Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Future That Wasn't, Part One:

“The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands”

I’d planned to devote this week’s Archdruid Report post to the fine and practical art of composting, and for good reason. It’s one of the most important and least regarded techniques in the ecotechnic toolkit, and it’s also a near-perfect model for the way that today’s mindlessly linear conversion of resources to waste can be brought back around in a circle, like the legendary ouroboros-snake that swallows its own tail, to become the sustainable resource flows of the human ecologies of the future.

Still, that profoundly worthwhile topic will have to wait a while. Even the most mercenary writer is now and then at the mercy of his muse, held hostage by some awkwardly timed bit of inspiration that elbows other projects aside, and I think that most of us who write for a living learn sooner or later to put up with the interruption and write out what has to be written. If this sudden veering from the pragmatic issues central to the last few posts needs a justification, that’s the only one I have to offer.

Well, maybe not quite the only one. The holiday season now lurching past is not a time I particularly enjoy. Our solstice ceremony a few days back was a bright spot, mind you; midsummer is a more significant occasion in my Druid faith, but it’s as pleasant as it is moving to gather with local Druids in the circle of the sacred grove to light the winter solstice fire and celebrate the rebirth of the sun in the depths of winter. Nor do I find anything in the least offensive in the Christian celebrations of the season. As human beings, we’re all far enough from the luminous center of things that we have to take meaning where we can find it; if someone can grasp the eternal renewal of spirit in darkness through the symbol of the midwinter birth of Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t find it in myself to object. From my perspective, though not from theirs, of course, we’re celebrating the same thing.

Nor, for that matter, do I turn Scroogelike at the thought of gifts, big dinners, and too much brandy in the egg nog. I can’t think of a human culture in the northern temperate zone that hasn’t found some reason to fling down life’s gauntlet in the face of winter with a grand party. Whether it’s the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans, when cold grim Saturn turns back just for a moment into the generous king of the Golden Age, or the Hamatsa winter dances of the Kwakiutl nation of Canada’s Pacific coast, when the cannibal giant Baxbakualanooksiwae, “Eater of Men at the River Mouth,” is revealed as the source of mighty spiritual gifts, this sort of celebration reflects a profound set of realities about our life in the world. Besides, I’m fond of brandy, and egg nog, and a good party now and then, too.

No, what makes the midwinter holidays a less than rapturous time for me is the spectacle of seeing the things I’ve just listed redefined as artificial stimulants for a dysfunctional economy supported by nothing so straightforward as honest smoke and mirrors. When front page news stories about Christmas center on whether consumer spending this holiday season will provide enough of an amphetamine fix to keep our speed-freak economic system zooming along, I start wishing that Baxbakualanooksiwae and his four gigantic man-eating birds would consider adding corporate vice-presidents and media flacks to their holiday menu. And that, dear readers, is what sent me for refuge to Oswald Spengler. A mild depression can be treated with Ogden Nash poems and Shakespeare comedies, but when things get really grim it’s time for the hair of the dog; the same effect that leaves the soul feeling oddly lighter after taking in a Greek tragedy, or listening to an entire album of really blue blues, hits a history geek like myself after a chapter or two of Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

I insist on the German title, by the way. The splendor of Germany’s literature and the curse on its history come from the same source, the brilliant but sometimes misleading way the German language naturally expresses abstract ideas in concrete, sensuous terms. Untergang, which gets turned in English into the anemic Latinism “decline,” is literally “going under,” and calls to mind inevitably the last struggles of the drowning and the irrevocable descent of the sun below the western horizon. Abendland, the German for “the West,” is literally “the evening land,” the land toward sunset. Put them together and the result could be turned into a crisp line of iambic pentameter by an English poet – “the sunset-drowning of the evening lands” – but there’s no way an English language book on the philosophy of history could survive a title like that. In German, by contrast, it’s inevitable, and for Oswald Spengler, it’s perfect.

Spengler has been poorly treated in recent writings on the decline and fall of civilizations. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Compex Societies, for example, takes him to task for not providing a scientific account of the causes of societal collapse, which is a little like berating Michelangelo for not including accurate astrophysics in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Spengler was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. He was a philosopher of history; in some ways, really, he was an artist who took the philosophy of history for his medium in place of paint or music. This does not make his contributions to our understanding of history less relevant. It’s only in the imagination of the most fundamentalist kinds of scientific materialism that scientific meaning is the only kind of meaning that there is. In dealing with human behavior, above all, a sonnet, a story, or a philosophical treatise can prove a better anticipation of the flow of events than any scientific analysis – and the decline and fall of our present civilization, or any other, is preeminently a story about human behavior.

