Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In The Dark With Both Hands

Composting, the theme of the last two Archdruid Report posts, has turned out to be unusually timely as the current winter draws toward its end. The prospects for this year’s wheat crop, a topic of discussion until recently relegated to Grange halls and local newspapers in small western towns, have recently become the focus of news stories and punditry in business media worldwide.

There’s good reason for this unexpected shift of attention. A sequence of jarring upward leaps in the commodity markets have brought wheat prices up to levels never before seen in modern times, with no visible end in sight. Other grains and, for that matter, a wide range of other agricultural commodities, have posted vertiginous price hikes of their own. Unlike so many of the booms and busts that have enlivened recent economic history, the current surge in grain prices isn’t insulated from the real economy of goods and services, and has already begun to play out in rising food costs worldwide.

The boom in grain prices is the product of many factors. At the top of the list belongs the simple if awkward fact that the world’s capacity to produce grain in recent years has failed to keep up with increasing demand. Despite all the handwaving of cornucopian economists, it turns out, the world really is finite, and rising demand for grain-fed livestock in newly prosperous India and China turned out to be the proverbial one straw too many for the world’s agricultural system. Add to that the impact of climate instability on grain harvests, the activities of speculators, and the bizarre spectacle of the current biofuel boom, in which large portions of the industrial world are attempting to cope with rising petroleum prices by pouring their food supply into their gas tanks, and you have a fine recipe for chaos in the grain market.

Still, there’s another factor at work, one that will likely play a major role in the agricultural history of the next century or so. The fertilizers that make modern industrial agriculture work derive almost entirely from nonrenewable sources. Nitrate and ammonia fertilizers are manufactured from natural gas; phosphates come from rock phosphate, and potassium from mineral potash deposits – and global supplies of the first two of these, at least, are beginning to run short.

It’s been argued that this isn’t a problem, because improvements in technology make it possible to extract economically useful amounts of minerals from ever more dilute source materials. In theory, this is quite true. In practice, though, a crucial ingredient usually gets left out of the mix: the more dilute the source material, the more energy needs to be invested per unit of refined product. During the last two decades of the 20th century, when energy prices reached their lowest levels in human history, nobody needed to pay attention to the energy side of the equation, and this fostered a climate of thought in which futurists could picture future industrial societies that met all their material needs by extracting dissolved minerals from seawater.

As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, though, this sort of thinking makes bad science fiction and worse propaganda. As energy supplies dwindle, using ever increasing among energy to extract ever smaller fractions of minerals from the ground quickly becomes a losing bet. At the same time, without significant inputs of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals, it becomes impossible to maintain soil fertility at levels high enough to matter. Unless the world can find some other abundant, concentrated source of plant nutrients in time to matter, it may not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that large parts of the world may face a Hobson’s choice between starving to death and freezing in the dark.

This is where the perspectives of the last few Archdruid Report posts become relevant, because such an abundant, concentrated source of plant nutrients already exists. The methods needed to obtain the raw material and process it into high-grade fertilizer are mature technologies, readily available and thoroughly tested. The only reason the source in question is not already being exploited on a large scale in the industrial world is that most people nowadays don’t seem to be able to distinguish it from a hole in the ground.

We are talking, of course, about human feces – or, as one book on the subject has usefully labeled it, “humanure.” The average human being in the industrial world produces between 2.5 and 3 pounds of fecal matter a day, along with about a third of a gallon of urine. Over one year, that works out to approximately half a ton of feces and a hundred gallons of urine per person; multiply this by the 300 million residents of the United States, and then factor in the equally massive waste streams generated by domestic animals and livestock, and you may get some sense of the scale of the resource that we are, quite literally, flushing down the toilet.

The technology that converts this resource into fertilizer happens to be the one we’ve been examining in the last few posts. Composting uses natural biological processes to break down fecal material and other wastes, converting them into a concentrated, odorless source of plant nutrients. In the process, composting kills pathogenic bacteria by sheer biological competition – a compost pile is a fiercely Darwinian environment in which organisms bred in the sheltered setting of a human body’s insides don’t last long. Study after study has shown that fecal matter, after it has been competently composted, contains no more human pathogens than ordinary soil.

So why haven’t we been able to get our fertilizer together on this issue? What keeps composted humanure from being an obvious resource to help replace dwindling inorganic sources of plant nutrients? Part of the reason reaches deep into the crawlspaces of the industrial world’s collective imagination. People who object to composting humanure quite often cite concerns about pathogens or odors, but it rarely takes more than a short discussion to get down to the level of a five-year-old clenching his eyes shut and squealing “Ewww, ick!”

