Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Future That Wasn't, Part One:

“The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Agriculture: Closing the Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Agriculture: The Price of Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Solvitur Ambulando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lifeboat Time

One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who’s looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world’s rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History. If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization – and it’s hard to think of a reason why it should not – the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire’s outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it’s hard to miss the signs of decline.

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations may offer a useful perspective on what’s coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today’s perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 – different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale – may be in the offing.

If that’s likely – and I believe it is – we’re in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody’s making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they’ve spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I’m thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he’ll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I’m thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents’s farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in 20°F weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adaptive Responses to Peak Oil

One of the occupational hazards of writing a blog on the future of industrial civilization, I’ve discovered, is the occasional incoming missive from somebody with a plan to save the world. My inbox fielded another of those the other day. As worldsaving plans go, this one is relatively modest, and by no means entirely misguided.

My correspondent hopes to convince the American people, or at least some portion thereof, to resettle in largely self-sufficient villages of 5000 to 10,000 people, compact enough that nobody will need to own or use a car. Each village owns enough land around it to feed its population, using edible forest crops and the like as the basis for subsistence. There’s a good deal more; you can find the rest of the details on the website my correspondent recommended.

Taken in the abstract, this is a great plan, and I suspect that a fair number of my readers would be as pleased as I would to move into such a village. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and it’s as ugly a devil as ever graced a medieval morality play. Like those theatrical devils, though, this one has his uses. A close look at why my correspondent’s plan won’t save civilization from peak oil makes a good introduction to a theme that will be central to most of the next year or so of Archdruid Report posts – the question of how to craft an adaptive response to the coming of the deindustrial age.

It’s a rich word, “adaptive.” In the jargon of evolutionary biology, it refers to anything that allows an organism to respond effectively to the demands of its environment. When the environment is stable, what makes an organism adaptive stays pretty much the same from generation to generation. When the environment changes, though, what’s adaptive can change as well, sometimes radically; genetic variations that would have been problematic under the old conditions become advantages under the new; if the shift is large enough, a new species emerges. This points up the other, dictionary definition of the word – according to my Webster’s Ninth, “showing or having a capacity for or tendency toward adaptation.”

Both these meanings have crucial relevance to the work ahead of us as industrial society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. On the one hand, it’s crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the ecological sense – that is, well suited to the new reality of a world of scarce energy and hard environmental limits. At the same time, we won’t simply be landing plump in that new reality overnight, nor do we know in advance exactly what that new reality will look like, so it’s just as crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the dictionary sense – that is, capable of adapting to the unpredictable changes of a world in transition.

The problem with my correspondent’s plan is that it may be adaptive in one sense, but it’s not adaptive at all in the other. It seems quite likely that a network of largely independent towns with populations in the 5000 to 10,000 range might be well adapted to the human and natural environments of a deindustrialized world, though that’s a guess at this stage of the process. It’s the process of getting there that’s the difficulty.

Let’s look at the numbers for a moment. Assume a population of 8000 and an average of 4 persons per family, and you need 2000 new homes for the community. We’ll assume that these homes are cheaper than the median US home – say, $250,000 apiece on average. That gives you a startup cost of $500 million. Add to that the cost of community infrastructure – everything from water and electricity to a school, a library, and the like – not to mention the farmland surrounding the village, and you’ve roughly doubled your price tag to $1 billion.

Even if half your residents own their own homes now and can pay for their new housing out of their equity – not a likely situation in the midst of today’s housing crash and credit crunch – and all the residents put in a great deal of sweat equity in the form of unpaid labor building the village, it’s still going to cost a great deal. If you had 2000 families committed enough to the project to risk their financial future on it, it might nonetheless be possible to make it happen. Still, that’s a huge risk, and it’s made even larger by the fact that the new village is going to have to provide jobs for all its adult residents – part of the point of the exercise is that nobody owns a car, remember, so commuting to the nearest city is out.

Nor can the village’s inhabitants count on being magically transported to a deindustrial world, where they can simply harvest their edible forest crops and barter skills among themselves. For many years to come, they will have bills to pay – not least the costs incurred in setting up the village – and national, state, and local taxes as well. Will the new village be able to provide its residents jobs that will insure their financial survival? Many small towns in the same population range are failing to do that right now. Behind the attractive image of a self-sufficient village in the countryside, in other words, lies the hard reality of a $1 billion gamble for survival against serious economic odds.

That $1 billion gamble, furthermore, would at best only take 8000 people out of the automobile economy – few enough that statistical noise will cover any impact they might have on the larger picture. Imagine a program to take 10% of the US population out of the automobile economy instead; that’s the sort of scale such a program would need in order to have any measurable effect on the fate of industrial society. The price tag there would be around $3.8 trillion in direct costs, plus the huge indirect costs involved in abandoning or relocating 10% of the country’s existing housing stock, residential and community infrastructure, and so on. It would take years, and possibly generations, for the savings in petroleum costs to make up for the huge initial outlay, and if the program turned out not to work – if, for whatever reason, the world on the far side of Hubbert’s peak turned out not to be suited to villages of the sort my correspondent envisions – all that outlay would have been wasted.

