Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Politics of Transition

One of the things most lacking in the political and social thought of the industrial world in the last century, it seems to me, is a sense of process. Pick an ideology, any ideology, as close to the mainstream or far out on the fringe as you like, and you’re much more likely than not to find its proponents fixated on the form of society they want to see, rather than paying attention to how society will get there, or for that matter what it will do next.

The sense of society unfolding through time in an organic process, central to the thought of such social philosophers as Edmund Burke and enshrined in the elegant balances of the American constitution, finds few supporters these days. Even the time-release Utopia of Karl Marx, which envisioned communism rising out of socialism by the continued workings of the dialectical process, has gone out of fashion. Nowadays we’re not willing to wait for organic process or the withering away of the state, nor do we want to think about what comes after we get what we want. We want our perfect society handed over pronto in nice disposable bags by the clerk at the drive-up window, hold the pickles and away we go.

This rejection of process has probably done more than anything else to keep the social change movements of the last few decades from achieving most of their goals. In the same way and for the same reasons, trying to force an ecotechnic society into existence in the next twenty years, say, is a recipe for failure. As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the form of economy and society that succeeds best under any given set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with the resources and technology available at the time, than on deliberate choices by human beings. Ecotechnic societies will emerge and prosper only when the interactions between humanity and environment favor them above other options.

What this means in practice is that as long as fossil fuels are still available in significant amounts, scarcity industrialism or something like it will be more successful. As long as raw materials and surviving technologies from the industrial age are available in significant amounts, salvage societies will be more successful. Only when the resources available to human societies are once again limited to what the earth provides renewably will ecotechnic societies – human cultures supporting a high technology on a sustainable basis – be the most successful option.

Two other factors combine with the pressure of environmental factors to make the transition to ecotechnic societies a slow one. First of all, nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technological society would look like, much less how to build one. The only form of technic society we’ve yet seen is the industrialism of the last 300 years, and nearly everything that makes that latter system work will be going away as the age of cheap abundant energy draws to an end. The Long Descent ahead of us is, among other things, an opportunity for social evolution, in which various populations will try out many different forms of technical, economic, and social organization, some of which will turn out to be more successful than others. Out of that process will evolve the successful ecotechnic forms of the far future.

The other side of the problem is political, of course. A great many people in the peak oil scene are fond of the common superstition that all political power rests in the hands of a sinister elite – you’ll note that elites in contemporary folklore are always sinister, like witches and stepmothers in early modern folk tales – who are personally responsible for everything wrong with the world. This is a great way for middle class intellectuals to avoid noticing the extent to which they participate in, and profit from, a system they claim to oppose, but as a tool for understanding power relationships within society it has precisely nothing to recommend it. Rather, modern industrial society can best be seen as a diverse collection of power centers, each with its own base of support, striving to build its strength, make alliances, and exert influence over the creaking machineries of government, society and economy.

Most of the time the result of this diffusion of power is inertia, but there are two factors that can overcome that. The first of these is that a charismatic leader (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, or Ronald Reagan) or a persuasive group with a plan (liberals in the early 1960s, or neoconservatives in the late 1990s) can attract enough support from the various power centers to force through change. The second is that a leader who isn’t charismatic enough (Huey Long, say, or Jimmy Carter) or a group that isn’t persuasive enough (conservatives in the Goldwater era, say, or radicals in the 1980s and 1990s) but who threaten the status quo, can cause the power centers to unite against them in an effort to preserve their own autonomy.

Now it’s possible that the peak oil movement might find a charismatic leader or present a plan so persuasive that it can overcome the automatic veto of industrial society’s built-in inertia. So far, though, it shows no signs of doing either one. Instead, radicals on all sides of the political continuum have started to redefine their own pet projects as responses to peak oil. I’ve noted before on this blog the way that the straightforwardly neofascist British National Party and its would-be führer, Nick Griffin, have embraced peak oil as the factor they hope will catapult them into power. Equally, though, you can hear any number of people on the far left insisting with equal vigor that the only thing that can save the world from a dire fate is the immediate adoption of whatever their preferred system of society happens to be.

This is where the blindness to process becomes an insuperable barrier. Nearly all of the plans floated by the radicals of left and right alike have certain key features in common. They require that every group that currently holds power in society should become subordinate to the plan, which in practice, of course, means their subordination to the people who will be implementing and managing the plan. The plans also require a complete break with the past, and the imposition of a new system in which all the ground rules have been changed to benefit the new holders of power. The power centers that make up industrial society can be counted on to resist demands like these with all their considerable strength.

