Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Captain Erikson's Equation

I have yet to hear anyone in the peak oil blogosphere mention the name of Captain Gustaf Erikson of the Åland Islands and his fleet of windjammers.  For all I know, he’s been completely forgotten now, his name and accomplishments packed away in the same dustbin of forgotten history as solar steam-engine pioneer Augustin Mouchot, his near contemporary. If so, it’s high time that his footsteps sounded again on the quarterdeck of our collective imagination, because his story—and the core insight that committed him to his lifelong struggle—both have plenty to teach about the realities framing the future of technology in the wake of today’s era of fossil-fueled abundance.

Erikson, born in 1872, grew up in a seafaring family and went to sea as a ship’s boy at the age of nine. At 19 he was the skipper of a coastal freighter working the Baltic and North Sea ports; two years later he shipped out as mate on a windjammer for deepwater runs to Chile and Australia, and eight years after that he was captain again, sailing three- and four-masted cargo ships to the far reaches of the planet. A bad fall from the rigging in 1913 left his right leg crippled, and he left the sea to become a shipowner instead, buying the first of what would become the 20th century’s last major fleet of windpowered commercial cargo vessels.

It’s too rarely remembered these days that the arrival of steam power didn’t make commercial sailing vessels obsolete across the board. The ability to chug along at eight knots or so without benefit of wind was a major advantage in some contexts—naval vessels and passenger transport, for example—but coal was never cheap, and the long stretches between coaling stations on some of the world’s most important trade routes meant that a significant fraction of a steamship’s total tonnage had to be devoted to coal, cutting into the capacity to haul paying cargoes. For bulk cargoes over long distances, in particular, sailing ships were a good deal more economical all through the second half of the 19th century, and some runs remained a paying proposition for sail well into the 20th.

That was the niche that the windjammers of the era exploited. They were huge—up to 400 feet from stem to stern—square-sided, steel-hulled ships, fitted out with more than an acre of canvas and miles of steel-wire rigging.  They could be crewed by a few dozen sailors, and hauled prodigious cargoes:  up to 8,000 tons of Australian grain, Chilean nitrate—or, for that matter, coal; it was among the ironies of the age that the coaling stations that allowed steamships to refuel on long voyages were very often kept stocked by tall ships, which could do the job more economically than steamships themselves could. The markets where wind could outbid steam were lucrative enough that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were still thousands of working windjammers hauling cargoes across the world’s oceans.

That didn’t change until bunker oil refined from petroleum ousted coal as the standard fuel for powered ships. Petroleum products carry much more energy per pound than even the best grade of coal, and the better grades of coal were beginning to run short and rise accordingly in price well before the heyday of the windjammers was over. A diesel-powered vessel had to refuel less often, devote less of its tonnage to fuel, and cost much less to operate than its coal-fired equivalent. That’s why Winston Churchill, as head of Britain’s Admiralty, ordered the entire British Navy converted from coal to oil in the years just before the First World War, and why coal-burning steamships became hard to find anywhere on the seven seas once the petroleum revolution took place. That’s also why most windjammers went out of use around the same time; they could compete against coal, but not against dirt-cheap diesel fuel.

Gustav Erikson went into business as a shipowner just as that transformation was getting under way. The rush to diesel power allowed him to buy up windjammers at a fraction of their former price—his first ship, a 1,500-ton bark, cost him less than $10,000, and the pride of his fleet, the four-masted Herzogin Cecilie, set him back only $20,000.  A tight rein on operating expenses and a careful eye on which routes were profitable kept his firm solidly in the black. The bread and butter of his business came from shipping wheat from southern Australia to Europe; Erikson’s fleet and the few other windjammers still in the running would leave European ports in the northern hemisphere’s autumn and sail for Spencer Gulf on Australia’s southern coast, load up with thousands of tons of wheat, and then race each other home, arriving in the spring—a good skipper with a good crew could make the return trip in less than 100 days, hitting speeds upwards of 15 knots when the winds were right.

There was money to be made that way, but Erikson’s commitment to the windjammers wasn’t just a matter of profit. A sentimental attachment to tall ships was arguably part of the equation, but there was another factor as well. In his latter years, Erikson was fond of telling anyone who would listen that a new golden age for sailing ships was on the horizon:  sooner or later, he insisted, the world’s supply of coal and oil would run out, steam and diesel engines would become so many lumps of metal fit only for salvage, and those who still knew how to haul freight across the ocean with only the wind for power would have the seas, and the world’s cargoes, all to themselves.

Those few books that mention Erikson at all like to portray him as the last holdout of a departed age, a man born after his time. On the contrary, he was born before his time, and lived too soon. When he died in 1947, the industrial world’s first round of energy crises were still a quarter century away, and only a few lonely prophets had begun to grasp the absurdity of trying to build an enduring civilization on the ever-accelerating consumption of a finite and irreplaceable fuel supply. He had hoped that his sons would keep the windjammers running, and finish the task of getting the traditions and technology of the tall ships through the age of fossil fuels and into the hands of the seafarers of the future. I’m sorry to say that that didn’t happen; the profits to be made from modern freighters were too tempting, and once the old man was gone, his heirs sold off the windjammers and replaced them with diesel-powered craft.

Erikson’s story is worth remembering, though, and not simply because he was an early prophet of what we now call peak oil. He was also one of the very first people in our age to see past the mythology of technological progress that dominated the collective imagination of his time and ours, and glimpse the potentials of one of the core strategies this blog has been advocating for the last eight years.

We can use the example that would have been dearest to his heart, the old technology of windpowered maritime cargo transport, to explore those potentials. To begin with, it’s crucial to remember that the only thing that made tall ships obsolete as a transport technology was cheap abundant petroleum. The age of coal-powered steamships left plenty of market niches in which windjammers were economically more viable than steamers.  The difference, as already noted, was a matter of energy density—that’s the technical term for how much energy you get out of each pound of fuel; the best grades of coal have only about half the energy density of petroleum distillates, and as you go down the scale of coal grades, energy density drops steadily. The brown coal that’s commonly used for fuel these days provides, per pound, rather less than a quarter the heat energy you get from a comparable weight of bunker oil.

As the world’s petroleum reserves keep sliding down the remorseless curve of depletion, in turn, the price of bunker oil—like that of all other petroleum products—will continue to move raggedly upward. If Erikson’s tall ships were still in service, it’s quite possible that they would already be expanding their market share; as it is, it’s going to be a while yet before rising fuel costs will make it economical for shipping firms to start investing in the construction of a new generation of windjammers.  Nonetheless, as the price of bunker oil keeps rising, it’s eventually going to cross the line at which sail becomes the more profitable option, and when that happens, those firms that invest in tall ships will profit at the expense of their old-fahioned, oil-burning rivals.

Yes, I’m aware that this last claim flies in the face of one of the most pervasive superstitions of our time, the faith-based insistence that whatever technology we happen to use today must always and forever be better, in every sense but a purely sentimental one, than whatever technology it replaced. The fact remains that what made diesel-powered maritime transport standard across the world’s oceans was not some abstract superiority of bunker oil over wind and canvas, but the simple reality that for a  while, during the heyday of cheap abundant petroleum, diesel-powered freighters were more profitable to operate than any of the other options.  It was always a matter of economics, and as petroleum depletion tilts the playing field the other way, the economics will change accordingly.

