful scene perched on the edge of catastrophic change, courtesy of the imminent arrival of the industrial revolution. Within a century, every building in the village will be torn down, its fields turned into pasture for sheep, the farmers and cottagers driven off their land by enclosure acts passed by a distant Parliament in order to provide wool for England’s cloth industry and profits for a new class of industrial magnates. For the young men of the village, England’s transformation into a worldwide empire constantly warring with its European rivals prophesies a future of press gangs, military service, and death on battlefields around the globe. For a majority of the others, the future offers a forced choice between a life of factory labor at starvation wages in the appalling urban slums of 18th-century England, and emigration to an uncertain fate in the American colonies. A lucky few will prosper beyond their wildest dreams by betting on ways of making a living that nobody on that autumn day has even imagined yet.

Imagine that, improbably enough, my ancestor has figured all this out in advance, and has come to warn the villagers of what is in store for them. There on the village green in the shade of an old oak, with everyone from the squire and the parson to the swineherds and day laborers gathered around him, he tells them that their way of life will be utterly destroyed, and tries to sketch out for them how the coming of industrial society will impact them, their children, and the land and life they love. Imagine that, even more improbably, they take the warning seriously. As the afternoon passes, the villagers agree that this is a serious problem indeed. What, they ask my imaginary ancestor, does he think they should do about it? What solutions does he have to offer?

If the question were put that way, what could he say in response? From today’s perspective, it’s clear that nothing the villagers could have done would have deflected the course of the industrial revolution even slightly. Causes far beyond their control – geological events millions of years in the past that laid down huge coal deposits in the shallow seas that would someday become England, economic patterns going back most of the way to the fall of Rome, political shifts that had been shaking all of Europe for two centuries – drove England toward its industrial transformation. If by a solution, his listeners meant a way to change the whole situation for the better, my imaginary ancestor would have had to say that there was none.

At most, he might be able to give the villagers advice on how to cope with the torrent of changes about to break over their heads, and it would have to be general advice. The consequences of the industrial revolution were just as complex as its causes. The destruction of England’s traditional rural economy and the society that depended on it drove waves of change that moved out in all directions. Successful responses to it followed the same divergent paths. Some prospered by abandoning their old lives completely and making the crossing to a new continent or a new economy, some by digging in their heels and maintaining their old way of life as long as possible, others by staying flexible and keeping their options open. At the same time, others found that one or another of these strategies led only to impoverishment and an early death.

The question itself, of course, is the difficulty. What those English villagers faced in the years after 1700 was a predicament, not a problem. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away.

For human beings, at least, the archetypal predicament is the imminence of death. Facing it, we come up with responses that range from evasion and denial to some of the greatest creations of the human mind. Since it’s a predicament, not a problem, the responses don’t make it go away; they don’t “solve” it, they simply deal with the reality of it. No one response works for everybody, though some do tend to work better than others. The predicament remains, and conditions every aspect of life in one way or another.

The difference between a problem and a predicament has particular relevance here and now, because the last three hundred years or so have witnessed a curious shift in the way some of the basic factors of human life have been conceptualized. Since the dawn of industrial civilization, the predicaments that define what used to be called “the human condition” have been reframed as a set of problems to be solved. Death itself falls into this category; on the one hand, we’ve got transhumanists such as Alan Harrington in The Immortalist proclaiming that death is “an unacceptable imposition on the human race;” on the other hand we’ve got a medical industry willing to inflict almost any amount of indignity and pain in order to preserve bare biological life a little longer at all costs. Our culture’s mythology of progress envisions the goal of civilization as a Utopian state in which poverty, illness, death, and every other aspect of the human predicament have been converted into problems and solved by technology.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the crisis of industrial society means an end to such fantasies, and a return to a world our ancestors before 1700 would recognize. One aspect of this return to reality is the recognition that many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments, as our ancestors were well aware. We cannot solve these things and be done with them; we have to respond to them and live with them. Death, for example, is not an “imposition;” it’s an inescapable part of the human condition. A good case could be made, and indeed has been made, that it’s also one of the prime driving forces behind human art, culture, and wisdom, and that the confrontation with the inevitability of one’s own death is an unavoidable step on the path to human maturity.