This invites satire, but beneath it lies a set of very widespread attitudes far less appealing than simple human waste. C.S. Lewis pointed out quite a while ago in The Abolition of Man, and with far more power in his fantasy novel That Hideous Strength, that a great many modern attitudes have their source in what might as well be called biophobia – a pathological fear and hatred of the realities of biological life, coupled with an obsessive fascination with the sterile, the mechanical and the lifeless.

Biophobia guides the creation of human environments so biologically sterile that, according to recent research, many currently widespread illnesses may be caused by understimulated immune systems; it also inspires the absurd fantasies of so-called “transhumanists” who look forward to the day when they can put their personalities into robots and do away with biological existence altogether. (Back in the Sixties, Ira Levin crafted a smart horror novel, The Stepford Wives, about the replacement of human beings by robots programmed with imitations of their personalities, but not even he seems to have imagined that people might set out to do that to themselves.) The same attitude, I’m convinced, drives the horror many people feel when faced with the prospect of eating food fertilized with composted humanure.

The same aversion to biological realities, it may be, has shaped another factor that makes the commonsense use of human waste as plant food difficult for many people to contemplate. The economic thinking that guides the industrial world has long been stuck in a linear rut, imposing patterns of one-way flow on a universe that consistently moves in circles. Our economists sort out the tangled exchanges, multiple roles, and mixed motives of real market economies into neat flowcharts that move matter from suppliers to producers, to distributors, and then to consumers, before vanishing into thin air.

Food systems built on the same pattern take nutrients from natural deposits, put them into soil, haul the resulting crops into a baroque system of manufacturing and distribution before they get to people, and then dump the resulting waste into the world’s fresh water supply. That sort of straight-line pattern is the way most people in the industrial world think; it’s a measure of how pervasive such thinking is that following nature’s patterns, and cycling “waste” back around to become a resource, seems so unthinkable to most people.

Now it deserves to be said that there are valid reasons why composting, with or without humanure, would be difficult to apply to the kind of industrial farming that produces most bulk agricultural commodities in the western world these days. The infrastructure necessary to collect 150 million tons of humanure a year, plus an amount of compostable animal manure that may well be larger still, and convert it en masse into fertilizer for Iowa corn and North Dakota winter wheat simply doesn’t exist; it would be extremely expensive to construct, and resources put into that project would have to be diverted from many other pressing needs.

Still, the kind of industrial farming we have nowadays is a creation of the age of cheap abundant energy. As fossil fuels deplete, that kind of farming will become less and less economically viable, until it finally ceases altogether. It’s quite true, as some writers on peak oil have argued recently, that the current agricultural economy won’t simply revert to the agriculture of an earlier time; that’s not how change happens in the real world of economics – or ecology. What will happen instead, of course, is that new patterns will evolve in the interstices of the old.

In ecological terms, these new patterns will fill available niches the old system no longer occupies; in economic terms, they will use resources and fill marketable needs outside the scope of existing economic activity. Arguably, these patterns have already started taking shape, in the form of the thriving economy of small organic farms and truck gardens that sprang up around most cities in the western half of North America beginning in the 1970s. As I hope to show in next week’s post, this new farming economy offers a glimpse at the agriculture of the future – if, that is, we can get our heads out of our fertilizer supply long enough to notice.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Theology of Compost

The Druid order I head hosts an email list for its members and friends, and the conversations there cover a dizzying range of topics. Some months ago, as I recall, composting became the subject du jour. In the course of the discussion, one listmember reminisced about the day she decided to marry the man who is now her husband. It was Valentine’s day, romantically enough, and he arrived with a very special gift: a new compost bin. Anyone might have brought flowers or chocolates, she explained, but the fact that he realized how much a compost bin would mean to her defined him, in her eyes, as Mr. Right.

Nobody on the list laughed, because it made perfect sense to the rest of us, too. Composting is a curious thing; people get very passionate about it. In one of its dimensions, of course, it’s a simple, practical, and ecologically elegant way of boosting and maintaining soil fertility. Still, as I suggested toward the end of last week’s Archdruid Report post, it has other dimensions that go well beyond that comfortably pragmatic focus. I’d like to explore a few of those in this week’s post, because they offer a useful guide to some of the core elements of the ecotechnic society that could well be our species’ best bet in the postpetroleum future.