All else being equal, if a shipping company can make larger profits moving cargoes by sailing ships than by diesel freighters, coal-burning steamships, or some other option, the sailing ships will get the business and the other options will be left to rust in port. It really is that simple. The point at which sailing vessels become economically viable, in turn, is determined partly by fuel prices and partly by the cost of building and outfitting a new generation of sailing ships. Erikson’s plan was to do an end run around the second half of that equation, by keeping a working fleet of windjammers in operation on niche routes until rising fuel prices made it profitable to expand into other markets. Since that didn’t happen, the lag time will be significantly longer, and bunker fuel may have to price itself entirely out of certain markets—causing significant disruptions to maritime trade and to national and regional economies—before it makes economic sense to start building windjammers again.

It’s a source of wry amusement to me that when the prospect of sail transport gets raised, even in the greenest of peak oil circles, the immediate reaction from most people is to try to find some way to smuggle engines back onto the tall ships. Here again, though, the issue that matters is economics, not our current superstitious reverence for loud metal objects. There were plenty of ships in the 19th century that combined steam engines and sails in various combinations, and plenty of ships in the early 20th century that combined diesel engines and sails the same way.  Windjammers powered by sails alone were more economical than either of these for long-range bulk transport, because engines and their fuel supplies cost money, they take up tonnage that can otherwise be used for paying cargo, and their fuel costs cut substantially into profits as well.

For that matter, I’ve speculated in posts here about the possibility that Augustin Mouchot’s solar steam engines, or something like them, could be used as a backup power source for the windjammers of the deindustrial future. It’s interesting to note that the use of renewable energy sources for shipping in Erikson’s time wasn’t limited to the motive power provided by sails; coastal freighters of the kind Erikson skippered when he was nineteen were called “onkers” in Baltic Sea slang, because their windmill-powered deck pumps made a repetitive “onk-urrr, onk-urrr” noise. Still, the same rule applies; enticing as it might be to imagine sailors on a becalmed windjammer hauling the wooden cover off a solar steam generator, expanding the folding reflector, and sending steam down belowdecks to drive a propeller, whether such a technology came into use would depend on whether the cost of buying and installing a solar steam engine, and the lost earning capacity due to hold space being taken up by the engine, was less than the profit to be made by getting to port a few days sooner.

Are there applications where engines are worth having despite their drawbacks? Of course. Unless the price of biodiesel ends up at astronomical levels, or the disruptions ahead along the curve of the Long Descent cause diesel technology to be lost entirely, tugboats will probably have diesel engines for the imaginable future, and so will naval vessels; the number of major naval battles won or lost in the days of sail because the wind blew one way or another will doubtless be on the minds of many as the age of petroleum winds down. Barring a complete collapse in technology, in turn, naval vessels will no doubt still be made of steel—once cannons started firing explosive shells instead of solid shot, wooden ships became deathtraps in naval combat—but most others won’t be; large-scale steel production requires ample supplies of coke, which is produced by roasting coal, and depletion of coal supplies in a postpetroleum future guarantees that steel will be much more expensive compared to other materials than it is today, or than it was during the heyday of the windjammers.

Note that here again, the limits to technology and resource use are far more likely to be economic than technical. In purely technical terms, a maritime nation could put much of its arable land into oil crops and use that to keep its merchant marine fueled with biodiesel. In economic terms, that’s a nonstarter, since the advantages to be gained by it are much smaller than the social and financial costs that would be imposed by the increase in costs for food, animal fodder, and all other agricultural products. In the same way, the technical ability to build an all-steel merchant fleet will likely still exist straight through the deindustrial future; what won’t exist is the ability to do so without facing prompt bankruptcy. That’s what happens when you have to live on the product of each year’s sunlight, rather than drawing down half a billion years of fossil photosynthesis: there are hard economic limits to how much of anything you can produce, and increasing production of one thing pretty consistently requires cutting production of something else. People in today’s industrial world don’t have to think like that, but their descendants in the deindustrial world will either learn how to do so or perish.

This point deserves careful study, as it’s almost always missed by people trying to think their way through the technological consequences of the deindustrial future. One reader of mine who objected to talk about abandoned technologies in a previous post quoted with approval the claim, made on another website, that if a deindustrial society can make one gallon of biodiesel, it can make as many thousands or millions of gallons as it wants.  Technically, maybe; economically, not a chance.  It’s as though you made $500 a week and someone claimed you could buy as many bottles of $100-a-bottle scotch as you wanted; in any given week, your ability to buy expensive scotch would be limited by your need to meet other expenses such as food and rent, and some purchase plans would be out of reach even if you ignored all those other expenses and spent your entire paycheck at the liquor store. The same rule applies to societies that don’t have the windfall of fossil fuels at their disposal—and once we finish burning through the fossil fuels we can afford to extract, every human society for the rest of our species’ time on earth will be effectively described in those terms.

The one readily available way around the harsh economic impacts of fossil fuel depletion is the one that Gunnar Erikson tried, but did not live to complete—the strategy of keeping an older technology in use, or bringing a defunct technology back into service, while there’s still enough wealth sloshing across the decks of the industrial economy to make it relatively easy to do so.  I’ve suggested above that if his firm had kept the windjammers sailing, scraping out a living on whatever narrow market niche they could find, the rising cost of bunker oil might already have made it profitable to expand into new niches; there wouldn’t have been the additional challenge of finding the money to build new windjammers from the keel up, train crews to sail them, and get ships and crews through the learning curve that’s inevitably a part of bringing an unfamiliar technology on line.

That same principle has been central to quite a few of this blog’s projects. One small example is the encouragement I’ve tried to give to the rediscovery of the slide rule as an effective calculating device. There are still plenty of people alive today who know how to use slide rules, plenty of books that teach how to crunch numbers with a slipstick, and plenty of slide rules around. A century down the line, when slide rules will almost certainly be much more economically viable than pocket calculators, those helpful conditions might not be in place—but if people take up slide rules now for much the same reasons that Erikson kept the tall ships sailing, and make an effort to pass skills and slipsticks on to another generation, no one will have to revive or reinvent a dead technology in order to have quick accurate calculations for practical tasks such as engineering, salvage, and renewable energy technology.

The collection of sustainable-living skills I somewhat jocularly termed “green wizardry,” which I learned back in the heyday of the appropriate tech movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, passed on to the readers of this blog in a series of posts a couple of years ago, and have now explored in book form as well, is another case in point. Some of that knowledge, more of the attitudes that undergirded it, and nearly all the small-scale, hands-on, basement-workshop sensibility of the movement in question has vanished from our collective consciousness in the years since the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution foreclosed any hope of a viable future for the industrial world. There are still enough books on appropriate tech gathering dust in used book shops, and enough in the way of living memory among those of us who were there, to make it possible to recover those things; another generation and that hope would have gone out the window.

There are plenty of other possibilities along the same lines. For that matter, it’s by no means unreasonable to plan on investing in technologies that may not be able to survive all the way through the decline and fall of the industrial age, if those technologies can help cushion the way down. Whether or not it will still be possible to manufacture PV cells at the bottom of the deindustrial dark ages, as I’ve been pointing out since the earliest days of this blog, getting them in place now on a home or local community scale is likely to pay off handsomely when grid-based electricity becomes unreliable, as it will.  The modest amounts of electricity you can expect to get from this and other renewable sources can provide critical services (for example, refrigeration and long-distance communication) that will be worth having as the Long Descent unwinds.

