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The world after abundance

It has been nearly four decades now since the limits to industrial civilization’s trajectory of limitless material growth on a limited planet have been clearly visible on the horizon of our future. Over that time, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. The closer we get to the limits to growth, the more those limits impact our daily lives, and the more clearly our current trajectory points toward the brick wall of a difficult future, the less most people in the industrial world seem to be able to imagine any alternative to driving the existing order of things ever onward until the wheels fall off.

This is as true in many corners of the activist community as it is in the most unregenerate of corporate boardrooms. For most of today’s environmentalists, for example, renewable energy isn’t something that people ought to produce for themselves, unless they happen to be wealthy enough to afford the rooftop PV systems that have become the latest status symbol in suburban neighborhoods on either coast. It’s something that utilities and the government are supposed to produce as fast as possible, so that Americans can keep on using three times as much energy per capita as the average European and twenty times as much as the average Chinese.

Of course there are alternatives. In the energy crisis of the Seventies, relatively simple conservation and efficiency measures, combined with lifestyle changes, sent world petroleum consumption down by 15% in a single decade and caused comparable drops in other energy sources across the industrial world. Most of these measures went out the window in the final binge of the age of cheap oil that followed, so there’s plenty of low hanging fruit to pluck. That same era saw a great many thoughtful people envision ways that people could lead relatively comfortable and humane lives while consuming a great deal less energy and the products of energy than people in the industrial world do today.

It can be a troubling experience to turn the pages of Rainbook or The Book of the New Alchemists, to name only two of the better products of that mostly forgotten era, and compare the sweeping view of future possibilities that undergirded their approach to a future of energy and material shortages with the cramped imaginations of the present. It’s even more troubling to notice that you can pick up yellowing copies of most of these books for a couple of dollars each in the used book trade, at a time when their practical advice is more relevant than ever, and their prophecies of what would happen if the road to sustainability was not taken are looking more prescient by the day.

The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that our collective refusal to follow the lead of those who urged us to learn how to get by with less has not spared us the necessity of doing exactly that. That’s the problem, ultimately, with driving headlong at a brick wall; you can stop by standing on the brake pedal, or you can stop by hitting the wall, but either way, you’re going to stop.

One way to make sense of the collision between the brittle front end of industrial civilization and the hard surface of nature’s brick wall is to compare the spring of 2010 with the autumn of 2007. Those two seasons had an interesting detail in common. In both cases, the price of oil passed $80 a barrel after a prolonged period of price increases, and in both cases, this was followed by a massive debt crisis. In 2007, largely driven by speculation in the futures market, the price of oil kept on zooming upwards, peaking just south of $150 a barrel before crashing back to earth; so far, at least, there’s no sign of a spike of that sort happening this time, although this is mostly because speculators are focused on other assets these days.

In 2007, though, the debt crisis also resulted in a dramatic economic downturn, and just now our chances of dodging the same thing this time around do not look good. Here in the US, most measures of general economic activity are faltering where they aren’t plunging – the sole exceptions are those temporarily propped up by an unparalleled explosion of government debt – and unemployment has become so deeply entrenched that what to do about the very large number of Americans who have exhausted the 99 weeks of unemployment benefits current law allows them is becoming a significant political issue. Even the illegal economy is taking a massive hit; a recent NPR story noted that the price of marijuana has dropped so sharply that northern California, where it’s a huge cash crop, is seeing panic selling and sharp economic contraction.

What’s going on here is precisely what The Limits to Growth warned about in 1973: the costs of continued growth have risen faster than growth itself, and are reaching a level that is forcing the economy to its knees. By “costs,” of course, the authors of The Limits to Growth weren’t talking about money, and neither am I. The costs that matter are energy, resources, and labor; it takes a great deal more of all of these to extract oil from deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico or oil sands in Alberta, say, than it used to take to get it from Pennsylvania or Texas, and since offshore drilling and oil sands make up an increasingly large share of what we’ve got left – those wells in Pennsylvania and Texas have been pumped dry, or nearly so – these real, nonmonetary costs have climbed steadily.