Now my correspondent’s plan is far from the most extreme example of this kind of unadaptive thinking. The poster children here are the dwindling tribe of technology fans who believe that fusion power will save us if we only commit enough money to research. It’s been well over half a century since the first attempts to make a viable fusion reactor got under way, and the only working example in the solar system is still 93,000,000 miles away from Earth, rising in the eastern skies every morning as it turns hydrogen into helium at its own unhurried pace. We have absolutely no certainty that another trillion dollars of investment will get us any closer to commercially viable fusion power, and if the gamble fails, industrial society is left twisting in the wind with a great deal of empty space beneath its feet.

The problem shared by these, and so many other proposed responses to the predicament of industrial society, is that they aren’t adaptive in the second, dictionary sense. They bet the farm on a single strategy, and if that fails, there is no plan B. Such plans look good on paper, but that’s usually as far as they go, because the factors in the human and natural environment that would make them possible simply aren’t there. For some forty years now, for instance, people have been talking about village communities like the ones my correspondent described. Very few have even been started, fewer have been built, and the ones that have become viable communities can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

What sort of response to the emerging crisis of the industrial world would count as adaptive? We’ll be talking about that for quite a number of posts to come, but a few suggestions might be worth making at this point.

First, an adaptive response is scalable – that is, it can be started and tested on a very small scale, with a minimal investment of resources, and then expanded from there if it proves to work. A fusion reactor is not scalable; you either have one, after trillions of dollars of further investment, or you don’t. My correspondent’s village proposal is a good deal more scalable than this, but even so it’s impossible to give it a try without at least a few hundred families and quite a bit of money. What we need, by contrast, are responses that can start out with individuals committing only the money, resources and time they can easily spare.

Second, an adaptive response is modular – that is, it can be broken down into distinct elements, each of which functions on its own without needing the involvement of all the other parts. That allows something that doesn’t work well to be swapped out without disrupting the rest of the system; it also allows elements suited to one stage of the deindustrializing process to be replaced with something else when that stage gives way to another. Think of the difference between a machine and a toolkit. A machine either does the job or it doesn’t, and if the job changes, you usually have to replace the entire tool. If you have a toolkit, by contrast, the jobs that can’t be done with one tool can usually be done with another.

Third, an adaptive response is open – that is, it can be combined freely with other approaches to the challenges of the future and the enduring predicaments of human existence. None of us can know in advance what belief systems, socioeconomic arrangements, and lifestyle choices will turn out to be most adaptive at each stage of the decline of industrial society. Locking a response into one particular set of approaches limits its usefulness, and could lead people in the future to jettison valuable options because they have become too thoroughly entangled with a dysfunctional economic system or a discredited ideology.

These characteristics look back toward some of the issues already discussed in this blog, but they also open unfamiliar doors. As we peer through those doors in the weeks and months to come, it might be possible to glimpse something of what adaptive responses to the predicament of the industrial world might look like.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fascism, Feudalism, and the Future

One of the things that I can’t help noticing, as someone who listens for narratives in the ways people talk about the future, is the way that certain motifs reappear over and over again in discussions surrounding peak oil and the future of industrial society. These are distinct from the great mythic stories that shape so many accounts of the future – the myth of salvation through technological progress, for example, or its usual debating partner, the myth of redemption from an evil society through apocalypse. The motifs I’m speaking of here are more self-contained and more flexible, and pop up in most visions of the future in circulation these days.

One classic example is the image of mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path. This one has been a recurring cultural nightmare in the western world for a couple of centuries now, since the cities of the industrial world disconnected themselves socially from their agricultural hinterlands and began filling up with immigrant populations. Read such classic fictional treatments of the theme as Newton Thornburg’s Valhalla (1980) and it’s clear that on this side of the Atlantic, at least, it roots into the enduring emotional legacy of American racism, the terror of the dark Other on which the shadow of white America’s unacknowledged desires has long been projected.

You can look through history books in vain for examples of urban populations invading the countryside en masse in the twilight years of civilizations, but the motif remains stuck firmly in place. The inhabitants of Willits, one of the few American towns that have taken the imminence of peak oil seriously, have apparently laid plans to blow up highway bridges leading into town from the south, to keep those imaginary mobs at bay. Willits is in liberal northern California, but it’s embraced the same fantasy that leads survivalists on the opposite end of the political spectrum to indulge in wet dreams about automatic weapons blazing away at marauding hordes.