That said, all such strategies depend on having enough economic surplus on hand to get useful technologies in place before the darkness closes in. As things stand right now, as many of my readers will have had opportunity to notice already, that surplus is trickling away. Those of us who want to help make a contribution to the future along those lines had better get a move on.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

American Delusionalism, or Why History Matters

One of the things that reliably irritates a certain fraction of this blog’s readers, as I’ve had occasion to comment before, is my habit of using history as a touchstone that can be used to test claims about the future. No matter what the context, no matter how wearily familiar the process under discussion might be, it’s a safe bet that the moment I start talking about historical parallels, somebody or other is going to pop up and insist that it really is different this time.
In a trivial sense, of course, that claim is correct. The tech stock bubble that popped in 2000, the real estate bubble that popped in 2008, and the fracking bubble that’s showing every sign of popping in the uncomfortably near future are all different from each other, and from every other bubble and bust in the history of speculative markets, all the way back to the Dutch tulip mania of 1637. It’s quite true that tech stocks aren’t tulips, and bundled loans backed up by dubious no-doc mortgages aren’t the same as bundled loans backed up by dubious shale leases—well, not exactly the same—but in practice, the many differences of detail are irrelevant compared to the one crucial identity.  Tulips, tech stocks, and bundled loans, along with South Sea Company shares in 1730, investment trusts in 1929, and all the other speculative vehicles in all the other speculative bubbles of the last five centuries, different as they are, all follow the identical trajectory:  up with the rocket, down with the stick.

That is to say, those who insist that it’s different this time are right where it doesn’t matter and wrong where it counts. I’ve come to think of the words “it’s different this time,” in fact, as the nearest thing history has to the warning siren and flashing red light that tells you that something is about to go very, very wrong. When people start saying it, especially when plenty of people with plenty of access to the media start saying it, it’s time to dive for the floor, cover your head with your arms, and wait for the blast to hit.

With that in mind, I’d like to talk a bit about the recent media flurry around the phrase “American exceptionalism,” which has become something of a shibboleth among pseudoconservative talking heads in recent months. Pseudoconservatives? Well, yes; actual conservatives, motivated by the long and by no means undistinguished tradition of conservative thinking launched by Edmund Burke in the late 18th century, are interested in, ahem, conserving things, and conservatives who actually conserve are about as rare these days as liberals who actually liberate. Certainly you won’t find many of either among the strident voices insisting just now that the last scraps of America’s democracy at home and reputation abroad ought to be sacrificed in the service of their squeaky-voiced machismo.

As far as I know, the phrase “American exceptionalism” was originally coined by none other than Josef Stalin—evidence, if any more were needed, that American pseudoconservatives these days, having no ideas of their own, have simply borrowed those of their erstwhile Communist bogeyman and stood them on their heads with a Miltonic “Evil, be thou my good.”  Stalin meant by it the opinion of many Communists in his time that the United States, unlike the industrial nations of Europe, wasn’t yet ripe for the triumphant proletarian revolution predicted (inaccurately) by Marx’s secular theology. Devout Marxist that he was, Stalin rejected this claim with some heat, denouncing it in so many words as “this heresy of American exceptionalism,” and insisting (also inaccurately) that America would get its proletarian revolution on schedule. 

While Stalin may have invented the phrase, the perception that he thus labeled had considerably older roots. In a previous time, though, that perception took a rather different tone than it does today. A great many of the early leaders and thinkers of the United States in its early years, and no small number of the foreign observers who watched the American experiment in those days, thought and hoped that the newly founded republic might be able to avoid making the familiar mistakes that had brought so much misery onto the empires of the Old World. Later on, during and immediately after the great debates over American empire at the end of the 19th century, a great many Americans and foreign observers still thought and hoped that the republic might come to its senses in time and back away from the same mistakes that doomed those Old World empires to the misery just mentioned. These days, by contrast, the phrase “American exceptionalism” seems to stand for the conviction that America can and should make every one of those same mistakes, right down to the fine details, and will still somehow be spared the logically inevitable consequences.

The current blind faith in American exceptionalism, in other words, is simply another way of saying “it’s different this time.”  Those who insist that God is on America’s side when America isn’t exactly returning the favor, like those who have less blatantly theological reasons for their belief that this nation’s excrement emits no noticeable odor, are for all practical purposes demanding that America must not, under any circumstances, draw any benefit from the painfully learnt lessons of history.  I suggest that a better name for the belief in question might be "American delusionalism;" it’s hard to see how this bizarre act of faith can do anything other than help drive the American experiment toward a miserable end, but then that’s just one more irony in the fire.

The same conviction that the past has nothing to teach the present is just as common elsewhere in contemporary culture. I’m thinking here, among other things, of the ongoing drumbeat of claims that our species will inevitably be extinct by 2030. As I noted in a previous post here, this is yet another expression of the same dubious logic that generated the 2012 delusion, but much of the rhetoric that surrounds it starts from the insistence that nothing like the current round of greenhouse gas-driven climate change has ever happened before.

That insistence bespeaks an embarrassing lack of knowledge about paleoclimatology. Vast quantities of greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere over a century or two? Check; the usual culprit is vulcanism, specifically the kind of flood-basalt eruption that opens a crack in the earth many miles in length and turns an area the size of a European nation into a lake of lava. The most recent of those, a smallish one, happened about 6 million years ago in the Columbia River basin of eastern Washington and Oregon states.  Further back, in the Aptian, Toarcian, and Turonian-Cenomanian epochs of the late Mesozoic, that same process on a much larger scale boosted atmospheric CO2 levels to three times the present figure and triggered what paleoclimatologists call "super-greenhouse events." Did those cause the extinction of all life on earth? Not hardly; as far as the paleontological evidence shows, it didn’t even slow the brontosaurs down.

Oceanic acidification leading to the collapse of calcium-shelled plankton populations? Check; those three super-greenhouse events, along with a great many less drastic climate spikes, did that. The ocean also contains very large numbers of single-celled organisms that don’t have calcium shells, such as blue-green algae, which aren’t particularly sensitive to shifts in the pH level of seawater; when such shifts happen, these other organisms expand to fill the empty niches, and everybody further up the food chain gets used to a change in diet. When the acidification goes away, whatever species of calcium-shelled plankton have managed to survive elbow their way back into their former niches and undergo a burst of evolutionary radiation; this makes life easy for geologists today, who can figure out the age of any rock laid down in an ancient ocean by checking the remains of foraminifers and other calcium-loving plankton against a chart of what existed when.

Sudden climate change recently enough to be experienced by human beings? Check; most people have heard of the end of the last ice age, though you have to read the technical literature or one of a very few popular treatments to get some idea of just how drastically the climate changed, or how fast.  The old saw about a slow, gradual warming over millennia got chucked into the dumpster decades ago, when ice cores from Greenland upset that particular theory. The ratio between different isotopes of oxygen in the ice laid down in different years provides a sensitive measure of the average global temperature at sea level during those same years. According to that measure, at the end of the Younger Dryas period about 11,800 years ago, global temperatures shot up by 20° F. in less than a decade.