Nor are they necessarily wrong to do so. The success rate for novel social, economic, and political programs crafted by politically radical intellectuals is, to put things mildly, not good. As the sorry history of Marxism demonstrated with great force, the fact that a writer can level a powerful critique at an existing system does not mean that the same writer has a working replacement for it – as a popular saying in Russia these days has it, “everything Marx said about communism was false, but everything he said about capitalism was true” – and the fact that a proposed replacement looks good on paper does not prove that it will work well in practice. At a time when society will be experiencing drastic strains and many people will be struggling to make ends meet, betting survival on an untested system may not be the best option.

Does this mean that reform is out of the question? Of course not. Significant reforms are going to be needed as the age of cheap abundant fossil fuels comes to an end. Here in America, in particular, a window of opportunity is likely to open in the next five years or so, for reasons that follow from the points already made here.

In the late 1990s, as I’ve suggested above, the neoconservative movement in America became the most recent example of a persuasive group with a plan that managed to unite a great many power centers behind it. It’s been argued, and I think correctly, that the plan in question was a response to the imminent arrival of peak oil, drawn up hurriedly after the final failure of the Reagan-era decision to let the free market come up with a replacement for America’s oil reserves. The neoconservative plan envisioned an American military occupation of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, starting with Iraq, under the threadbare rhetorical cloak of “spreading democracy.” History will not be kind to them; their plan was badly conceived and ineptly carried out, its long-term goals are now definitively out of reach, and at this point the entire scheme – along with the US military and economic presence in the Middle East – stands on the brink of catastrophic failure.

Whether or not that happens, the neoconservative consensus that currently unites both major American parties (and their equivalents in Britain, Australia, and other close US allies) is already beginning to splinter. The attraction of that consensus was simply that no one else had a proposal in hand that would allow the United States to cling to its precarious position as the world’s dominant power. The neoconservative debacle, with its likely consequences in the military, political and economic realms, will force a shift in priorities to the raw necessities of national survival, and in this setting a coherent plan focusing on conservation, renewable energy, economic and agricultural disintermediation, and the rebuilding of America’s rail network and canal systems could easily win a great deal of support.

Will such a program bring on the ecotechnic age? Of course not, nor will it prevent the end of industrial society. What it would do is cushion the coming of the deindustrial age, allow a good many more people to have something approaching quality of life in the decades to come, and build foundations on which future generations can build further. That is to say, it focuses on the process of managing the Long Descent, rather than trying to impose an arbitrary shape on the societies that will come after it.

There are other steps of the same kind, less dependent on the cooperation of government, that will also be worth putting into effect as the transition out of the Age of Abundance begins. We’ll be talking about them in the next few posts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Age of Salvage Societies

It’s a common bad habit of thinking these days to assume that social and economic changes are entirely a product of human decision and effort. That’s the thinking behind all the conspiracy theories that provide so popular a way to ignore ecological realities, of course, but it also pops up in plenty of other contexts, not least the enthusiastic claims from various points on the political spectrum that we can all have the better future we want if we just buckle down and get to work on it.

There are any number of problems with this easy assumption, but the one I’d like to point out just now is that, like so much of contemporary thinking, it leaves nature out of the equation. We may attempt to build any future we happen to like, but unless the earth’s remaining stock of natural resources provides the raw material that the future in question requires, we’ll find sooner or later that we’re out of luck. Furthermore, even if the future we have in mind can be made to work within the hard limits of ecological reality, the future we want will once again turn out to be a pipe dream if another form of society or economy does the same thing more effectively.

The industrial economy currently lurching toward history’s compost bin, after all, did not rise to global dominance because the people of the world agreed to make that happen. Nor did the world’s elites, if the political classes of the world’s various societies deserve that name, make that decision; of course there were cabals of industrialists who did their level best to further its spread, but there were plenty of leadership groups in other, competing societies who staked everything they had on resisting it, and failed. Industrial civilization had its day in the sun because, in a world where plenty of cheap abundant fossil fuel could be had for the digging or drilling, the industrial mode of production was more efficient than its rivals, and enabled the communities that embraced it to prosper at the expense of those that did not.

In turn, as the industrial system undercuts the environmental conditions that allow it to thrive, new forms better adapted to the new reality will elbow today’s industrialism aside and take its place. Last week’s post outlined what I believe will be the first of those new forms, a mode of industrial economy – scarcity industrialism – that pursues resource nationalism rather than the mirage of a global economy, and shifts the allocation of energy and other scarce resources from the market to the political sphere. That form is already taking shape around us in the political and energy conflicts of the present; the nations that pursue an embryonic form of scarcity industrialism are prospering accordingly, while those that remain mired in the assumptions of the age of abundance are paying the price for their unwillingness to deal with ecological reality.

As I suggested last week, though, the age of scarcity industrialism will be self-limiting, because the exploitation of nonrenewable resources that gives it its power also puts a time limit on its survival. Once those resources are gone, or depleted far enough that it stops being economical to run a society by exploiting them, another round of new social and economic forms will replace the structures of scarcity industrialism.