Tainter’s critique also fails in that Spengler was not even talking about the fall of civilizations. What interested him was the origin and fate of cultures, and he didn’t mean this term in the anthropological sense. In his view, a culture is a overall way of looking at the world with its own distinct expressions in religious, philosophical, artistic, and social terms. For him, all the societies of the “evening lands” – that is, all of western Europe from roughly 1000 CE on, and the nations of the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia – comprise a single culture, which he terms the Faustian. Ancestral to the Faustian culture in one sense, and its polar opposite in another, is the Apollinian culture of the classic Mediterranean world, from Homeric Greece to the early Roman empire; ancestral to the Faustian culture in a different sense, and parallell to it in another, is the Magian culture, which had its origins in Zoroastrian Persia, absorbed the Roman Empire during its later phases, and survives to this day as the Muslim civilization of the Middle East. Other Spenglerian cultures are the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Mesopotamian, and the two great New World centers of civilization, the Mexican-Aztec and the Andean-Incan.

Talking about the rise and fall of a culture in Spengler’s sense, then, isn’t a matter of tracing shifts in political or economic arrangements. It’s about the birth, flowering, and death of a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that – which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters. The Apollinian culture, for example, rose out of the chaotic aftermath of the Minoan-Mycenean collapse with a unique vision of humanity and the world rooted in the experience of the Greek polis, the independent self-governing community in which everything important was decided by social process. Greek theology envisioned a polis of gods, Greek physics a polis of fundamental elements, Greek ethics a polis of virtues, and so on down the list of cultural creations. Projected around the Mediterranean basin first by Greek colonialism, then by Alexander’s conquests, and finally by the expansion of Rome, it became the worldview and the cultural inspiration of one of the world’s great civilizations.

That, according to Spengler, was also its epitaph. A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture – everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it – has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it. Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more.

What made this prophecy a live issue in Spengler’s time was that he placed the twilight of Western culture and the beginning of its mummification into Western civilization in the decades right after 1800. Around then, he argued, the vitality of the cultural forms that took shape in western Europe around 1000 began trickling away in earnest. By then, in his view, the Western world’s religions had already begun to mummify into the empty repetition of older forms; its art, music, and literature lost their way in the decades that followed; its political forms launched into the fatal march toward gigantism that leads to empire and, in time, to empire’s fall; only its science and technology, like the sciences and technologies of previous cultures, continued blindly on its way, placing ever more gargantuan means in the service of ever more impoverished ends.

Exactly how the Faustian culture would metastasize into a future Faustian civilization he did not try to predict, but one element of the transition seemed certain enough to find its way into his book. The society that would play Rome to Europe’s Greece, he suggested, was none other than the United States of America. In the brash architecture of American skyscrapers and the casual gesture that flung an army across the Atlantic to save France and England from defeat in the last years of the First World War, he thought he saw the swagger of incipient Caesarism, the rise of the empire that would become Faustian culture’s final achievement and its tomb.

It was a common belief at that time. Interestingly enough, it also shaped the thought of Spengler’s counterpart and rival, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose ten-volume A Study of History stands like hoplites in a Greek phalanx not far from the couch where Spengler and multiple cups of good oolong offered some consolation for the wretched orgy of economic excess and hallucinated well-being playing itself out outside my windows. For Toynbee, who shared Spengler’s cyclical theory of history but rejected all his philosophy and most of his conclusions, the natural next step in the unfolding of history was the transition from a time of troubles to a planetary empire, and like many English intellectuals in the twilight of the British Empire, he expected an alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth to become the seed of that empire-to-be.

As it turns out, though, this plausible and widely held belief was quite incorrect, and the actions taken by three generations of politicians and intellectuals in response to that belief are all too likely to play out with disastrous results in the fairly near future. We’ll discuss that in next week’s post.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Agriculture: Closing the Circle

Our modern faith in progress embodies a rich harvest of ironies, but one of the richest unfolds from the way it redefines such concepts as improvement and advancement. To most people nowadays, the way things are done today is by definition more advanced, and therefore better, than the way things were done at any point in the past. This curious way of thinking, which is all but universal in the industrial world among people who haven’t though its implications, starts from the equally widespread belief that all of human history is a straight line that leads to us. It implies in turn that the only way into the future that counts is the one that involves doing even more of what we’re already doing right now.