What makes composting such a useful template for an ecotechnic society is precisely that it highlights the ways such a society would have to differ from the way things are done in today’s industrial civilization. Some of the crucial points of difference that come to mind are these:

First, where industrial civilization converts resources into waste, composting converts waste into resources. The core dynamic of today’s industrial economies is a one-way process in which fossil fuels, other energy sources, mineral deposits, soil, water, air, and human beings, among many other things, are transformed into waste products – directly, in the form of pollution, or indirectly, in the form of goods and services that go into the waste stream after the briefest possible useful life. This same dynamic drives the emerging crisis of industrial civilization; no matter how much lipstick you put on this particular pig, a society that burns through its supply of necessary resources while heaping up progressively larger volumes of toxic wastes is going to run into trouble sooner or later. Composting reverses the equation by turning waste into a resource and meeting crucial needs – and there are few needs more crucial to a human society than food production – using wastes that would otherwise be part of the problem.

Second, where industrial civilization works against natural processes, composting works with them. At the center of contemporary Western ideology is the vision of progress as the conquest of nature, and this way of thinking has backed industrial societies into an approach to natural processes that sees them as obstacles to be overcome – or even enemies to be crushed. The result is the sort of massive misuse of resources visible in, say, modern agriculture, where conventional farming methods convert soil into something approaching a sterile mineral medium, and farmers then have to buy and apply an ever-increasing volume of fertilizers and soil additives to make up for the fertility that natural cycles in healthy soil provide all by themselves. Composting, by contrast, works because it fosters the natural processes that break down organic matter into healthy humus. There’s no need to add anything extra, or to go shopping for the lively mix of bacteria, fungi, and soil fauna that makes the miracle of compost happen. To borrow a Hollywood slogan, if you build it, they will come.

Third, where industrial civilization requires complex, delicate, and expensive technologies to function at all, composting – because it relies on natural processes that have evolved over countless millions of years – thrives on a much simpler and sturdier technological basis. Once again, industrial agriculture is the poster child for this comparison. Set the factory complexes, energy inputs, and resource flows needed to manufacture NPK fertilizer using conventional methods with the simple bin and shovel needed to produce compost from kitchen and garden waste, and the difference is hard to miss. Imagine that your small town or urban neighborhood had to build and provide energy and raw materials for one or the other from scratch, using the resources available locally right now, and the difference becomes even more noticeable.

Fourth, where industrial civilization is inherently centralized, and thus can only function on a geographic and political scale large enough to make its infrastructure economically viable, composting is inherently decentralized and can function on any scale from a backyard to a continent. Among the many reasons why a small town or an urban neighborhood would be stark staring nuts to try to build a factory to produce NPK fertilizer is that the investment demanded by the factory equipment, energy supply, and raw materials would be far greater than the return. A backyard fertilizer factory for every home would be even more absurd, but a backyard compost bin for every home is arguably the most efficient way to put composting technology to use.

Fifth, where industrial civilization degrades exactly those factors in its environment that support its existence, composting increases the factors in its environment that support its existence. In a finite environment, the more of a nonrenewable resource you extract, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to extract the remaining resource, and the more of a persistent pollutant you dump into the environment, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to keep the pollutant from interfering with economic activities. Thus industrial civilization, in the course of its history, has to climb a steepening slope of its own making, until it finally falls off and crashes back to earth. By contrast, the closed loop that runs from composting bin to garden plot to kitchen and back around to composting bin again becomes more effective, not less, as the cycle turns: rising nutrient levels and soil biota in the garden plot lead to increased harvest, and thus to increased input to the compost bin.

Finally, all these factors mean that where industrial civilization is brittle, composting – and future ecotechnic societies modeled on the composting process – are resilient. One of the lessons of deep time opened up by geologists and paleontologists over the last decade or two is that the Earth is not a safe place. One of the lessons that historians have been pointing out for centuries, usually in vain, is that history is not particularly safe, either. It’s a common lesson taught by all these fields of study, and more, that the intricate arrangements made possible by periods of stability tend to shred like cobwebs in a gale once stability breaks down and the environment (natural, social, or both) lurches its way unsteadily to a new equilibrium. In a time of turbulence, systems that are dependent on uninterrupted access to concentrated resources, unimpeded maintenance of intricate technologies, and undisturbed control over geographical areas of the necessary scale to make them economical face a much higher risk of collapse than systems that have none of these vulnerabilities.

