Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Guide for the Perplexed

An irony endured, and occasionally relished, by those of us whose concerns about peak oil have found their way into print is the awkward fact that it’s difficult to talk publicly about using less fossil fuel energy without using more of it. The networks of transportation and communication left to us by the collective decisions of the recent past demand a great deal of energy input, and social habits evolved during the heyday of cheap energy amplify that, making long-distance trips a practical necessity for the working writer. These days, that usually means air travel.

A passage in Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends explores the chasm between the old romantic dreams of human flight and the utterly unromantic reality that replaced them. More than once, after a few hours packed like sardines in a metal can breathing the same stale air a hundred times over, it’s occurred to me that the crabby oldsters who insisted that humanity was not meant to fly may have had more of a point than most of us suspect. The one consolation I’ve found is that the hours of enforced inactivity on planes and in airports provide some of the few chances an increasingly busy schedule allows me for sustained reading. And that, dear reader, is how I ended up sitting in a tacky restaurant in the even more tacky Dallas-Fort Worth airport a few weeks back, killing time between one flight and the next, with a copy of E.F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful in my hands.

This was by no means my first encounter with Schumacher. Back in the 1970s, when I first began studying the ways that energy, ecology, and history were weaving our future, his name was one to conjure with throughout the environmental and appropriate-tech movements; you could expect to see Small is Beautiful on any bookshelf that also held The Whole Earth Catalog, say, or The Book of the New Alchemists. Still, by the time I stuffed a copy in my carry-on bag and headed to the airport, close to thirty years had passed since the last time I’d opened it. I suspect many other people have neglected it to at least the same degree.

This is unfortunate, because Schumacher’s insights have not lost any of their force with the passing years. Quite the contrary; he was decades ahead of his time in recognizing the imminence of peak oil and sketching the outlines of an economics that could make sense of a world facing the twilight of the age of cheap abundant energy. It’s fair to say that in many ways, the peak oil scene has not yet caught up with him. For this reason among others, a review of the man and his ideas may be timely just now.

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was born in Bonn in 1911 and attended universities there and in Berlin before going to Oxford in 1930 as a Rhodes Scholar, and then to Columbia University in New York, where he graduated with a doctorate in economics. When the Second World War broke out he was living in Britain, and was interned for a time as an enemy alien, until fellow economist John Maynard Keynes arranged for his release. After the war, he worked for the British Control Commission, helping to rebuild the West German economy, and then began a twenty-year stint as chief economist and head of planning for the British National Coal Board, at the time one of the world’s largest energy firms.

He also served as an economic adviser to the governments of India, Burma, and Zambia, and these experiences turned his attention to the economic challenges of development in the Third World. Recognizing that attempts to import the industrial model into nonindustrial countries usually failed due to shortages of infrastructure and resources, he pioneered the concept of intermediate technology – an approach to development that focuses on finding and using the technology best suited to the resources available – and founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group in 1966. His interest in resource issues also led to an involvement in the organic agriculture movement, and he served for many years as a director of the Soil Association, Britain’s largest organic farming group.

I suspect it was precisely these practical involvements that predisposed him to see past the haze of unrecognized ideology that makes so much contemporary economic thought so useless when applied to the real world. Economics as an academic field is notoriously forgiving of even the most embarrassingly inaccurate predictions, and a professor of economics can still count on being taken seriously even when every public statement he has made about future economic conditions has been flatly disconfirmed by events. This is much less true in the business world, where predictions can have results measured in quarterly profits or losses. Working in a setting where consistently failed predictions would have cost him his job, Schumacher was not at liberty to put ideology ahead of evidence, and the conflict between what standard economic theory said, then as now, and the realities Schumacher observed all around him must have had a role in making him the foremost economic heretic of his time.

His economic ideas cover a great deal of ground, not all of it relevant to the project of this blog; readers interested in the overall shape of his ideas should certainly pick up a copy of Small Is Beautiful and find them there. Four of his propositions, however, struck me as core assets in any attempt to make sense of the economic dimensions of the end of the industrial age.