Could the predicament of industrial civilization push us in the same direction – toward a maturity of spirit our culture has shown little signs of displaying lately, toward a wiser and more creative response to the human condition? It’s anyone’s guess. Still, the irony of the current crisis is that a civilization that tried to turn all its predicaments into problems has been confronted with problems that, ignored too long, have turned into predicaments. As I’ve suggested more than once, a controlled, creative transition to sustainability might have been possible if the promising beginnings of the 1970s had been followed up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That didn’t happen, and so our predicament in the early 21st century includes the very high likelihood of an uncontrolled transition to sustainability through catabolic collapse.

It’s worth talking about possible responses to that predicament, so long as they’re not mistaken for solutions to a problem. In the months to come, The Archdruid Report will try to map out some of the ways our predicament will likely unfold, and some of the responses that could deal with those. My readers should not expect a step-by-step program of the How to Survive and Prosper in the Coming Apocalypse variety. (Not having survived and prospered through any apocalypses lately, I’d be the wrong person to write such a thing, anyway.) Just as my imaginary ancestor in the example above would probably have been able to come up with some good advice for villagers hoping to weather the dawn of the industrial age, I’ll do my best to offer advice to those who want to survive its twilight. In the presence of a predicament, though, there are no certain bets.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Strategy of Salvage

It makes a great deal of difference whether the challenge of the next century is seen in terms of keeping modern industrial civilization moving along the asymptotic curve of progress, on the other hand, or managing the decline to a more modest and less ecologically suicidal deindustrial society, on the other. We’re in much the same situation as family members who have to decide on medical treament for an elderly parent with half a dozen vital systems on the verge of giving out. If the only outcome we’re willing to accept is keeping Dad alive forever, we guarantee ourselves a desperate, expensive, and futile struggle with the inevitable. People, like civilizations, are mortal, and no matter how much money and technology gets poured into the task of keeping either one alive, sooner or later it won’t be enough.

On the other hand, if we accept that Dad is going to die sooner or later, and concentrate on giving him the best possible quality of life in the time he has left, there’s quite a bit that can be done, and real success comes within reach. This can also have the additional benefit of making life better for later generations, because the money that might have been spent paying for exotic medical procedures to keep Dad alive for another three months of misery can go instead to pay college tuition for his grandchildren. The same thing is likely to be true in the twilight years of industrial civilization; the resources we have left can be used either to maintain the industrial system for a few more years, or to cushion the descent into the deindustrial future – not both.

The theory of catabolic collapse points out, though, that choosing managed descent over the unattainable goal of maintaining industrial civilization yields another crucial set of advantages, and that’s the point I want to discuss in detail here. To put things in the simplest possible terms, catabolic collapse happens when resource shortages interact with rising maintenance costs to produce a self-reinforcing spiral of decline that turns most of a society’s material, human, social and intellectual capital into waste. (There’s a lot more to the theory than that, but this is the core of it.) Historically speaking, the one way to stop a catabolic collapse that works more often than not is the strategy of salvage.

Salvage is the act of converting some of a society’s existing capital back into raw materials, and running its economy on that instead of on resources freshly extracted from nature. The strategy of salvage counters both sides of the catabolic collapse process. Capital that’s treated as raw materials doesn’t need to be maintained, so maintenance costs go down, and it provides resources without depleting natural stocks, so resource availability goes up. Since a good deal of the capital in most societies is unproductive, and unproductive capital tends to get salvaged first, salvage also tends to maximizes the productivity of a society’s capital plant. Do enough salvage, in fact, and you can get ahead of the catabolic cycle, and either stop it cold or slow it enough to manage a soft landing.

Here’s a relevant example. Right now in the United States there are something like 500,000,000 (that’s half a billion) alternators. For more than half a century, ever since they outcompeted generators in the Darwinian world of auto design, every car or truck with an internal combustion engine has had one. Right now they’re worth next to nothing; they’re old technology, they rarely wear out or break down, and when they do, you can usually make them as good as new by replacing a diode or a few ball bearings.

Old tech or not, they’re ingenious devices. You put rotary motion into the shaft, and 12 volts of electricity (6 volts in some older models) come out of the terminals. The faster the motion, the higher the wattage, but the voltage always stays the same. In a car or truck, the rotary motion’s provided by the engine, and the electricity goes to charge the battery, power the cooling fan, run the lights, and so on; it’s simply a way to take some of the energy produced by burning petroleum and do things with it that burning petroleum, all by itself, doesn’t do well. In terms of the catabolic collapse theory, they’re part of the capital plant our civilization uses to convert petroleum into air pollution and global warming.