Now of course many other sustainable technologies embrace one or more of these same factors. As yet, however, not many of them embrace all of them. Even technologies as promising as metal recycling – a crucial ingredient in any ecotechnic society, especially now that current industrial societies have extracted most of the world’s easily accessible metal ores from within the Earth – have a long way to go before they become as scalable, self-sustaining, and resilient as composting. Comparisons of this sort point up the way that such highly sustainable techniques as composting can be used as touchstones and sources of inspiration for a much wider range of approaches. Equally, of course, other technologies that achieve particular types of ecological harmony composting can’t yet manage – and some of those will be explored here later on – can become a resource for refining the composting process as well.

Still, as ecotechnic methods go, composting deserves a distinguished place, and as a source of inspiration and fruitful comparison, its uses are by no means limited to the purely technical. In Druid circles, at least, talk about composting almost always seems to blend practicalities with deeper issues. So far, at least, the romantic dimension of composting seems to be limited to stories like the one with which I began this post, but the philosophical dimension is always close by – as is the theological.

From the contrast between the monumental absurdity of industrial society’s linear transformation of resource to waste, on the one hand, and the elegant cycle of resource to resource manifested in the humble compost bin on the other, it’s hard to avoid moving on to challenging questions about the nature of human existence, the shape of history, the meaning of the cycles of life and death, and the relationship of humanity to the source of its existence, however that may be defined. The practicalities of composting can’t be neglected in any sense – nor, of course, should the romantic dimension, when that shows up! – but the insights made available by a philosophy and a theology of compost may yet turn out to be at least as valuable as either.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Little Steps That Matter

Over the last few months, the uncomfortable phrase “peak oil” has started to appear more and more frequently in the mainstream media, and the usual denunciations by the usual suspects are starting to wear noticeably thin. It’s been more than half a century since M. King Hubbert first started trying to sound the alarm, granted, but better late than never.

Still, as I suggested in an earlier post, the process of coming to terms with peak oil has more than a little in common with the five stages of grief famously outlined some years back by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. We’ve already seen two of those stages displayed in living color in recent years, and of course both are still very much with us.

The poster child for denial just now is Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a petroleum industry-funded think tank that has nonchalantly churned out predictions of soaring oil production and declining oil prices for years now, while production and prices in the real world have been headed the other way. For anger, you can hardly do better than watching the current US administration, brandishing its gargantuan war machine and bellowing its rage at Arabs, Venezuelans, and anybody else arrogant enough to think that they have some sort of right to the oil underneath their own territories.

At this point, though, we’re beginning to see the next stage in the process, which is bargaining. The recent rush to pour our food supply into our gas tanks via ethanol and various flavors of biodiesel is one example; another is the belated attempt to launch a crash program of nuclear power plant construction. These and others partake of the basic logic of bargaining: we promise to mend our ways in some sufficiently large, loud, and colorful fashion that the wolf at the door will be satisfied with the puppy biscuit we throw its way, and let us go on with our lives.

It doesn’t work for the dying, and it won’t work for modern industrial society, either, but it’s not hard to see this logic in the two examples I’ve already cited, and many other grandiose proposals of the same sort. The results of this distorting factor have not been good. The rush to ethanol and biodiesel has already played a significant role in sending grain prices to record levels and, as Stuart Staniford pointed out in a recent post on The Oil Drum, will quite probably cause mass starvation in the Third World within a decade or so if it continues at its present pace.

Attempting to revive the nuclear industry on a large scale is, if anything, a more misguided proposition. Even aside from the highly dubious economics of nuclear power, the severe and ongoing depletion of fissionable uranium reserves, the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the far from minor point that nuclear reactors produce wastes so lethal that they have to be isolated from the environment for geologic time scales, the sheer cost of building enough nuclear plants to matter in the relatively narrow window of opportunity left to us could easily bankrupt any industrial society that attempted it.

What makes these and similar projects as destructive as they are futile is precisely that they are meant to allow us to continue living our lives in something like their present form. That fantasy, it seems to me, is the single largest obstacle in the path of a reasoned response to the predicament of peak oil. The hard reality we have to face is the fact that the extravagant, energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past cannot be sustained by any amount of bargaining or any number of grand projects. Accept that reality, on the other hand, and redefine the situation in terms of managing a controlled descent from the giddy heights of the late industrial age, and the range of technological options widens out dramatically.