Now of course that didn’t mean that temperatures shot up that far evenly, all over the world. What seems to have happened is that the tropics barely warmed at all, the southern end of the planet warmed mildly, and the northern end experienced a drastic heat wave that tipped the great continental ice sheets of the era into rapid collapse and sent sea levels soaring upwards. Those of my readers who have been paying attention to recent scientific publications about Greenland and the Arctic Ocean now have very good reason to worry, because the current round of climate change has most strongly affected the northern end of the planet, too, and scientists have begun to notice historically unprecedented changes in the Greenland ice cap. In an upcoming post I plan on discussing at some length what those particular historical parallels promise for our future, and it’s not pretty.

Oh, and the aftermath of the post-Younger Dryas temperature spike was a period several thousand years long when global temperatures were considerably higher than they are today. The Holocene Hypsithermal, as it’s called, saw global temperatures peak around 7° F. higher than they are today—about the level, that is, that’s already baked into the cake as a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.  It was not a particularly pleasant time. Most of western North America was desert, baked to a crackly crunch by drought conditions that make today’s dry years look soggy; much of what’s now, at least in theory, the eastern woodland biome was dryland prairie, while both coasts got rapidly rising seas with a side order of frequent big tsunamis—again, we’ll talk about those in the upcoming post just mentioned. Still, you’ll notice that our species survived the experience.

As those droughts and tsunamis might suggest, the lessons taught by history don’t necessarily amount to "everything will be just fine." The weird inability of the contemporary imagination to find any middle ground between business as usual and sudden total annihilation has its usual effect here, hiding the actual risks of anthropogenic climate change behind a facade of apocalyptic fantasies. Here again, the question "what happened the last time this occurred?" is the most accessible way to avoid that trap, and the insistence that it’s different this time and the evidence of the past can’t be applied to the present and future puts that safeguard out of reach.

For a third example, consider the latest round of claims that a sudden financial collapse driven by current debt loads will crash the global economy once and for all. That sudden collapse has been being predicted year after weary year for decades now—do any of my readers, I wonder, remember Dr. Ravi Batra’s The Great Depression of 1990?—and its repeated failure to show up and perform as predicted seems only to strengthen the conviction on the part of believers that this year, like some financial equivalent of the Great Pumpkin, the long-delayed crash will finally put in its long-delayed appearance and bring the global economy crashing down.

I’m far from sure that they’re right about the imminence of a crash; the economy of high finance these days is so heavily manipulated, and so thoroughly detached from the real economy where real goods and services have to be produced using real energy and resources, that it’s occurred to me more than once that the stock market and the other organs of the financial sphere might keep chugging away in a state of blissful disconnection to the rest of existence for a very long time to come. Stil, let’s grant for the moment that the absurd buildup of unpayable debt in the United States and other industrial nations will in fact become the driving force behind a credit collapse, in which drastic deleveraging will erase trillions of dollars in notional wealth. Would such a crash succeed, as a great many people are claiming just now, in bringing the global economy to a sudden and permanent stop?

Here again, the lessons of history provide a clear and straightforward answer to that question, and it’s not one that supports the partisans of the fast-crash theory. Massive credit collapses that erase very large sums of notional wealth and impact the global economy are hardly a new phenomenon, after all. One example—the credit collapse of 1930-1932—is still just within living memory; the financial crises of 1873 and 1893 are well documented, and there are dozens of other examples of nations and whole continents hammered by credit collapses and other forms of drastic economic crisis. Those crises have had plenty of consequences, but one thing that has never happened as a result of any of them is the sort of self-feeding, irrevocable plunge into the abyss that current fast-crash theories require.

The reason for this is that credit is merely one way by which a society manages the distribution of goods and services. That’s all it is. Energy, raw materials, and labor are the factors that have to be present in order to produce goods and services.  Credit simply regulates who gets how much of each of these things, and there have been plenty of societies that have handled that same task without making use of a credit system at all. A credit collapse, in turn, doesn’t make the energy, raw materials, and labor vanish into some fiscal equivalent of a black hole; they’re all still there, in whatever quantities they were before the credit collapse, and all that’s needed is some new way to allocate them to the production of goods and services.

This, in turn, governments promptly provide. In 1933, for example, faced with the most severe credit collapse in American history, Franklin Roosevelt temporarily nationalized the entire US banking system, seized nearly all the privately held gold in the country, unilaterally changed the national debt from "payable in gold" to "payable in Federal Reserve notes" (which amounted to a technical default), and launched a flurry of other emergency measures.  The credit collapse came to a screeching halt, famously, in less than a hundred days. Other nations facing the same crisis took equally drastic measures, with similar results. While that history has apparently been forgotten across large sections of the peak oil blogosphere, it’s a safe bet that none of it has been forgotten in the corridors of power in Washington DC and elsewhere in the world.

More generally, governments have an extremely broad range of powers that can be used, and have been used, in extreme financial emergencies to stop a credit or currency collapse from terminating the real economy. Faced with a severe crisis, governments can slap on wage and price controls, freeze currency exchanges, impose rationing, raise trade barriers, default on their debts, nationalize whole industries, issue new currencies, allocate goods and services by fiat, and impose martial law to make sure the new economic rules are followed to the letter, if necessary, at gunpoint. Again, these aren’t theoretical possibilities; every one of them has actually been used by more than one government faced by a major economic crisis in the last century and a half. Given that track record, it requires a breathtaking leap of faith to assume that if the next round of deleveraging spirals out of control, politicians around the world will simply sit on their hands, saying "Whatever shall we do?" in plaintive voices, while civilization crashes to ruin around them.

What makes that leap of faith all the more curious is in the runup to the economic crisis of 2008-9, the same claims of imminent, unstoppable financial apocalypse we’re hearing today were being made—in some cases, by the same people who are making them today.  (I treasure a comment I fielded from a popular peak oil blogger at the height of the 2009 crisis, who insisted that the fast crash was upon us and that my predictions about the future were therefore all wrong.) Their logic was flawed then, and it’s just as flawed now, because it dismisses the lessons of history as irrelevant and therefore fails to take into account how the events under discussion play out in the real world.

That’s the problem with the insistence that this time it really is different: it disables the most effective protection we’ve got against the habit of thought that cognitive psychologists call "confirmation bias," the tendency to look for evidence that supports one’s pet theory rather than seeking the evidence that might call it into question. The scientific method itself, in the final analysis, is simply a collection of useful gimmicks that help you sidestep confirmation bias.  That’s why competent scientists, when they come up with a hypothesis to explain something in nature, promptly sit down and try to think up as many ways as possible to disprove the hypothesis. Those potentials for disproof are the raw materials from which experiments are designed, and only if the hypothesis survives all experimental attempts to disprove it does it take its first step toward scientific respectability.

It’s not exactly easy to run controlled double-blind experiments on entire societies, but historical comparison offers the same sort of counterweight to confirmation bias. Any present or future set of events, however unique it may be in terms of the fine details, has points of similarity with events in the past, and those points of similarity allow the past events to be taken as a guide to the present and future. This works best if you’ve got a series of past events, as different from each other as any one of them is from the present or future situation you’re trying to predict; if you can find common patterns in the whole range of past parallels, it’s usually a safe bet that the same pattern will recur again.

Any time you approach a present or future event, then, you have two choices: you can look for the features that event has in common with other events, despite the differences of detail, or you can focus on the differences and ignore the common features.  The first of those choices, it’s worth noting, allows you to consider both the similarities and the differences.  Once you’ve got the common pattern, it then becomes possible to modify it as needed to take into account the special characteristics of the situation you’re trying to understand or predict: to notice, for example, that the dark age that will follow our civilization will have to contend with nuclear and chemical pollution on top of the more ordinary consequences of decline and fall.

