The mismatch between the narratives of sudden apocalypse that shape so much of today’s debate about the future, on the one hand, and the sluggish pace at which the predicament of industrial society unfolds in the real world, on the other, found a poster child of sorts last weekend. During the days of uncertainty before Hurricane Gustav’s arrival on the Louisiana coast, some enthusiastic soul posted claims to the peak oil newsblog The Oil Drum that the hurricane would bring industrial civilization itself crashing down in ruins.
I was pleased to note that this announcement seems to have fallen on unsympathetic ears. The Oil Drum’s forte is shrewd technical analysis, and its staff – if I may so describe the loose association of regular posters and commenters who give that excellent site its tone and direction – set aside such speculations and did their usual exemplary job, mapping out the oil platforms and refineries likely to be affected by Gustav and posting damage estimates that turned out to be fairly close to the picture now emerging on the ground. Gustav was a moderately strong storm; it forced the evacuation of nearly every offshore and coastal petroleum facility in the Gulf of Mexico, causing substantial short-term production losses; the long-term effects of the storm will not be clear for weeks, but all by itself, $30 billion or so in estimated damage piled atop an already faltering economy will certainly have an impact.
The difference between the fantasy of sudden collapse and the reality of one more localized jolt piling additional burdens on a stumbling society is well worth keeping in mind. Like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, those who think of apocalyptic collapse as the only way industrial civilization can break down are far less likely to notice the gradual changes in their environment that are leading in the same direction, just more slowly. It’s as though, to shift stories, the boy who cried wolf was convinced that immense armies of wolves would suddenly swoop down and eat up all the sheep in the world at once, and mistook every whistle of wind in the trees for the distant howling of the wolf pack to end all wolf packs; meanwhile, practically under his nose, real wolves – scruffy, undersized, and quite depressingly few in number compared to the massed uber-wolves of the fantasy – were picking off a sheep or two each day from the fringes of the flock.
As both these metaphors suggest, the fixation on sudden collapse has practical disadvantages. If you’re a frog in a saucepan, and the only idea of heat you’re willing to consider involves all the water in the saucepan suddenly flashing into steam, you probably won’t jump while your legs are still uncooked enough to do so; if you’re guarding sheep from wolves, and groups of wolves numbering fewer than fifty are beneath your notice, your sheep are going to be eaten. In the same way, there are plenty of practical steps that can be taken here and now by individuals, that will likely make the slow unraveling of industrial society much less horrific than it might otherwise be. Most of those steps would be, or at least appear to be, irrelevant in the face of sudden global catastrophe, and in fact it’s not uncommon to find believers in some such catastrophe dismissing these practical steps in exactly those terms.
Mind you, there are other reasons why those steps are easy to dismiss. Every one of them has a price tag of some sort, denominated in money, labor, comfort, convenience, or unimpeded access to the smorgasbord of distractions today’s industrial civilization offers its inmates. By contrast, our culture’s two dominant narratives about the future – the narrative of apocalypse and its twin and shadow, the narrative of inevitable progress – are popular at least in part because they push the necessity and the costs of change onto somebody else: the “they” who are expected to think of something just in time to keep progress on track, for example, or the supposedly faceless billions who are expected to hurry up and die en masse so that the flag of some future utopia can be pitched atop their graves.
I’ve talked about some of the steps in question already on this blog, but today I’d like to turn to something a bit different from those previous discussions: the question of how people will make a living during the long unraveling of the industrial age.
That’s a question that has received surprisingly little attention in recent years, and a good deal of that neglect, I think, can be laid at the door of the apocalyptic narrative. According to that narrative, after all, nothing much changes until everything does; you keep on punching the timeclock at your present job until the day that civilization falls apart, and then, if you happen to be among the survivors, you step into whatever new role the apocalypse has ordained for you – subsistence farmer, tribal hunter-gatherer, protein source for the local cannibal population, or what have you. At the same time, the absence of a 9-to-5 routine on the far side of apocalypse is likely to be an important source of the narrative’s popularity; I’m far from the only person who noticed, during the runup to the Y2K noncrisis, how many people predicting imminent doom seemed exhilarated by the notion that they would not have to go to work on January 2, 2000.
If I’m right and the descent into the deindustrial future unfolds over generations, though, that enticing prospect is not in the cards. Rather, the vast majority of us will need to earn our livings in a world that, while it will be changing around us, is extremely unlikely to change in ways that will make that process any easier than it is now. During the period I’ve described in other posts as the age of scarcity industrialism, something like today’s money economy will likely remain firmly in place, though the household economy and other forms of production and exchange outside the money economy will likely play a steadily growing role. During the age of salvage economies that I expect to follow the twilight of the industrial system, money of some sort will likely remain in use on a small scale, as it does in most dark ages, but most day-to-day transactions will take place via barter or other systems of exchange outside the money economy; again, that’s standard practice in dark ages. In both periods, though, people will work for their livings – and will likely work a good deal harder than many Americans do today.