At this point we may just find ourselves in something like familiar territory. Archeologists around the world have learned to recognize the distinctive traces of a collapsed society, and one of these is the recycling of old structures for new uses. In the ruins of the old Mayan city of Tikal, for example, excavations have unearthed traces of the people who lived there after the classic Maya collapse. In this last, quiet afterword to the city’s history, the palaces of the lords of Tikal became the homes of a little community of farmers and hunters who scratched out a living in the remains of the city, and made their cooking fires and their simple pottery in the midst of crumbling splendor. The same thing can be found in ruined cities around the world, and science fiction authors in our own civilization have not been slow to pick up on the theme. The logic behind it, though, has not often been recognized: when a civilization breaks down, the most efficient economies are most often those that use its remains as raw material.

To understand how this works, it’s necessary to detour a bit to H.T. Odum’s useful concept of emergy, or embodied energy. Very roughly, emergy is the total amount of energy needed to produce a good or provide a service, including all the energy and material feeds that went into making the good or service available. A coffee cup sitting next to your computer, for example, embodies the energy needed to mine and process the clay, provide raw materials for the glaze and compound them, fire the kiln, and ship both the raw materials to the factory and the finished cup to you. That amount of energy is the emergy cost of the cup: without that much energy being used, you can’t have that cup – or at least you can’t get it in that way.

When energy is cheap and abundant, emergy basically doesn’t matter. The lords of Tikal didn’t have to worry much about the energy their work crews expended hauling, carving, and setting up stone stelae, any more than their equivalents today have to worry about the energy that ships coffee cups, and the coffee that fills them, halfway around the planet. On the downslope of collapse, on the other hand, emergy matters a great deal, and the single most abundant source of free emergy consists of the remains of the collapsed civilization. To the surviving people of Tikal in the aftermath of collapse, it was much more efficient to use the crumbling palaces of a bygone age for shelter, and concentrate their very limited resources on the hard work of making a living in a damaged environment, than it would have been to build their own homes somewhere on the outskirts of the ruined city.

The fantastic amounts of energy flung around so casually by the industrial societies of the world today will make this an even more viable strategy, once the resources that make industrial civilization possible go the way of Tikal’s time of glory. Steel, the most widely used metal nowadays, offers a good example. A fifty-foot steel girder in a skyscraper contains a huge amount of emergy, because the ore—these days, most likely low-grade taconite containing significantly less than 5% iron by weight—has to be mined, smelted, purified, cast, formed, and shipped thousands of miles before it gets put into place in a new building.

To use that same girder in a deindustrial age, by contrast, takes only a hacksaw to chop it into workable parts, a wagon to haul it away, and a blacksmith’s hammer, anvil, and charcoal-burning forge to transform it into nails, knives, plows, saws, firearms, and a thousand other useful things. Furthermore, the economics of metalworking in a nonindustrial society make this a very attractive proposition, since one fifty-foot girder of ordinary structural steel will keep a village blacksmith supplied with raw materials for a substantial period of time.

Now it’s true that the same village blacksmith could smelt his own raw material from bog iron – that’s the technical name for the iron sulfide deposits laid down in most temperate zone wetlands by chemosynthetic bacteria. There’s a lot of bog iron to be had, since it hasn’t been used commercially in centuries and most North American deposits away from the Atlantic coast have never been worked at all. It’s easy to smelt bog iron into workable form – people in Dark Age Europe and early colonial America did it with simple charcoal fires – and it’s also quite easy to do the same thing with rust, which is iron oxide, the standard commercially worked iron ore in the days before huge fossil fuel subsidies made it possible to use low-grade ores like taconite.

Still, the steel stocked up for the future by today’s civilization make a far more economical source. A small proportion of that consists of high-temperature alloys that require modern technology to work with, but the huge majority – girders, pipes, auto frames, sheet steel, and much more – can be forged at temperatures much lower than the ones you need for smelting ore, and yield better metal into the bargain. They will be the obvious metal source in the age of salvage that will follow the time of scarcity industrialism. Furthermore, there are billions of tons of the stuff all over what is now the industrial world, enough to keep the deindustrial cultures of the future supplied for a very long time.

Mind you, steel is only one of hundreds of raw materials that will be accessible in the ruins of today’s cities and towns. Enough people have already become aware of the amount of copper and aluminum in houses nowadays that some of the unsold subdivisions thrown up in the late housing bubble have already been stripped of their copper wiring and aluminum window frames by thieves, who sell the resulting metal at a tidy price. For that matter, I’ve suggested in one of my fictional vignettes of the deindustrial future that the tableware and other household gear left behind by industrial civilization will be abundant enough that local communities may set aside an old warehouse or two to store it, so that community members can take their pick at need. Doubtless there will be many similar habits in the age that follows ours.