If you start from the assumption that the event you’re trying to predict is unlike anything that’s ever happened before, though, you’ve thrown out your chance of perceiving the common pattern. What happens instead, with motononous regularity, is that pop-culture narratives such as the sudden overnight collapse beloved of Hollywood screenplay writers smuggle themselves into the picture, and cement themselves in place with the help of confirmation bias. The result is the endless recycling of repeatedly failed predictions that plays so central a role in the collective imagination of our time, and has helped so many people blind themselves to the unwelcome future closing in on us.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Crocodiles of Reality

I've suggested in several previous posts that the peak oil debate may be approaching a turning point—one of those shifts in the collective conversation in which topics that have been shut out for years or decades finally succeed in crashing the party, and other topics that have gotten more than their quota of attention during that time get put out to pasture or sent to the glue factory.  I’d like to talk for a moment about some of the reasons I think that’s about to happen, and in the process, give a name to one of the common but generally unmentionable features of contemporary economic life.

We can begin with the fracking bubble, that misbegotten brat fathered by Wall Street’s love of Ponzi schemes on Main Street’s stark terror of facing up to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. That bubble has at least two significant functions in today’s world. The first function, as discussed in these essays already, is to fill an otherwise vacant niche in the string of giddy speculative delusions that began with the stock market boom and bust of 1987 and is still going strong today. As with previous examples, the promoters of the fracking bubble dangled the prospect of what used to be normal returns on investment in front of the eager and clueless investors with which America seems to be so richly stocked these days.  These then leapt at the bait, and handed their money over to the tender mercies of the same Wall Street investment firms who gave us and zero-doc mortgages.

You might think, dear reader, that after a quarter century of this, there might be a shortage of chumps willing to fall for such schemes. Whatever else might be depleting, though, the supply of lambs eager to be led to that particular slaughter seems to be keeping up handily with the demand. We live in what will doubtless be remembered as the Golden Age of financial fraud, an era of stunning fiscal idiocy in which even the most blatant swindles can count on drawing a crowd of suckers begging to have their money taken from them. Millennia from now, the grifters, con men, and bunco artists of civilizations yet unborn will look back in awe at our time, and wish that they, too, might be fortunate enough to live in an era when tens of millions of investors passionately wanted to believe that the laws of economics, thermodynamics, and plain common sense must surely be suspended for their benefit.

To some extent, in other words, the fracking bubble is simply one more reminder that Ben Franklin’s adage about a fool and his money has not lost any of its relevance since the old rascal slipped it into the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Still, there’s more going on here than the ruthless fleecing of the unwary that’s the lifeblood of every healthy market economy. The fracking bubble, as most of my readers will be well aware, has not only served as an excuse for ordinary speculative larceny; it’s also provided a very large number of people with an excuse to scrunch up their eyes, stuff their fingers in their ears, shout "La, la, la, I can’t hear you," and thus keep clinging to the absurd faith that limitless resources really can be extracted from a finite planet.

For the last three or four years, accordingly, the fracking bubble has been the most common item brandished by practitioners of peak oil denial as evidence that petroleum production can too keep on increasing forever, so there!  The very modest additions to global petroleum production that resulted from hydrofracturing shales in North Dakota and Texas got talked up into an imaginary tidal wave of crude oil that would supposedly sweep all before it, and not incidentally restore the United States to its long-vanished status as the world’s premier oil producer. All that made good copy for the bunco artists mentioned earlier, to be sure, but it also fed into the futile attempts at denial that have taken the place of a sane energy policy in most industrial societies.

The problem with this fond fantasy is that the numbers don’t even begin to add up. The latest figures, neatly summarized by Ron Patterson in a recent post, show just how bad the situation has become. Each year, on average, the oil industry has had had to increase its investments by 10% over the previous year to get the same amount of oil out of the ground.  Even $100-a-barrel oil prices won’t support that kind of soaring overhead cost for long, and the problem has been made worse by the belated discovery that many of the shale beds ballyhooed in recent years don’t have anything like as much oil as their promoters claimed.  As a result, oil companies around the world are cutting back on capital investment and selling off assets. That’s not the behavior of an industry poised on the brink of a new age of abundance; it’s the behavior of an industry that has just slammed face first into hard supply limits and is backing away groggily from the impact site while trying to stanch the bleeding from deep fiscal cuts.

As a result, with mathematical certainty, a great many overpriced assets are going to lose most of their paper value in the years ahead of us, a great many businesses that have made their money providing goods and services to the drilling industry are going to downsize sharply or simply go bankrupt, a great many wells that can’t make money even at exorbitant oil prices are going to be shut in or go undrilled in the first place, and a very, very great many people who convinced themselves that they were going to get rich by investing in fracking are going to end up poor. It’s not going to be pretty.  Exactly what effect this is going to have on the price of oil is an interesting question; my guess, though it’s only a guess, is that a couple of years from now the price of oil will spike, possibly to the $250-$300 a barrel range, then crash to $60 a barrel, and slowly recover to $175 or so over a period of several years.

This has a great deal of relevance to the project of this blog.  The last time petroleum production failed to keep pace with potential demand, and the price of oil spiked accordingly, peak oil came in from the fringes and got discussed publicly in the pages of newspapers of record.  That window of opportunity gaped open from 2004 to 2010, roughly speaking, and during that period a great deal got accomplished. That was when peak oil stopped being a concern of the furthest fringe and found an audience in many corners of contemporary alternative culture, when local groups—some under the Transition Town banner, others outside it—began to organize around the imminence of peak oil, and when books on resource depletion and its consequences found a market for the first time since the early 1980s.

Those are significant gains. It’s true, of course, that these achievements didn’t make peak oil go away, or find some gimmick that will keep the lifestyles of the industrial world’s more privileged inmates rolling merrily along for the foreseeable future. What sometimes gets forgotten is that neither of those things was ever possible in the first place. The hard facts of our predicament have not changed a bit: the age of cheap abundant energy is ending; the economic systems, social structures, and lifestyle habits that were made possible by that temporary condition are accordingly going away, and nothing anyone can do will bring them back again, not now, not ever. 

It’s worth being precise here:  for the rest of the time our species endures, we will have to deal with much more sharply constrained energy supplies than we’ve had handy over the last few centuries. That doesn’t mean that our descendants will be condemned to huddle in caves until the jaws of extinction close around them; I’ve argued at quite some length in one of my books that the endpoint of the mess we’re currently in, centuries from now, will most likely be the emergence of ecotechnic societies—societies that maintain relatively high technology on the modest energy and resource inputs that can be provided by renewable sources. I’ve suggested, there and elsewhere, that there’s quite a bit that can be done here and now to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the far future. I’ve also tried to point out that there’s quite a bit that can be done here and now to make the unraveling of the age of abundance less traumatic than it will otherwise be.

To my mind, those are worthwhile goals. What makes them difficult is simply that any meaningful attempt to pursue them has to start by accepting that the age of cheap abundant energy is ending, that the lifestyles that age made possible are ending with it, and that wasting all those fossil fuels on what amounts to a drunken binge three centuries long might not have been a very smart idea in the first place. Any one of those would be a bitter pill to take; all three of them together are far more than most people nowadays are willing to swallow, and so it’s not surprising that so much effort over the last few decades have gone into pretending that the squalid excesses of contemporary culture can somehow keep rolling along in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary.