First, Schumacher drew a hard distinction between primary goods and secondary goods. The latter of these includes everything dealt with by conventional economics: the goods and services produced by human labor and exchanged among human beings. The former includes all those things necessary for human life and economic activity that are produced not by human beings, but by nature. Schumacher pointed out that primary goods, as the phrase implies, need to come first in any economic analysis because they supply the preconditions for the production of secondary goods. Renewable resources, he proposed, form the equivalent of income in the primary economy, while nonrenewable resources are the equivalent of capital; to insist that an economic system is sound when it is burning through nonrenewable resources at a rate that will lead to rapid depletion is thus as silly as claiming that a business is breaking even if it’s covering up huge losses by drawing down its bank accounts.

Second, Schumacher stressed the central role of energy among primary goods. He argued that energy cannot be treated as one commodity among many; rather, it is the gateway resource that allows all other resources to be accessed. Given enough energy, shortages of any other resource can be made good one way or another; if energy runs short, though, abundant supplies of other resources won’t make up the difference, because energy is needed to bring those resources into the realm of secondary goods and make them available for human needs. Thus the amount of energy available per person puts an upper limit on the level of economic development possible in a society, though other forms of development – social, intellectual, spiritual – can still be pursued in a setting where hard limits on energy restrict economic life.

Third, Schumacher stressed the importance of a variable left out of most economic analyses – the cost per worker of establishing and maintaining a workplace. Only the abundant capital, ample energy supplies, and established infrastructure of the world’s industrial nations, he argued, made it functional for businesses in those nations to concentrate on replacing human labor with technology. In the nonindustrial world, where the most urgent economic task was not the production of specialty goods for global markets but the provision of paid employment and basic necessities to the local population, attempts at industrialization far more often than not proved to be costly mistakes. Schumacher’s involvement in intermediate technology unfolded from this realization; he pointed out that in a great many situations, a relatively simple technology that relied on human hands and minds to meet local needs with local resources was the most viable response to the economic needs of nonindustrial nations. Since the end of the age of cheap abundant energy bids fair to place the world’s industrial nations on something like a par with today’s Third World, struggling to feed large populations with sharply limited resources and disintegrating infrastructures, the same logic will much more likely than not apply to our own future as well.

Finally, and most centrally, Schumacher pointed out that the failures of contemporary economics could not be solved by improved mathematical models or more detailed statistics, because they were hardwired into the assumptions underlying economics itself. Every way of thinking about the world rests ultimately on presuppositions that are, strictly speaking, metaphysical in nature: that is, they deal with fundamental questions about what exists and what has value. Trying to ignore the metaphysical dimension does not make it go away, but rather simply insures that those who make this attempt will be blindsided whenever the real world fails to behave according to their unexamined assumptions. Contemporary economics fails so consistently to predict the behavior of the economy because it has lost the capacity, or the willingness, to criticize its own underlying metaphysics, and thus a hard look at those basic assumptions is an unavoidable part of straightening out the mess into which current economic ideas have helped land us.

All of these four points deserve more development than Schumacher, in the course of a busy and active life, was able to give them. All four also can be applied constructively to the specific economic questions surrounding the end of the age of cheap energy and the coming of deindustrial society. Over the weeks and months to come, subject to the usual interruptions, I want to explore this latter task in some detail, and propose a few potential lines of approach toward the former. As last week’s post pointed out, the economic dimension is perhaps the least understood aspect of the crisis of industrial civilization, and a good part of that lack of understanding can be traced to the chasm that has opened up between current ideas and economic reality. Anything that can help bridge that gap could be crucial in navigating the challenging future ahead of us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Economics of Decline

I opened last week’s post by pointing out that many people nowadays fail to grasp some of the most basic realities facing us as the industrial age comes to an end. That turned out to be a rich irony, for a great many of the comments I received in response to the post displayed a blind spot even bigger than the one I attempted to address. It’s a convenient irony, though, as it offers a useful way to start talking about an underexplored dimension of the predicament of our time.

The post in question pointed out that today’s much-hyped "information superhighway," far from being the wave of the future so many of its promoters claim it to be, was a temporary product of the last hurrah of the age of cheap energy and can't be expected to survive for long as that age winds down. Instead, as the economic burden of the internet's immense energy usage begins to bear down, other technologies less dependent on huge energy inputs will become more economical, driving a spiral in which rising costs and restricted access will cut into internet service while simpler technologies absorb a growing range of its current economic roles. Finally, when economic contraction and social disintegration have proceeded far enough, the internet will simply drop out of use altogether because the economic basis for its operation will have gone away.