Nor will all the material legacies of the industrial age take the form of raw materials. Many technologies that could not be made under deindustrial conditions will still be usable, just as many medieval cities relied for water on Roman aqueducts they themselves could not have built. A good deal depends on just how far and fast technological knowledge is lost; localities that are able to keep some kind of electrical generation capacity in working order, for example, will be in a position to use salvaged equipment that needs electricity to function. Internal combustion engines may still be viable here and there, running on biodiesel or ethanol; in a deindustrializing world, the ability to harness such technologies will likely be a potent source of economic and political power – and that all by itself will guarantee that they will be used.

Like the age of scarcity industrialism before it, though, the age of salvage will be self-limiting, because the economics that make it work also guarantee the exhaustion of the resources that make it possible. Eventually, no matter how many times they’re patched and rebuilt, the last of the Old Time machines will stop running; there will be no more overgrown storage centers and long-abandoned suburbs to strip of their appliances, and in time – though this last may take millenia – even the ruined cities of the ancients will yield up the last of their metal. Over the course of that long process of exhaustion, the ecotechnic societies of the far future will begin to take shape. Next week’s post will explore some of the issues involved in this last transition.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Age of Scarcity Industrialism

It’s been suggested several times, on this blog and elsewhere, that the process of coming to terms with the reality of peak oil has more than a little in common with the process of dealing with the imminence of death. The five stages of getting ready to die outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in a series of bestselling books back in the 1970s – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – show up tolerably often in today’s peak oil controversies. There’s good reason for the parallel, because the end of the age of cheap abundant energy marks the terminus of many of today’s most cherished assumptions and ways of looking at the world, and it also means that a great many people alive today will die sooner than they otherwise would.

More than twenty years have gone by since I tended the dying in nursing homes, in one of a flurry of low-paying jobs I held after leaving college. Getting to know the guy with the scythe while the people around you are heading through life’s exit turnstile teaches lessons that don’t fade easily, though, and from that perspective I’m not at all sure the parallels have been taken far enough. In particular, it’s interesting to note that the same five stages – or at least the first three of them – also characterize our collective response so far to the predicament of industrial society.

When the diagnosis arrived at the beginning of the 1970s, for example, the immediate response was the one Kübler-Ross could have predicted: denial. By the end of that decade that response became an overwhelming political force. “It’s morning in America,” Ronald Reagan proclaimed, as his workmen tore down the solar hot water heaters Jimmy Carter installed on the White House roof: in some ways the definitive political act of the Eighties. Political gimmickry and reckless overpumping of North Slope and North Sea oil fields forced the price of oil down to the lowest levels in history, and made it possible for the industrial world to wallow in one last orgy of mass consumption, the final blowoff of the Age of Exuberance.

The next stage on Kübler-Ross’s list, anger, arrived on schedule as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties. By the decade’s end that stage, too, became a political force that put its poster boy in office, with a little help from hanging chads and the Supreme Court. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq filled the same role in the new phase that the junking of the White House’s solar panels filled in the old, a definitive sign that the new attitude held center stage in our national soap opera. It will be interesting to see whether the winning candidate in the 2008 election pursues a weak version of Bush II’s policies, as Nixon did Johnson’s and Bush I did Reagan’s, and crashes and burns on schedule around 2012; history doesn’t repeat itself, as the saying goes, but sometimes the rhymes are exquisitely precise.

One way or another, though, the stage of anger is fading out. Even oil company executives are starting to mention peak oil and global warming, and politicians are starting to tone down their rhetoric and climb aboard various bandwagons – ethanol, biodiesel, or what have you. This marks the arrival of bargaining. This stage has certain advantages; where denial refuses to deal with death, and anger looks for someone to blame for it, bargaining looks for things that can be done to make the Reaper change his mind. I’ve argued before that we’re well past the window of opportunity in which the decline and fall of industrial society might have been prevented. Still, that doesn’t foreclose the chance to cushion the decline and get things of value through the approaching mess, and these should be at the top of the industrial world’s agenda right now.

The first transition we face on the curve of the Long Descent, as I’ve suggested in the last several posts, will take us from a form of industrial society focused on abundance to another that centers on scarcity. It’s a form without precedents outside of a few wartime examples, and the transition to it is likely to see a great many false starts and futile attempts to impose the thinking of the past on the realities of the future. Still, it’s not an impossible transition, and will likely be easier than some of the others we’ll face along the way.

The nature of the challenge is straightforward enough. The economic framework of the modern industrial world is geared to expansion: of goods and services, technology, energy use, resource extraction, and population, among other things. That won’t continue as the limits to growth begin to bite in the next few years, and many things – starting with the economic framework of the industrial world – will have to change accordingly.