The price of oil in dollars functions here as a workable proxy measure for the real cost of oil production in energy, resources, and materials. The evidence of the last few years suggests that when the price of oil passes $80 a barrel, that’s a sign that the real costs have reached a level high enough that the rest of the economy begins to crack under the strain. Since astronomical levels of debt have become standard practice all through today’s global economy, the ability of marginal borrowers to service their debt is where the cracks showed up first. In the fall of 2007, many of those marginal borrowers were homeowners in the US and UK; this spring, they include entire nations.

What all this implies, in a single phrase, is that the age of abundance is over. The period from 1945 to 2005 when almost unimaginable amounts of cheap petroleum sloshed through the economies of the world’s industrial nations, and transformed life in those nations almost beyond recognition, still shapes most of our thinking and nearly all of our expectations. Not one significant policy maker or mass media pundit in the industrial world has begun to talk about the impact of the end of the age of abundance; it’s an open question if any of them have grasped how fundamental the changes will be as the new age of post-abundance economics begins to clamp down.

Most ordinary people in the industrial world, for their part, are sleepwalking through one of history’s major transitions. The issues that concern them are still defined entirely by the calculus of abundance. Most Americans these days, for example, worry about managing a comfortable retirement, paying for increasingly expensive medical care, providing their children with a college education and whatever amenities they consider important. It has not yet entered their darkest dreams that they need to worry about access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and shelter, the fate of local economies and communities shredded by decades of malign neglect, and the rise of serious threats to the survival of constitutional government and the rule of law.

Even among those who warn that today’s Great Recession could bottom out at a level equal to that reached in the Great Depression, very few have grappled with the consequences of a near-term future in which millions of Americans are living in shantytowns and struggling to find enough to eat every single day. To paraphrase Sinclair Lewis, that did happen here, and it did so at a time when the United States was a net exporter of everything you can think of, and the world’s largest producer and exporter of petroleum to boot. The same scale of economic collapse in a nation that exports very little besides unpayable IOUs, and is the world’s largest consumer and importer of petroleum, could all too easily have results much closer to those of the early 20th century in Central Europe, for example: that is, near-universal impoverishment, food shortages, epidemics, civil wars, and outbreaks of vicious ethnic cleansing, bracketed by two massive wars that both had body counts in the tens of millions.

Now you’ll notice that this latter does not equate to the total collapse into a Cormac McCarthy future that so many people like to fantasize about these days. I’ve spent years wondering why it is that so many people seem unable to conceive of any future other than business as usual, on the one hand, and extreme doomer porn on the other. Whatever the motives that drive this curious fixation, though, I’ve become convinced that it results in a nearly complete blindness to the very real risks the future is more likely to hold for us. It makes a useful exercise to take current notions about preparing for the future in the survivalist scene, and ask yourself how many of them would have turned out to be useful over the decade or two ahead if someone had pursued exactly those strategies in Poland or Slovakia, let’s say, in the years right before 1914.

Measure the gap between the real and terrible events of that period, on the one hand, and the fantasies of infinite progress or apocalyptic collapse that so often pass for realistic images of our future, on the other, and you have some sense of the gap that has to be crossed in order to make sense of the world after abundance. One way or another, we will cross that gap; the question is whether any significant number of us will do so in advance, and have time to take constructive actions in response, or whether we’ll all do so purely in retrospect, thinking ruefully of the dollars and hours that went into preparing for an imaginary future while the real one was breathing down our necks.

I’ve talked at quite some length in these essays about the kinds of preparations that will likely help individuals, families, and communities deal with the future of resource shortages, economic implosion, political breakdown, and potential civil war that the missed opportunities and purblind decisions of the last thirty years have made agonizingly likely here in the United States and, with an infinity of local variations, elsewhere in the industrial world. Those points remain crucial; it still makes a great deal of sense to start growing some of your own food, to radically downscale your dependence on complex technological systems, to reduce your energy consumption as far as possible, to free up at least one family member from the money economy for full-time work in the domestic economy, and so on.