Apply the strategy of salvage, though, and alternators become something very different. They stop being part of a car, and become a resource on their own. Rotary motion from any source you can imagine can be applied to the shaft, and you get those 12 volts of electricity. Since there are half a billion of them in cars, trucks, and junkyards all over North America, and those cars and trucks are going to lose their value as capital once petroleum becomes too scarce and expensive to waste on individual transport, their cost is effectively zero.

In a salvage economy, each of those half a billion alternators is a potential energy source. Take one, add some gears and chain salvaged from a bicycle and some steel borrowed from an old truck, spend a week carving and sanding a 5-foot length of spruce into a propeller, and you’ve got a windmill that will trickle-charge a set of scavenged lead-acid batteries and run a 12-volt refrigerator taken from an old RV. Take half a dozen more, add more bicycle parts, wood in various dimensions, and a year-round stream, and you’ve got a waterwheel-based micro-hydro plant that turns out 12 volts night and day at pretty fair wattage.

Care to try a solar heat engine? The French did it back in the 1870s. Before diesel generators running on dirt-cheap petroleum crashed the market for them, France’s North African colonies drew up extensive plans to use solar-powered steam engines for everything from pumping water to printing newspapers. Given sunshine, boiler parts, plenty of scrap metal, and alternators, you’ve got solar-generated electricity that you can maintain and replace with 1870s technology – that is, without access to pure amorphous silicon, monomolecular layers of rare earth metals, and the other exotica needed to make photovoltaic cells. None of these latter will be readily available in a deindustrializing world. On the other hand, boiler parts, scrap metal, and alternators certainly will.

It has to be said up front that none of these makeshift technologies will provide more than a minute fraction of the electricity needed to support a modern industrial society. None of them work at anything remotely like high efficiency, and it’s an open question whether any of them produce as much energy in their lifespans as went into producing them back when they were made. Still, in a salvage economy, none of that actually matters. The only relevant question is whether they will repay, on an individual basis, the effort of salvaging them and putting them to work. Is a week’s worth of work on a windmill a good deal in exchange for a working refrigerator? In a world where food preservation will once again be a matter of life and death, it’s hard to imagine that the answer could be anything but yes.

If the modern world had continued to pursue the promising steps toward sustainability pioneered in the 1970s, such makeshifts might not be necessary. As it is, though, the leadership of the industrial world has committed itself to keep the current system going at all costs, even if this results in a more impoverished world for their own children and grandchildren. The strategy of salvage offers one way to work around that tragically misguided choice. Alternators are useless as a way to keep industrial civilization afloat; that’s why there are millions of them in good working order sitting in junkyards at this moment. The same thing is true of hundreds of other products of industrial society that can be transformed into resources for a deindustrializing world. A little practical knowledge about how to use salvaged materials, preferably backed up by experiment in advance, would be a good investment for those people who plan on riding the waves of change.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Managing Decline

Every culture has its blind spots, ours no less than others, and one of the more important of ours just now comes straight out of the modern mythology of progress. The claim that progress is inevitable and good has become so deeply woven into our collective thinking that many people nowadays simply can’t get their minds around the implications of fossil fuel depletion, or for that matter any of the other factors driving the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. All these factors promise a future in which energy, raw materials, and their products—including nearly all of our present high technology—will all be subject to ever-tightening limits that will make them less and less available over time. Thus we face a future of regress, not progress.

The problem here is that regress is quite literally an unthinkable concept these days. Suggest to most people nowadays that progress will soon shift into reverse, and that their great-great-grandchildren will make do with technologies not that different from the ones their great-great-grandparents used, as the industrial age gives way to the agrarian societies of a deindustrial future, and you might as well be trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn’t there any more. In words made famous a few years ago by Christopher Lasch, progress is our “true and only heaven;” it’s where most modern people put their dreams of a better world, and to be deprived of it cuts to the core of many people’s view of reality.

