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Is electricity really the lifeblood of civilization?

I don’t think there are a lot of people who, except in their most facetious tones, refer to me as anything along the lines of “Little Sharon-Sunshine.” And yet I actually consider myself a strong optimist, and by the standards of the peak oil movement, I certainly am. I believe that a way of life is very much on its way out, that the transition will be painful - more painful than it had to be, but that’s just the reality of the world. I think we are currently in a deep and horrible disaster, being visited on the world’s poorest and the tentacles are gradually crawling up the anchor to take down the rest of the ship. But I also think that there is a good deal of reason for hope - we have vast capacities, vast resources and vast imagination. Peak oil and climate change could, if we work really hard at it, be pretty much the end of the world. But there’s no reason to believe that we will, in fact, work quite that hard - we’re lazy and the odds are good that the edifice that allows us to destroy ourselves may preceed most of our lives to the grave. That thought alone gives me hope.

And because I am an optimist, because I take joy in being a ray of light ;-), I generally dissent from the final prognostications of the Olduvai Hypothesis, while agreeing that we are on the downswing of a certain kind of industrial civilization. I differ from Richard Duncan in several respects, while giving him credit for articulating the danger of peak oil long before most of us had ever heard of it. I differ most of all on his conclusion, rearticulated here in this article by James Leigh, that it is necessarily the case that,

“The permanent blackout of electricity is crippling. Without oil to continue to fire up our industrial society we will be without: public electricity, transport, industry’s processed products (food, clothing, packaging, and machinery), communication and computer services. A little bit of brainstorming shows that the society and its systems would come eventually to a standstill. A totally paralyzing set of circumstances with hunger and deprivation on an unprecedented worldwide scale.”

I don’t honestly know whether, as the Olduvai Hypothesis postulates, after 2012 we’ll experience widespread, permanent blackouts. I suppose it is possible, and for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that that’s the case that electricity could be the marker point for our collapse. As Duncan argues in this paper, electricity is more defining than transport:

“As we have emphasized, Industrial Civilization is beholden to electricity. Namely: In 1999, electricity supplied 42% (and counting) of the world’s end-use energy versus 39% for oil (the leading fossil fuel). Yet the small difference of 3% obscures the real magnitude of the problem because it omits the quality of the different forms of end-use energy. With apologies to George Orwell and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics — “All joules (J) of energy are equal. But some joules are more equal than others.” Thus, if you just want to heat your coffee, then 1 J of oil energy works just as well as 1 J of electrical energy. However, if you want to power up your computer, then 1 J of electricity is worth 3 J of oil. Therefore, the ratio of the importance of electricity versus oil to Industrial Civilization is not 42:39, but more like 99:1. Similar ratios apply to electricity versus gas and electricity versus coal.”

My own intuition (and I’ve given it fairly little thought so that’s all it is) is that Duncan is right about the weighted importance of electricity to our present model of society, but wrong in his extrapolation of the long term consequences of short term adaptation to living without electricity. And I think because Duncan was prescient in peak oil circles, his conclusion (which comes down to “we’re all doomed” has had disproportionate weight in the debate - in fact, there are a number of peak oil writers who have spent a lot of time arguing that “we’re all doomed” is the majority opinion in the peak oil world, and spend a great deal of time debunking this perspective - and inadvertantly giving Duncan’s conclusions far more emphasis than they actually merit among a range of far more nuanced and complex range of thought.

Part of the problem is Duncan’s timeline for industrial civilization. He imagines that it began in 1930 - but, of course, the beginnings of industrial society existed in the US for at least 100 years before that, and of course, in Britain for quite some time before that. I lived for a few years in a building converted to apartments from the old Lowell Massachusetts textile Mills, and I can attest that the structures, and the city of Lowell in the 19th century were indeed industrial. It is true that a majority of people didn’t live in “industrial society” in the US until the 1930s - but of course, Duncan is speaking of the world as a whole, and a slight majority of people in the world only began living in industrial society last year - that’s when the urban population worldwide finally exceeded the rural one.

Industrial society long preceeds electricity - even if we imagine that we will rapidly run out of the capacity to produce electricity, we have to recognize that Industrialization itself did not depend on electric power. On the other hand, nor would I be the first to argue that life without industrialization sucked - parts of it undoubtedly did - I’m very fond of cloth making machines, for example, and have no particular desire to spin every thread my family wears. On the other hand I could, given the urgent necessity of doing so, and I could teach others. I could even make a primitive (not as nice as mine) spinning wheel (a huge jump in speed over the drop spindle, which I can make with three sticks) out of an old bicycle rim. And if low tech little old me, who flunked birdhouse building in woodshop, could do that, how long before the spinning jenny and the massive industrial looms of the 19th century get recreated by some bright chick who likes to tinker?

There’s a tendency, I think, when talk about going to a lower energy society to imagine that we then become a lower-knowledge people, that we rapidly lose the germ theory of disease, the ability to do algebra and the capacity to build bicycles - and maybe that’s true - John Michael Greer has argued that a long term collapse may drop our knowledge base back further than we think. But at a minimum, returning to illiteracy is going to take a couple of generations of huddling in our caves banging rocks together so we can forget all that other stuff, like how to build an efficient stove and an arch or two. We’re going to have to work at it.

