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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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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