Yet our modern faith in progress produces subtler blind spots as well. Too much of the thinking that surrounds today’s peak oil debates assumes that saving the modern industrial system is the only goal worth talking about, and if that can’t be done, then it’s time to hole up in a cabin in the hills and wait for the rubble to finish bouncing. Mind you, no matter how many rounds of ammo and cases of MREs you stash there, a cabin in the hills isn’t a workable response to a process of decline that promises to unfold over a century or more, but there’s at least one other serious problem to this sort of thinking. Saving the modern industrial system may not be possible at all, and even if it can be done, it may not be the best option this late in the game.

A metaphor that’s already seen use in this blog may help clarify the choices we face today. Imagine you knew that tomorrow, you would be taken up to 10,000 feet in an airplane and tossed out the cabin door into empty air. That’s a real crisis, and it demands serious thought and action. If the only solution you consider, though, is finding a way to keep yourself at 10,000 feet and prevent yourself from falling at all, you’d be narrowing your options far too drastically, and excluding at least one option—wearing a parachute—that can definitely solve the problem.

The metaphor can be extended a little further. The problem with being thrown out of an airplane at 10,000 feet isn’t that you fall; it’s that you fall too fast and land too hard. The same is true of the end of the industrial age. If the transition from industrial society to the sustainable deindustrial cultures of the future could be made gradually, by stages no more hurried than the ones that brought industrial civilization into being in the first place, there would be far less to worry about. At this point, that probably can’t be managed on a global or even a national scale. Still, once the problem we face is defined as controlling the decline of the industrial age, not preventing it, that problem becomes much more manageable.

One of my handful of regular readers pointed out, in response to my post last week, that it’s one thing to talk about finding some way to replace today’s extravagant use of fossil fuel energy with renewable sources, and it’s quite another, and a much more sensible, thing to talk about using renewable energy to meet the far more modest energy requirements of an agrarian society. Especially in America, restating the question in this way opens up immense possibilities. Very few people inside America’s borders, for instance, have noticed that it’s only our extravagantly energy-wasting lifestyles that keep us dependent on imported oil, with all the unwelcome economic and political consequences that brings. Even 35 years after its own Hubbert peak, the United States is still one of the largest producers of oil on Earth. If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to dysfunctional lifestyles keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table in discussions of national energy policy.

The same logic can be extended much more broadly. Today’s agriculture, for example, becomes utterly unsustainable once the huge fossil fuel inputs that go into farm machinery, agricultural chemicals, worldwide transport networks, and the like can no longer be supported. That doesn’t mean, as some of the more extreme peak oil theorists take it to mean, that once fossil fuels become too scarce and costly to use for agriculture, we’ll all starve. It simply means that the agriculture of the future will have to rely on human and animal muscle for energy, and compost and manure for fertilizer, the way farmers did for millennia before the invention of the tractor. There are still people alive today who grew up working horse-drawn combines in the 1920s, when American agriculture was already productive enough to make the Great Plains the world’s breadbasket. Converting back to horse-powered agriculture would be a challenge, but one well within the realm of the possible, and relatively simple changes in agricultural, taxation, and land use policy could do much to foster that conversion. With severe depopulation setting in across much of America’s old agricultural heartland, more dramatic steps such as a renewal of the old Homestead Act, coupled with price guarantees for grain crops (perhaps linked to an expanded ethanol-production program), would make a good deal of sense as well.

If the mythology of progress didn’t blind today’s policymakers to such options, any number of steps could be taken to ease the transition from industrial to deindustrial society. Those steps are likely to remain outside the realm of the conceivable for a long time yet, at least on a large scale, but the same logic can be applied on a local and individual scale. Individuals, groups, and local communities, just as much as nations and civilizations, face the challenge of managing the descent from Hubbert’s peak. The longer we try to cling to the peak, the harder and faster the fall is going to be, and the less likely we are to survive it. Accept that the descent is inevitable and try to make it in a controlled manner, on the other hand, and the way is open not only for bare survival, but for surviving in a humane and creative fashion that preserves as much of value as possible for the future.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why Renewable Energy Matters

During the heady days of the 1970s, when it looked as though American society might actually face up to the challenge of building a sustainable future for itself, talk about renewable energy filled the pages of a more than a dozen now-defunct journals and provided cocktail-party chatter for progressive circles across the country. Solar energy, windpower, and conservation technology briefly counted as significant growth industries, while more exotic possibilities – geothermal, tide and wave power, oceanic thermal energy conversion, and others – attracted their share, or more, of attention and investment.

