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The downside of dependence

I’m not sure if last week’s Archdruid Report post hit a nerve, or if thoughts similar to the ones I discussed there have been busy all by themselves stirring up nightmares in the deep places of our collective imagination, but it’s been fascinating to note how many blog posts over the past few days have taken issue with the core point my post raised. That point, for those who readers who are just joining us, is that using less – less energy, less resources, less stuff of every kind – is the hallmark of any serious response to the predicament facing industrial civilization

Typical of the responses, if that’s what they were, was a blog post by Forbes blogger Roger Kay. It’s a clever post, to be sure, and Kay’s an engaging writer. He imagines beer yeast in a vat of wort – for those of you who aren’t yet initiated into the mysteries of brewing, that’s what you call the stuff that turns into beer before it turns into beer – faced with the inevitable problem that beer yeast face in a vat of wort: once the alcohol produced by their own life processes reaches a certain level, it poisons the yeast and they die.

Kay goes on to imagine a yeast cell with a conscience, who decides not to consume the sugars in the wort, and points out that the only thing that results from the moral yeast’s decision is that the other, less scrupulous yeast cells eat all the sugar, and all the yeasts die anyway. His conclusion is that we might as well wallow in our fossil-fueled lifestyles while we can, since everyone else is going to do that anyway, and the only hope he offers is that technology might save us before the consequences hit.

George Monbiot, who’s carved out a niche for himself as the staff pseudoenvironmentalist of The Guardian, had a blog post of his own on much the same theme. His argument is simply that most people in today’s industrial societies are not going to accept anything short of continued economic growth, and so a strategy based on using less is simply a waste of time.

Like many people these days who worry about global warming, he dismisses the issues surrounding peak oil out of hand – the problem we face, he insists, is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much – and as evidence for this, he points to the recent announcement from the IEA that world production of petroleum peaked in 2006. Since industrial civilization hasn’t collapsed yet, he tells us, peak oil clearly isn’t a problem. I suppose if you ignore drastic and worsening economic troubles in the world’s industrial nations, food riots and power shortages spreading across the Third World, and all the other symptoms of the rising spiral of peak-driven crisis now under way, you might be able to make that claim. Still, there’s a deeper illogic here.

It’s an illogic that seems highly plausible to many people. That’s because the fallacy that forms the core of the argument made by Kay, Monbiot, and so many others is a common feature of today’s conventional wisdom. An alternative metaphor – one at least as familiar to the peak oil blogosphere as Roger Kay’s yeas – might help to clarify the nature of the failed logic they’re retailing.

Imagine, then, that you’re on the proverbial ocean liner at sea, and it’s just hit the proverbial iceberg. Water is rising belowdecks and the deck is beginning to tilt, but nobody has drowned yet. Aware of the danger, you strap on a life preserver and head for the lifeboats. As you leave your stateroom, though, the guy in the stateroom next to yours gives you an incredulous look. "Are you nuts?" he says. "If you leave the ship now, somebody else will just take your cabin, and get all the meals and drinks you’ve paid for!"

Your fellow passenger in the metaphor, like Kay and Monbiot in the real world, has failed to notice a crucial fact about what’s happening: when a situation is unsustainable in the near term, the benefits that might be gained by clinging to it very often come with a prodigious cost, and the costs that have to be paid to abandon it very often come with considerable benefits. It’s far more pleasant to walk down to the cruise ship’s bar, order a couple of dry martinis, and sit there listening to the Muzak, to be sure, than it is to scramble into a lifeboat and huddle there on one of the thwarts as the waves toss you around, the spray soaks you, and the wind chills you to the bone. Two hours later, however, the passenger who went to the bar is a pallid corpse being gently nibbled by fishes, and the passenger who climbed into the lifeboat and put up with the seasickness and the spray is being hauled safely aboard the first freighter that happened to be close enough to answer the distress call.

The metaphor can usefully be taken a little further, because it points up a useful way of looking at the equivalent situation in the real world. As a passenger on board the ship, your relation to the ship is a relation of dependence. You depend on the integrity of the hull to keep you from drowning, on the fuel and engines to get you to your destination, on the food supply and the galley to keep you fed, and so on. That dependence has very real advantages, but it has a potentially drastic downside: if the systems you rely on should fail, and you don’t have an alternative, your dependence on them can kill you.