We’re now close to two years past the peak of world oil production, and serious declines are likely to arrive in the next few years. How serious is a matter for guesswork today, but balancing failing production from existing fields against new production from fields under development and unconventional sources such as tar sands and biodiesel, something on the order of a 4% to 5% decline per year seems likely for the first decade or so. That will be a body blow to existing economic and social arrangements. Still, production increases of 4% to 5% a year didn’t bring Utopia, and production declines on the same scale won’t bring Armageddon, either.

A very large percentage of the energy used in a modern industrial society, after all, is wasted. During an age of cheap abundant energy, it’s profitable to use energy in ways that have no real economic value at all, because the profit to be made selling the energy outweighs the short-term costs of wasting it. Tourism, the world’s largest industry just now, is a classic example. Shut down the tourist industry – as every country in the world did during the Second World War – and redirect the resources now wasted on tourism to other uses, and industrial societies could weather a steep drop in energy supplies without impacting necessary goods and services. The same is true of many other dimensions of today’s economy of waste.

In America, in particular, the sheer scale of energy waste makes phenomenal gains in efficiency fairly easy. The average American uses twice as much energy as the average Briton, and three times as much as the average European, to support a standard of living that by some measures is not even as high as theirs. Decades of shortsighted planning and inept economic policy will have to be undone in a hurry, as Americans discover that suburban living is no longer viable in a post-commuter age, but the problems involved aren’t insuperable; for that matter, the rehabilitation of inner city neighborhoods and the rebuilding of mass transit systems could provide much-needed jobs to replace those lost when industries that exist solely to waste energy evaporate in the face of the new economics of scarcity.

As this suggests, the fading out of the economy of waste promises to stand most of the economic slogans of the last two decades on their heads. When transportation accounts for most of the cost of many commercial products, that fact will write R.I.P. on the headstone of the global economy, because goods made overseas will be priced out of markets dominated by local production and regional trading networks. We’ve already begun to see the cutting edge of the new resource nationalism, as energy reserves and strategic raw materials become the mainsprings of political and military power, and governments start treating them accordingly. Expect this to expand dramatically in the decades to come, as dependence on foreign resources becomes a noose around a nation’s neck and economic independence – even at a sharply lowered standard of living – the key to survival.

More generally, the pendulum of power could well swing away from the multinational corporations that have exercised so much influence in recent years, toward those national governments willing to use military force to maintain territorial integrity and control over resources. When most resource transfers across borders are negotiated between governments according to a calculus of political advantage, rather than being purchased on the open market by the highest bidder, those whose power comes solely from money will find themselves with a great deal less clout than they have today. Those governments that master the new calculus of power soonest, in turn, will dominate the age of scarcity industrialism.

However it unfolds, the age of scarcity industrialism will no more be a permanent state of affairs than the age of abundance industrialism that precedes it. While it lasts, access to fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will be the key to international power and national survival, but by that very token fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will continue to slide down the curves of depletion. As resource production in one nation after another drops below levels that will support any kind of industrial system, industrial economies will unravel and give way to other forms of economy – in the terms I’ve used in several recent posts, other seral stages in the process of succession that leads to the ecotechnic societies of the future.

What remains unknown is which of the current industrial societies will manage the transition to scarcity industrialism, and which will falter and crack under the strain. The United States could go either way. It’s rare for a society that claws its way to the top of the heap under one set of economic conditions to hold onto that status when conditions change, and our society’s fervent commitment to the economics of waste has opened up fissures of weakness throughout its economic, social, and political structure; the implosion of America’s current empire is thus a foregone conclusion. If the next generation of American politicians are unusually lucky and smart, we might be able to coast down the curve of declining empire as Britain has. If not, we could face any of the usual fates of empire, ranging from stagnation and contraction to nightmare scenarios of political-military collapse and partition by hostile powers.

This is one reason why it would be useful for Americans on all points of the political spectrum to get over their habit of demonizing their opponents and wallowing in self-righteous anger as soon as possible, and start looking for constructive options instead. The time of bargaining, when preparations for the difficult future ahead of us can be made most readily, will not last forever. American culture always tends to extremes; the denial that blinded the Seventies and Eighties, and the anger that burst into incandescence in the Nineties and the present decade, were both of lavish dimensions. The phase of bargaining may well equal them; so, most likely, will the depression – economic, social, and spiritual – that comes when the efforts to bargain with the Reaper turn out to be too little and too late. We can only hope that when acceptance comes, it will be on the same grand scale.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Climbing Down The Ladder

Last week’s Archdruid Report post raised the possibility that future societies might be able to maintain a relatively high level of technology without falling into the trap of relying on extravagant use of nonrenewable resources, the basis of our present industrial society. The dream of building a civilization of this sort – an ecotechnic society, to use the term I coined in that post – has been cherished by a good many people in alternative circles for years now, and not without reason.