The motif I want to talk about in this week’s post has equally complex roots, and bridges the narrowing gap between the far left and the far right in a similar way. This is the belief that the American political class – those rich and influential people whose unity, power, and malevolence are articles of faith across the farther shores of American politics – are plotting to impose an authoritarian regime combining feudalism and fascism in the wake of peak oil. Like the belief in rampaging urban hordes, the imminence of this “feudal-fascist” takeover can be found in peak oil literature from every point along the political spectrum.

The words “feudalism” and “fascism” appear so often and are used so loosely in this context that it’s worth remembering that they actually do have exact meanings. Feudalism is a specific form of social organization that springs up in the aftermath of sociopolitical collapse. When central government disintegrates, money economies implode, and pervasive violence is everywhere, one of the few effective responses is a radical decentralization of power that hands control over small regions to magnates who can raise a corps of professional warriors, feed and support it with local agricultural produce, and defend their fiefs against all comers.

A feudal society is a legal hierarchy of decentralized force. In feudalism, the place of every human being from monarch to serf is measured precisely by that person’s ability to wield violence, and is matched by an elaborate hierarchy of rights and responsibilities. It bears remembering that the Magna Carta, the foundation of Anglo-American constitutional law, is a quintessentially feudal document; under feudalism, serfs had rights that at least in theory, kings could not arbitrarily set aside, though those rights were doubtless honored about as often as the rights of the poor in industrial societies today. Harsh and by modern standards unjust, feudal systems nonetheless flourish in desperate times because they offer an effective bulwark against violence and chaos, and provide each person some measure of security under the rule of law.

Fascism, even in the broadest sense of the term, is a far more culturally specific phenomenon that sprang up in Europe and Latin America in the aftermath of the First World War and faded out, where it had not been forcibly blotted out, after the Second. Allied wartime propaganda from the 1940s still has most people thinking of the metastatic nightmare of Nazi Germany as the archetype of fascism, but the mainstream of the fascist movement came out of Italy, where Benito Mussolini launched it with with his seizure of power in 1922. In Italy as elsewhere, fascism was a radically centralized socialist-capitalist hybrid that opposed communism while borrowing many of the Soviet regime’s own features.

In fascist societies, property remained in private hands, but capitalist competition was replaced by government coordination, and wages and prices were set by edict; labor unions existed, but workers were forbidden to strike and disputes were arbitrated by government tribunals. Public officials were appointed by the party leadership rather than being elected by the people, as in democracy, or inheriting their positions, as in feudalism. The rule of law was explicitly abandoned in favor of the “will of the nation,” which in practice meant the will of the party leadership. Fascist political philosophy explicitly argued that there should be as few levels as possible in the chain of command between the leader and the individual citizen, and the result was unfree but distinctly egalitarian – that is, everyone outside the top leadership of the party had the same lack of rights as everyone else.

Compare fascism to feudalism and massive differences outweigh the few similarities: a radically centralized society versus a radically decentralized one, a complete lack of individual rights versus an elaborately detailed code of rights for each person, the unchecked will of the leader versus the formal rule of law, and the list goes on. In the modern world, certainly, the two have also appealed to different social classes – fascism to the lower middle classes and skilled laborers, feudalism to the old aristocracy. It’s not an accident that the most sustained opposition to Hitler’s regime in Germany came from the Prussian aristocracy; the famous bomb plot that nearly vaporized the Führer and ended the war most of a year in advance was planned and executed by as blue-blooded a conspiracy as any in history.

So what on earth would a feudal-fascist regime be? A radically decentralized centralized state with an egalitarian hierarchy that both had and lacked individual rights and the rule of law? Clearly the words “fascism” and “feudalism” are not being here used to mean what they actually mean. Rather, they are what S.I. Hayakawa used to call “snarl words:” terms of abuse invoked because they evoke a predictable emotional response.

Behind this lies the ugliest of the left’s bad habits, its habit of demonizing those who disagree with its political stances. It’s not enough, for example, to argue that the political hacks and free market ideologues who make up the current US administration have pursued bad policies with astonishing ineptitude and more than the usual dollop of corruption, as indeed they have; for many people on the left today, the dismal performance of the Bush administration has to be forced into the Procrustean bed of a conspiracy theory in which every bumbling misadventure becomes a step in a sinister plan deliberately aimed at creating a dystopian society.

Now it’s only fair to point out that today’s left borrowed this habit from yesterday’s far right. The dubious claims of concentration camps under construction now being circulated by the left have their exact parallels in the equally dubious rumors about black helicopters and uniformed UN troops on America’s highways in the aftermath of Clinton’s 1992 electoral victory. More generally, it’s remarkable to see how much of today’s left-wing thinking has its roots in the ideas of the extreme right a half century ago. Trace back the rhetoric today’s radicals use to denounce the Council on Foreign Relations and multinational corporations to its source, and you’ll find an unlikely godparent: Robert Welch, founder and chief ideologue of the John Birch Society, who made all the same accusations in the 1950s under the banner of extreme conservatism.