Still, there’s another dimension to all this, and it has to be mentioned, though it’s certain to raise hackles. For the last three centuries, and especially for the last half century or so, it’s become increasingly common to define a good life as one provided with the largest possible selection of material goods and services. That definition has become so completely hardwired into our modern ways of thinking that it can be very hard to see past it. Of course there are certain very basic material needs without which a good life is impossible, but those are a good deal fewer and simpler than contemporary attitudes assume, and once those are provided, material abundance becomes a much more ambivalent blessing than we like to think.

In a very real sense, this way of thinking mirrors the old joke about the small boy with a hammer who thinks everything is a nail. In an age of unparalleled material abundance, the easy solution for any problem or predicament was to throw material wealth at it. That did solve some problems, but it arguably worsened others, and left the basic predicaments of human existence untouched. Did it really benefit anyone to spend trillions of dollars and the talents of some of our civilization’s brightest minds creating high-end medical treatments to keep the very sick alive and miserable for a few extra months of life, for example, so that we could pretend to ourselves that we had evaded the basic human predicament of the inevitability of death?

Whatever the answer, the end of the age of abundance draws a line under that experiment. Within not too many years, it’s safe to predict, only the relatively rich will have the dubious privilege of spending the last months of their lives hooked up to complicated life support equipment. The rest of us will end our lives the way our great-grandparents did: at home, more often than not, with family members or maybe a nurse to provide palliative care while our bodies do what they were born to do and shut down. Within not too many years, more broadly, only a very few people anywhere in the world will have the option of trying to escape the core uncertainties and challenges of human existence by chasing round after round of consumer goodies; the rest of us will count ourselves lucky to have our basic material needs securely provided for, and will have to deal with fundamental questions of meaning and value in some less blatantly meretricious way.

Some of us, in the process, may catch on to the subtle lesson woven into this hard necessity. It’s worth noting that while there’s been plenty of talk about the monasteries of the Dark Ages among people who are aware of the impending decline and fall of our civilization, next to none of it has discussed, much less dealt with, the secret behind the success of monasticism: the deliberate acceptance of extreme material poverty. Quite the contrary; all the plans for lifeboat ecovillages I’ve encountered so far, at least, aim at preserving some semblance of a middle class lifestyle into the indefinite future. That choice puts these projects in the same category as the lavish villas in which the wealthy inhabitants of Roman Britain hoped to ride out their own trajectory of decline and fall: a category mostly notable for its long history of total failure.

The European Christian monasteries that preserved Roman culture through the Dark Ages did not offer anyone a middle class lifestyle by the standards of their own time, much less those of ours. Neither did the Buddhist monasteries that preserved Heian culture through the Sengoku Jidai, Japan’s bitter age of wars, or the Buddhist and Taoist monasteries that preserved classical Chinese culture through a good half dozen cycles of collapse. Monasteries in all these cases were places people went to be very, very poor. That was the secret of their achievements, because when you reduce your material needs to the absolute minimum, the energy you don’t need to spend maintaining your standard of living can be put to work doing something more useful.

Now it’s probably too much to hope for that some similar movement might spring into being here and now; we’re a couple of centuries too soon for that. The great age of Christian monasticism in the West didn’t begin until the sixth century CE, by which time the Roman economy of abundance had been gone for so long that nobody even pretended that material wealth was an answer to the human condition. Still, the monastic revolution kickstarted by Benedict of Nursia drew on a long history of Christian monastic ventures; those unfolded in turn from the first tentative communal hermitages of early Christian Egypt; and all these projects, though this is not often mentioned, took part of their inspiration and a good deal of their ethos from the Stoics of Pagan Greece and Rome.

Movements of the Stoic type are in fact very common in civilizations that have passed the Hubbert peak of their own core resource base. There’s good reason for that. In a contracting economy, it becomes easier to notice that the less you need, the less vulnerable you are to the ups and downs of fortune, and the more you can get done of whatever it is that you happen to want to do. That’s an uncongenial lesson at the best of times, and during times of material abundance you won’t find many people learning it. Still, in the world after abundance, it’s hard to think of a lesson that deserves more careful attention.

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