The frantic attempts to sustain the unsustainable driven by this pretense have done much to make the present day such a halcyon time for swindles of every description. Not all of those, however, have taken aim at the wallets of what we might as well call the lumpen-investmentariat, that class of people who have money to invest and not a clue in their heads that Wall Street might not have their best interests at heart. Some of the most colorful flops of recent years have instead attracted money from a different though equally gullible source: government subsidies for new energy technologies.

Those of my readers who were part of the peak oil scene a decade ago, for example, may remember the days when ethanol made from American corn was going to save us all.  Many of the same claims more recently deployed to inflate the fracking bubble were used to justify what was described, at the time, as America’s burgeoning new ethanol industry, but the target for these exercises was somewhat different. A certain amount of investment money from the clueless did find its way into the hands of ethanol-plant promoters, to be sure, but the financial core of the new industry was a flurry of federal mandates and federal and state subsidies, which in theory existed to lead America to a bright new energy future, and in practice existed to convince the voters that politicians really were doing something about gasoline prices that had just risen to the unheard-of level of $2 a gallon.

You won’t hear much about America’s burgeoning new ethanol industry these days. A substantial fraction of the ethanol plants that were subsidized by governments and lavishly praised by politicians a decade ago are bankrupt and shuttered today, having failed to turn a profit or, in some cases, cover the costs of construction.  The critics who pointed out that the burgeoning new industry made no economic sense, and that making ethanol from corn uses more energy than you get from burning the ethanol, turned out to be dead right, and the critics who dismissed them as naysayers turned out to be dead wrong. Still, the ethanol plants had accomplished the same two functions as the fracking bubble did later: it sucked a great deal of money into the hands of its promoters, and it helped everyone else pretend for a while that the end of the age of cheap abundant energy wasn’t going to happen after all.

It’s hardly the only example of the phenomenon.  Since I don’t want green-energy proponents to feel unduly picked on, let’s turn to the other side of the energy picture and take a look at nuclear fusion. Since the 1950s, a sizeable body of nuclear physicists have kept themselves gainfully employed and their laboratories stocked and staffed by proclaiming nuclear fusion as the wave of the future. In just another twenty years, we’ve repeatedly been told, clean, safe nuclear fusion plants will be churning out endless supplies of energy, if only the government subsidies keep pouring in. After sixty years of unbroken failure, even politicians are starting to have second thoughts, but the fusion-power industry keeps at it, pursuing a project that, as respected science writer Charles Seife pointed out trenchantly in Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, has more in common with the quest for perpetual motion than its overeager fans like to think.

Every few years the media carries yet another enthusiastic announcement that some new breakthrough has happened in the quest for fusion power. Now of course it’s worth noting that none of these widely ballyhooed breakthroughs ever amount to a working fusion reactor capable of putting power into the grid, but let’s let that pass for now, because the point I want to make is a different one. As I pointed out in a post here last year, the question that matters about fusion is not whether fusion power is technically feasible, but whether it’s economically viable. That’s not a question anyone in the fusion research industry wants to discuss, and there are good reasons for that.

The ITER project in Europe offers a glimpse at the answer.  ITER is the most complex and also the most expensive machine ever built by human beings—the latest estimate of the total cost has recently gone up from $14 billion to $17 billion, and if past performance is anything to go by, it will have gone up a good deal more before the scheduled completion in 2020. That stratospheric price tag results from the simple fact that six decades of hard work by physicists around the world, exploring scores of different approaches to fusion, have shown that any less expensive approach won’t produce a sustained fusion reaction. While commercial fusion reactors would doubtless cost less than ITER, it’s already clear that they won’t cost enough less to make fusion power economically viable. Even if ITER succeeds in creating its "sun in a bottle," in other words, that fact will be an expensive laboratory curiosity, not a solution to the world’s energy needs.

My more attentive readers will doubtless have noticed that the flaw in the current round of glowing prophecies of a future powered by fusion plants is the same as the flaw in the equally glowing sales pitches for corn-based ethanol fuel plants a decade ago. Turning corn into ethanol, and using the ethanol to fuel cars and trucks, is technically feasible; it just doesn’t happen to be economically viable. In the same way, whether fusion power is technically feasible or not may still be up in the air, but the question of its economic viability is not. The gap between technical capacity and economic reality provides the ecological niche in which both these projects make their home, and a great many other alleged solutions to the energy crisis of our time inhabit that same niche.

I’d like to suggest that it’s high time to put a name to the technological fauna that fill this role in our social ecology, and I even have a name to propose.  I think we should call them "subsidy dumpsters."

A subsidy dumpster, if I may venture on a definition, is an energy technology that looks like a viable option so long as nobody pays attention to the economic realities. Because it’s technically feasible, or at least hasn’t yet been proven to be unfeasible, promoters can brandish enthusiastic estimates of how much energy it will yield if only the government provides adequate funding, and point to laboratory tests of technical feasibility as evidence that so tempting a bait is within reach. The promoters of such schemes can also rely on the foam-flecked ravings of economists, who have proven to be so stunningly clueless about energy in recent years, and they can also count on one of the pervasive blind spots in modern thinking: the almost visceral inability of most people these days to think in terms of whole systems. Armed with these advantages, they descend upon politicians, and if energy costs are an irritation to the public—and these days, energy costs are always an irritation to the public—the politicians duly cough up a subsidy so they can claim to be doing something about the energy problem.

Once the subsidy dumpster gets its funding, it goes through however many twists and turns its promoters can manage before economic realities take their inevitable toll. If the dumpster in question has to compete in the marketplace, as fuel ethanol plants did, the normal result is a series of messy bankruptcies as soon as the government money runs short. If it can be shielded from the market, preferably by always being almost ready for commercial deployment but never actually quite getting there—the fusion-research industry has this one down pat, though it’s fair to say that the laws of nature seem to be giving them a great deal of help—the dumpster can keep on being filled with subsidies for as long as the prospect of an imminent breakthrough can be dangled in front of politicians and the public. Since most people these days consistently mistake technical feasibility for economic viability, there’s no shortage of easy marks for this sort of sales pitch.

There are plenty of subsidy dumpsters in the energy field just now. What makes this all the more unfortunate is that quite a few of them are based on technologies that could be used in less self-defeating ways. Solar power, to name only one example, could make a huge dent in America’s energy needs, if the available resources focused on proven technologies such as solar water heaters; once this sensible approach is replaced by attempts to claim that we can keep the grid powered by paving some substantial fraction of Nevada with solar PV cells, though, we’re in subsidy-dumpster territory, as a recent study of Spain’s much-lauded solar program has shown. Renewable energy is a viable option so long as its sharp limits of concentration and intermittency are kept in mind; ignore those, and pretend that we can keep on living today’s extravagant lifestyles on a basis that won’t support them, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a subsidy dumpster.
Now it’s only fair to point out that the energy issue is far from the only dimension of modern life that attracts subsidy dumpsters. Name a current crisis here in America—joblessness, urban blight, decaying infrastructure, and the list goes on—and there are plenty of subsidy dumpsters to be found, some empty and rusting like yesterday’s ethanol plants, some soaking up government funds like the ITER project, and many more that are still only a twinkle in the eyes of their eager promoters. Still, I’d like to suggest that subsidy dumpsters in the energy field have a particular importance just now.