It’s easy to see why this sort of self-congratulatory thinking is popular, but just now it may also be fatal. The entire industrial way of life is built on the ever accelerating use of nonrenewable resources – primarily but not only fossil fuels – and it therefore faces an imminent collision with the hard facts of geology, in the form of nonnegotiable limits to how much can be extracted from a finite planet before depletion outruns extraction. When that happens, ways of living that made economic sense in a world of cheap abundant resources are likely to become nonviable in a hurry, and beliefs that make those ways of living seem inevitable are just another obstacle in the way of the necessary transitions.

Agriculture, the foundation of human subsistence in nearly all of the world’s societies just now, offers a particularly sharp lesson in this regard. It’s extremely common for people to assume that today’s industrial agriculture is by definition more advanced, and thus better, than any of the alternatives. It’s certainly true that the industrial approach to agriculture – using fossil fuel-powered machines to replace human and animal labor, and fossil fuel-derived chemicals to replace natural nutrient cycles that rely on organic matter – outcompeted its rivals in the market economies of the twentieth century, when fossil fuels were so cheap that it made economic sense to use them in place of everything else. That age is ending, however, and the new economics of energy bid fair to drive a revolution in agriculture as sweeping as any we face.

What needs to be recognized here, though, is that in a crucial sense – the ecological sense – modern industrial agriculture is radically less advanced than most of the viable alternatives. To grasp the way this works, it’s necessary to go back to the concept of ecological succession, the theme of several earlier posts on this blog.

Succession, you’ll remember, is the process by which a vacant lot turns into a forest, or any other disturbed ecosystem returns to the complex long-term equilibrium found in a mature ecology. In the course of succession, the first simple communities of pioneer organisms give way to other communities in a largely predictable sequence, ending in a climax community that can maintain itself over centuries. The stages in the process – seres, in the language of ecology – vary sharply in the way they relate to resources, and the differences involved have crucial implications.

Organisms in earlier seres, to use more ecologists’ jargon, tend to be R-selected – that is, their strategy for living depends on controlling as many resources and producing as many offspring as fast as they possibly can, no matter how inefficient this turns out to be. This strategy gets them established in new areas as quickly as possible, but it makes them vulnerable to competition by more efficient organisms later on. Organisms in later seres tend to be K-selected – that is, their strategy for living depends on using resources as efficiently as possible, even when this makes them slow to spread and limits their ability to get into every possible niche. This means they tend to be elbowed out of the way by R-selected organisms early on, but their efficiency gives them the edge in the long term, allowing them to form stable communities.

The difference between earlier and later seres can be described in another way. Earlier seres tend toward what could be called an extractive model of nutrient use. In the dry country of central Oregon, for example, fireweed – a pioneer plant, and strongly R-selected – grows in the aftermath of forest fires, thriving on the abundant nutrients concentrated in wood ash, and on bare disturbed ground where it can monopolize soil nutrients. As it grows, though, it takes up the nutrient concentrations that allow it to thrive, and leaves behind soil with nutrients spread far more diffusely. Finally other plants better adapted to less concentrated nutrients replace it. Thus the fireweed becomes its own nemesis.

By contrast, later seres tend toward what could be called a recycling model of nutrient use. The climax community in those same central Oregon drylands is dominated by pines of several species, and in a mature pine forest, most nutrients are either in the living trees themselves or in the thick duff of fallen pine needles that covers the forest floor. The duff soaks up rainwater like a sponge, keeping the soil moist and preventing nutrient loss through runoff; as the duff rots, it releases nutrients into the soil where the pine roots can access them, and also encourages the growth of symbiotic soil fungi that improve the pine’s ability to access nutrients. Thus the pine creates and maintains conditions that foster its own survival.

Other seres in between the pioneer fireweed and the climax pine fall into the space between these two models. It’s very common across a wide range of ecosystems for the early seres in a process of succession to pass by very quickly, in a few years or less, while later seres take progressively longer, culminating in the immensely slow rate of change of a stable climax community. Like all ecological rules, this one has plenty of exceptions, but the pattern is much more common than not. What makes this even more interesting is that the same pattern also appears in something close to its classic form in the history of agriculture.

