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The unnoticed technologies

When people talk about the role of technology in the future, most of the time the technologies they have in mind are the flashy ones – that is, those that haven’t been around long enough to slip into the background texture of everyday existence. Especially in periods of decline, though, it’s far more likely to be the technologies so common they’re hardly noticed that determine, by their survival or disappearance, the fate of societies.

For the Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island, for example, deepwater canoes had been part of daily life for thousands of years. This, I suspect, is among the core reasons that nobody on Easter Island seems to have anticipated the consequences of cutting down too many trees. The resulting deforestation eliminated an essential resource – large tree trunks – without which deepwater canoes could not be made, cutting off the majority of the island’s food supply and, at the same time, the only way out of the trap the Easter Islanders set for themselves. The canoe had been so omnipresent a part of life for so long that the possibility of its absence very likely never entered into the islanders’ darkest dreams.

A similar sort of inattention, according to the medieval Arab historian ibn Khaldûn, played a catastrophic role in the collapse and abandonment of cities across the Middle East and North Africa in the centuries prior to his own time. The Muqaddimah, ibn Khaldûn’s treatise on the forces that shape history, paid close attention to the relationship between settled agricultural civilizations and nomadic herding societies. It’s a relationship worth watching; as far back as ancient Sumer, which in historical terms is pretty much as far back as you can go, the ebb and flow of power between desert herdspeople and settled agriculturalists sets the heartbeat of history. In Mesopotamia and many other places, civilizations rise on the backs of new technologies, prosper and expand at the expense of their nomadic neighbors, transmit their technical skills to those same neighbors, and then falter and collapse beneath nomad incursions.

What sets ibn Khaldûn’s analysis apart from those of the many other historians who once tracked this cycle is his attention to the role of background technologies in bringing the cycle to an end. From Sumerian times onward, irrigation canals formed the backbone of settled life across the Middle East. While irrigation in a desert setting can cause salinization (the slow buildup of salts in the soil), this does not happen as automatically or as disastrously as some current theorists insist; it’s rarely mentioned, for example, that Syria – where grain agriculture was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere else in the world – is still a significant exporter of wheat today. Two other factors less often discussed in modern studies of ecological history played at least as large a role.

The first of these, and over the long term the most important, is climate change. Over the ten thousand years or so since the end of the last ice age, climates have shifted dramatically many times over large areas of the world, and rarely so drastically as in the Middle East. The ice age climate spread deserts over much of the world, including areas that now receive plenty of rainfall, while a few regions that are now barren – for example, the Great Basin deserts in North America – got heavy rains and supported rich ecosystems and human societies. The chaotic climates that followed the breakup of the glaciers, and likely made the lives of our ancestors all too interesting, eventually gave way to what paleoclimatologists call the Holocene Climatic Optimum, a period of several thousand years in which global temperatures were much warmer and wetter than they are today.

During those years, the winter rains that now fall north of the Mediterranean swept across it to douse North Africa, and tropical monsoons rolled north into today’s deserts from Ethiopia to Pakistan. As recently as 6000 years ago, as a result, hippopotami flourished in a great chain of lakes across what is now the southern Sahara Desert, and further north the lakes and marshes gave way to a vast savanna full of giraffes, gazelles, lions, and elephants. Similar conditions prevailed over large parts of the Arabian peninsula and across the band of deserts that now stretch from Mesopotamia east to India.

What dried up the lakes and replaced savannas with sand dunes was the gradual cooling of the Earth’s climate, which shifted the rain bands toward their present locations, leaving deserts in their wake. Whole river systems vanished, along with the people who once lived beside them, as the rain that once fed both went away. The process took time – as late as the heyday of the Roman Empire, for example, North Africa still received winter rains and remained the Mediterranean’s major grain-producing area – but by ibn Khaldûn’s time it was essentially complete. This was where the third factor, central to his own analysis, came into play.

The cyclic interaction between settled urban societies and desert nomads depended on the maintenance of irrigation technologies first put into place by the ancient Sumerians. The slow march of climate change made irrigation more difficult and more necessary at the same time, and most desert civilizations had to direct a fair proportion of their economic output into maintaining the canals and waterworks on which survival depended. This, as ibn Khaldûn pointed out, became their Achilles’ heel, because the desert nomads who conquered the urban centers never quite grasped the necessity of the irrigation systems, and starved them of resources until they slid down the slow curve of failure. Like the deforestation that doomed the people of Easter Island, the abandonment of the irrigation canals was a one-way ticket to collapse; once farmland turned into desert, the agricultural wealth that made canal building and repair possible was no longer there to be spent, and regions that had been settled for millennia turned into deserts spotted with crumbling ruins.

All this has more than a little relevance to the twilight of the industrial age beginning around us today. Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, we depend on the reckless exploitation of limited resources to sustain our way of life; like the civilizations of the Middle East whose fate was chronicled by ibn Khaldûn, our survival depends on fragile infrastructure systems that few of us understand and most of our leaders seem entirely willing to starve of necessary resources for the sake of short-term political advantage. The industrial system that supports us has been in place long enough that most of us seem to be unable to conceive of circumstances in which it might no longer be there.

One of the wrinkles of catabolic collapse – the process by which societies in decline cannibalize their own infrastructure to meet immediate needs, and so accelerate their own breakdown – is that it can trigger abrupt crises by wrecking some essential technology that is not recognized as such. We are already witnessing the early stages of exactly such a crisis. What large trees were to the Easter Islanders and irrigation canals were to the early medieval Middle East, the current form of money economy is to modern industrial society, and the speculative delusions that passed for financial innovation over the last few decades have played exactly the same role as the invading nomads of ibn Khaldûn’s history, by stripping a fragile system of resources in the pursuit of immediate gain. The result, just as in the 1930s, is that a nation still relatively rich in potential resources, and provided with a large and skilled labor force, is sliding into crushing poverty because the intricate social system we use to allocate labor and resources has broken down.

Other unwelcome surprises along the same lines are likely events in the future. Before we get there, however, those of us who are concerned about the possible downside of history might be well advised to pay more attention to the unnoticed technologies in our lives, and to start thinking about how to make do without them, or get some substitute in place in a hurry, if the unthinkable happens and one or more of them suddenly goes away.

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