All that went away with the political manipulations that crashed the price of oil in the early 1980s. The renewable energy industry wasn’t the only economic sector flattened by the Reagan administration’s decision to put low oil prices ahead of every other consideration – America’s nuclear industry suffered an even more drastic implosion, and the collapse in oil prices brought a decade of economic crisis to once-booming states around the Gulf of Mexico – but in the long view, the early death of the renewable energy industry will probably prove to be the most disastrous result of the shortsighted policies of the Reagan era. In 1980, the United States still had some 25 to 30 years to get ready for the worldwide peak of oil production, and its energy demands were much smaller. A controlled transition to sustainability would still have been a massive challenge, but it could probably have been accomplished.

Now, a quarter century of missed opportunities later, renewable energy gets short shrift, even from the minority aware of the imminence of Hubbert’s peak. There are, it has to be said, good reasons for this lack of interest. The hard aftermath of the 1970s alternative energy boom showed all too clearly the shaky numbers behind many overhyped renewable energy technologies. Crucially, too many of them failed the test of EROEI (energy returned over energy invested): that is, the usable energy they produced turned out to be little more than, and in some cases noticeably less than, the energy needed to manufacture, maintain, and run the technology. A case could easily be made that the EROEI of a society’s energy resources defines the upper limit of its economic development. More than any other factor, the huge EROEI of fossil fuels – close to 100-1 for light sweet petroleum from wells under natural pressure – made possible the modern industrial world and its extravagant energy-wasting lifestyles. EROEIs in single digits, which is what the best renewable energy technologies manage, simply won’t produce enough spare energy to support an industrial society.

These awkward facts show that renewables won’t allow us to continue living the sort of lives the inhabitants of the developed world came to take for granted in the Age of Exuberance. The problem, of course, is that as things now stand, neither will anything else. As oil production worldwide plateaus and falters, other fossil fuels come under strain, and no alternative – renewable or otherwise – is at hand to take up the slack, a steady decline in the overall production and availability of energy defines the future ahead of us. Extrapolate the effects in economic and social terms, and we face what might as well be called the Deindustrial Revolution, a period of wrenching change in which the world’s industrial societies give way to subsistence economies dominated by the agricultural sector and powered by sun, wind, water, and muscle.

The implied reference to the Industrial Revolution is deliberate, of course. The birth of industrial society in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and its global expansion in the 20th, catalyzed sweeping changes in almost every dimension of human life, and left the certainties of previous ages in tatters. It seems likely that the twilight of industrial society will drive equally sweeping effects, and overthrow today’s fundamental assumptions just as thoroughly as the coming of fossil fuels overthrew those of early modern Europe’s agrarian societies. One thing that seems not to have been noticed, though, is that the economics of renewable energy technology take on a very different and much more positive shape in the context of deindustrialization.

This suggestion cuts across much of the conventional wisdom in the peak oil community, but at least three factors back it. First and most obvious, of course, is the fact that even the most drastically deindustrialized society will still need energy. (Even hunter-gatherers systematically exploit energy resources, if only in the form of food and firewood.) Windmills with an EROEI of 5 or 6 to 1 are hopelessly inadequate to power an industrial society, granted, but deindustrial societies with grain to grind, water to pump, and many other uses for mechanical energy will find them just as economically viable as did the agrarian societies of the past. In the same way, the economics of passive solar heating are one thing when it’s a question of whether to heat one’s home with solar energy or fossil fuels, and quite another when fossil fuels are priced out of the heating market, firewood is scarce, and the choice is between solar heat and nothing at all.

Any renewable energy technology that can be built from readily available materials with hand tools will be economically viable in a deindustrialized society, then, simply because the fossil fuels that price them out of the market today will only be available at ruinous and rising prices, while they are still available at all. Windpower and waterpower as sources of mechanical energy head this particular list; as Lewis Mumford pointed out in his Technics and Civilization, the first phase of the Industrial Revolution (his “eotechnic” phase) used windmills, waterwheels, and sails as its prime movers. Passive solar space heating and solar hot water heating also belong on the list, as do bicycles and other efficient ways of converting human muscle power into mechanical energy.