It needs to be recognized that any time somebody starts insisting that the political party they happen not to like is a fair imitation of evil incarnate, what’s going on has little to do with the sort of dispassionate analysis that might actually give us a sense of the shape the future holds. Like the motif of marauding urban hordes, I’ve come to think, the mythology of an evil elite plotting world enslavement is the projection of the shadow of unacknowledged desires – in this case, the desire for power over others. It’s a normal human desire; the political systems of most stable countries have checks and balances to contain it and channel it in useful directions; but the ideology of the contemporary left, like that of the extreme anticommunist right in America half a century ago, denies it any place at all. A scapegoat thus has to be found to bear the onus of unacknowledged desire. To Robert Welch, that scapegoat was international communism; for the contemporary left, it’s George W. Bush.

Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day, mind you, and the fact that much of today’s radical rhetoric was invented by a man who believed Barry Goldwater was a communist sympathizer does not necessarily disprove it. A feudal-fascist society may be every bit as possible as a square circle, but fascism and feudalism – as social systems rather than snarl words – may well end up playing roles in the complex historical tapestry of industrial society’s decline and fall. Most modern industrial societies had already adopted fascist habits of government economic coordination and leadership by charisma rather than law by the time Mussolini’s corpse was laid to rest, and the temptation to push things further in the same direction in a time of emergency is always present.

That temptation, it should be noted, affects the left as much as the right. I’ve pointed before to David Korten’s The Great Turning as an example of this, but it bears repeating here. According to Korten, those who share his own background and opinions are naturally gifted with the ability to lead humanity through the present crisis, and ought to be given the unchecked power to do so. Those of my readers who can’t see in this the potential seed of a future green fascism may want to compare works such as Korten’s to the early manifestoes of the fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s. Of course there are also plenty of would-be leaders invoking Führerprinzip on the right as well, and there’s a certain morbid fascination to whether one side, the other, or some fusion of the two will attempt a grab for power first.

Feudalism, if it is to happen, lies further in the future. If the spiral of catabolic collapse now beginning to pull at industrial civilization succeeds in dragging it all the way down to complete social disintegration, some form of feudalism is pretty much a given. If the only alternative is the reign of unchecked violence, most people will settle for basic physical security and the rule of law, however unequal the laws in question might be.

Only if some semblance of a functioning government still exists at the bottom of the curve, and holds the war of all against all in check, can we count on skipping a feudal period in the deindustrial future. Equally, it’s only the survival of a constitutional government, however flawed this may be, that can keep fascism at bay in the early stages of decline and fall. Neither of those goals will be furthered in the least by pouring rhetorical napalm on the fires of partisan hatred, insisting that one’s political opponents must be motivated by sheer evil, and projecting one’s own unresolved issues onto the nearest convenient enemy.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Waiting for the Other Shoe

Picking a route down the far side of Hubbert’s peak requires some of the same skills hikers use when navigating any other mountain trail, and one of those skills is a curious sort of double vision. On the one hand, you have to pay attention to the terrain around you, watching for places where the footing might prove treacherous or other hazards such as falling rocks might make the trip a little too exciting. On the other hand, you have to pay attention to the bigger picture, the way the land lies, so the trail you choose will actually take you in the direction you want to go.

In the last few months here on The Archdruid Report I’ve dealt mostly with that longer view, partly out of disquiet with the peak oil community’s fixation on immediate issues, partly in an attempt to lay foundations for a conversation about how choices we make today can help shape the far future. I’d planned on continuing that this week with another exploration of the successional process that bids fair to shape the next few centuries of human social evolution. Still, sometimes you have to set the long view aside and concentrate on the ground in front of your feet, and that may turn out to be a good idea just now.

I suspect most people whose interest in the news doesn’t center on Britney Spears’ taste in underwear have noticed some very unsettling data points in the last three months or so. Since August 15 of this year, the price of crude oil has shot up $25 a barrel and the price of gold has rocketed $175 an ounce, and these are just the poster children for soaring commodity prices that have affected nearly every raw material for sale in the world. Part of this is driven by real scarcities. The usually optimistic International Energy Agency, for example, has issued an uncharacteristically harsh report warning that global petroleum supply is failing to keep up with demand, creating an energy crunch that will only get worse in the decades to come

Another part of this shift, though, tracks the continuing collapse in the US dollar. Since August 15, the British pound is up 6% and the Euro 9% relative to the dollar. The only currencies that buy as many dollars as they did a month ago are those locked to the dollar by government edict, and some of those governments, at least, are having second thoughts. The latest round of panic selling of dollars today was sparked by a comment by a Chinese banker that his government was really going to have to get more of its reserves out of the dollar and into some stronger currency.

At the same time, the subprime mortgage collapse – a misnomer, really, since many billions of dollars in supposedly AAA mortgages and other speculative instruments have turned out to have values just as evanescent as the most dubious subprime loan – is continuing to worsen. Citibank, the world’s largest bank just now, announced over the weekend that they had lost $11 billion over the last month. Several other big banks have made similar admissions in the last two weeks or so. One of this morning’s news stories mentions that US investment banks will shortly have to write off approximately $100 billion of paper value on top of this; other stories hint at even larger losses waiting further down the road.