It’s this downside of dependence that Kay and Monbiot miss completely. Imagine, to approach the same argument from a different angle, that Kay’s yeast metaphor left out two crucial points. The first is that the yeast cells have choices other than either eating the sugar or not eating the sugar. They can, let’s say, evolve the capacity to live on starch rather than sugar. Starch isn’t as rich an energy source as sugar, and it’s harder and costlier in energy terms to digest, but (let’s say, for the sake of the metaphor) yeast who eat starch don’t produce alcohol and so don’t poison themselves. A yeast that evolves the ability to digest starch thus has to accept a far less lavish lifestyle involving a lot more work, but it’s an option that doesn’t result in guaranteed death.

The second point Kay’s metaphor left out is that the wort in the beer vat doesn’t actually contain that much sugar. The brewer, let’s say, didn’t do an adequate job of malting the barley, and so most of what’s in the wort is starch rather than sugar. As a result, the thing the yeast need to worry about isn’t poisoning themselves by the products of their own digestion; it’s starving to death when the sugar runs out. Given these two conditions, a yeast cell that shrugs and goes back to eating sugar, trusting that the Great Brewer in the Sky will dump more sugar into the wort before it starves, isn’t making a rational choice; it’s allowing the immediate benefits of a temporary abundance to blind it to the fact that the downside of depending on that abundance includes an early and miserable death.

That, pace George Monbiot, is more or less the situation we’re in right now. We have a small and very rapidly depleting supply of highly concentrated, easy-to use "sugar" – that is, petroleum, natural gas, and the better grades of coal – and a much larger supply of diffuse, difficult-to-use "starch" – that is, renewable energy sources such as sunlight and wind, along with diffuse nonrenewable sources such as low-grade coal, uranium ore, and the like. Industrial society has evolved to use sugar, and even its forays into the starch supply are dependent on using up a great deal of sugar to make starch into a sugar substitute – consider the vast amount of natural gas that’s burnt to process tar sands into ersatz petroleum, or the natural gas (used to produce electricity) and diesel fuel that goes into manufacturing, installing, and maintaining today’s gargantuan wind turbines.

The coming of "peak sugar" has two implications for our modern industrial yeast. First, it means that the increasing comsumption of sugar has reached the limits of supply; there’s still sugar left, but as we near the end of the bumpy plateau that ordinary stochastic noise imposes on the smooth theoretical arc of the Hubbert curve, we’re getting closer and closer to the point at which yeast start to die of hunger because there’s not enough sugar to go around. Second, it means that trying to deal with that predicament by pursuing existing strategies – that is, by burning sugar to convert various kinds of starch into an edible form – is going to make the situation worse rather than better, because it’s going to decrease the supply of available sugar just as yeast cells begin to die for lack of it.

All this imposes a hard choice on the yeast cells that make up modern industrial civilization, collectively and as individuals. We know already what the collective decision has been – keep gobbling sugar and hope for the best – and though it might be possible to make a different choice collectively even this late in the game, the costs would be appalling and the political will to make such a decision clearly isn’t there. What remains are decisions on the part of individual yeast cells to go along with the collective choice or not. Those who reject the collective choice face the hard work of evolving to feed on starch that hasn’t been converted into a sugar substitute, knowing that in doing so, they’re exchanging a lavish but temporary lifestyle for a more difficult but more enduring one.

That latter choice is the one this blog has been advocating for most of a year now: using the proven appropriate-tech toolkit of the Seventies era to dramatically reduce individual, family, and community dependence on concentrated energy supplies, and make use of diffuse energy sources – primarily sunlight – that can be collected and used right where you are. Most people in today’s industrial societies have shown no interest in considering that option; they’ve made the other choice, and seem to be sticking to it even as the downside of their dependence on a collapsing human ecology is beginning to become visible. Some may change their minds, but there’s another factor that has to be taken into account, the factor of time.

One of the many comments I fielded on last week’s post pointed straight to that factor, though I don’t think the person who wrote the comment realized that. According to his comment, he’s an unemployed union carpenter with thirty years of now-useless experience, who’s about to reach the end of his 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and become one of the growing mass of America’s economic nonpersons. His children are struggling with the same scenario. Wrapping insulation around his pipes, he pointed out, won’t fix the predicament he’s in.

