Monday, February 13, 2006

Interesting Essay - "The Coming of Deindustrial Society: A Practical Response"

Personally, the whole Peak Oil debate is on the periphery of my radar screen. I certainly accept that future energy demands vs. available resources is an issue of concern ... major concern, as time goes on. But I do cling to the notion that mankind and society will adapt to our changing environs and in fact we will continue to innovate brilliant solutions.

That is not to say, a lot of people won't feel pain along the way. After all, that IS the proven way of the human condition throughout history. Whether it is progress or regress, there is always a price paid by someone.

I came across a very interesting essay by John Michael Greer that is worthy of your time:
http://www.hubbertpeak.com/whatToDo/DeindustrialAge.htm

Some excerpts (bear in mind the author has some very strong views on the matter):

... it may be appealing to fantasize about vast government programs bailing us out of the present predicament, such fantasies are not a practical way of responding to the situation. We have to start with the recognition that the most likely outcome of the current situation is collapse: to borrow the Club of Rome's formulation, sustained, simultaneous, uncontrolled and irreversible declines in population, industrial production, and capital stock.

... Now as soon as this is said, most people who don't reject it out of hand slip off at once into apocalyptic ideas of one sort or another. These should be rejected; history is a better guide. Civilizations collapse. As Joseph Tainter pointed out in his useful book The Collapse of Complex Societies, it's one of the most predictable things about them. Ours is not that different from hundreds of previous civilizations that overshot their natural resource base and crashed to ruin. What we face is a natural process, and like most natural processes, much of it can be predicted by comparison with past situations.
But fantasy is often more palatable than reality, and most of the apocalyptic notions in circulation these days are sheer fantasy.


... the Hollywood notion of an overnight collapse is just as much of a fantasy; it makes for great screenplays but has nothing to do with the realities of how civilizations fall. The disintegration of a complex society takes decades, not days. Since fossil fuel production will decline gradually, not simply come to a screeching halt, the likely course of things is gradual descent rather than freefall. Civilizations go under in a rolling collapse punctuated by localized disasters, taking anything from one to four centuries to complete the process. It's not a steady decline, either; between sudden crises come intervals of relative stability, even moderate improvement; different regions decline at different paces; existing social, economic and political structures are replaced, not with complete chaos, but with transitional structures that may develop pretty fair institutional strength themselves.
Does this model apply to the current situation? Almost certainly. As oil and natural gas run short, economies will come unglued and political systems disintegrate under the strain. But there's still oil to be had - the Hubbert Curve is a bell-shaped curve, after all. The world in 2020 may still be producing about as much oil as it was producing in 1980. It's just that with other fossil fuels gone or badly depleted, nearly twice as many people in the world, and the global economy in shreds, the gap between production and demand will be vast. The result will be poverty, spiralling shortages, rising death rates, plummeting birth rates, and epidemic violence and warfare. Not a pretty picture - but it's not an instant reversion to the Stone Age either.
Equally imaginary is the notion that the best strategy for would-be survivors is to hole up in some isolated rural area with enough firepower to stock a Panzer division, and wait things out. I can think of no better proof that people nowadays pay no attention to history. One of the more common phenomena of collapse is the breakdown of public order in rural areas, and the rise of a brigand culture preying on rural communities and travelers. Isolated survivalist enclaves with stockpiles of food and ammunition would be a tempting prize and could count on being targeted.
Equally inaccurate is the notion that stockpiling precious metals will somehow make the stockpilers exempt from the consequences of industrial collapse. This strategy has been tried over and over again in recorded history, and it doesn't work. Every few years, for example, archeologists in Britain dig up another cache of gold and silver hidden away by some wealthy landowner in Roman Britain as the empire fell apart. They're usually close to the ruins of the owner's rural villa, which shows the signs of being looted and burned to the ground by the Saxons. As a working rule, if your value consists of what you've stockpiled, there will be an unlimited number of other people interested in removing you from the stockpile and enjoying it themselves. However many you kill, there will always be more - and eventually the ammo will run out.

... So what does work? The key to making sense of constructive action in a situation of impending industrial collapse is to look at the community, rather than the individual or society as a whole, as the basic unit. We know from history that local communities can continue to flourish while empires fall around them. There are, however, three things a community needs to do that, and all three of them are in short supply these days.
First, a community needs some degree of local organization. Our present culture here in America has discarded most of the local organizations it once had, in favor of a mass society where individuals deal directly with huge government and corporate institutions. This has to be reversed. The recent move to reinvigorate civil society is a step in the right direction. Joining or creating a local community group, and helping to revive local civil society, will help provide your community with voluntary networks of cooperation and mutual aid in difficult times.

... The second thing a community needs in the twilight of industrial society is a core of people who know how to do without fossil fuel inputs. An astonishing number of people, especially in the educated middle class, have no practical skills whatsoever when it comes to growing and preparing food, making clothing, and providing other basic necessities. An equally astonishing number are unable to go any distance at all by any means that doesn't involve burning fossil fuels - and almost no one in the developed world can light a fire without matches or a lighter from some distant factory. Survival skills such as organic gardening, low-tech medicine, basic hand crafts, and the like need to be learned and practiced now, while there's time to do so. Similarly, those people who cut their fossil fuel consumption drastically now - for example, by getting rid of their cars and using public transit or bicycles for commuting - will be better prepared for the inevitable shortages.

... Those people who can use their own hands and minds to make tools, grow food, brew beer, treat illnesses, generate modest amounts of electricity from sun and wind, and the like, will have a survival advantage over those who can't. In a violent age, practical knowledge is a life insurance policy; if you're more useful alive than dead, you're likely to stay that way. The pirate enclaves of the seventeenth-century Carribbean were among the most lawless societies in history, but physicians, navigators, shipwrights, and other skilled craftsmen were safe from the pervasive violence, since it was in everyone's best interests to keep them alive.

... The third thing a community needs is access to basic human requirements, and above all food. Very large cities are going to become difficult places to be in the course of the approaching collapse, precisely because there isn't enough farmland within easy transport range to feed the people now living there. On the other hand, most American cities of half a million or less are fairly close to agricultural land that could, in a pinch, be used to grow food intensively and feed the somewhat reduced population that's likely to be left after the first stages of the collapse. What's needed is the framework of a production and distribution system around which this can take shape.
The good news is that this framework already exists; it's called the farmers market movement. The last two decades have seen an astonishing growth in farmers markets across the country - the latest figures I've seen, and they're some years out of date, indicate that farmers markets are a $16 billion a year industry, with most of that money going to small local farmers. I personally know organic farmers who are able to stay in business, and support their families on quite small acreages, because they work the farmers markets. Every dollar spent on locally grown produce from a farmers market, instead of supermarket fare shipped halfway around the world, is thus an investment in local sustainability and survival.
There are a good many other, similar steps that can be taken. Anything that provides functional alternatives to energy-wasting lifestyles lays foundations for the transitional societies of the late 21st century, and ultimately for the sustainable successor cultures that will begin to emerge in North America in the 22nd and 23rd centuries. The important point, it seems to me, is to do something constructive now, rather than presenting plans to the government in the perfect knowledge that they will be ignored until it's far too late to do anything.

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