Meanwhile, the New York Stock Exchange has announced that the controls on computer trading put in place to damp down volatility after the huge 1987 stock market crash are being discontinued. According to NYSE officials the controls, which were triggered eleven times last month, are “no longer necessary.” On a day when the Dow plunged 360 points amid panic selling of banking and real estate stocks, this is not exactly a comforting claim.

The last of these unsettling news stories comes from an unexpected place: the pen of Francis Fukuyama, the Johns Hopkins professor whose 1989 essay “An End to History?” attempted to portray America’s victory in the Cold War as the culmination of human history and provided the intellectual underpinnings, such as they were, for the Bush I and Clinton administrations. More recently Fukuyama made the news again as part of the right-wing revolt against the current administration’s disastrous policies in Iraq and the resulting wreck of the post-Cold War international order.

His latest essay starts with a commentary on the rise and fall of American hegemony in the post-9/11 era. At the end of the essay, though, he suggests that maybe the world would be better off if the US were kept in line by a balance of power – even if not all the players in the balance of power were not, in his delicate phrase, “fully democratic.”

This is an astounding admission. What Fukuyama is suggesting is that he – and by extension, the faction of the US political class for whom he has long been the spokesperson – would be willing to accept the end of America’s global dominance and the emergence of a world order in which Russia and China – the less-than-fully-democratic powers he clearly has in mind – have some measure of parity with the US. From anybody in the American political class, this would be a remarkable statement; from the onetime prophet of a unipolar world under American leadership, it looks suspiciously like a white flag.

I am an archdruid, not an economist or a political scientist, and my exposure to the worlds of high finance and international politics consists entirely of interested observation at a distance. The precise meaning of each of these scraps of information can be left to specialists. Their broader significance, though, may be of much greater importance. None of these data points is a symptom of business as usual. Combine them with the many other troubling stories moving through the media, the internet, and specialist journals, and it’s hard to miss the implication that a major discontinuity may be approaching.

One of the reasons I find ecology a useful guide to history is that the natural world and the human world relate to time and change in similar ways. Most of the time, in an ecosystem or a human society, change happens gradually, cycling through predictable patterns or bridging the space between one set of conditions and another. Watch a vacant lot turning back into woodland or a pond moving through its annual cycle and the continuities are much more striking than the changes, at least in the time scales the human senses and mind pick up most easily. Similarly, human societies change through the cumulative impact of many small changes over time, and it’s often only in retrospect that we blink in surprise, wondering where a once-familiar world went.

Sudden change is the exception, not the rule, but it does happen. The implosion of the global economy after the September 1929 stock market crash, the dizzying plunges into war in the summer months of 1914 and 1939, and the disintegration of the Communist bloc at the end of the 1980s are examples of the way radical changes can sweep over a society. In each case, human affairs continued along their normal course while pressures built beneath the surface, and warnings of the coming crisis fell on deaf ears, until the deluge hit and swept every trace of business as usual before it. In each case it took years for stability to return, and when it did, much of the old order of things had vanished forever.

Prophecy is a risky business at best, and archdruids are not necessarily any better at it than anyone else. Still, the possibility that another such wave of dramatic change might be about to break over the industrial world has been much on my mind of late. The model of the future I’ve been discussing on The Archdruid Report for the last year and a half envisions a stairstep process of decline, with sudden discontinuities followed by periods of respite and partial recovery. A real chance exists that the tremors in the commodities and credit markets are foreshocks of the first such downward lurch, an economic crisis that might leave most of today’s conventional wisdom in shreds.

If this is the case, there may not be much time to make preparations before the pressure of events puts anything beyond day-to-day crisis management out of reach. Still, this might not be a bad time for my readers to shed any speculative investments they might have, to be particularly wary of economic risks, and to keep more food than usual in the pantry, while we wait to see if the other shoe will drop.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Politics of Transition

One of the things most lacking in the political and social thought of the industrial world in the last century, it seems to me, is a sense of process. Pick an ideology, any ideology, as close to the mainstream or far out on the fringe as you like, and you’re much more likely than not to find its proponents fixated on the form of society they want to see, rather than paying attention to how society will get there, or for that matter what it will do next.

The sense of society unfolding through time in an organic process, central to the thought of such social philosophers as Edmund Burke and enshrined in the elegant balances of the American constitution, finds few supporters these days. Even the time-release Utopia of Karl Marx, which envisioned communism rising out of socialism by the continued workings of the dialectical process, has gone out of fashion. Nowadays we’re not willing to wait for organic process or the withering away of the state, nor do we want to think about what comes after we get what we want. We want our perfect society handed over pronto in nice disposable bags by the clerk at the drive-up window, hold the pickles and away we go.