Most of those who objected to this sketch of the future, in turn, relied on a very curious logic. The internet will remain viable and widely accessible, they claimed, because the economic advantages of keeping it are so great. Those few who addressed the issue of costs at all simply insisted that technological progress would allow the internet to use less power than it does at present, and left it at that. The same arguments, interestingly enough, were deployed in earlier discussions about railroad technology: most critics simply insisted that railroads were efficient and economically advantageous, while a few suggested that they could be run more efficiently than they are now.

All this is true, but it misses the central issue I've tried to raise in the last few posts – the impact of energy and resource scarcity on the relative costs and benefits of different technologies – and it also dismisses the even broader issue of whether such energy-intensive technologies are sustainable at all in the future ahead of us. It's a dizzying departure from reason to insist that the advantages conferred by the internet mean that the internet must continue to exist. The fact that something is an advantage does not guarantee that it is possible.

An example from one of the most famous cases of social collapse is relevant here. On Easter Island, as I think most people know by now, the native culture built a thriving society that got most of its food from deepwater fishing, using dugout canoes made from the once-plentiful trees of the island. As the population expanded, however, the demand for food expanded as well, requiring more canoes, along with many other things made of wood. Eventually the result was deforestation so extreme that all the tree species once found on the island went extinct. Without wood for canoes, deepwater food sources were out of reach, and Easter Island's society imploded in a terrible spiral of war, starvation, and cannibalism.

It's easy to see that nothing would have offered as great an economic advantage to the people of Easter Island as a permanent source of trees for deepwater fishing canoes. It's just as easy to see that once deforestation had gone far enough, nothing on Earth could have provided them with that advantage. Well before the final crisis arrived, the people of Easter Island – even if they had grasped the nature of the trap that had closed around them – would have faced a terrible choice: leave the last few big trees standing and starve today, or cut them down to make canoes and starve later on. All the less horrific options had already been foreclosed.

Further back in Easter Island's history, when it might still have been possible to work out a scheme to manage timber production sustainably and produce a steady supply of trees for canoes, this would have required harsh tradeoffs: one additional canoe per year, for example, might have required building or repairing one less house each year. Both the canoe and the house would have yielded significant economic advantage, but it wouldn't have been possible to get both. In a world of limited resources, in other words, it's not enough to insist that a given allocation of resources has economic advantages; you must also show that the same resources would not be better used in some other way or for some other need.

The survival of the internet in an age of dwindling energy supplies is subject to the same hard logic. The internet demands huge inputs of energy and resources. Those were easy to provide during the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, when the price of energy was artificially forced down to the lowest levels in human history, and the same glut of cheap energy made it possible to build and power the internet without impacting other sectors of the economy. As energy becomes scarce and costly in the not too distant future, on the other hand, the demands of the internet will begin to conflict with the demands of other economic sectors. The task of managing those conflicts will likely be the supreme economic challenge of the century ahead of us, not least because we are so utterly unused to thinking in terms of hard tradeoffs; we assume, blindly, that we can have it all.

Now it's true, of course, that the internet could be operated more efficiently than it is today. Efforts to increase efficiency, however, are subject to a law of diminishing returns; a range of limits ultimately rooted in thermodynamic laws put a ceiling on just how efficient any process can get. Such gains also have costs of their own; research and development does not come cheaply these days, nor does the construction and installation of more efficient equipment, and the budget cuts currently sweeping through companies and universities worldwide – themselves the harbingers of much greater cuts to come – do not exactly support the act of faith that claims infinite technological improvement as the answer to this and all other problems.

Nor is it valid to put the possibility of increased efficiency for the internet on one side of the balance and ignore the equivalent possibilities on the other side. After all, other technologies – some of which are already simpler and more efficient than the internet – are just as liable to see gains in efficiency as the internet. Even a more efficient internet is unlikely to be the most economical way to use the sharply constrained energy and resource flows of the deindustrializing future; if another technology or suite of technologies can provide something like the same services at a lower cost, that technology or suite of technologies will outcompete the internet. Thus if it costs less, all things considered, to send messages over shortwave radio, order products by mail from a catalog, and get pornography from a local adult bookstore, than to do the same things over the internet, then the internet will fall by the wayside, or at best will be propped up for noneconomic reasons as long as economic realities make it possible to do so.