The first known systems of grain agriculture emerged in the Middle East sometime before 8000 BCE, in the aftermath of the drastic global warming that followed the end of the last ice age and caused massive ecological disruption throughout the temperate zone. These first farming systems were anything but sustainable, and early agricultural societies followed a steady rhythm of expansion and collapse most likely caused by bad farming practices that failed to return nutrients to the soil. It took millennia and plenty of hard experience to evolve the first farming systems that worked well over the long term, and millennia more to craft truly sustainable methods such as Asian wetland rice culture, which cycles nutrients back into the soil in the form of human and animal manure, and has proved itself over some 4000 years.

This process of agricultural evolution parallels succession down to the fine details. In effect, the first grain farming systems were the equivalents, in human ecology, of pioneer plant seres. Their extractive model of nutrient use guaranteed that over time, they would become their own nemesis and fail to thrive. Later, more sustainable methods correspond to later seres, with the handful of fully sustainable systems corresponding to climax communities with a recycling model of nutrient use and stability measured in millennia.

Factor in the emergence of industrial farming in the early twentieth century, though, and the sequence suddenly slams into reverse. Industrial farming follows an extreme case of the extractive model; the nutrients needed by crops come from fertilizers manufactured from natural gas, rock phosphate, and other nonrenewable resources, and the crops themselves are shipped off to distant markets, taking the nutrients with them. This one-way process maximizes profits in the short term, but it damages the soil, pollutes local ecosystems, and poisons water resources. In a world of accelerating resource depletion, such extravagant use of irreplaceable fossil fuels is also a recipe for failure.

Fortunately, as last week’s post showed, the replacement for this hopelessly unsustainable system – if you will, the next sere in the agricultural succession – is already in place and beginning to expand rapidly into the territory of conventional farming. Modeled closely on the sustainable farming practices of Asia by way of early 20th century researchers such as Albert Howard and F.H. King, organic farming moves decisively toward the recycling model by using organic matter and other renewable resources to replace chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the like. In terms of the modern mythology of progress, this is a step backward, since it abandons chemicals and machines for compost, green manures, and biological pest controls; in terms of succession, it is a step forward, and the beginning of recovery from the great leap backward of industrial agriculture.

This same model may be worth examining closely when it comes time to deal with some of the other dysfunctional habits that became widespread in the industrial world during the fast-departing age of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy. In any field you care to name, sustainability is about closing the circle, replacing wasteful extractive models of resource use with recycling models that enable resource use to continue without depletion over the long term. It’s a fair bet that in the ecotechnic societies of the future – the climax communities of human technic civilization – the flow of resources through the economy will follow circular paths indistinguishable from the ones that track nutrient flows through a healthy ecosystem. How one of the more necessary of those paths could be crafted will be the subject of next week’s post.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Agriculture: The Price of Transition

One of the great gifts of crisis is supposed to be the way it helps sort out the difference between what’s essential and what’s not. As we move deeper into the crisis of industrial civilization, that particular gift is likely to arrive in horse doctor’s doses. Those who insist that the first priority in an age of declining petroleum production is finding some other way to fuel a suburban SUV lifestyle, or who hope to see some favorite technology – the internet, say, or space travel – privileged in the same way, risk finding out the hard way that other things come first.

At the top of the list of those other things are the immediate necessities of human life: breathable air, drinkable water, edible food. Lacking those, nothing else matters much. The first two are provided by natural cycles that industrial civilization is doing its best to mess up, but so far the damage has been localized. There are still crucial issues to consider and work to be done, but the raw resilience of a billion-year-old biosphere that has shrugged off ice ages and asteroid impacts is a powerful ally.

Food is another matter. Unlike air and water, the vast majority of the food we eat comes from human activity rather than the free operation of natural cycles, and the human population has gone so far beyond the limits of what surviving natural ecosystems can support that attempting to fall back on wild foods at this point would be a recipe for dieoff and ecological catastrophe. At the same time, most of the world’s population today survives on food produced using fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources such as mineral phosphate and ice age aquifers. As the end of the fossil fuel age approaches, other arrangements have to be made.