This rejection of process has probably done more than anything else to keep the social change movements of the last few decades from achieving most of their goals. In the same way and for the same reasons, trying to force an ecotechnic society into existence in the next twenty years, say, is a recipe for failure. As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the form of economy and society that succeeds best under any given set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with the resources and technology available at the time, than on deliberate choices by human beings. Ecotechnic societies will emerge and prosper only when the interactions between humanity and environment favor them above other options.

What this means in practice is that as long as fossil fuels are still available in significant amounts, scarcity industrialism or something like it will be more successful. As long as raw materials and surviving technologies from the industrial age are available in significant amounts, salvage societies will be more successful. Only when the resources available to human societies are once again limited to what the earth provides renewably will ecotechnic societies – human cultures supporting a high technology on a sustainable basis – be the most successful option.

Two other factors combine with the pressure of environmental factors to make the transition to ecotechnic societies a slow one. First of all, nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technological society would look like, much less how to build one. The only form of technic society we’ve yet seen is the industrialism of the last 300 years, and nearly everything that makes that latter system work will be going away as the age of cheap abundant energy draws to an end. The Long Descent ahead of us is, among other things, an opportunity for social evolution, in which various populations will try out many different forms of technical, economic, and social organization, some of which will turn out to be more successful than others. Out of that process will evolve the successful ecotechnic forms of the far future.

The other side of the problem is political, of course. A great many people in the peak oil scene are fond of the common superstition that all political power rests in the hands of a sinister elite – you’ll note that elites in contemporary folklore are always sinister, like witches and stepmothers in early modern folk tales – who are personally responsible for everything wrong with the world. This is a great way for middle class intellectuals to avoid noticing the extent to which they participate in, and profit from, a system they claim to oppose, but as a tool for understanding power relationships within society it has precisely nothing to recommend it. Rather, modern industrial society can best be seen as a diverse collection of power centers, each with its own base of support, striving to build its strength, make alliances, and exert influence over the creaking machineries of government, society and economy.

Most of the time the result of this diffusion of power is inertia, but there are two factors that can overcome that. The first of these is that a charismatic leader (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, or Ronald Reagan) or a persuasive group with a plan (liberals in the early 1960s, or neoconservatives in the late 1990s) can attract enough support from the various power centers to force through change. The second is that a leader who isn’t charismatic enough (Huey Long, say, or Jimmy Carter) or a group that isn’t persuasive enough (conservatives in the Goldwater era, say, or radicals in the 1980s and 1990s) but who threaten the status quo, can cause the power centers to unite against them in an effort to preserve their own autonomy.

Now it’s possible that the peak oil movement might find a charismatic leader or present a plan so persuasive that it can overcome the automatic veto of industrial society’s built-in inertia. So far, though, it shows no signs of doing either one. Instead, radicals on all sides of the political continuum have started to redefine their own pet projects as responses to peak oil. I’ve noted before on this blog the way that the straightforwardly neofascist British National Party and its would-be führer, Nick Griffin, have embraced peak oil as the factor they hope will catapult them into power. Equally, though, you can hear any number of people on the far left insisting with equal vigor that the only thing that can save the world from a dire fate is the immediate adoption of whatever their preferred system of society happens to be.

This is where the blindness to process becomes an insuperable barrier. Nearly all of the plans floated by the radicals of left and right alike have certain key features in common. They require that every group that currently holds power in society should become subordinate to the plan, which in practice, of course, means their subordination to the people who will be implementing and managing the plan. The plans also require a complete break with the past, and the imposition of a new system in which all the ground rules have been changed to benefit the new holders of power. The power centers that make up industrial society can be counted on to resist demands like these with all their considerable strength.

Nor are they necessarily wrong to do so. The success rate for novel social, economic, and political programs crafted by politically radical intellectuals is, to put things mildly, not good. As the sorry history of Marxism demonstrated with great force, the fact that a writer can level a powerful critique at an existing system does not mean that the same writer has a working replacement for it – as a popular saying in Russia these days has it, “everything Marx said about communism was false, but everything he said about capitalism was true” – and the fact that a proposed replacement looks good on paper does not prove that it will work well in practice. At a time when society will be experiencing drastic strains and many people will be struggling to make ends meet, betting survival on an untested system may not be the best option.

Does this mean that reform is out of the question? Of course not. Significant reforms are going to be needed as the age of cheap abundant fossil fuels comes to an end. Here in America, in particular, a window of opportunity is likely to open in the next five years or so, for reasons that follow from the points already made here.

In the late 1990s, as I’ve suggested above, the neoconservative movement in America became the most recent example of a persuasive group with a plan that managed to unite a great many power centers behind it. It’s been argued, and I think correctly, that the plan in question was a response to the imminent arrival of peak oil, drawn up hurriedly after the final failure of the Reagan-era decision to let the free market come up with a replacement for America’s oil reserves. The neoconservative plan envisioned an American military occupation of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, starting with Iraq, under the threadbare rhetorical cloak of “spreading democracy.” History will not be kind to them; their plan was badly conceived and ineptly carried out, its long-term goals are now definitively out of reach, and at this point the entire scheme – along with the US military and economic presence in the Middle East – stands on the brink of catastrophic failure.