It's crucial to remember that the entire supply chain that keeps the internet and its potential competitors running has to be factored into these calculations. It's easy to see the internet as uniquely efficient if all you take into account is the energy going into your home computer, or even if you consider the gigawatts used by server farms. Putting those gigawatts to work, however, requires an electrical grid spanning most of a continent, backed up by the immense inputs of coal and natural gas burnt to put electricity into the wires, and a network of supply chains that stretches from coal mines to power plants to the oil wells that provide diesel fuel for trains and excavation machines; the server farms draw on a vast array of supporting services and manufactures, from the overseas mines that produce rare earths for semiconductor doping through the factories that turn out components to the colleges that turn out trained technicians, and the list goes on.

All told, a fair fraction of the world's industrial economy helps support the internet in one way or another, and many of those support functions can't be done at all in a less centralized way or at a lower level of technology. Most of the potential replacements for the internet don't suffer from that limitation. It's entirely possible to build a shortwave radio by hand, for example, using components that can be built by hand from readily available materials; there are radio amateurs alive today who did precisely that before the postwar electronics boom made manufactured components cheap and easily accessible. In a world where the cost of energy is a major economic burden, these differences will matter, and give a massive economic advantage to less energy-intensive ways of accomplishing things.

One useful way to assess the vulnerability of any current technology in a world on the far side of Hubbert's peak, in fact, is to note the difference between the direct and indirect energy inputs needed to keep it working and the inputs needed for other, potentially competing technologies that can provide some form of the same goods or services. All other factors being equal, a technology that depends on large inputs of energy will be more vulnerable and less economically viable in an age of energy scarcity than a technology that depends on less, and the bigger the disparity in energy use, the greater the economic difference. In turn, communities, businesses, and nations that choose less vulnerable and more economical options will prosper at the expense of those that do not, leading to a generalization of the more economical technology. It really is as simple as that.

You might think that this sort of economic analysis would be an obvious and uncontroversial part of peak oil planning. Of course it's nothing of the kind. Most discussion and planning around the subject of peak oil these days pays no more than lip service to economics, if it deals with that dimension at all, and a great many of the plans being circulated these days look very appealing until you do the math and discover that the most basic questions about resource inputs and economic outputs haven't been addressed.

Now part of this blindness to the economic dimension is hardwired into contemporary culture. It hardly needed the mass exodus into delusion that drove the recent real estate bubble to prove that most people in the industrial world nowadays think that getting something for nothing is a perfectly reasonable expectation. We have lived with such abundance for so long that a great many of us seem to have lost any sense that there are limits we can't borrow or bluster our way around. To a very great extent, indeed, the last three hundred years of economic expansion have been driven by a borrowing binge even more colossal, and ultimately more catastrophic, than the one imploding around us right now. Instead of borrowing from banks, we borrowed from the Earth's stockpile of fossil carbon, and squandered most of our borrowings on vaster equivalents of the salad shooters and granite countertops that absorbed so much fictitious value during the late boom. By the time Nature's collection agencies get through with us, in turn, they may just have repossessed everything we bought with our borrowings – which is to say nearly everything we've built over the last three centuries.

Yet there's another source feeding into this blindness, because the theories of economics that have been used to try to make sense of the flows of natural and manufactured wealth in our societies are hopelessly inadequate to the task. It's difficult to construct a meaningful economic analysis of the future within a paradigm that insists that resources magically appear whenever there's money to pay for them, for example, or claims that damage inflicted by human economic activities on the natural systems that allow our economy to function in the first place are "externalities" that need not be considered in cost-benefit analyses. Current economic theory commits both these howlers, and others as well.

With next week's post, we'll begin a more detailed exploration of what an economic vision relevant to a deindustrializing future might look like. That exploration will start from the work of E.F. Schumacher, who was one of the most thoughtful (and heretical) economists of the last century, as well as an early (and rarely remembered) peak oil theorist. Using his ideas as a springboard, I hope to take today's discourse about the future of industrial society into unexplored territory, and – not incidentally – provide some unexpected but practical tools for coping with the arrival of the deindustrial age.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The End of the Information Age

One of the repeated lessons I’ve learned over the three years since The Archdruid Report began appearing is the extent to which many people nowadays have trouble grasping some of the most fundamental facts about the crisis of our times. I had yet another reminder of that a few days back, when the comments on last week’s post started coming in.

