Tuesday, May 9 2006
Last night Matt Rogers sent me another downer Peak Oil link, this once called
The long road down: decline and the deindustrial future by John Michael Greer. I'd thought that article Matt sent me the other day was a brisk shower of unpleasant reality, but last night's positively gave me the willies. The main thesis of the article is that Peak Oil isn't going to bring about a spectacular collapse of modern society, but we're not going to find a way to transcend it either. Instead, our destiny is to follow a long gradual decline, with more and more people having to get by on less and less energy per capita. The downward slope has already begun; according to the article, the peak of energy use per capita for Planet Earth was reached in 1979. Any additional people on the planet have required additional efficiencies in average energy use, and that's despite the recent SUV craze. Eventually there won't be any way to divide the energy bean further and world population will have to find a way to decrease.
In the media you hear about how China is aiming to become some sort of one billion person America, but this isn't going to happen. There simply isn't any way to supply the necessary energy. Oil is, of course, the most liquid currency in our energy budget, but there is also coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar. According to the article, these will merely soften the blow of the depletion of world oil supplies. All of them are fixed and finite, and while energy from the sun is essentially inexhaustible, it wouldn't be easy to collect more than the amount that reliably lands on the earth's surface, a good fraction of which is needed by the biological infrastructure we take for granted (things like rain, carbohydrates, and oxygen, among many others).
What was novel (for me) in this thesis was the notion it advanced about the fundamental role of energy in human progress. According to the article, the rapid advance of technology is due entirely to the easy availability of fossil energy, and once that's gone, so too will go all of our achievements. According to Greer, it won't end with a sudden catastrophe or even worldwide mayhem, but slowly, over the course of generations (he compared it to the collapse of Mayan civilization after the tropical soils of its empire were exhausted). This is because the underlying energy won't be exhausted all at once and other fuels will peak at other times, slowly lowering human society back to the way it was circa 1800, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Greer considered his theory of inevitable slow decline an "unpopular" middle path between spectacular sudden collapse and the triumph of human progress. Unpopular because it conflicted with both myths of societal outcome: the pop-Darwinist myth of uplifting progress and the Christianity-derived myth of Armageddon.
For me the article was both convincing and depressing at the same time. My personal paradigm (and it was a paradigm in that I hadn't really stopped to analyze it) had been a convenient combination of the two myths. On the one hand, I thought mankind was due for a day of reckoning, and that I might well live to see it come to pass. It would be vindication for all my years as a pessimist during the decades of its unfashionability since Jimmy Carter's prescient malaise speech. On the other hand I was sure that all the gifts of the Industrial Revolution and Information Age, all of them bought by spending down millions of years of planetary inheritance, were ours to keep, that the future post-oil world, though it might be a wrecked environment home to less than a billion hungry, shell-shocked humans, would still have all of our wonderful gadgets. People would be running their laptops with water wheels and listening to massive pirated MP3 collections passed computer-to-computer in an exciting lawless land of crumbling cities and sustainable agriculture. Greer's contention, though, is that we're not going to have anything we didn't have in the 18th Century and that we might even have less.
When they can be cranked out cheaply, products aren't built to last. Books are printed on cheap acid-rich paper, houses are designed to last thirty years, and computers are fabricated with the assumption that their capabilities will quickly be rendered pathetic by Moore's Law. But cheap production requires a massive industrial infrastructure, with massive dedicated workforces who show up reliably every morning and massive supplies of cheap energy. Once you take away that cheap energy, the whole system unravels. The people who would have been working in the factory are now jobless and can't afford the products that are being made because they're once more being made by small-scale artisans without globalized industrial efficiencies. Meanwhile, food has become so expensive that most people no longer have the luxury of craving non-essential consumer goods. The abstraction between what they do all day and their basic needs has vanished; they either grow their own food or work (perhaps in a peasant-like capacity) for someone nearby who does. Things must be built to last because of the expense of replacement. And if you happen to have a flimsy artifact of the Industrial Age, you had better treat it with respect because if you break it and need a replacement, there won't be any. A society must have massive industrial specialization in order to crank out such things as LCD panels, photovoltaic solar panels, computer hard drives, central processing units, and anything made out of aluminum. It's likely that no one will be making computers (or other high tech gadgets) once industrial society collapses, partly because computation won't be as necessary for the management of the businesses and economies that emerge, and partly because the globalized industrial infrastructure necessary to build high tech will no longer exist. And once the knowledge of how to build these things vanishes, it vanishes for good. All of the inheritance of artifacts and information from our time will be lost, except what little manages to be saved in low-tech archival form. But since no one in the post industrial future will have the necessary scientific and technical background to understand our more nuanced documents, their meaning will be a mystery even if they do survive.
Imagining such a future is very depressing to someone like me who had put a lot of stock in the idea of an immortal internet where ideas (and perhaps even the means to process those ideas) would be perpetual.
The only post-industrial hope for technology (and the information it stores) is if it can be made to repair and reproduce itself completely off the grid of Industrial Society. Such technology would be some form of nano-technology, capable of utilizing energy and raw materials in its environment to weave together useful objects. It would constitute a parallel (and intelligently-designed) form of biology, one that could go wildly out of control and cause an even more horrible future than one without a copy of 2008's internet. Could such a system even be relied upon to store the information we'd want it to? Our genomes contains lots and lots of information, but the stuff in there that isn't completely utilitarian is noise. DNA can store information for billions of years, but none of it is art or literature.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
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