Behind that dream lies a canny bit of philosophical strategy. Central to the rhetoric used to justify today’s social arrangements in the industrial world is a forced dichotomy between the alleged goodness of enlightened, technologically advanced industrial societies and the alleged squalor of primitive preindustrial life. Many of today’s critics of industrialism fall into the trap of accepting the dichotomy and simply reversing the value judgments, as though it’s possible to break out of a dualistic way of thinking by standing the dualism on its head.

The cleverness of the ecotechnic dream is that it breaks out of the dichotomy altogether. In the jargon of modern Druid philosophy, it turns an unresolved binary into a balanced ternary. In less technical terms, it proposes a third option that borrows many of the best qualities of the two sides of the dichotomy, and thus blows the dichotomy out of the water by widening the field of choices, not just to three but to infinity. The question stops being a matter of accepting one of two whole systems, in a choice that excludes all alternatives; it becomes a matter of picking and choosing among a dizzyingly large array of factors that go together to make up a future society.

The vision of an ecotechnic future is thus worth keeping in mind. As a plan for the near term, though, it faces extreme challenges of the sort suggested by my previous post on the succession process. In the language of ecological succession, a fully ecotechnic society is a climax community, and you can’t make the jump from pioneer weeds to climax forest in a single transition. The conditions that allow the climax forest to establish and maintain itself in the face of competition from other biotic communities haven’t been achieved yet.

This is as true in human affairs as in the development of any other biotic community. It’s as pleasant as it is popular to think that human social change is driven primarily by deliberate choice or by some other uniquely human factor, but the science of human ecology and the evidence of history – and history is simply human ecology mapped onto the dimension of time – both suggest otherwise. Industrial civilization triumphed over other forms of human society not because people agreed to make that happen, but because at the time of its emergence, in a world with untapped fossil fuel reserves, it was able to overcome the competitive pressure of other human social systems and the challenges of nature.

Industrial civilization faces collapse, in turn, because when fossil fuels are scarce and expensive, and the biosphere is undergoing drastic changes, its ability to maintain itself against the challenges of nature and competition from other, less energy- and technology-dependent human social systems is doubtful at best. The forms of human society that rise to prominence in the aftermath of industrialism, in turn, will be those that can establish and maintain themselves more effectively than their rivals in the changing world of the deindustrial age. We may have our preferences, but nature has the final say.

The conditions that would allow an ecotechnic society to establish and maintain itself are more or less those that existed before the industrial revolution broke open the treasure chest of the Earth’s stored carbon and started looting it for short-term advantage. In a world where energy resources are limited to sun, wind, water, muscle, and biomass, and all work must be accomplished by those means, those societies that evolve efficient and sustainable technologies using those resources have major survival advantages over rival societies that use them unsustainably – for a good example, compare imperial China’s 5000-year history with the death spiral that claimed the ancient Maya.

The problem ecotechnic societies of the near future face is that these conditions do not yet exist. So far, we’ve used up around half the world’s stock of petroleum, and somewhat less than half its stock of coal and natural gas. All these fuels are subject to peaks and declines in production, which means among other things that they will remain available in diminishing amounts for a long time to come. While modern industrial societies as they exist today probably can’t survive the end of constantly increasing energy supplies, the impact of peak fossil fuel production will likely drive the emergence of other forms of industrialism adapted to a world of diminishing fuel supplies – and while those supplies still exist, these neo-industrial societies will probably still be able to wield more economic and military force than ecotechnic rivals.

More broadly, many of the legacies of today’s industrial societies will continue to exist for decades or centuries into the future. These legacies represent stored energy – the energy needed to create them, and to build the material and knowledge base that made them possible – and the amount of additional energy needed to maintain and use them in many cases will be quite small compared to the stored energy contained in them; the energy needed to keep a hydroelectric plant or a computer in working order is fairly small compared to the energy they embody, or the advantages that owning and using them could confer.

It’s quite likely that for some decades or centuries, deindustrial societies that would not be able to build a hydroelectric plant or a computer could still maintain the rather less demanding knowledge and resource base needed to keep them functioning, in much the way that Dark Age communities all over Europe used and repaired Roman acqueducts they could never have built themselves. Still, much of the legacy technology inherited by the deindustrial age will not be a renewable resource; when it finally breaks down, it’s gone – for decades, or centuries, or forever.

The result is an interesting parallel to succession. In the near and middle future, as the deindustrial age unfolds, the societies that will be best able to flourish are precisely those that will be least able to survive over the long term. In the near term, societies that rely on the increasingly efficient use of the remaining fossil fuels, eked out with renewable resources and high technology, will likely do much better than either the wasteful dinosaur cultures of the present industrial period or the lower-energy cultures that will end up replacing them.