A point made in passing in that post was that railroads, while they are much more efficient than automobile or air transport, still require relatively large amounts of concentrated energy, and so may become uneconomical for many uses at a certain point well down the curve of fossil fuel depletion. One of my readers took rather heated exception to this comment. Only America’s backwards railroads, he pointed out indignantly, relied on fossil fuel; since European and Japanese railways used electricity, they would be unaffected by fossil fuel depletion and could keep rolling along into the far future.

This kind of logic is common enough these days that it’s probably necessary to point out the flaws in it. Electricity isn’t an energy source; it has to be generated, using some other energy source to do so. The electricity that powers the European and Japanese rail systems is mostly generated by plants that burn coal, with significant help from nuclear reactors and a rather smaller assist from hydroelectric plants. Of these, only the hydroelectric plants are a renewable energy source; the others are poised just as firmly on the downslope of depletion as the diesel oil that runs American locomotives.

Coal is turning out to be much less abundant than the cozy estimates of a few decades ago made it sound, and of course there’s the far from minor impact of coal burning on an already unstable global climate. Fissionable uranium is well down its own depletion curve, and it’s worth noting that the enthusiastic claims sometimes made for breeder reactors, the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and other alternatives to conventional fission plants are very rarely to be heard from people who have professional training in the fields concerned. Thus my reader was quite simply wrong; the European and Japanese rail systems that so excited his admiration are just as dependent on nonrenewable fuels as the American system, and are also just as vulnerable to the economic implications of supply and demand as energy supplies dwindle.

Now of course there are other reasons why railroads may be kept in service, at least for certain uses, long after they become economic liabilities. Many of the world’s larger nations – the United States and Russia among them – grew to their present size only after rail transport made it possible to exert political and economic power on a continental scale, and future governments may well keep long-distance rail links going as a matter of national survival. That likelihood, though, does nothing to counter the point central to last week’s post: that in a world with much less energy, older and more energy-efficient transport methods such as canal boats may turn out to be much more economically viable than their more recent and more extravagant replacements, and those cities and regions well positioned to take advantage of waterborne transport may therefore thrive in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.

The same logic can be applied usefully to many other aspects of the future taking shape ahead of us right now. Probably the best example is the looming impact of a future of energy constraints on the ways that modern industrial cultures store, process, and distribute information.

It’s hard to think of a subject that has been loaded with anything like as much hype. Our time, the media never tires of repeating, is the Information Age, an epoch in which economic sectors dealing with mere material goods and services have been relegated to Third World sweatshops, while the economic cutting edge deals entirely in the manufacture, sales, and service of information in various forms. As usual – can you think of a short-term trend that hasn’t been identified as a wave of the future destined to rise up an asymptotic curve to infinity, or at least absurdity? I can’t – the standard assumption is that the future will be just like the present, but even more so, with more elaborate technologies providing more baroque information products and services as far as the eye (or, rather, the webcam) can see.

This is hardly a new vision of the future. In his 1909 novella “The Machine Stops,” which should be required reading for anyone who buys into the Information Age hullabaloo, E.M. Forster provided a remarkably exact dissection of contemporary cyberculture’s idea of its destiny most of a century in advance. It’s a great story on its own terms, but it also puts a finger on the central weakness of an information-centered society: information does not exist without a physical substrate, and if the physical substrate goes, so does the information.

In Forster’s story, that substrate was the Machine – an interconnected technostructure that spanned the globe and provided the necessities and luxuries of life to uncounted millions of people who spent their lives in hivelike cells, staring into screens and tapping on keyboards like so many of today’s computer geeks. Adept at manipulating abstract ideas, the inhabitants of the Machine lost touch with the fact that their universe of information only existed because the physical structure of the Machine kept it there, and their attitude toward the Machine gradually evolved into a religious reverence devoid of any reference to the practical realities of the Machine’s workings. The skills needed to apply physical tools to pipes and wires dropped out of use, and the consequences – minor malfunctions snowballing into major ones, and finally into total systems failure – followed from there.