I want to talk about one of those less dramatic options here, partly because it’s among the simplest and most accessible technologies in the toolkit of the ecotechnic age, partly because it could relatively easily become part of an effective response to one of the most pressing challenges the coming of peak oil poses us, and partly because it makes a good introduction to principles that will likely be central to many, perhaps most, of the key technologies of the future. The option I have in mind is the homely art of composting.

So far I’ve been unable to find an even remotely plausible figure for the total amount of compostable food, garden, and farm waste generated annually in the United States, or any other industrial country for that matter. It’s certainly a very large volume, and the amount of it that goes into landfills rather than being recycled into fertile soil through composting is not much smaller. Those of my readers who have compost bins know how much of their own kitchen, garden, and yard waste goes into it; my wife and I generate between two and four cubic feet of compostable waste in an average week.

All of it goes into a compost bin of black recycled plastic in the back yard. So does another cubic foot or so per week from a friend’s kitchen; his living situation doesn’t permit him to have his own compost bin, so he contributes to ours. All the peelings and scraps and moldy bits from the produce that passes through our kitchen and his go into the compost pile, along with garden weeds, plants that have passed their season, and other forms of yard and garden waste, leavened with double handfuls of dried leaves saved from last autumn. Those are the only inputs, other than a little labor with a shovel once a month or so to keep the pile turned and working. Once a year, the hatch at the bottom of the compost bin disgorges the output—black, damp, sweet-smelling compost, ready to be worked into our garden beds.

This output is potent stuff. The first garden my wife and I planted started out as a patch of bare dirt on the north side of an urban apartment building, so poor and barren that even the most rugged of the local weeds made only half-hearted forays into it. Two years of double-digging beds with homebrewed compost turned it into a lush cottage garden that yielded shade-tolerant vegetables and medicinal herbs three seasons of the year, and supported some of the biggest earthworms I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. Given a reasonably good mix of raw materials – which an ordinary kitchen and garden provide quite well – compost is a balanced soil amendment that works over the long term, improving fertility, tilth, and pH balance while providing a good mix of soil nutrients.

Properly handled, the composting process also takes out unwanted seeds and pathogens. Decomposition generates heat – 150° to 160°F is a fairly common temperature for the core of a good compost pile – and that sort of heat over weeks or months will kill anything in your compost you don’t want there. If you live in a warm climate, in fact, it’s usually wise to put your compost bin where the summer sun won’t shine on it, and you may have to wet it down on hot days; compost heaps have been known to burst into flames when the heat of decomposition rose past the ignition temperature of the pile’s more flammable ingredients. (The possibility that this heat could be used in other ways seems to have gotten little notice, even from the appropriate technology crowd; we’ll discuss it, and other uses for “waste” heat, in a later post.)

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not. It’s possible to make compost on an industrial scale—and there are businesses and public utilities that do this—but compost is not well suited to the industrial model of agriculture. It works best when applied in intensive small-scale truck gardening, where it can be combined with other low-energy but labor-intensive techniques for maximizing soil fertility and productivity. Composting is not, in other words, an effective way to maintain business as usual.

Instead, it’s a bridge – or part of a bridge – that reaches beyond the end of the industrial age. The industrial model of agriculture, for reasons rooted primarily in current economic and political arrangements, has established a stranglehold on food production in the developed world. Barring drastic political intervention – a new Homestead Act, say, meant to repopulate the abandoned farm country of the Great Plains – that situation is unlikely to change suddenly or soon.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the industrial model of agriculture will actually work well in a postpeak world. Far more likely is a situation in which soaring fossil fuel prices cascade down the food chain, turning industrial farms and their far-flung distribution networks into economic basket cases propped up by government subsidies, sky-high food prices, and trade barriers that keep other options out of the existing marketplace. In such a context, local microfarms and market gardens, and the cooperatives, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture schemes that give them a market outside the existing system, are guaranteed steady and dramatic growth.

In a decade or so, in fact, American agriculture may well resemble nothing so much as the agricultural system of the Soviet Union in its last years, with huge and dysfunctional corporate farms filling the role of the sprawling industrialized kolkhozii while a large proportion of the food people actually eat comes from backyard garden plots. It’s in that secondary economy of small gardens and microfarms that composting has its place – and just as the collapse of the Soviet Union would have been far more devastating in human terms without the underground economy that kept people fed, the downward arc of the industrial age can be made less traumatic if technologies such as composting, relevant to an underground food economy already being born, become widely distributed and practiced in the near future.