In the middle term, societies that combine sustainable subsistence strategies and economies with an effective use of the industrial age’s legacy technologies will likely do much better than the lingering fossil fuel-dependent societies they replace, or the ecotechnic societies that will replace them in turn. Only when fossil fuel production has dropped to the point that coal and oil are rare geological curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own.

It’s crucial to keep this process in mind when planning for the future. One of the great barriers in the way of the lifeboat communities imagined by so many thinkers in the peak oil community these days is that while they’re viable (at least in theory) in the future, they aren’t viable in the present. There just aren’t that many people who are in a position to chuck their industrial lifestyles, move to a rural ecovillage, and successfully support themselves there for decades while the machinery of industrial society slowly creaks and shudders to a halt around them.

In terms of the model I’ve presented here, the would-be builders of lifeboat communities are like seedlings of some climax forest species trying to grow in a piece of land still covered with pioneer weeds. The conditions that would allow them to flourish haven’t arrived yet. The last years of industrial society, and the decades of neo-industrial societies struggling to manage on declining energy reserves in an age of limits, thus form a hurdle that has to be leapt in order to build something relevant for the future.

That hurdle can be faced successfully, but it requires a different approach. Instead of trying to make the leap to an ecologically balanced, fully sustainable society all at once, it may turn out to be necessary to climb down the ladder a step at a time, adapting to changes as they happen, and trying to anticipate each step in succession in time to prepare for it, while working out the subsistence strategies and social networks of the future on a variety of smaller scales.

This approach is evolutionary rather than revolutionary – that is, it relies on incremental changes and a continuous process of experimentation rather than trying to break from the past and impose an ideal that may turn out to be no more viable that what it replaces. Among other things, this means that it can be carried out on local and even individual scales, a detail that makes it much more viable in practical terms than attempts to change society as a whole from the top down. How this process might unfold will be the subject of several future posts.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Toward An Ecotechnic Society

One of the consequences of taking ecological models seriously, in trying to understand the predicament of industrial society, is that many of the common assumptions of contemporary culture stand in need of being stood on their heads. Plenty of people aware of the peak oil issue nowadays, for example, think of it in terms of finding some new energy source so that we can maintain industrial society in something like its current form. From an ecological standpoint, this approach nearly defines the term “counterproductive,” because it’s precisely the current form of industrial society that makes our predicament inescapable.

As it exists today, the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate. Thus resource exhaustion and pollution problems aren’t accidental outcomes of industrialism, they’re hardwired into the industrial system: the faster resources turn into pollution, the more the industrial economy prospers, and vice versa. That forms the heart of our predicament. Peak oil is simply one symptom of a wider crisis – the radical unsustainability of a system that has evolved to maximize resource consumption on a finite planet – and trying to respond to it without dealing with the larger picture simply guarantees that other symptoms will surface elsewhere and take its place.

For most of a century now, people who have grasped this predicament have proposed that our civilization needs to make a transition toward sustainability. In the 1970s, in particular, quite a range of proposals for making the transition were floated, and even today a new one surfaces in print every year or so. Many of them are well conceived and would probably work tolerably well, and even the worst would probably turn out better than the present policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss. Not one of them, even in the midst of the 1970s energy crises, received more than a moment’s consideration, either from the power centers in government and business that make most of the routine decisions in modern societies, or from the mass of the population whose opinions form the court of last appeal.

There are plenty of ways to understand this failure, but the ecological perspectives covered in last week’s post offer a perspective that as far as I know has rarely been brought to bear on the problem. If the transition between different human social systems can be seen as a form of succession, with one society replacing another the way that one seral stage supplants another in nature, then it may be worth suggesting that social change might follow a timetable of its own making. In the succession process in an eastern woodland biome, for example, grasses replace weeds, shrubs replace grasses, and trees replace shrubs in a sequence whose order and time frame can to some extent be predicted in advance.

The reasons behind this predictability are not irrelevant to our present situation. The bare earth of a vacant lot in Ohio, say, is a suitable environment for weeds; it isn’t a suitable environment for the hardwood trees, understory plants, and other living things that make up the climax community of an eastern woodland. Pioneer weeds, which have evolved to thrive on disturbed soil, thus spring up fast and cover the ground in a few seasons. In the process, though, they change the environment and make it suitable, not for more pioneer weeds, but for grasses and other plants, and these proceed to outcompete the weeds and occupy the vacant lot in their place.