Now of course fiction is fiction, and the events that cause the Machine to stop are unlikely to be repeated in the real world. The central concept, though, demands attention, because our Machine – the internet – depends just as much on a physical substrate as the one in Forster’s novella. In our case, that substrate is the global network of communications links and server farms, and the even vaster economic and technical infrastructure that keeps them funded, powered, and supplied with the trained personnel and spare parts that keep them running.

Very few people realize just how extravagant the intake of resources to maintain the information economy actually is. The energy cost to run a home computer is modest enough that it’s easy to forget, for example, that the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together. Multiply that out by the tens of thousands of server farms that keep today’s online economy going, and the hundreds of other energy-intensive activities that go into the internet, and it may start to become clear how much energy goes into putting these words onto the screen where you’re reading them.

It’s not an accident that the internet came into existence during the last hurrah of the age of cheap energy, the quarter century between 1980 and 2005 when the price of energy dropped to the lowest levels in human history. Only in a period where energy was quite literally too cheap to bother conserving could so energy-intensive an information network be constructed. The problem here, of course, is that the conditions that made the cheap abundant energy of that quarter century have already come to an end, and the economics of the internet take on a very different shape as energy becomes scarce and expensive again.

Like the railroads of the future mentioned earlier in this post, the internet is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Once the cost of maintaining it in its current form outstrips the income that can be generated by it, it becomes a losing proposition, and cheaper modes of information storage and delivery will begin to replace it in its more marginal uses. Governments will have very good reasons to maintain some form of internet as long as they can, even when it becomes an economic sink – it’s worth remembering that the internet we now have evolved out of a US government network meant to provide communication capacity in the event of nuclear war – but this does not mean that everyone in the industrial world will have the same access they do today.

Instead, as energy costs move unsteadily upward and resource needs increasingly get met, or not, on the basis of urgency, expect access costs to rise, government regulation to increase, internet commerce to be subject to increasing taxation, and rural areas and poor neighborhoods to lose internet service altogether. There may well still be an internet a quarter century from now, but it will likely cost much more, reach far fewer people, and have only a limited resemblance to the free-for-all that exists today. Newspapers, radio, and television all moved from a growth phase of wild diversity and limited regulation to a mature phase of vast monopolies with tightly controlled content; even in the absence of energy limits, the internet would be likely to follow the same trajectory, and the rising costs imposed by the end of cheap energy bid fair to shift that process into overdrive.

The waning of the internet will pose an additional challenge to the future, because – like other new technologies – it is in the process of displacing older technologies that provided the same services on a more sustainable basis. The collapse of the newspaper industry is one widely discussed example of this process at work, but another – the death spiral of American public libraries – is likely to have a much wider impact in the decades and centuries to come. Among the most troubling consequences of the current economic crisis are wholesale cuts in state and local government funding for libraries. The Florida legislature was with some difficulty convinced a few weeks ago not to cut every penny of state support for library systems – roughly a quarter of all the money that keeps libraries open in Florida – and county and city libraries from coast to coast are cutting hours, laying off staff, and closing branches.

Some of the proponents of these budget cuts have been caught in public insisting that with the rise of the internet, nobody actually needs public libraries any more. (The fact that many of these people call themselves conservatives proves, if any additional proof is needed, just how empty of content today’s political labels have become; what exactly do they think they’re conserving?) Now of course public libraries provide many services the internet doesn’t, and it also provides them to all those people who can’t afford internet access. The point I’d like to make here, though, is that the public library will still be a viable information technology in a postpetroleum society. When Ben Franklin founded America’s first public library, it may be worth noting, he did it without benefit of fossil fuels.

If public libraries can be kept open during the waves of economic crisis that punctuate the decline of civilizations, then, everyone will likely be the better for it. I am sorry to say that this is probably not the most likely way things will fall out. The current wave of library downsizing is probably a harbinger of things to come; pressed between too many demands and too little funding to go around, library systems – like public health departments, for example, and a great many other institutions that make community life viable – are far too likely to draw the short straw. Exactly this sort of short-term thinking has driven the loss of vast amounts of information and cultural heritage in the collapse of past civilizations.

