The more Harrison Brown talks about the future of industrial society, the more unlikely it seems that it has a future. Brown is the author of a seminal book entitled “The Challenge of Man’s Future” which outlines the ecological predicament we find ourselves in today. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Brown’s book is that it was published in 1954 long before our predicament had taken its full shape and when there were only about 2.6 billion people on Earth. (The current world population is estimated to be 6.7 billion.)
Brown’s aim was to limn out the obstacles that lay ahead for industrial society and to suggest a course for navigating them. He concluded that the most likely trajectory for industrial society was a reversion back to agrarian society. Only by maneuvering ever so carefully through the narrow passage to sustainability would industrial society be able to continue for an extended period, say, many centuries or millennia.
Brown’s views may seem strange to the modern ear accustomed as it is to hearing how thoroughly we have subdued nature through technology. But even back in 1954 it was already well-known in scientific circles that 1) we would one day run short of finite fossil fuels, 2) we were working our way from high-grade metal ores down to low-grade ores, and 3) industrial society would ultimately be faced with the task of obtaining its required metals and other basic resources from nothing more than air, rock and seawater. The key to making a successful transition, Brown reasoned, would be finding the necessary energy since if one has enough energy, getting needed materials from the ultra-low-grade resources of air, rock and seawater would be feasible.
Of course, he realized that recycling would have to be enforced to keep as much of the previously extracted metals in circulation and that certain destabilizing dangers had to be avoided. Chief among them was nuclear war which he believed would so undermine the complex systems of industrial society that those systems might never recover. He also recognized that if the whole world were to industrialize–he made special mention of India and China–then population would have to be stabilized so as not to overwhelm the ability of the Earth to provide the necessary food and other materials.
He describes the problem this way:
Once a machine civilization has been in operation for some time, the lives of the people within the society become dependent upon the machines. The vast interlocking industrial network provides them with food, vaccines, antibiotics, and hospitals. If such a population should suddenly be deprived of a substantial fraction of its machines and forced to revert to an agrarian society, the resultant havoc would be enormous. Indeed, it is quite possible that a society within which there has been little natural selection based upon disease resistance for several generations, a society in which the people have come to depend increasingly upon surgery for repairs during early life and where there is little natural selection operating among women, relative to the ability to bear children–such a society could easily become extinct in a relatively short time following the disruption of the machine network.
In saying these things, Brown is not at all deploring industrial society which he believes provides substantial material benefits for humans and which frees them from the drudgery of much manual labor allowing them to pursue other interests. But, by stating the bald ecological facts, he demonstrates that such a society could easily be lost.
Of equal concern to him was that efforts be made far enough in advance to prepare for what he believed will be an inevitable transition for industrial society. Below he describes what is now sometimes referred to as the rate-of-conversion problem:
Continuance of vigorous machine culture beyond another century or so is clearly dependent upon the development and utilization of atomic or solar power. If these sources of newly applied energy are to be available in time, the basic research and development must be pursued actively during the coming decades. And even if the knowledge is available soon enough, it is quite possible that the political and economic situation in the world at the time the new transition becomes necessary will be of such a nature that the transition will be effectively hindered. Time and again during the course of human history we have seen advance halted by unfavorable political and economic conditions. We have seen societies in which technical knowledge and resources were both present, but where adequate capital and organization were not in existence and could not be accumulated sufficiently rapidly.
Today, it is all too easy to see the pattern which Brown feared developing. For example, we know how to build breeder reactors which could supply us abundant energy for centuries and perhaps much longer; but we have not pursued perfecting such reactors, in part, because they pose a nuclear proliferation danger. We were on our way to deploying wind and solar power on a broad basis in the late 1970s when fossil fuel energy prices fell dramatically due to vast new supplies. Incentives for deploying wind and solar were soon curtailed or withdrawn, at least in the United States. The public seemed content with the new low energy prices, oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead.
It is clear today as oil prices hit all-time highs on a regular basis that we need alternatives. And yet, the U. S. Congress cannot seem to pass a bill that will continue incentives for alternative energy such as wind and solar. (The dispute seems to be mostly over how to fund those incentives.) In addition, there is even a significant lobby for moving the economy toward greater reliance on coal, another finite fuel which itself may run out sooner than its advocates believe.
The complex systems which Brown feared might crumble are starting to crumble. The world’s airlines are on the verge of a rash of bankruptcies. Routes are being dropped and effective fares are being increased even as the traveling public pulls back from its usual travel plans. Truckers from the United States and Europe have been protesting high diesel prices with many small trucking firms going broke. Perhaps society could do without air travel for pleasure. But given the current infrastructure could it function without a viable trucking industry?
Perhaps most worrying is the world food system which seems unable to keep up with demand as many of the industrializing nations of Asia import more and more food. For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, however, the recent dramatic rise in grain prices will be nothing short of catastrophic if it persists.
The record so far seems to indicate that we are not taking the necessary steps far enough in advance to avoid worrisome dislocations in our society. Even worse, the main cry so far has been for more drilling of oil and natural gas, as if making us more dependent of fuels which will soon be in decline is an answer to our predicament.
All of this is a long way of saying that it just might behoove us to focus on the single most important issue facing us in a transition away from our current industrial society: food. Teaching people who know nothing about growing food how to do so and then creating places for them to grow some could be the single most important task facing us. If the technologists and policymakers somehow navigate the narrow passage to a sustainable industrial society, we will be thankful. But we will almost certainly have to grow more food locally in any case because of energy constraints. And so, any effort put into mass agricultural literacy will not have been wasted.
But if human civilization devolves into a set of primarily agrarian societies, the knowledge we have gained so far about plant breeding, soil chemistry and fertility, natural pest control and myriad other things that would be useful in a post-fossil fuel agricultural regime will be critical to human survival and happiness.