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When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse

My main problem with the Jared Diamond/John Michael Greer/Jim Kunstler theory of “catabolic collapse” is that it ignores one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology: ephemerality.

Thanks to technological change, over the past few decades the capital-intensiveness of emerging successor infrastructures has been collapsing faster than the existing infrastructure itself. The classic example, from Buckminster Fuller, is replacing a transoceanic cable system emdodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each.

It’s quite true that the mass-production industrial civilization that peaked in the 20th century is falling into ruin, failing to invest in upkeep at sustainable levels, and generally eating its seed corn — just as happened with Rome. The difference is, the Interstate Highway System, the civil aviation infrastructure, and the old electrical grid aren’t something to mourn. They’re something that would decay anyway, because they’re increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of production technology and economic organization the emerging successor society will be based on.

The old infrastructures, as I argued here, are extremely capital-intensive, high-overhead, batch-and-queue systems that devote 80% of their total capacity — idle most of the time — to handling 20% of the total load at peak hours. This grossly overbuilt, capital-intensive infrastructure, to pay for itself, requires organizing the rest of society to maximize utilization of the infrastructure’s capacity — even if it means doing everything in an extremely inefficient way.

A classic example is mass-production industry, which invests in enormously expensive, specialized, product specific machinery, and then runs it as close to capacity as possible to minimize unit costs. This, in turn, requires organizing the entire society in such a way as to guarantee consumption of the output, even if it means inefficient designs in which waste of resources is a virtue, building stuff to fall apart, and building other infrastructures that turn one’s output into a necessity (e.g. the horrible automobile-highway complex and sprawl, which drastically inflate the need for automobiles so as to keep the wheels turning at Detroit).

The very fact that supply-push distribution decouples production from immediate demand means enormous costs of warehousing inventory for which there is no immediate demand, shipping stuff thousands of miles, and high-pressure marketing. And if planned obsolescence and subsidized civilian waste isn’t enough to fully utilize all that overbuilt capacity, there’s always the military-industrial complex (including the occasional war to destroy hundreds of billions of dollars worth of hardware in a few days).

So what’s the emerging successor infrastructure look like?

At the opposite pole is distributed infrastructure, in which most of the infrastructural goods are distributed among the endpoints, relations are directly between endpoints without passing through a central hub, and volume is driven entirely by user demand at the endpoints. Since the capital goods possessed by the endpoints is a miniscule fraction of the cost of a centralized infrastructure, there is no incentive to subordinate end-users to the needs of the infrastructure.

In the case of utilities, this means things like replacing high-capacity, centralized electrical grids with the distributed generation of power at the endpoints, and replacing the last-mile fiber-optic infrastructure with local wireless meshworks in which the users themselves are the infrastructure.

Up to now, I’ve been addressing the question of whether insufficient investment in maintaining the old infrastructures is really that much of a tragedy, when new infrastructures two orders of magnitude cheaper are being built in their ruins.

But happens when the old infrastructures are allied with the state, and actively use state power to prevent investment funds from being shifted from themselves to the new ephemeral infrastructures?

Consider the way old-style public utilities use the regulatory state to suppress competition from distributed power generation infrastructure.

Ed Fenster writes:

In 2007, I co-founded Sunrun to tackle one such engrained industry: electric energy. We developed a way for families to get rooftop solar power without incurring upfront costs or having to understand solar technology. We choose the equipment, foot the installation cost, and charge monthly for the power these systems generate, as a utility might. In 11 states, the average Sunrun family typically pays us 15% less than they used to pay their monopoly utility.

Most utilities hold a monopoly on how people get electricity. Unlike normal companies, regulated utilities are allowed to set rates as high as is necessary to earn a guaranteed profit on the infrastructure they build (transmission lines, power plants, etc.), no matter the cost or reliability. Utilities have become so good at arguing for this profit that even in today’s low interest rate environment, their guaranteed return is typically 10% or more. The theory behind the guarantee is that utilities need to attract billions of dollars to maintain the grid. At the same time, banks today have access to nearly unlimited capital despite typically earning lower returns, which are notoriously not guaranteed. Why should public utilities have it better than Wall Street banks?

People who go solar are in effect privatizing investment that the utilities would otherwise make “on behalf of” their ratepayers, charging them the cost plus guaranteed profit. So utilities naturally want to stifle rooftop solar innovation to maximize profit growth.

One reason the framing of “catabolic collapse” is so misleading, in today’s technological environment, is that distributed technologies are reducing the need for the old legacy infrastructures. Because they’re an extremely high overhead business model that depends on cost-plus markup and guaranteed profit, any reduction in demand entails a vicious circle that will eventually result in their implosion. Even a 5% reduction in consumer demand for output will result in a drastic increase in unit costs from overhead, which in turn will mean an increase in the rates utility payers have to pay to guarantee a profit, which in turn will lead to further rate-payer flight to alternatives, which in turn will result in further idle capacity and overhead, and so on, and so on.

So in this scenario, progress looks an awful lot like catabolic collapse. And “maintaining/rebuilding our infrastructure,” that shibboleth of much of the greenwashed “Progressive” Left, requires strangling the successor society in its grave. Metaphorically speaking, we live in the early days of an emerging economy in which peasant villages — with a Star Trek molecular replicator in each cottage — lives in the shadows of the decaying aqueducts. The dead hand of Rome is trying its best to maintain the old system and its infrastructures, even at the expense of destroying a world without want. But I don’t think it can.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Patrick Charpiat/Wikipedia

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