Whether or not that happens, the neoconservative consensus that currently unites both major American parties (and their equivalents in Britain, Australia, and other close US allies) is already beginning to splinter. The attraction of that consensus was simply that no one else had a proposal in hand that would allow the United States to cling to its precarious position as the world’s dominant power. The neoconservative debacle, with its likely consequences in the military, political and economic realms, will force a shift in priorities to the raw necessities of national survival, and in this setting a coherent plan focusing on conservation, renewable energy, economic and agricultural disintermediation, and the rebuilding of America’s rail network and canal systems could easily win a great deal of support.

Will such a program bring on the ecotechnic age? Of course not, nor will it prevent the end of industrial society. What it would do is cushion the coming of the deindustrial age, allow a good many more people to have something approaching quality of life in the decades to come, and build foundations on which future generations can build further. That is to say, it focuses on the process of managing the Long Descent, rather than trying to impose an arbitrary shape on the societies that will come after it.

There are other steps of the same kind, less dependent on the cooperation of government, that will also be worth putting into effect as the transition out of the Age of Abundance begins. We’ll be talking about them in the next few posts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Age of Salvage Societies

It’s a common bad habit of thinking these days to assume that social and economic changes are entirely a product of human decision and effort. That’s the thinking behind all the conspiracy theories that provide so popular a way to ignore ecological realities, of course, but it also pops up in plenty of other contexts, not least the enthusiastic claims from various points on the political spectrum that we can all have the better future we want if we just buckle down and get to work on it.

There are any number of problems with this easy assumption, but the one I’d like to point out just now is that, like so much of contemporary thinking, it leaves nature out of the equation. We may attempt to build any future we happen to like, but unless the earth’s remaining stock of natural resources provides the raw material that the future in question requires, we’ll find sooner or later that we’re out of luck. Furthermore, even if the future we have in mind can be made to work within the hard limits of ecological reality, the future we want will once again turn out to be a pipe dream if another form of society or economy does the same thing more effectively.

The industrial economy currently lurching toward history’s compost bin, after all, did not rise to global dominance because the people of the world agreed to make that happen. Nor did the world’s elites, if the political classes of the world’s various societies deserve that name, make that decision; of course there were cabals of industrialists who did their level best to further its spread, but there were plenty of leadership groups in other, competing societies who staked everything they had on resisting it, and failed. Industrial civilization had its day in the sun because, in a world where plenty of cheap abundant fossil fuel could be had for the digging or drilling, the industrial mode of production was more efficient than its rivals, and enabled the communities that embraced it to prosper at the expense of those that did not.

In turn, as the industrial system undercuts the environmental conditions that allow it to thrive, new forms better adapted to the new reality will elbow today’s industrialism aside and take its place. Last week’s post outlined what I believe will be the first of those new forms, a mode of industrial economy – scarcity industrialism – that pursues resource nationalism rather than the mirage of a global economy, and shifts the allocation of energy and other scarce resources from the market to the political sphere. That form is already taking shape around us in the political and energy conflicts of the present; the nations that pursue an embryonic form of scarcity industrialism are prospering accordingly, while those that remain mired in the assumptions of the age of abundance are paying the price for their unwillingness to deal with ecological reality.

As I suggested last week, though, the age of scarcity industrialism will be self-limiting, because the exploitation of nonrenewable resources that gives it its power also puts a time limit on its survival. Once those resources are gone, or depleted far enough that it stops being economical to run a society by exploiting them, another round of new social and economic forms will replace the structures of scarcity industrialism.

At this point we may just find ourselves in something like familiar territory. Archeologists around the world have learned to recognize the distinctive traces of a collapsed society, and one of these is the recycling of old structures for new uses. In the ruins of the old Mayan city of Tikal, for example, excavations have unearthed traces of the people who lived there after the classic Maya collapse. In this last, quiet afterword to the city’s history, the palaces of the lords of Tikal became the homes of a little community of farmers and hunters who scratched out a living in the remains of the city, and made their cooking fires and their simple pottery in the midst of crumbling splendor. The same thing can be found in ruined cities around the world, and science fiction authors in our own civilization have not been slow to pick up on the theme. The logic behind it, though, has not often been recognized: when a civilization breaks down, the most efficient economies are most often those that use its remains as raw material.

To understand how this works, it’s necessary to detour a bit to H.T. Odum’s useful concept of emergy, or embodied energy. Very roughly, emergy is the total amount of energy needed to produce a good or provide a service, including all the energy and material feeds that went into making the good or service available. A coffee cup sitting next to your computer, for example, embodies the energy needed to mine and process the clay, provide raw materials for the glaze and compound them, fire the kiln, and ship both the raw materials to the factory and the finished cup to you. That amount of energy is the emergy cost of the cup: without that much energy being used, you can’t have that cup – or at least you can’t get it in that way.