This poses a challenge, because nearly every resource currently used in industrial agriculture, from the petroleum that powers tractors and provides raw materials for pesticides, through the natural gas and phosphate rock that go into fertilizer, to the topsoil that underlies the whole process, is being depleted at radically unsustainable rates. Some peak oil theorists, noting this, have worried publicly that the consequences of declining petroleum production will include the collapse of industrial agriculture and worldwide starvation.

Still, this is one of those places where one of the central themes of recent Archdruid Report posts – the theme of adaptation – is particularly useful. If today’s industrial agriculture were to keep chugging away along its present course into the future, the results could be disastrous. One of the few things that can be said for certain, though, is that this sort of straight-line extrapolation is the least likely trajectory for the agriculture of the future.

The certainty here comes from two sources. First, the industrial agriculture we have today did not pop fully formed out of a John Deere plant like Athena from the head of Zeus. It evolved as farmers and agricultural corporations took advantage of the abundant energy supplies made available by the exploitation of oil reserves in the 20th century. At that time, increasing energy inputs into agriculture was adaptive; it made use of an abundant resource – cheap fossil fuel energy – to make up for other resources that were more expensive or less available. That same equation, though, works equally well the other way. As energy and other fossil fuel products become more expensive, farmers have a strong incentive to use less of them, and to replace them with other resources.

The second source of certainty comes from the simple fact that adaptations in the other direction are already taking place. The organic farming revolution, the most important of these, may be the most promising and least often discussed of the factors shaping the future of industrial society. It’s not a small factor, either. In 2005, the most recent year for which I have been able to get data, some four million acres of land completed the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, about a million acres over the previous year’s figure.

Because it uses no chemical fertilizers and no pesticides, organic agriculture is significantly less dependent on fossil fuels than standard agriculture, and yet it produces roughly comparable yields. It has huge ecological benefits – properly done, organic agriculture reverses topsoil loss and steadily improves the fertility of the soil rather than depleting it – but it also translates into a simple economic equation: a farmer can get comparable yields for less cost by growing crops organically, and get higher prices for the results. As the prices of petroleum, natural gas, phosphate rock, and other feedstocks for the agrichemical industry continue to climb, that equation will become even harder to ignore – and in the meantime the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary to manage organic farming on a commercial scale is already solidly in place and continues to expand.

As fuel prices continue to climb, tractor fuel and transportation costs are likely to become the next major bottlenecks. The adaptive responses here are already taking shape, though they’re back further in the development curve – more or less where organic agriculture was in the 1970s.

The renaissance of horsedrawn agriculture is one adaptive response moving steadily toward the takeoff point. After a long period when diesel was so much cheaper than feed that horses no longer made economic sense, the balance is swinging the other way, and farmers are waking up to the advantages of “tractors” that run on grain and hay, rather than expensive diesel fuel, and can be manufactured in a horse barn by the simple expedient of letting a stallion in among the mares. The percentage of North American acreage farmed by horsedrawn equipment is still very small, but it’s many times larger than it was even a decade ago, and the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to expand further are coming into being.

Transportation, at least in North America, is a thornier problem. The railroad system that once connected North American farmland to the rest of the planet, and enabled it to become the world’s breadbasket, was effectively abandoned decades ago, and it’s an open question whether enough of it can be rebuilt in the teeth of catabolic collapse to make any kind of difference. In the meantime, though, another set of adaptive responses is taking shape. All over the US, though it’s especially common on the west coast, local farmers markets have sprung up over the last decade, and much of the produce sold in them comes from small local farms.

In cities where the farmers market movement has set down strong roots – I’m thinking particularly of Seattle, where five weekly farmers markets and the seven-days-a-week Pike Place Market supply local shoppers with produce of every kind – the economics of modern farming have been turned on their heads, and truck farms from 10 to 100 acres located close to the city have become profitable for the first time in many decades. Once again, the infrastructure and knowledge base needed for further expansion is taking shape.