He’s quite right, if "fixing the predicament" means enabling him to return to what has been, until now, a normal American middle class existence. Millions of Americans right now are finding themselves shut out of that existence, and few if any of them will ever find a way back into it. Over the years to come, more and more Americans will undergo the same profoundly unwelcome shift, until what used to be the normal middle class existence becomes a thing of the past for everybody. That’s the inevitable shape of our future, because of the awkward fact I mentioned last week – there is no way to make a middle class American lifestyle sustainable – and its corollary, which is that if something can’t be made sustainable, it won’t be sustained.

That doesn’t mean that we’re all going to move into cozy lifeboat ecovillages, or any of the other green-painted Levittowns that fill so much space in so many middle class fantasies today. It means, rather, that in the decades ahead of us, something like half the American population will most likely end up in shantytowns on the model of Latin America’s favelas, without electricity, running water or sewers, caught up in a scramble for survival that many of them will inevitably lose. It means that most of the others will likely face a reduction in their standards of living to levels not too different from the one that the poorest Americans experience today, while the rich of that time, if they’re smart, ruthless, and lucky, may be able to scrape together some of the luxuries a middle class American family can count on today, and may even be able to hold onto them for a while.

Does the picture I’ve just painted seem unbelievable? It’s simply the equivalent of saying that the United States will become a Third World nation in the not too distant future. It’s also the equivalent of saying that the United States will undergo the usual pattern of severe economic contraction that’s a normal part of the decline and fall of an empire, or of a civilization. Neither of those are improbable statements just now; it’s simply that most people shy away from thinking about the implications.

What all this implies, in turn, is that those people who make the shift to a low-energy lifestyle in advance, before the sheer pressure of circumstances forces them to do so, will have options closed to those who cling to the unsustainable until it’s dragged out of their grip. Those who downshift hard, fast, and soon, cutting their dependence on fossil fuels and the goods and services that fossil fuels make available, will have a much less difficult time paying off debts, finding the money to learn new skills, and navigating the challenging economic conditions of life in a near-bankrupt society. Had the unemployed carpenter whose comment I mentioned above wrapped insulation around his pipes ten years ago, he’d have spent less money on energy for the last decade, and could have used that extra money to get ready for the hard times to come; had he wrapped his pipes, insulated his walls, slashed his energy bills, recognized the dependence of his income on a totally unsustainable housing bubble and gotten into a different if less lucrative line of work – and there were people who did these things at the time, and are doing them now – he’d likely be fine today.

These are the kinds of steps that leave people in possession of a home, a garden, a career doing something people need or want badly enough to pay for even in a depression, and other desiderata of hard economic times. These are also the kinds of steps that make it easier for people to offer help to their families, friends, and neighbors, to teach vital skills to those who are willing to learn them, and preserve precious cultural legacies through the crises of the present to they can be handed on to the future. That’s the payoff for living with less; it’s a lot easier to avoid getting trapped by the downside of dependence on a society moving steadily deeper into systems failure.

These considerations aren’t the sort of thing you can expect to read in the pages of Forbes and The Guardian, to be sure. You’ll have a hard time, for that matter, finding them anywhere in our collective conversation about the future of industrial society. Even among those who haven’t tried to squirm away from the unwelcome realities of our present predicament, there seems to be a tendency to avoid talking about exactly what the landscape of the American future looks like. It’s understandable; science fiction scenarios and apocalyptic fireworks are so much more exciting than the future of mass impoverishment, infrastructure breakdown, sociopolitical disintegration, and ragged population decline that the misguided choices of the last few decades have handed us.

It’s true, in other words, that huddling in a lifeboat, tossed by waves and soaked by spray, is no fun. It’s a lot less fun than sitting in a cruise ship bar chugging martinis, even if the reason why you’re chugging the martinis is that you’re trying to pretend not to notice that the deck is slowly tilting under your feet and the waves are a lot closer to the porthole than they used to be. There’s every reason to think that a great many people will choose this latter option or, more precisely, that they have chosen it, and are continuing to reaffirm that choice – sometimes, like Kay and Monbiot, at the top of their lungs. Still, those aren’t the people for whom these posts are written, and I’m encouraged by the number of people who are making a different choice.

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Those of my readers who are interested in the green wizardry project discussed in these posts may also be interested to learn that a sustainable community in Oregon is hosting what, as far as I know, is the first-ever event focusing on the Green Wizards theme. It’s over the Fourth of July weekend this year; you can read all the details here.

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