As we move into the penumbra of the deindustrial age, then, it’s crucial to start thinking about the options open to us – individually and collectively – with an eye toward their long-term viability and to the hard reality of a world of ecological limits. When today’s data centers are crumbling ruins long since stripped of valuable salvage, and all the data once stored there has evaporated into whatever realm magnetic patterns go to when they die, the thinking that led politicians to gut viable library systems on the assumption that the internet will take up the slack will look remarkably stupid. Still, the habits of thought instilled by the age of cheap abundant energy are hard to shake off, and from within them, such mistakes are hard to avoid.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Rethinking the Rust Belt

One of the least useful habits of thought fostered by the modern mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that historical change can only move in one direction – the direction in which it seems to be going at the present. Those of us who suggest that today’s industrial societies are headed for a process of decline and fall, not that different from the ones that ended civilizations of the past, run up against this insistence constantly. The truism that time only goes one way gets distorted into the claim that since the last three hundred years have seen a great deal of expansion and technical development, the future must follow the same trajectory.

A hundred years ago, exactly that same logic was applied by people who insisted that war between civilized nations was a thing of the past. Wars between the nations of Europe had, in fact, become steadily less frequent over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, and a great many Europeans managed to convince themselves that this process could only continue in the 20th, leading to universal peace. As you may have noticed, they were quite mistaken – a detail that has not prevented the same logic from being deployed with equal enthusiasm more recently.

Consider the chorus of derision that rose up a couple of years ago when James Kunstler, in his book The Long Emergency, warned that piracy would likely revive around the Pacific rim as the industrial age comes to its end. I don’t recall a single reviewer of the book who took that prediction seriously, and a great many of Kunstler’s critics leapt on it with gleeful cries – though one should note that these cries became curiously muted once the recent spate of pirate raids off the coast of Somalia hit the news. Of course Kunstler is quite correct; piracy was already a serious problem in several parts of the world when he wrote, it has become worse since then, and once fuel shortages begin to limit the reach of modern navies and economic crises add to the roster of failed states, it may become a serious factor affecting the future of maritime trade. Only the delusion that piracy belongs to the past, and therefore can’t be part of the future, keeps this ugly reality from being recognized.

It’s impossible to make sense of the present, much less the future, from within the tunnel vision of a view of history that sees the world moving through some fixed sequence of development. When pundits say that contemporary hunter-gatherers are “still in the Stone Age,” or that members of some nonindustrial societies are “living in the Middle Ages,” while only the world’s industrial cultures have “entered the 21st century,” they are talking nonsense. It’s a very popular kind of nonsense; people in the industrial world love to think of themselves as the top rung of history’s ladder, with every other culture as a now-outmoded stage in the ascent to ranch houses and SUVs; but it’s still nonsense.

Biologists studying the evolution of life forms have gradually been forced to discard the notion that evolution has a fixed agenda, and have realized instead that the interplay of genetic diversity and natural selection can move in any direction – simplifying here, adding complexity there, leading one species into a highly specialized niche while another becomes a generalist capable of moving between many ecological roles. Notions that the biosphere as a whole has moved toward greater complexity over Earth’s long history – very nearly the last holdout of the old fantasy of linear evolution – have had to be discarded, because the evidence simply won’t support them; the last fifteen million years, for example, have seen a steady loss of complexity across the Earth’s biosphere as the planetary climate cooled in the run-up to the most recent round of ice ages, and the rich ecosystems of the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs, were far more complex than most of those that have succeeded them.

It’s long past time to apply the same thinking to history, and recognize that forcing human societies onto a linear model of progress serves the purposes of ideology rather than clear thinking. Human societies, like biological species, adapt to make the most of their environments with the inherited resources they have to hand. Sometimes those adaptations move in the direction of greater complexity and some form of technological development, while in other cases they move toward greater simplicity and shed technologies that are no longer useful. Those societies with a long cultural memory can even cycle back and forth between simpler and more complex levels of organization and technology – the long history of imperial China offers an excellent example of just this process at work.

The rise and approaching fall of the industrial age, it may be worth suggesting, may turn into the same process on steroids. In ecological terms, the torrent of fossil fuel energy that created the modern world can be seen as a massive disruption to established patterns of human social ecology. Those patterns stretched like silly putty, or broke apart entirely and were replaced, as a new economy of abundance evolved and expanded. That economy, however, was ultimately a product of ever-expanding supplies of fossil fuels, and once production bumped against the hard ceiling of geological limits, it began to break apart. The economic convulsions of the last few decades mark the crest of the wave, and the beginning of its long retreat.