All these transformations and the others that will come after them, though, have their price tag. The central reason why modern industrial agriculture elbowed its competitors out of the way was that, during the heyday of fossil fuel consumption, a farmer could produce more food for less money than ever before in history. The results combined with the transportation revolution of the 20th century to redefine the human food chain from top to bottom. For the first time in history, it became economical to centralize agriculture so drastically that only a very small fraction of food was grown within a thousand miles of the place where it was eaten, and to turn most foodstuffs into processed and packaged commercial products in place of the bulk commodities and garden truck of an earlier era. All of this required immense energy inputs, but at the time nobody worried about those.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, though, the industrial food chain of the late twentieth has become a costly anachronism full of feedback loops that amplify increases in energy costs manyfold. As a result, food prices have soared – according to the FAO's Food Outlook for 2007, up 37% from September 2006 to the same month this year – and will very likely continue to climb in the years to come. As industrial agriculture prices itself out of the market, other ways of farming are moving up to take its place, but each of these exacts its price. Replace diesel oil with biodiesel, and part of your cropland has to go into oilseeds; replace tractors altogether with horses, and part of your cropland has to go into feed; convert more farmland into small farms serving local communities, and economies of scale go away, leading to rising costs. The recent push to pour our food supply into our gas tanks by way of expanded ethanol production doesn’t help either, of course.

All this will make life more challenging. Changes in the agricultural system will ripple upwards through the rest of society, forcing unexpected adjustments in economic sectors and cultural patterns that have nothing obvious to do with agriculture at all. Rising prices and shrinking supplies will pinch budgets, damage public health, and make malnutrition a significant issue all through the developed world; actual famines are possible, and may be unavoidable, as shifting climate interacts with an agricultural economy in the throes of change. All this is part of the price of adaptation, the unavoidable cost of changing from a food system suited to the age of fossil fuels to one that can still function in the deindustrial transition.

The same process can serve as a model for other changes that will be demanded of us as the industrial system moves deeper into obsolescence. Adaptation is always possible, but it’s going to come with a price tag, and the results will likely not be as convenient, abundant, or welcome as the equivalents were in the days when every American had the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day for his or her comfort. That can’t be helped. Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Solvitur Ambulando

As last week’s post suggested, the crisis of industrial society may just be approaching a critical stage in the near future. This has had an interesting and welcome impact on discussions about the future. Concerns that have been exiled to the far reaches of our collective discourse for most of three decades now – resource depletion, atmospheric pollution, and the other consequences of the fatal mismatch between fantasies of infinite economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet – have been thrust back into center stage by the press of events.

Look back over media references to peak oil over the last few months, for example, and you’ll notice that the tone of scornful dismissal that once blanketed nearly every media comment on the subject has begun to wear surprisingly thin. We haven’t yet arrived at the kind of turning point in mass consciousness that turns the formerly unimaginable into conventional wisdom, the sort of thing that occurred in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and all too briefly put ecological limits on the cultural radar screens of societies across the industrial world. Still, if this example is anything to go by, we may be only one crisis away from that.

If such a turning point arrives, one predictable consequence will be a bumper crop of proposed solutions for the problem. I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that this entire way of thinking about the crisis of industrial civilization misses the central point at issue; it’s not a problem that can be solved, if a solution is defined as something that will make the problem go away. Nothing will make the limits to growth go away; the sole question is whether we as a species deal with them, or whether we wait until they deal with us.

Yet this isn’t the only point that ought to be kept in mind when our collective imagination starts chasing solutions to the crisis of industrial civilization. Two other factors are so common in today’s proposals for social change that it would startle me exceedingly to see them neglected once the proposed solutions start rolling in.

First, a great many of the proposals on the table just now have surprisingly little to do with the problems they claim to solve. Not long ago, for example, I read a lively and well-written essay arguing that the best way to bring humanity into harmony with the environment was for nations worldwide to embrace socialism. We can leave aside, for the moment, the fact that this is about as likely just now as a resumption of the Crimean War; the point at issue here is that it doesn’t solve the problem it claims to address. On the theoretical plane, shifting ownership of the modes of production does not affect how those modes interact with the ecosystem. On the historical plane, socialist countries have had at least as bad a track record when it comes to the environment as capitalist countries. Instead of finding a solution to the problem it described, in other words, the essay simply tried to identify a new problem that can be used to promote the author’s preferred solution.

This sort of thing is extremely common. I’ve pointed out before that the rhetoric of survivalism rests on the same dubious reasoning: survivalists identify a problem, insist that it will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization into a Road Warrior future populated with rampaging mobs convenient for target practice, and present the survivalist answer as the only possible response. Listen to the ritual incantations of politicians seeking office and you’ll hear the same thing in an even more caricatured form: no matter what the problem happens to be, the solution always amounts to throwing out the last scoundrel who got into office promising to solve it, so another scoundrel can take a swing at it. My guess is that in much the same way, once the limits to growth find their way back into common discourse, every project for social change you care to imagine will try to redefine itself as the answer the world is waiting for.