The same process then repeats itself, as the grasses and plants of the second sere change the environment of the vacant lot and make it better suited to a different sere than it is to their own descendants. The process continues, gradually slowing down, until it finally reaches a climax community – a sere that maintains an environment suitable for the offspring of its own member organisms. At this point sustainability has been achieved; the climax community still changes over time with shifts in climate and the arrival of new species from elsewhere, and it can also be knocked back down to bare earth by a fire or some other disaster, but it can retain the same recognizable form over thousands of years or more. The quest for a sustainable society, in other words, parallels the movement of ecosystems in the direction of a climax community, and neither process can be accomplished in a single transition.

This is supported by a clear example from human history. The invention of agriculture in the Old World took place following the end of the last ice age around 11,000 years ago, when drastic climate change disrupted stable ecosystems around the world and forced human cultures to find new ways to support themselves. In the Middle East, fertile grasslands turned into desert as winter rains that had fallen reliably for millennia stopped, and people turned to grain cultivation in river valleys and livestock raising on the surrounding hills as the only alternative to starvation. The same process took place somewhat later in Mexico, the heartland of New World agriculture, as a parallel set of climate shifts caused desertification there as well.

The new ecology of farming proved highly successful and spread rapidly, but it was still highly inefficient, relying on natural soil fertility. It took thousands of years and a series of catastrophic crashes to evolve into a truly sustainable system, and some of the final steps in that direction did not take place until the birth of organic agriculture in the 20th century. Still, it’s important to realize that it did become sustainable, and has been sustainable in some ecosystems for centuries. The immense sustainability of East Asian rice culture was documented long ago by F.H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries; not many people realize, however, that Syria – where grain farming was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere on earth – is still a major wheat exporter today.

The birth of industrialism a few hundred years ago, I suggest, represents the parallel emergence of another new human ecology. Like agriculture in the early part of its historical trajectory, this new ecology in its present form is hugely inefficient, wasting energy and resources at unsustainable rates. Like agriculture, in turn, its development will likely be punctuated by catastrophic crashes, of which the first promises to arrive on schedule in the next few decades. It’s possible that one of these crashes will spell the end of the entire project – not all new ecological ventures bear fruit, after all – but it’s also possible that less wasteful expressions of the same basic ecology may eventually find their way to sustainability in a new model of human community that relies on those elements of high technology that can be produced, powered, and maintained over the long term using renewable resources.

It seems worth proposing that from the standpoint of the far future, industrialism may prove to be only one early and inefficient form of what might be called the technic society. Like other modes of human ecology, the technic society might best be defined by the energy sources that power it. A hunter-gatherer society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from the natural ecosystem, and supplemented with very small amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and the like. An agricultural society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from an artificial ecosystem created and maintained by human effort, and supplemented with modest amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and other fuels, along with small amounts of wind, hydropower, and sunlight.

A technic society, in turn, relies primarily on nonfood energy from renewable or nonrenewable sources, supplemented by food that is produced partly or wholly using nonfood energy. Modern industrial civilization is simply a technic society that relies on nonrenewable energy resources for its power, and maximizes production of goods and services at the cost of vast inefficiency. At the other end of the spectrum is a mode of technic society that might usefully be called an ecotechnic society, which relies on renewable energy resources, and maximizes the efficiency of its energy and resource use at the cost of far more restricted access to goods and services.

In the twilight of the industrial age, the concept of an ecotechnic society may seem appealing, and not just to those who recognize the depth of humanity’s dependence on the Earth’s biosphere. Still, we’re not there yet, and if the succession model is anything to go by, trying to leap directly from the rank weeds of industrial society to the verdant forest of an ecotechnic civilization simply won’t work. Even outside the succession model, we have only the vaguest idea of what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, and history suggests that a long process of evolution by trial and error will be needed to get the bugs out and develop a form of technic civilization that can actually sustain itself for the long term.

The approaching breakdown of modern industrial society impacts this process, of course, but not in the way so often proposed by the current crop of secular apocalyptic faiths. Those people who expect the end of the industrial age to usher in their preferred version of Utopia, I am convinced, are in for a massive disappointment. Radical social ventures tend to flourish in the expanding phase of a culture’s history, when abundant resources allow room for experimentation; in the harsher realities of an age of decline and contraction, that freedom simply doesn’t exist. In the decades and centuries ahead of us, when most people will have to struggle for survival and many will lose the fight, dreams of building an ideal society will have to take a back seat to more immediate needs.

In an important way, though, this is simply a restatement of points already made. If human societies replace one another by way of something akin to ecological succession, the societies that rise among the ruins of industrial civilization will be those best suited to the environment created by their predecessors. They may still be a fair distance from sustainability, but odds are that they will have moved significantly in that direction, if only because the opportunities for extravagant resource use will be sharply reduced by the exhaustion of so many resources. What forms those societies are likely to take will be the subject of next week’s post.