But let us assume that Duncan is, in fact, correct - that we’re going to fall off an energy cliff. That we are facing a world without electricity - I’m not sure I think it likely, but I’m willing to accept the hypothesis. Does that lead immediately to Duncan’s envisioned conclusion? Leigh plainly thinks that the results would be catastrophic, from the construction of the below sentence:

“Pause for a moment – just imagine the catastrophic consequences of no electricity: no phones or computers, no industry which is electricity based, no dairy products or processed foods, no refrigeration, no water as the water pumps won’t work, no cars or transport because the petrol pumps won’t work, no schools or universities, no banks which can’t electronically process transactions, no employment, no income – dwindling stocks of everything as society collapses to unprecedented levels of chaos and deprivation.”

It is certainly the case that if we go in a single step from air conditioning and cold beer today to total blackout tomorrow, the transition will be extremely difficult, and the period of reorganization and the scaling up of other technologies will be stressful. It is, however, unlikely to happen overnight. But let’s take a look at these assumptions. Would, in fact, we be thrown, as Duncan has argued, back to the Stone Age?

Let’s see…no phones or computers. Check! That means communication would have to rely on…mail? Wow, that’s just horrible, because after all, we’ve had phones for thousands of years, and there’s no evidence at all that we can live without them…oh, wait, maybe there is. No computers - well, that means no math, right, because we didn’t invent calculus until…oh wait. No industry which is electricity based - well, that means we’re back to banging rocks together, because we never built or produced anything before electricity, right? No dairy products? You mean cows run on electricity? Woah, you learn something new every day. Or perhaps he means no fridges, which means…we’d have to eat cheese. Dear G-d…not that!!! No processed food. Well this one is true - I can’t think of a single means to produce a Hostess Sno-ball without fossil fuels. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls…it tolls for thee and thy Sno-balls.

No refrigeration…yup, that means we’re going to have to cook differently and eat differently. Of course, billions of people do that now because they don’t have refrigerators, but who’d want to be them? No water - now that will be a tough nut to crack, unless, say we have any time between now and 2012 to deal with it…after all, it isn’t like water falls from the sky or something. No cars or transport. That’s right, before cars, everyone just sat on their asses where they were born until they were up to their knees in their own feces. No schools or universities. Yup, no one had literacy before electricity - those ancient Greeks, they were writing in 1935. That’s why we call them ancient, right? No banks which can electronically proces transactions - true, and I’m sure that means there will be no currency, since money and markets were invented in 1985 by the folks who brought us the TSR-80, right? No employment - of course, there’ll be nothing to do but sit around drooling and waiting for death. And no income - didn’t you know Henry Ford invented work?

Now I’m being sarcastic here, and it would be an easy accusation to say I’m minimizing the difficulties of making a transition from an industrial society to a less industrial one, and that’s fair - sarcasm is never the most nuanced of genres. But this stuff really toasts my buns, because it is so damned ignorant.

I’m reminded of an essay by Chuck Trapkus in _The Plain Reader_, he tells the story of doing an demonstration of spinning, and a woman telling her children “This is how they used to make clothes, long, long ago.” Trapkus responds with,

She’s right, of course,” I’m thinking. “But this is how I make clothes. Today.”

He goes on to add:

“But lest we in our ignorance make the same assumptions the woman made while watching me spin, let’s be clear on one thing: Not everyone makes bread in an electric breadmaker. Not everyone has access to a phone. Not everyone has a refrigerator, a car, a toaster, a chainsaw. Billions of humans right now, sharing this same Mother Earth, get by with far fewer electric/atomic/petroleum-powered gadgets and appliances that we United States citizens. They may not all grind their own flour or weave their own cloth, but then, millions of them do. So when we ask how they ever did anything then, we should ask how they still do it now, and acknowledge our profound collective ignorance in so many basic matters of human sustenance”

Let us not bullshit ourselves - if we had to suddenly, rapidly transition to no fossil energies at all (very, very unlikely for most of us), it would suck and be destructive. But it would not send us back to Olduvai Gorge. Many people would probably die in an overnight transition (also wildly unlikely) but most people probably wouldn’t. Some people would curl up, unable to bear this world they lived in, but the rest would get to work reorganizing into something else, bringing back and recreating older technologies, using human and animal power, changing their work, building new economies and markets. And not only could we survive, but we might not think that our lives were suddenly without meaning - electricity is not the defining characteristic of our beings, merely of our economy. And economies are remade all the time.

The part of this that I find most troubling is the offensive notion that living without all the above-listed goodies makes life completely untenable. Because that implies that the lives of our great-grandparents, and the billions of lives that don’t have electricity are an unmitigated hell, a place we wouldn’t even be willing to visit, that all that is “civilized” about our lives began in 19-freakin’-30. If our past, and the lives of the world’s ordinary poor are utter doom, we are doomed. But what if they aren’t? Let us acknowledge a vast and difficult transition, and a great deal of potential and probably real trouble and misery a’coming. But let us not start with the assumption that “modern industrial civilization” is equivalent to “civilization” itself. And let us not separate ourselves from everything that came before us and everyone now who lacks what we have as though some barrier keeps us from reaching out to them.

Can we kill ourselves off in the coming decades? Sure, I never wish to underestimate the stupidity of our collective humanity. Is that a likely and inevitable consequence of even sudden, extreme depletion and shortage - no. Only if we choose the worst possible forms of mismanagement (and grant you, there’s some good bit of evidence for this), only if we race headlong towards doom in a concerted effort can we create the consequences that Duncan and Leigh imagine are the simple results of the loss of electricty and other energies. Electricity is a goodie, a sugar coating. It makes a few lives possible - lives that would be lost in a world without it, and that is at tragedy. But mostly, it makes lives easy and convenient, and grows the economy - and that’s pretty much it. It is not our life or our blood.

Sharon

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