As that retreat proceeds, the more complex and resource-intensive technologies and social habits of recent years will likely be among the early casualties, and some of the less complex and resource-intensive technologies and social habits of the recent past may well get fished out of the trash heap and pressed back into service, because they are better suited to the new environment of resource constraints than their more extravagant replacements. This will have sweeping impacts on the new economies that take shape in the wake of the current Great Recession, paralleling the impacts the original shifts had in their time – but in the other direction. Any number of examples could be named, but the ones I want to discuss now are geographical.

The economic and human geography of North America during the 20th century went through sweeping changes with results that are still echoing around us today. Technology played some role in driving those changes, but another factor was at least as powerful: the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing economy, producing goods and services at home, to a tribute economy propped up by the labor and resources of client states overseas. (This is what actually underlies the recent rhetoric about “globalization;” there was similar talk during the heyday of the British Empire, too.) Since most of the real wealth circulating in the American economy of the late 20th century came from overseas, the seaports of the east and west coasts came to dominate the economy, while the old economic heartland of the Midwest turned into a “Rust Belt” of half-empty cities and crumbling smokestacks.

The idea that these same cities might be on the brink of economic revival may seem about as likely as, say, a revival of piracy did to Kunstler’s critics a few years ago. Those who believe in the continuation of business as usual are unlikely to be able to imagine Pittsburgh or Peoria at the crest of the future’s wave; those who believe in the equally improbable scenario of overnight collapse into a dark age or worse can’t imagine an economic revival at all. Still, all history is ultimately local; it’s easy to say, for example, that “Rome’s economy declined in the last two centuries of the Empire,” and as a generalization this is true, but it masks a huge amount of temporal and regional variation, including periods and regions in which the economic climate improved noticeably.

Thus the possibility of a Rust Belt renaissance in the coming decades should not be dismissed out of hand. America’s overseas empire is already coming apart at the seams, as the costs of maintaining it overtake its economic benefits – the common fate of empires throughout history – and rival powers turn our imperial overreach to their advantage. In the foreseeable future, the United States will again have to produce most of the goods and services it uses at home – and as that happens, the regions most likely to profit by it are those inland areas whose central position gives them easier access to markets nationwide, and whose access to the old arteries of waterborne transport will make them much more viable as centers of production and distribution in future where energy will be in short supply.

More generally, the best resource for thinking about the economic map of 2050, say, may just be an economic map of 1880. When railroads and waterways once again become the primary means of transport, the places that were major economic hubs will likely become major hubs again, because they will make the same economic sense in the future that they did when railroads and waterways were last in vogue. The economic map of 2100, in turn, may have more in common with that of 1830 or thereabouts, since continuing depletion of remaining fossil fuel supplies will likely have made railroads uneconomical for most uses, leaving waterborne transport the only cost-effective alternative to local production. Add in the impact of population contraction driven by economic decline and failing public health – essentially the same mix that’s driving a similar contraction in the former Soviet Union – and the parallels may be even more exact.

This way of looking at the future has any number of potential implications, not least for those who hope to weather the current round of economic contraction and social turmoil with some level of grace. My guess is that both these factors will be concentrated in the coastal regions, as the wealth flows generated by the declining import economy give way to economic stagnation and contraction, and in regions such as the Southwest where political borders are increasingly out of step with demographic reality. Isolated regions throughout the West, already marginal at best, are likely to slip into permanent poverty as the tourist economy breaks down and climate shifts already under way make crippling droughts more common. On the other hand, agricultural regions outside the drought belt will likely thrive as the price of food rises, and the old Rust Belt cities – many of which shed half or more of their population over the last fifty years, relieving the population pressure and many of the social problems that made headlines not too many decades ago – may weather the current wave of crises tolerably well.

There will be other waves of crisis further down the road; history reminds us that the downside of a civilization’s history is a very uneven process, and it’s anyone’s guess which areas will be favored by the patterns of change that take shape later in the course of the decline. Suggesting a renaissance in the Rust Belt and the agricultural Midwest also flies in the face of a great many contemporary assumptions, driven as they are by the intellectual fashions of a mostly coastal intelligentsia used to dismissing the inland reaches of this continent as “flyover states.” Still, history seems to take a perverse delight in overturning such assumptions, and those who can get outside the delusion that historical change is a one-way street may find unexpected possibilities opening up before them.