When energy is cheap and abundant, emergy basically doesn’t matter. The lords of Tikal didn’t have to worry much about the energy their work crews expended hauling, carving, and setting up stone stelae, any more than their equivalents today have to worry about the energy that ships coffee cups, and the coffee that fills them, halfway around the planet. On the downslope of collapse, on the other hand, emergy matters a great deal, and the single most abundant source of free emergy consists of the remains of the collapsed civilization. To the surviving people of Tikal in the aftermath of collapse, it was much more efficient to use the crumbling palaces of a bygone age for shelter, and concentrate their very limited resources on the hard work of making a living in a damaged environment, than it would have been to build their own homes somewhere on the outskirts of the ruined city.

The fantastic amounts of energy flung around so casually by the industrial societies of the world today will make this an even more viable strategy, once the resources that make industrial civilization possible go the way of Tikal’s time of glory. Steel, the most widely used metal nowadays, offers a good example. A fifty-foot steel girder in a skyscraper contains a huge amount of emergy, because the ore—these days, most likely low-grade taconite containing significantly less than 5% iron by weight—has to be mined, smelted, purified, cast, formed, and shipped thousands of miles before it gets put into place in a new building.

To use that same girder in a deindustrial age, by contrast, takes only a hacksaw to chop it into workable parts, a wagon to haul it away, and a blacksmith’s hammer, anvil, and charcoal-burning forge to transform it into nails, knives, plows, saws, firearms, and a thousand other useful things. Furthermore, the economics of metalworking in a nonindustrial society make this a very attractive proposition, since one fifty-foot girder of ordinary structural steel will keep a village blacksmith supplied with raw materials for a substantial period of time.

Now it’s true that the same village blacksmith could smelt his own raw material from bog iron – that’s the technical name for the iron sulfide deposits laid down in most temperate zone wetlands by chemosynthetic bacteria. There’s a lot of bog iron to be had, since it hasn’t been used commercially in centuries and most North American deposits away from the Atlantic coast have never been worked at all. It’s easy to smelt bog iron into workable form – people in Dark Age Europe and early colonial America did it with simple charcoal fires – and it’s also quite easy to do the same thing with rust, which is iron oxide, the standard commercially worked iron ore in the days before huge fossil fuel subsidies made it possible to use low-grade ores like taconite.

Still, the steel stocked up for the future by today’s civilization make a far more economical source. A small proportion of that consists of high-temperature alloys that require modern technology to work with, but the huge majority – girders, pipes, auto frames, sheet steel, and much more – can be forged at temperatures much lower than the ones you need for smelting ore, and yield better metal into the bargain. They will be the obvious metal source in the age of salvage that will follow the time of scarcity industrialism. Furthermore, there are billions of tons of the stuff all over what is now the industrial world, enough to keep the deindustrial cultures of the future supplied for a very long time.

Mind you, steel is only one of hundreds of raw materials that will be accessible in the ruins of today’s cities and towns. Enough people have already become aware of the amount of copper and aluminum in houses nowadays that some of the unsold subdivisions thrown up in the late housing bubble have already been stripped of their copper wiring and aluminum window frames by thieves, who sell the resulting metal at a tidy price. For that matter, I’ve suggested in one of my fictional vignettes of the deindustrial future that the tableware and other household gear left behind by industrial civilization will be abundant enough that local communities may set aside an old warehouse or two to store it, so that community members can take their pick at need. Doubtless there will be many similar habits in the age that follows ours.

Nor will all the material legacies of the industrial age take the form of raw materials. Many technologies that could not be made under deindustrial conditions will still be usable, just as many medieval cities relied for water on Roman aqueducts they themselves could not have built. A good deal depends on just how far and fast technological knowledge is lost; localities that are able to keep some kind of electrical generation capacity in working order, for example, will be in a position to use salvaged equipment that needs electricity to function. Internal combustion engines may still be viable here and there, running on biodiesel or ethanol; in a deindustrializing world, the ability to harness such technologies will likely be a potent source of economic and political power – and that all by itself will guarantee that they will be used.

Like the age of scarcity industrialism before it, though, the age of salvage will be self-limiting, because the economics that make it work also guarantee the exhaustion of the resources that make it possible. Eventually, no matter how many times they’re patched and rebuilt, the last of the Old Time machines will stop running; there will be no more overgrown storage centers and long-abandoned suburbs to strip of their appliances, and in time – though this last may take millenia – even the ruined cities of the ancients will yield up the last of their metal. Over the course of that long process of exhaustion, the ecotechnic societies of the far future will begin to take shape. Next week’s post will explore some of the issues involved in this last transition.