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Business as usual

Those of us who are watching the crisis of industrial society arrive on schedule take our omens where we find them, and one appeared yesterday morning in the unlikely form of an internet ad riding shotgun on a peak oil blog. The header was striking enough – “Oil Will Hit $100!” – or it would have been, except that one of the main benchmark grades of crude oil closed not far below $120 a barrel that evening. When the ads on your computer screen have already been left in the dust by the headlines, it’s fair to say, yesterday’s assumptions are in serious need of revision.

Meanwhile, rolling blackouts and food shortages are making life more difficult for people in many of the world’s poorer nations. Even in the United States, where instant availability of consumer products is generally considered an inalienable right, the first spot shortages of grain products have made ripples in the media. I won’t even get into the plunging real estate prices and financial implosions along the route of the slow-motion train wreck the global economy resembles so much these days. One way or another, it’s turning into a bad week for believers in an imminent return to what most people nowadays consider business as usual.

Yet there’s an irony, a rich one, in the chorus of reassurances still rising from the mainstream media across the industrial world. Like the frogs in Aesop’s fable, they praised the replacement of the boring King Log of New Deal economic regulations and Seventies energy-efficiency standards by the far more exciting King Stork of the unfettered market, only to find that too much excitement in the economic sphere has its downside; their attempt to return to a free market succeeded mostly in kickstarting a recurrence of the cycle of disastrous depressions that reached its crescendo in 1929 and bringing about a recurrence of the energy crises of the 1970s, but on a larger scale. Before you decide to return to business as usual, in other words, it’s useful to have some sense of what business as usual actually is.

We are arguably facing a much more threatening example of the same phenomenon right now, as the fuel gauge on the world’s oil, coal, and natural gas supplies moves visibly in the direction of that unwelcome letter E. For the last three centuries or so, a steadily increasing flow of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy has driven the growth of industrial societies across much of the world. For the last century, since petroleum replaced coal as industrial civilization’s prime mover, and widespread electrification made it possible to apply fossil fuels at second hand to most business and domestic energy needs, most of the work done in the industrial world has been done by machines powered directly or indirectly by fossil fuels.

This seems perfectly normal to most of us who have grown up in the industrial world. Up until very recently, essentially all the talk about the disparity between the world’s industrial societies and the rest of the planet focused on how to bring the Third World “into the twenty-first century.” The phrase itself betrays the huge burden of ideology that shaped that discussion – the belief, as potent and devoutly held as any other religion, that history progresses straight to us, that any different social arrangement is simply some version of our own outmoded past, and that our peculiar and extravagant way of managing human communities is thus as inevitable as it is inevitably beneficent.

Yet the whole debate was also an exercise in futility. We are seeing right now what happens when an appreciable number of people in the world’s nonindustrial societies do exactly what so many decades of rhetoric insisted they ought to, and claim a share of the world’s fossil fuels and industrial output. The limits to growth were always there; it was merely the political arrangements that restricted the benefits of industrialism to a small portion of the human species that made it look as though unlimited growth was even an option.

What we most need to realize at this juncture is that the way things have been in the world’s industrial societies over the last century or so is in no way normal. It’s precisely equivalent to the new lifestyle adopted by winners of a lottery whose very modest income has suddenly leapt upward by $1 million a year or so. After a few years, the lottery winners might well become accustomed to the privileges and possessions that influx of wealth made possible, and children growing up in such a family might never realize that life could be any other way. The hard fact remains, though, that when the lottery money runs out, it runs out, and if no provision has been made for the future, the transition from a million dollars a year to the much more modest income available from an ordinary job can be very, very rough.

The huge distortions imposed on the modern industrial nations by the flood of cheap abundant energy that washed over them in the 20th century can be measured readily enough by a simple statistic. In America today, our current energy use works out to around 1000 megajoules per capita, or the rough equivalent of 100 human laborers working 24-hour days for each man, woman, and child in the country. The total direct cost for all this energy came to around $500 billion a year in 2005, the last year for which I was able to find statistics, or about $1667 per person per year.

