From Chapter 2 of John Michael Greer’s new book, The Ecotechnic Future, Envisioning a Post-Peak World (New Society Publishers, $18.95)
…From the standpoint of the far future, in fact, modern industrialism may turn out to be a primitive and vastly inefficient form of the technic society. Like other human ecologies, the technic society can be defined by its energy sources. A hunter-gatherer society uses energy in the form of food, firewood and raw materials taken directly fr.om natural ecosystems. A nomadic herding society also gets its energy from natural ecosystems, but uses livestock as an energy harvesting technology. A village agricultural society does the same thing using domesticated plants. An urban agrarian society uses energy in the form of food from artificial ecosystems created by human labor and supplements this with modest amounts of nonfood energy in the form of fuels, wind, hydropower and sunlight.
A technic society, by contrast, relies primarily on nonfood energy.
Modern industrial civilization is simply a form of technic society that gets its nonfood energy from fossil fuels and maximizes production of goods and services in the usual R-selected way at the cost of vast inefficiency. At the other end of the spectrum is the climax community, the ecotechnic society, which gets its nonfood energy from renewable sources and maximizes the efficiency of its energy and resource use in the usual K-selected way at the cost of more restricted access to goods and services.
If this is correct, our own civilization is pursuing a wholly misguided image of what advanced technology looks like. Since the late 19th century, when science fiction writers such as Jules Verne began to popularize dreams of future technologies, “advanced technology” and “extravagant energy use” have been for all practical purposes synonyms, and Star Trek fantasies still dominate discussions of what a mature technological society might resemble. If the model just outlined has any validity, though, a truly mature technology may turn out to be something very different from our current R- selected expectations — and this requires a radical rethinking of most ideas about the future.
As the industrial age ends, the vision of the future that grows from this rethinking may exert a powerful appeal. Still, we are nowhere near the ecotechnic age yet, and if the succession model is any guide, trying to leap directly from the rank weeds of industrial society to the verdant forest of an ecotechnic civilization simply won’t work. Even leaving succession aside, we have only the vaguest idea of what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, and history suggests that a long process of trial and error will be needed to develop a technic civilization that can sustain itself for the long term.
In important ways, though, this is simply a restatement of points already made. If human societies replace one another in something akin to ecological succession, the societies that rise from the ruins of industrial civilization will be those best suited to the environment created by their predecessors. These new societies will then be replaced by other societies, until some approximation to a climax community is reached. Only when conditions support the climax community will the ecotechnic future arrive.
the long road to sustainability
The dream of building an ecotechnic society here and now is, of course, widespread. It can be traced in some of the best visionary literature of recent decades, and has been cherished by many people in alternative circles.5 That dream has become important in some corners of today’s cultural dialogue because it embodies a canny strategy for getting past the less productive assumptions that shape contemporary thinking about social change.
Much of the rhetoric used to justify today’s social arrangements draws an imagined contrast between the benefits of industrial societies and the supposed squalor and misery of preindustrial life.
Many critics of industrialism fall into the trap of accepting the same forced choice while simply reversing the value judgments, as though it’s possible to break out of a dualistic way of thinking by standing the dualism on its head. The cleverness of the ecotechnic dream is that it splits the difference by proposing a third option that borrows many of the best qualities from each side. The Hobson’s choice between two whole systems, with no alternatives, changes to an open field in which each factor that could make up a future society can be assessed on its own terms. Thus the strategy widens the field of choices, not just to three, but to infinity.
Still, turning this rhetorical strategy into a practical program is harder than it looks. It’s popular to think that social change is driven primarily by deliberate human choice, but this is simply another form of the illusion of independence: it assumes that social technology trumps natural limits. The science of human ecology and the evidence of history — and history is simply human ecology mapped onto the dimension of time — both paint a different picture. What they show is that people may attempt to build any society they like, but unless their plans take ecological realities into account, they will fail. Even if a society accepts the hard limits of ecological reality, it will still fail if another society competes for the same resource base more effectively.
The industrial economy now lurching toward history’s compost bin, after all, did not achieve global dominance because the people of the world agreed to make that happen. Nor did the squabbling political classes of the world’s societies make that decision; there were industrialists who did their level best to further its spread, but there were also powerful people, many members of the old feudal landowning class among them, who staked everything they had on resisting it and failed. Industrial civilization had its day in the sun because, in a world where fossil fuel could be had for the digging or drilling, the industrial mode of production was more efficient than its rivals, and enabled the communities that embraced it to prosper at the expense of those that did not. As the industrial system undercuts the environmental conditions that allow it to thrive, new forms better adapted to the new reality will elbow today’s industrialism aside and take its place. We have our preferences, but nature has the final say.