Thus the homely, humdrum, and vital art of composting offers a model for the kinds of adaptive, flexible, and scalable responses to the predicament of industrial society we need to locate and deploy. It’s not a total solution, and it makes a very poor bargaining chip in the sort of haggling with fate I discussed earlier in this post. Rather, if the twilight of the industrial age is going to be anything but an uncontrolled crash, it’s one of the little steps that could actually make a difference. In the months to come I plan on talking about more of these. In next week’s post, however, I want to talk a little more about composting, because it offers several crucial insights to the ground rules that will very likely define the successful technologies of the deindustrial age.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Back Up The Rabbit Hole

One of this blog’s central purposes, the attempt to glimpse the future’s patterns in the Rohrshach inkblots of the present, poses a notoriously difficult challenge. Perhaps the worst of the difficulties involved in that attempt, as I’ve suggested here more than once, is the pervasive influence of mythic narratives so deeply ingrained in our culture that few people even notice them. In a retrospective essay on his own work, historian Arnold Toynbee offered a useful warning in this regard: “If one cannot think without mental patterns – and, in my belief, one cannot – it is better to know what they are; for a pattern of which one is unconscious is a pattern that holds one at its mercy.”

Toynbee was critiquing historians of his own period who treated the idea of progress as a simple fact, rather than the richly imaginative secular mythology it actually is. Still, his caution can be applied far outside the limits of the academic study of history. Nearly every dimension of contemporary culture, today just as in Toynbee’s time, embraces the unthinking assumption that the wave of history inevitably leads onward and upward through the present to a future that will look pretty much like the present, but more so.

This very widespread article of faith begs any number of questions. It seems to me, however, that one of them deserves special attention. The notion of history implicit in the modern mythology of progress is a straight line without branches or swerves, much less dead ends from which we might have to be retrace our steps. That idea of history, if it’s embraced unthinkingly, leaves us with desperately few options if adaptations to some temporary set of conditions turn out to be counterproductive when those conditions go away.

This is anything but an abstract concern just now. As the world closes in on the end of the 21st century’s first decade, its industrial societies are leaving behind a period in which just such a temporary set of conditions held sway. Until we recognize the blind alley down which those conditions led the developed world, we will be hard put to respond to a future that has begun to move in a very different direction.

A glance back three decades or so offers a necessary perspective. In the last years of the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that the energy crises of that decade were the first waves of an “Age of Scarcity” that would demand either a massive conversion to nuclear power or an equally daunting and costly transition to a conserver economy in which relatively modest renewable energy inputs would be used with maximum efficiency. Both possibilities involved serious challenges and huge price tags, but in the face of the inevitable depletion of finite fossil fuel resources, those were the only rational options.

Unfortunately human affairs are not always governed by rational options. At the beginning of the 1980s, the political leadership of most Western countries – with the United States well in the lead under Ronald Reagan’s myopic guidance – rejected both these possibilities in favor of short-term gimmicks that papered over the symptoms of the energy crisis while doing nothing to address its causes. The improved energy efficiencies bought so dearly during the Seventies made it possible for reckless overproduction in the North Slope and North Sea oil fields to send the price of oil plunging lower, in constant dollars, than ever before in human history. All through the Eighties and Nineties, political manipulation of the oil markets kept petroleum not too far from $10 a barrel: around 24 cents a gallon, in other words, for the industrial world’s most precious natural resource.

The results of this disastrous collective choice have not, I think, been adequately measured even by most thinkers in the peak oil community. For a quarter of a century, from 1980 to 2005, petroleum could be had throughout the industrial world at prices so low it might as well have been free. Other energy costs dropped accordingly, as cheap oil competed with other resources for market share while simultaneously cutting the production and distribution costs of its competitors. The economic, infrastructural, and cultural initiatives that emerged during those years all embodied the assumption that “can we afford the energy cost?” was not a question anybody in the industrial world ever needed to ask.

One result was the movement toward economic globalization that spawned so much media chatter and devastated so many communities during those years. Propagandists for the private-sector socialism that passes for capitalism these days have insisted that this reflects the natural emergence of a global free market from which everybody would allegedly prosper someday, while their opponents have argued that it reflects a deliberate plot to force down wages and working conditions worldwide for the benefit of the rich. What has rarely been recognized is that perhaps the most important of all the forces driving globalization in those years was artificially low energy prices.