The end of the age of cheap abundant energy requires that we stop using anything like as much energy as we’ve been using in recent decades. Any approach to dealing with the crisis of our age that doesn’t start by using much less energy, in other words, simply isn’t serious. The parade of subsidy dumpsters being hawked to politicians these days is merely one more attempt to refuse to take our predicament as seriously as it deserves, and thus serves mostly as a way to make that predicament even worse than it has to be. By and large, to borrow a neatly Pharaonic turn of phrase from one of my longtime readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Robin Datta—that’s the trouble with spending all your time splashing around in the waters of denial; all that happens, in the final analysis, is that you attract the attention of the crocodiles of reality.

*  *  *

In not unrelated news, I'm pleased to report that my latest book on peak oil and the future of industrial society, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, is now in print. Those of my readers who have preordered copies will have them soon; those who haven't...well, what's keeping you? ;-)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Steampunk Future Revisited

One of the things I’ve noticed repeatedly, over the nearly eight years I’ve been writing this blog, is that I’m the last person to ask which of these weekly essays is most likely to find an audience or hit a nerve. Posts I think will be met with a shrug of the shoulders stir up a storm of protest, while those I expect to be controversial get calm approval instead. Nor do I find it any easier to guess which posts will have readers once the next week rolls around and a new essay goes up.

My favorite example just now, not least because it’s so close to the far end of the improbability curve, is a post that appeared here back in 2011, discussing Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game as a work of deindustrial science fiction. If ever a post of mine seemed destined for oblivion, that was it; next to nobody reads Hesse nowadays, and even in the days when every other college student had a battered paperback copy of Siddhartha or Steppenwolf on hand, not that many people wrestled with the ironic ambiguities of Hesse's last and longest novel. More than three years after that post appeared, though, the site stats here at Blogger show me that there are still people reading it most evenings. Has it gotten onto the recommended-reading list of the League of Journeyers to the East, the mysterious fellowship that features in several Hesse stories? If so, nobody's yet given me the secret handshake.

There are other posts of mine that have gone on to have that sort of persistent afterlife. What interests me just now, though, is that one of my recent posts appears to be doing the same: the essay I posted just a month ago proposing the steampunk subculture as a potential model for future technology on the far side of the Long Descent. While steampunk isn't anything like as obscure as The Glass Bead Game, it's not exactly a massive cultural presence, either, and it interests me that a month after the post appeared, it's still getting read and discussed.

Courtesy of one of my regular readers, it's also appeared in an Australian newsletter for fans of penny farthing bicycles. Those of my readers who don't speak bicyclese may want to know that those are the old-fashioned cycles with a big wheel in front and a small one in back; the old British penny was about the size of a US quarter, the farthing about the size of a US dime, and if you put the two coins side by side you have a pretty fair image of the bicycle in question. I wasn't aware that anyone had revived the penny farthing cycle, and I was glad to hear it: they're much simpler than today's bicycles, requiring neither gears nor chains, and many penny farthing riders these days simply build their own cycles—a capacity well worth learning and preserving.

Mind you, there were plenty of people who took issue with the post, and I want to talk about some of those objections here, because they cast a useful light on the blind spots of the imagination I've been exploring in recent posts. My favorite example is the commenter who insisted with some heat that an advanced technology couldn't be based on the mechanical and pneumatic systems of the Victorian era. As an example, he pointed out that without electronics, there was no way to build a FMRI machine—that's "functional magnetic resonance imaging" for those of my readers who don't speak medicalese, one of the latest pieces of high-priced medical hardware currently bankrupting patients and their families across America.

He's quite correct, of course, but his choice of an example says much more about the limitations of his thinking than it does about anything else. Of course a steampunk-style technology wouldn't produce FMRI machines, or for that matter most of the electronic gimmickry that fills contemporary life in the industrial world, from video games to weather radar.  It would take advantage of the very different possibilities inherent in mechanical and pneumatic technology to do different things. It's only from within the tunnel vision of contemporary culture that the only conceivable kind of advanced technology is the kind that happens to produce FMRI machines, video games and weather radars.  An inhabitant of some alternate world where the petroleum and electronics revolutions never got around to happening, and something like steampunk technology became standard, could insist with equal force that a technology couldn't possibly be called advanced unless it featured funicular-morphoteny machines and photodyne nebulometers. 

The same sort of thinking expressed in a slightly different way drove the claim, which appeared repeatedly in the comments page here as well as elsewhere, that a neo-Victorian technology by definition meant Victorian customs such as child labor.  A very large number of people in the contemporary industrial world, that is, can't imagine a future that isn't either just like the present or just like some corner of the past. It should be obvious that a technology using mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic power transfer can be applied to the needs of many different cultural forms, not merely those that were common in one corner of the late 19th century world. That this is far from obvious shows just how rigidly limited our imagination of the future has become.

That would be a serious difficulty even if we weren't picking up speed down the bumpy slope that leads toward the deindustrial dark ages of the not so distant future.  Given that that's where we are just now, it could very well turn into a fruitful source of disasters.  The economic arrangements that make it possible to build, maintain, and use FMRI machines in American hospitals are already coming apart around us; so are the equivalent arrangements that prop up most other advanced technological systems in today's industrial world.  In the absence of those arrangements, a good many simpler technological systems could be put in their places and used to take up some of the slack.  If enough of us are convinced that without FMRI machines we might as well just bring on the blood-sucking leeches, though, those steps will not be taken.

With this in mind, I want to circle back around to the neo-Victorian technology imagined by steampunk aficionados, and look at it from another angle.

It's not often remembered that paved roads of the modern type were not originally put there for automobiles.  In America, and I believe in other countries as well, the first generation of what were called "Macadamized" roads—the kind with a smooth surface rather than bare bricks or cobblestones—were built in response to lobbying by bicyclists. Here in the United States, the lobbying organization was the League of American Wheelmen. (There were plenty of wheelwomen as well, but the masculine gender still had collective force in the English of that time.) Their advocacy had a recreational side, but there was more to it than that.  A few people—among them the redoubtable Sir James Jeavons—were already pointing out in the 19th century that exponential growth in coal consumption could not be maintained forever; a great many more had begun to work out the practical implications of the soaring population of big cities in America and elsewhere, in terms of such homely but real problems as the disposal of horse manure, and these concerns fed into the emergence of the bicycle as the hot new personal transport technology of the age.

Similar concerns guided the career of a figure who has appeared in these essays more than once already, the brilliant French inventor Augustin Mouchot.  Noting that his native country had very limited coal reserves, and colonial possessions in North Africa with vast amounts of sunlight on offer, Mouchot devoted two decades of pioneering work to harnessing solar energy. His initial efforts focused on solar cookers, stills and water pumps, and his success at these challenges encouraged him to tackle a challenge no previous inventor had managed: a working solar steam engine. His first successful model was tested in 1866, and the Paris Exhibition of 1878 featured his masterpiece, a huge engine with a sun-tracking conical reflector focusing sunlight on tubes of blackened copper; the solar engine pumped water, cooked food, distilled first-rate brandy, and ran a refrigerator. A similar model exhibited in Paris in 1880 ran a steam-driven printing press, which obligingly turned out 500 copies of Le Journal Solaire.