Many other renewable energy technologies don’t make this particular cut. The poster child for the losers is the photovoltaic (PV) cell. PV cells can’t be made at all without high-tech manufacturing facilities and energy-intensive materials, and their EROEI is right around zero – it takes about as much energy to manufacture a cell as the cell produces in its relatively short working life. In the aftermath of the Deindustrial Revolution, barring drastic changes in the technology, PV cells will be museum pieces or expensive novelties if they can be made at all.

Yet a simple before-and-after analysis misses a crucial variable. The EROEI of PV cells, like most other renewable energy technologies, is radically asymmetric over time. Essentially all the energy inputs go into PV cells at the beginning, when they are manufactured and installed; the energy output comes later on, and requires next to no further input. Thus a PV cell functions very nearly as a way of storing energy; the energy put in at its manufacture, one might say, is extracted out of it, bit by bit, over its working life.

When energy availability is increasing or remains steady over time, this asymmetry is a drawback; it means that the user has to pay for all the energy produced by the PV cell up front, in the form of manufacturing costs, and only gets the energy back over time. Deindustrialization, though, stands this logic on its head. As energy resources decline in availability and rise in price, PV cells allow the user to arbitrage energy costs across time – to buy energy, in effect, when it’s relatively cheap and available, and use it when energy is relatively costly and scarce. The same is true of other renewable energy technologies; for example, a high-tech windpower generator can be built and stocked with spare parts now, when plentiful fossil fuel puts its manufacture within reach, and used with minimal additional investment for ten to twenty years in the future, as fossil fuels deplete and the price of energy soars.

Such strategies won’t provide energy for the long term, but it’s important to remember that the long term is not the only thing that matters. If you knew that tomorrow you would be taken up in an airplane to 10,000 feet or so and tossed out the cabin door, the long-term value of a parachute as an investment would probably not be the first thing on your mind, and the fact that the parachute would be of no further use to you once you reached the ground might not weigh heavily on your decision making process, either. These entirely valid points would presumably take second place to the overriding need to get to the ground alive.

We face a similar situation today. Industrial society’s dependence on rapidly depleting reserves of fossil fuels leaves us perched unsteadily in the cabin door with plenty of empty air below us, waiting for declining oil production to give us the shove that will send us on our way down. Renewable energy technologies, like the parachute of the metaphor, won’t keep us from falling but they can potentially slow the descent enough to make a difference. One of the lessons taught by, but rarely learned from, the wars and disasters of the 20th century is that the difference between a lot of energy and a little is a good deal less important than the difference between a little and none at all. Investing a portion of today’s relatively abundant energy resources into technologies that will yield energy later on, when fossil fuels are scarce, will make it a good deal easier to provide that little when it’s most needed, and cushion at least some of the impacts of the Deindustrial Revolution.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Butlerian Future

Science fiction has a very mixed track record so far in predicting the future. It’s scored some impressive hits – E.M. Forster’s harrowing 1907 prevision of Internet cyber-culture, “The Machine Stops,” comes to mind – but plenty of its predictions remain stubbornly unfulfilled, and quite a few of the major trends of the last half century got missed entirely by science fiction’s would-be prophets. Manned landings on the Moon were a staple of science fiction from Jules Verne until Apollo 11, and yet nobody in the SF scene even guessed at the immense cultural impact that television coverage of that first actual lunar landing would turn out to have. The thought that the Apollo flights would turn out to be not the beginning of a golden age of space exploration, but an extravagance too costly to push further out into the solar system – as it turned out to be – would have been rejected out of hand in science fiction’s own golden age between the two world wars.

Still, it’s as often as not the indirect predictions in science fiction that prove the most prescient. The E.M. Forster story mentioned earlier wasn’t an attempt to foresee the internet; Forster described it as “a counter-blast to one of the early heavens of H.G. Wells,” and used it mostly to talk about the downside of his own culture’s obsession with ideas as a substitute for lived experience. In the same way, the science fiction novel I want to discuss here – Frank Herbert’s sprawling classic Dune – doesn’t claim to talk about the near future of our own society, but several of its central themes are likely to make the transition from speculative fiction to hard reality in the decades ahead of us.