During the quarter century of ultracheap energy, transportation costs were so low that they became a negligible fraction of the cost of goods. This allowed manufacturers to arbitrage the difference in labor costs between industrial and nonindustrial countries without having to take shipping costs into account. The sort of predatory trade relationships pursued by European colonial empires in the 19th century could be replicated without the ferocious trade barriers and imperial misadventures of that earlier time; local industries could be flattened by overseas production without any need for naval bombardments or colonial administrations, because distance had no economic meaning.

Another result, at least as dramatic as globalization though less ballyhooed then or now, was the rise of a throwaway economy all through the industrial world. Not all that long ago, one business you could readily find in most American towns and urban neighborhoods was the small appliance repair shop, where toasters, clocks, radios, hair dryers, and a hundred other consumer goods could be taken for repair when they stopped working. An entire industry of small-scale entrepreneurs, and the support businesses that kept them stocked with spare parts, tools, and materials, survived on the economic realities that made it worthwhile to pay a repairman to fix small appliances instead of throwing them out and buying new ones.

That industry was already faltering by 1980 as the economic consequences of American empire distorted currency exchange rates and allowed other countries to export goods to the United States at a fraction of the cost of domestic production. The plunge in energy costs after 1980, though, finished the job. Once the cost of energy no longer mattered, consumer goods could be manufactured and shipped for a fraction of what they had previously cost, and repairing them made no economic sense when the repair might cost twice as much as a new model.

The explosive spread of the internet, finally, was also a product of the era of ultracheap energy. The hardware of the internet, with its worldwide connections, its vast server farms, and its billions of interlinked home and business computers, probably counts as the largest infrastructure project ever created and deployed in a two-decade period in human history. The sheer amount of energy that has had to be invested to create and sustain today’s internet, along with its economic and cultural support systems, beggars the imagination.

Could it have been done at all if energy stayed as expensive as it was in the 1970s? It’s hard to see how such a question could be answered, but the growth of the internet certainly would have been a much slower process; it might have moved in directions involving much less energy use; and some of the more energy-intensive aspects of the internet might never have emerged at all. It remains to be seen whether a system adapted to a hothouse climate of nearly free energy can cope with the harsher weather of rising energy costs in a postpeak world.

These examples could be multiplied almost endlessly, from our extravagant and dysfunctional health care system right up to the delusional economics that helped millions of Americans convince themselves that it made sense to buy poorly insulated, shoddily built new houses a three-hour drive from jobs and shopping. For a quarter century, people throughout the industrial world have become accustomed to economic, social, and personal arrangements that only work if energy is basically free. Just as with every previous economic shift in modern history, too, proponents of these arrangements wrapped them in the rhetoric of progress. Globalization was progress, we were told, and therefore as inevitable as it was irreversible; so was the internet; so, when it was noticed at all, was the throwaway economy.

Yet describing these changes as progress, in the sense given that word by our contemporary mythic narratives, dramatically misstates the situation. For a 25-year interval, by reckless overproduction of rapidly depleting resources and purblind manipulations pursued for short term political gain, the cost of energy was driven down to artificially low levels that had never been seen before – and, barring a whole concatenation of miracles, will never be seen again. The resulting glut of energy fostered ways of doing things that make no sense at all under any other conditions.

In hindsight, I suspect, the entire period from 1980 to 2005 will be seen as one of history’s supreme blind alleys. A great many of the economic arrangements, infrastructure, and personal and collective habits that grew up in response to that age of distorted priorities will have to be reworked in a hurry, no matter what the cost, as energy prices rise to more realistic levels. At the same time, the grip of the myth of progress on the industrial world’s imagination remains unshaken.

The possibility that the only way forward out of the present blind alley may require going back to less convenient and more costly ways of doing things is nowhere on our collective radar screens just now. It’s easy to understand why. After all, most people living in the industrial world today have spent a majority of their lives in settings in which cheap abundant energy was the unquestioned birthright of anyone outside the poverty class, and those less than thirty years old never had the chance to experience anything else.

Those who borrow Lewis Carroll’s metaphor and talk about the need to go down the rabbit hole have thus, I think, missed an important point. For the last quarter century, that’s exactly where we’ve been. The challenge before us now – a challenge many upcoming Archdruid Report posts will grapple with in different ways – is to climb back out of the rabbit hole and deal with the world we will have to face when the extravagant Wonderland of the brief era of ultracheap energy dissolves into windblown leaves and the shreds of a departed dream.