This last phrase points straight to the second factor I’d like to discuss here – the notion that it’s possible to know the right response to our predicament in advance. That’s a very deeply rooted assumption in modern thought, of course. Beginning in the 18th century and continuing with ever more force up to the present, ideology has become the dominant mode in Western social thought, as religious ideas of salvation through belief in correct dogma found themselves secularized into claims that the right man with the right plan could fix all social ills. From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, and out beyond them to the far corners of today’s political space where tomorrow’s ideologies are taking shape, the assumption holds that any valid response to what’s wrong with society has to start with a detailed plan for the new social order that will replace the one we’ve got.

The curious thing about this conviction is that it’s been as thoroughly disproved in practice as any idea can be. Time and again, relying on ideology to respond to reality is a recipe for abject failure. From French philosophes to American neoconservatives, the most common result of applying some new social ideology to the real world has been the awkward discovery that the plan doesn’t work as advertised. Now of course the purveyors of new ideologies insist that their ideology is different because it’s the right one, just as the promoters of old ideologies insist that the situation is different and the failures of the past don’t matter. Still, in the light of so many bad experiences, it may be worth suggesting that the problem goes deeper than that.

In making this suggestion I’m following in the footsteps of one of the most thoughtful and least remembered works from the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality (1978). Johnson argues, in much the same terms that I have, that the end of fossil-fueled affluence is a given, and trying to fight it makes about as much sense as playing Canute and trying to order back the incoming tide. Rather, he suggests, we need to live with it – and in the process, to begin to take the modest, piecemeal, unimpressive steps that will actually get us through the crises of the future.

One of the things that makes Muddling Toward Frugality most interesting to me is that Johnson deals directly with the cultural narratives underlying projects for social change. The habit of relying on ideology, he suggests, unfolds from narratives drawn from the language of tragedy, in which great heroes risk themselves and everything else for an ideal. This makes great literature and drama, of course. Still, since the heroes of tragedy generally die, and not uncommonly take everything they care about down with them, they may not be the best model for constructive change!

As an alternative, Johnson offers the unexpected possibility of the comic hero. Throughout the Western literary tradition, comic heroes have most often been muddlers, stumbling half blind through situations they don’t understand with no grander agenda than coming out the other side with a whole skin and some semblance of comfort. They aren’t especially heroic, and their efforts at muddling through crisis fail to inspire the kind of reverent attention so many proponents of social change seem to long for. Unlike tragic heroes, though, they usually do come out the other side of the story, and not uncommonly bring the rest of the cast with them.

The decline and fall of modern industrial civilization may not seem like promising material for comedy, but the basic strategy of muddling has much more to recommend it than appears at first glance. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know in advance what an ecotechnic civilization – a society that maintains high technology in harmony with ecological processes – would actually look like. We don’t know in advance what steps will be needed to make the transition from an industrial society to an ecotechnic one. We don’t know in advance how fast fossil fuel production will decline, how the resulting economic shockwaves will affect consumption, how soon the effects of global climate change will begin to impact today’s societies in a big way, or any of a hundred other crucial issues. Nor do we know in advance which of the various proposed responses will actually work, if any of them do.

What we do know is that certain things are not working just now, and need to be changed; and that certain other things that still work may not keep working for long, and having a Plan B in place would be sensible. It’s possible, of course, to come up with a grandiose plan to fix all of the current problems at once, along with the changes we expect to come later on, but this may not actually be the best option. Rather, it may well be more constructive to encourage as many different responses to our predicament as possible, in the hope that one or more of them will work well enough to become standard practice in the future. It may also work better to encourage piecemeal responses that focus on narrowly defined dimensions of our predicament, and can be implemented on a small scale before moving to a larger one, instead of trying to change everything all at once. That is to say, our best option may be to embrace an adaptive approach to the situation, and then simply try to adapt.

Solvitur ambulando is an old bit of Latin that still gets a little literary use these days. Taken literally, it means “it is solved by walking;” a more idiomatic English translation might be “you’ll find the answer as you go.” An adaptive approach to the crisis of industrial society might well take this as a watchword. Next week’s post will focus on a specific, and distinctly down-to-earth, example of how this can work.