Some deep ecologists have suggested that agriculture was a fundamental mistake in human evolution and has created more ills than it purports to address. There is perhaps a larger group of people who believe that it was the discovery of fossil fuels and their contribution to the industrial revolution that constitute a critical wrong turn in human history. After all, the power which fossil fuels put in the hands of humans has enabled them to affect the ecosphere in profound ways that not only threaten the human future, but the future of every living thing on the planet.
Then, there are those, probably an even larger group, that believe we have simply misused our technological prowess, and that if we could turn that prowess toward harmonizing ourselves with nature, we could preserve ourselves and our technical society while allowing nature to flourish once again.
Embedded in each view is the assumption that somehow human society made a bad decision, perhaps even an immoral decision. It’s hard for me to imagine that such “decisions” could have been averted or that such developments even fit the definition of the word “decision.” For example, it’s hard to imagine someone long ago “deciding” to plant seeds and tend to the resulting plants. It’s easier to imagine that the connection was made between seeds and plants that sprouted from where those seeds had once lain. I can imagine experiments, halting at first, to test the theory that plants come from seeds. And finally, I can imagine attempts to sow seeds of favored food plants on plots near temporary seasonal encampments in order to provide food that would supplement sustenance obtained from traditional hunting and gathering.
Likewise, the discovery and use of fossil fuels was not a “decision,” but more likely perceived as an opportunity for energy gain.
I am more inclined to the view that humans are like any organism and seek to maximize their energy gain for the purposes of survival and propagation. And, like other organisms humans can experience periods of riotous growth in their numbers followed by periods of decline and retrenchment. This “pulsing” is completely consistent with observed natural patterns. And, while we certainly should not abandon moral thinking, we need to be careful when we apply it to something as vast as the evolution of the human species.
In saying this, I do not mean to minimize the human suffering that may be in store for us in a future that is energy-constrained–one in which fossil fuel supplies decline, but nothing of comparable scale takes their place. I am only trying to point out what Howard Odum suggests in his book, The Prosperous Way Down, namely, that human societies are not immune to the expansions and contractions which apply to other creatures. To be more precise, industrial civilization is not a path of continuous expansion, but simply a phase of expansion that will inevitably lead one day to a phase of contraction.
By looking at the fossil fuel age this way, we need not judge it as either good or bad. I often think that the burden of criticizing or defending our current society on moral grounds uses up considerable energy that might be used to imagine and construct a new society that will be viable during a period of contraction. I’m afraid it is not moral arguments that will cause people to ready themselves for such a contraction, but circumstances themselves. (I confess that I must take some of the responsibility for the excessive moralizing.)
To the extent that we can accept that industrial civilization is neither a mistake nor the highest and best arrangement of human affairs that will ever be, but rather has unfolded as one would expect through the interactions of social creatures who seek maximum energy, we can turn our energies to managing a transition to the next phase of civilization.
There is considerable talk about creating sustainable societies, that is, societies that can last for an indefinite period without either exhausting their resources or fatally disturbing the natural processes upon which they depend. But if Odum is correct about the pulsing nature of complex systems, then we can expect to do no such thing. Instead, humans will be continually called upon to adapt to dynamic resizings of their scope during phases of both expansion and contraction.
Often we confuse what is good with what is permanent. Permanence somehow conveys an innate moral rightness to us. But there are many things which we value which are inherently ephemeral–the bloom on a rose, the flight of a bird, the excitement of success, the exhilaration of falling in love. Do we value these things any less because they do not last? No, we value them all the more. But, we learn to go on to the next task in life, looking to meet our needs and attentive to the possibilities of pleasure and pain in every circumstance.
If we could come to accept that our current industrial age is just a phase, ephemeral like all ages, neither a triumph which must be defended in its entirety at all costs, nor a mistake which must be allowed to collapse, nor a system that can be redeemed with just a few adjustments, we could learn to let go of it as it recedes without rejecting aspects of it that might prove to be instructive or useful. We could then move on to our next task, creating a new phase of human existence on planet Earth within limits we can no longer ignore.