Two other technologies I've discussed repeatedly in these essays came out of the same era. The first commercial solar water heater hit the market in 1891 and very quickly became a common sight over much of the United States; the colder regions used them in the summertime, the Sun Belt year round, in either case with very substantial savings in energy costs.  The fireless cooker or haybox was another successful and widely adopted technology of the age:  a box full of insulation with a well in the center for a cooking pot, it was the slow cooker of its time, but without the electrical cord.  Bring food to a boil on the stove and then pop the pot into the fireless cooker, and it finishes cooking by residual heat, again with substantial energy savings.

Such projects were on many minds in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. There was good reason for that; the technology and prosperity of the Victorian era were alike utterly dependent on the extraction and consumption of nonrenewable resources, and for those who had eyes to see, the limits to growth were coming into sight. That’s the thinking that lay behind sociologist Max Weber’s eerie 1905 prediction of the future of the industrial economy: “This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisiton, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”

It so happened that a temporary event pushed those limits back out of sight for three quarters of a century. The invention of the internal combustion engine, which turned gasoline from a waste product of lamp fuel refining to one of the most eagerly sought products of the age, allowed the industrial societies of that time to put off the day of reckoning for a while. It wasn't just that petroleum replaced coal in many applications, though of course this happened; coal production was also propped up by an energy subsidy from petroleum—the machines that mined coal and the trains that shipped it were converted to petroleum, so that energy-rich petroleum could subsidize the extraction of low-grade coal reserves. If the petroleum revolution had not been an option, the 20th century would have witnessed the sort of scenes we're seeing now: rising energy costs and economic contraction leading to decreasing energy use per capita in leading industrial nations, as an earlier and more gradual Long Descent got under way.

Those of my readers who have been following this blog for a while may be feeling a bit of deja vu at this point, and they're not wrong to do so. We’ve talked here many times about the appropriate-tech movement of the 1970s, which made so many promising first steps toward sustainability before it was crushed by the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution and the reckless drawdown of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields. What I'd like to suggest, though, is that the conservation and ecology movement of the 1970s wasn’t the first attempt to face the limits of growth in modern times; it was the second. The first such attempt was in the late 19th century, and Augustin Mouchot, as well as the dozens of other solar and wind pioneers of that time—not to mention bicylists on penny farthing cycles!—were the original green wizards, the first wave of sustainability pioneers, whose work deserves to be revived as much as that of the 1970s does. 

Their work was made temporarily obsolete by the torrent of cheap petroleum energy that arrived around the beginning of the 20th century. One interesting consequence of taking their existence into account is that it’s easy to watch the law of diminishing returns at work in the can-kicking exercises made possible by petroleum. The first wave of petroleum energy pushed back the limits to growth for just over seventy years, from 1900 or so to 1972.  The second did the same trick for around twenty-five years, from 1980 to 2005. The third—well, we're still in it, but it started in 2010 or so and isn’t holding up very well just now.  A few more cycles of the same kind, and the latest loudly ballyhooed new petroleum bonanza that disproves peak oil might keep the media distracted for a week.

As a thought experiment, though, I encourage my readers to imagine what might have followed if that first great distraction never happened—if, let's say, due to some chance mutation among plankton back in the Cambrian period, carbon compounds stashed away in deepwater sediments turned into a waxy, chemically inert goo rather than into petroleum.  The internal combustion engine would still have been invented, but without some immensely abundant source of liquid fuel to burn, it would have become, like the Stirling engine, an elegant curiosity useful only for a few specialized purposes. As coal reserves depleted, governments, industrial firms, and serious men of affairs doubtless would have become ever more fixated on seizing control of untapped coal mines wherever they could be found, and the twentieth century in this alternate world would likely have been ravaged by wars as destructive as the ones in our world.

At the same time, the pioneering work of Mouchot and his many peers would have become increasingly hard to ignore. Solar power was unquestionably less economical than coal, while there was coal, but as coal reserves dwindled—remember, there would be no huge diesel machines burning oceans of cheap petroleum, so no mountaintop removal mining, nor any of the other extreme coal-extraction methods so common today—pointing a conical mirror toward the Sun would rapidly become the better bet.  As wars and power shifts deprived entire nations of access to what was left of the world's dwindling coal production, the same principle would have applied with even more force.  Solar cookers and stills, solar pumps and engines, wind turbines and other renewable-energy technologies would have been the only viable options.

This alternate world would have had advantages that ours doesn't share. To begin with, energy use per capita in 1900 was a small fraction of current levels even in the most heavily industrialized nations, and whole categories of work currently done directly or indirectly by fossil fuels were still being done by human beings. Agriculture hadn't been mechanized, so the food supply wouldn't have been at risk; square-rigged sailing vessels were still hauling cargoes on the seas, so as the price of coal soared and steamboats stopped being economical, maritime trade and travel could readily downshift to familiar sail technology.  As the new renewable-energy technologies became more widely distributed and more efficient, getting by with the energy supplied by sun and wind would have become second nature to everybody.

Perhaps, dear reader, you can imagine yourself sitting comfortably this afternoon in a café in this alternate world, about to read my weekly essay. No, it isn’t on a glowing screen; it’s in the pages of a weekly newspaper printed, as of course everything is printed these days, by a solar-powered press. Before you get to my latest piece, you read with some interest that a Brazilian inventor has been awarded the prestigious Mouchot Prize for a solar steam engine that’s far better suited to provide auxiliary power to sailing ships than existing models. You skim over the latest news from the war between Austria and Italy, in which bicycle-mounted Italian troops have broken the siege of Gemona del Friuli, and a report from Iceland, which is rapidly parlaying its abundant supply of volcanic steam into a place as one of the 21st century’s industrial powerhouses.

It’s a cool, clear, perfectly seasonable day—remember, most of the gigatons of carbon we spent the 20th century dumping into the atmosphere stayed buried in this alternate world—and the proprietor of the café is beaming as he watches sunlight streaming through the windows. He knows that every hour of sunlight falling on the solar collectors on the roof is saving him plenty of money in expensive fuel the kitchen won’t have to burn. Outside the café, the sun gleams on a row of bicycles, yours among them: they’re the normal personal transport of the 21st century, after all.  Solar water heaters gleam on every roof, and great conical collectors track the sun atop the factory down the road.  High overhead, a dirigible soars silently past; we’ll assume, for the sake of today’s steampunk sensibility, that lacking the extravagant fuel supplies needed to make airplanes more than an exotic fad, the bugs got worked out of dirigible technology instead.

Back in the cafe, you begin to read the latest Archdruid Report—and my imagination fails me at this point, because that essay wouldn’t be about the subjects that have filled these posts for most of eight years now. A society of the kind I’ve very roughly sketched out wouldn’t be in the early stages of a long ragged slide into ecological failure, political disintegration, economic breakdown, and population collapse.  It would have made the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy when its energy consumption per capita was an order of magnitude smaller than ours, and thus would have had a much easier time of it.  Of course a more or less stable planetary climate, and an environment littered with far fewer of the ugly end products of human chemical and nuclear tinkering, would be important advantages as well.

It’s far from impossible that our descendants, some centuries from now, could have a society and a technology something like the one I’ve outlined here, though we have a long rough road to travel before that becomes possible. In the alternate world I’ve sketched, though, that would be no concern of mine. Since ecology would be simple common sense and the unwelcome future waiting for us in this world would have gone wherever might-have-beens spend their time, I’d have many fewer worries about the future, and would probably have to talk about Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game instead. Maybe then the League of Journeyers to the East would show up to give me the secret handshake!