Apply the same measure to the rise of an ecotechnic society and the challenge is clear. The conditions that would make an ecotechnic society the most successful option are roughly those that existed before the industrial revolution broke open the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves and started looting them for short-term advantage. In a world where the available energy resources are sun, wind, water, muscle and biomass, and all work must be accomplished by those The Ecotechnic Future means, societies that evolve efficient and sustainable technologies using those resources have major advantages against rival societies that use them unsustainably.
The problem with building an ecotechnic society here and now is that the conditions just outlined do not yet exist. So far, humanity has used around half the world’s stock of petroleum, and a little less than half its stock of coal and natural gas. These fuels will be available in diminishing amounts for a long time to come. While modern industrial societies as they exist today probably can’t survive the end of cheap energy, peak oil is already driving the emergence of scarcity industrialism, a new human ecology better adapted to a world of dwindling fuel supplies. While fossil fuels can still be produced in useful amounts, scarcity industrialism will likely produce more wealth and exert more power than any ecotechnic system. Societies with fossil fuels have historically overwhelmed those without them, and nothing suggests this will change soon.
In the longer run, a second new ecology, the salvage society, is likely to replace scarcity industrialism in its turn. Many relics of today’s industrial societies will still exist far into the future. These legacies represent stored energy — they embody the energy that was needed to create them, and to build the material and knowledge base that made them possible — and the additional energy needed to maintain and use them in many cases will be quite small compared to the stored energy contained in them. The energy needed to keep a hydroelectric plant or a computer in working order is fairly small compared to the energy they embody, or the advantages that owning and using them could confer.
It’s quite likely, therefore, that deindustrial societies that can no longer build a hydroelectric plant or a computer could still maintain the less demanding knowledge and resource base needed to keep them running, in the same way that Dark Age societies all over Europe used and repaired Roman aqueducts they could never have built themselves. The resulting salvage societies will have advantages that purely ecotechnic societies will not, and so these human ecologies will spread wherever the supply of potential salvage allows them to function. Still, their time will pass; many of the legacies of the industrial age will not be renewable, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
The result is a striking parallel to succession. In the near and middle future, as the deindustrial age unfolds, the societies that will flourish best are those that will be least able to survive over the long term. In the near term, societies that embrace scarcity industrialism, relying on efficient use of remaining fossil fuels and eking them out with renewable resources and high technology, will likely do better than either the wasteful abundance economies of the present or the more sustainable cultures that will replace them. In the middle term, salvage societies that combine sustainable subsistence strategies and economies with effective use of the industrial age’s legacy technologies will likely do better than the lingering fossil fuel-using societies they replace, or the ecotechnic societies that will replace them in turn. Only when coal and oil are rare curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own.
It’s crucial to keep this process in mind when planning for the end of the industrial age. The last years of today’s economy of abundance, the decades of scarcity industrialism built on the last significant supplies of fossil fuels, and the century or two of salvage societies in the middle future, form three hurdles that have to be leapt in order to get to the ecotechnic age. Instead of trying to make the leap to an ecologically balanced, fully sustainable society all at once, the transition must be made one hurdle at a time, adapting to changes as they happen, and trying to anticipate each seral stage in time to prepare for it, while working out the subsistence strategies and social networks of the future on smaller scales.
This approach is evolutionary rather than revolutionary — that is, it relies on incremental changes and continuous experimentation, rather than trying to impose a rigid break with the past and an ideological pattern that may turn out to be less viable that the one it replaces. This is necessary because the human ecology that succeeds best under any set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with available resources and technology, than on choices we make. Constructive changes are possible in almost any situation, but only within the limits imposed by ecological realities, and societies that try to ignore those realities will face stark handicaps in facing the challenges of survival and competition from other, less burdened societies.
Nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, much less how to build one. The only form of technic society human beings have yet experienced is the industrialism of the last 300 years, and nearly everything that made that system work will be gone once the age of cheap abundant energy ends. The time of contraction ahead of us is, among other things, an opportunity for social evolution, in which various populations will try out many different forms of technical, economic and social organization, some of which will turn out to be more successful than others.
Out of that process will evolve the successful ecotechnic societies of the far future, perhaps three centuries from now, perhaps more. The journey there, however, will be made more challenging by the impact of today’s choices on the future taking shape around us…