Nor will their jobs be the same as the ones that employ most Americans nowadays. The flood of cheap abundant energy that surged through the industrial world during the twentieth century reshaped every dimension of the economy in its image, and nearly all the things we have grown up considering normal and natural are artifacts of that highly abnormal and unnatural state of affairs. Very few people in the industrial world today spend their workdays producing goods or providing necessary services; instead, pushing paper has become the standard employment, and preparation for a paper-pushing career the standard form of education. The once-mighty archipelago of trade schools that undergirded the rise of America as an industrial power sank with barely a trace in the second half of the twentieth century. I once lived three blocks away from the shell of one such school; it had been engulfed by a community college, and classrooms that once hummed with the busy noises of machine-shop equipment and the hiss of hot solder were being used to train a new generation of receptionists, brokers, and medical billing clerks
The postindustrial economy proclaimed by Daniel Bell many years ago, and accepted as an accurate description of economic reality since then, was never much more than a shell game. The societies of the industrial world were every bit as dependent on industry as they had ever been; they simply exported the industries to Third World countries where labor was cheap and environmental regulation nonexistent, and continued to reap the benefits back home. Those arrangements only worked, however, because cheap abundant energy made transport costs negligible, and systematic distortions in patterns of exchange pumped wealth from the Third World to a handful of industrial nations, providing the latter with the wherewithal to pay a very large fraction of their populations to do jobs that don’t actually need to be done. As energy becomes scarce and expensive again, and the imperial systems that concentrated the world’s wealth in a minority of nations are shredded by the rise of new centers of power, those arrangements will break down. As that happens, a great many goods and necessary services now done offshore will need to be done at home once again, and a great many professions that produce no goods and provide no necessary services will likely drop off the economic map.
Prophecy is a risky business at the best of times, but it’s worth hazarding some guesses about the jobs that will fill the post-petroleum want ads here in America over the next generation or so, through the years of the Great Recession and the disintegration of America’s overseas empire. Farmers are among the most likely candidates for the top of the list. By this I don’t mean subsistence farmers in rural ecovillages – their time is much further in the future, if it ever comes at all. Rather, market farmers tilling what is now suburban acreage to feed the dwindling cities, and rural farmers producing grains and other bulk crops for foreign exchange, will likely be in high demand, along with support professions such as agronomists.
Engineers form another set of trades likely to do well in the generation to come, especially those who know their way around energy production and distribution and the design, building, and maintenance of low-tech transportation networks. In the not too distant future, rail and canal transport will have to take over much of the work now done by trucks, and energy networks will have to cope with a fractious mix of alternative resources, dwindling fossil fuels, and massive conservation programs. The people who actually put the plans of engineers into effect, from skilled machinists all the way down to the gandy dancers who lay the rails, will also be able to count on steady paychecks.
Another suite of professions likely to do well barely exists today, though demolitions experts, junkyard workers, and people who run recycling and composting operations represent tentative forays into the territory. A huge fraction of America’s potential wealth in the postpeak years consists of manufactured objects that can either be refurbished and put back into circulation, or stripped of raw materials for reuse. When the electricity needed to power elevators and run heating and cooling systems is dizzyingly expensive when it can be had at all, for example, skyscrapers will be worth more as sources of refined metal than as buildings, and most of them will come down. On the other end of the spectrum, a great many consumer products that are now consigned to landfills when they break will be worth salvaging, repairing, and reselling once the cost of the necessary labor is cheaper than the cost of the energy and raw materials for a new model – a state of affairs that existed in America until the 1960s and will likely exist again within a decade or two. The salvage industries, as we may as well call them, may well turn out to be one of the major growth industries of the twenty-first century.
Other professions have their own possibilities. It’s a useful exercise to locate a city directory from the first half of the twentieth century and flip through the pages, noting the businesses that existed then but are nowhere to be found today. Those that meet actual needs, however unpopular they are as career tracks today, are likely to be more viable and more lucrative in a deindustrializing future than many professions fashionable today. The pundits and publicists of our economic system never seem to tire of explaining that tomorrow’s jobs will not be the same as today’s, and I suspect they may just be right; what they don’t expect, and I do, is that many of tomorrow’s hottest jobs will have more than a little resemblance to the careers of yesterday.
Those people who make preparations now to move into such jobs as they come open will be doing themselves and their communities alike a favor of no small worth. These preparations need to begin soon – while the time, resources, and knowledge base for many necessary skills are still readily accessible – and this requires, once again, some sense of the way civilizations actually fall, and a willingness to apply that slow, stumbling, unromantic but realistic model to the events going on around us right now.