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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 millennia – 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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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