Centuries before the events of Herbert’s novel, the universe he chronicled was convulsed by the Butlerian Jihad, a massive and violent popular movement against computer technology. “Once,” Herbert has one character explain to another, “men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” In the aftermath of the Butlerian Jihad, the human race went down a different path. As the same character comments: “The Great Revolt took away a crutch...It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human functions.” By the time Dune opens, human beings fill many of the roles now entrusted to machines. Mentats, people trained in mnemonic and analytic skills who function as living computers, handle data processing; struggles between major power blocs employ assassins and highly trained special forces rather than the massed military technologies of today’s warfare; secret societies such as the Bene Gesserit sisterhood pursue disciplines of mind-body mastery that give them astonishing powers over themselves and other people as well.

Under present circumstances, mind you, a Butlerian Jihad is about as likely as a resumption of the Punic Wars. Even radical neoprimitivists who think we all ought to go back to hunting and gathering rely on websites and podcasts to get their message out. Still, Herbert may turn out to be a prophet after all; there’s a real chance that we may find ourselves backing into a Butlerian future without intending anything of the kind. The reasons I have in mind have nothing to do with the romanticism of which people who question today’s technological triumphalism are so often accused. Rather, they’re a matter of cold hard economics.

The modern faith in progress has its blind spots, and one of the most pervasive is the tendency for people to believe that the present arrangement of society is somehow inevitable, the natural result of all those centuries of progress. It seems inevitable, for example, that every culture will end up relying on machines rather than people for tasks like data processing, simply because that’s the way we do things. Behind the grand facade of progress, though, lies a simple economic fact: in an age of abundant fossil fuels, it’s cheaper – a lot cheaper – to build and power a machine to do something than it is to train and employ a human being to do the same thing. As long as that equation holds, the only constraint that limits how many people get replaced by machines is the sophistication of the machines, and so the same equation drives technological advances; because machines do things at lower cost than people do, investment in new technology tends to pay for itself. The last three centuries of the western world’s history show what happens when this process goes into high gear.

The whole process depends, though, on having a cheap, abundant source of mechanical and electrical energy. For the last three centuries, fossil fuels have provided that, but the lesson of peak oil – and the wider context of resource depletion and ecosystem damage driving the rising spiral of crises that besets industrial civilization today – is that this was a temporary situation, made possible only because human beings found and exploited huge but finite reserves of cheap energy in the earth’s crust. Everything based on that fact is subject to change – including the equation that makes machine labor cheaper than human labor.

In a world where fossil fuels are expensive and scarce, in fact, the equation works the other way. Modern machines require very specialized and resource-intensive inputs of energy and materials, and if those aren’t available within tight specifications, the machines don’t work. Human beings, by contrast, can be kept happy and productive with very simple, generally available resources – food, drink, warmth, shelter, companionship, and mental stimulation – that all have wide tolerances and a great deal of room for substitution. In a society that has to operate within the energy budget provided by renewable resources, these things are much less challenging to provide than the pure, concentrated, and precisely controlled inputs needed by complex machines. This is why the steam turbine, invented in ancient Greek times by Hero of Alexandria, remained a philosopher’s toy, and why the brilliant mechanical inventions of medieval China never caused the social and economic transformations the industrial revolution launched in the modern west. Machines existed, but without the energy resources to power them – or, more exactly, without the realization that coal can be turned into mechanical energy if you have the right machine – human labor was more economical, and so the machines languished.

Nor is the sort of exotic labor performed by Herbert’s mentats and Bene Gesserit sisters purely a matter of science fiction. Medieval European scholars and savants practiced mental disciplines such as the art of memory, which allowed a trained person to accurately store and recall prodigious amounts of data, and the Lullian art, an algebra of concepts used to process information. In Asia, practitioners of yoga and the martial arts have evolved physical disciplines that bring exceptional feats within reach of the trained practitioner. Certain traditions of east and west, most of them affiliated with mystical religious teachings, have put together comprehensive training systems meant to develop human capacities to their highest pitch. All these are potential resources for societies of the deindustrial future.

The ideologies of the industrial age either devalued human potential in favor of the possibilities opened up by fossil-fuel-powered machines, or reacted against this sort of thinking by glorifying whatever human beings could do that the machines of any given time couldn’t do. The 19th century clash between industrial triumphalism and its Romantic opposition still defines most of the terms in which we think of machines, human beings, and their interactions today. Herbert’s imagination leapt beyond that to offer a glimpse of what human beings might be capable of, if we pursued human potential with as much enthusiasm as today’s engineers push the limits of machines. In a world where energy-intensive high technologies may not be supportable for all that much longer, it’s a glimpse well worth thinking about.