Now consider how much it would cost to hire human laborers to perform the same amount of work. At the current federal minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, hiring 100 workers in three shifts to provide the equivalent amount of energy would cost each American $512,811 a year, or about 308 times as much as the energy costs – and this doesn’t count payroll taxes, health insurance, paid vacations and the like. Mind you, it would also require the US to find food, housing, and basic services for an additional workforce of 30 billion people, but we can let the metaphor go before tackling issues on that scale.

What makes this huge disparity relevant is that as recently as a hundred years ago, the majority of work done even in the most advanced industrial societies was done by human beings using hand tools. Kitchens had servants instead of appliances; factories and shops had workbenches instead of industrial robots; the functions now carried out by computers were performed instead by legions of clerks wielding pen and ink. Go back a little further in history, to the time when fossil fuels hadn’t yet become a significant energy source, and human muscles and minds did the vast majority of work of all kinds, with modest supplements from animal muscle, biomass, wind, and water power.

The familiarity of our current arrangements, and the rhetoric of progress we use to justify those arrangements, make it easy to dismiss such a human-powered economy as some sort of primitive oddity that existed only because people didn’t yet know any better. Look at the disparity in economic terms and a different picture emerges. In a society without access to cheap abundant energy resources, it makes much more economic sense to train and employ a human worker than to develop a machine to fill the same niche; except in special circumstances, the additional cost of building, powering, maintaining, and operating the machine more than outweighs the additional benefits of mechanical speed and regularity.

This was why ancient Rome and imperial China, both of which had a solid understanding of mechanical principles and sophisticated technical traditions, never had industrial revolutions of their own. Lacking massive energy supplies of the sort that made modern industrial society possible, it simply made more economic sense to invest the available resources into the labor force. The Romans did this the cheap, crude, and ultimately ineffective way, by expanding a slave economy to the breaking point; the Chinese did it far more sustainably and effectively by evolving an extraordinarily robust system of small-scale capitalism, on the one hand, and equally durable traditions of specialized craftsmanship on the other.

All this has a pressing relevance to the present situation, because we’re running out of the energy resources that make it possible for every man, woman and child in America to dispose of the equivalent of $512,811 in labor every year. It’s as though the 30 billion invisible guest workers whose sweat powers the American economy are quitting their jobs one by one, and moving back home to the Paleozoic. When the process completes itself, and the long curve of depletion finally sinks low enough that it’s no longer economically worthwhile to extract the remaining dregs of fossil fuel from the ground, the amount of labor each of us will have at our disposal will be much, much less than it is today.

With any luck, it’ll be more than 1/308th as much – we know more about collecting and using energy than the Romans or the Chinese did, and may well be able to get enough renewable energy sources up and running in time to matter. Still, it’s mere wishful thinking to assume that the universe is obliged to give us another vast windfall of cheap abundant energy to replace the one we’ve wasted so enthusiastically over the last few centuries, and none of the proposed replacements for fossil fuels seem likely to live up to their billing. On a finite planet subject to the laws of thermodynamics, claims that the trajectory of industrialism must inevitably continue into the future are statements of faith, not of fact.

Far more likely is the reemergence of an economy in which the work of human hands and minds is once again the main source of economic value – and with luck and hard work, it may be a good deal closer to the Chinese than the Roman model. In a low-energy economy, after all, human beings have huge economic advantages over machines. Machines do not develop their own energy sources and find their own raw materials, much less manufacture their own replacements, and the products of a given machine do not improve over time all by themselves, as the products of a farmer or a craftsperson so often do.

The farmers of the future may well use intensive organic methods rather than the field agriculture of an earlier day, just as the craftspeople of the future may well spend some of their time crafting solar hot water heaters and shortwave radios. Still, this sort of handicraft economy is a mature and effective social technology, and far and away the most common way societies provide for the needs of their members. It is, one might say, business as usual.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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