Catabolic Ephemeralization? Carson versus Greer

October 25, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Last week, Kevin Carson, a political historian and theorist of the Mutualist tradition, took issue with the concept of catabolic collapse, a term coined a few years ago by the author John Michael Greer. Greer responded; the exchange that followed provided an illuminating look at two views of the future that actually share many qualities but which differ in important respects.

Greer is one of a handful of prescient observers (along with James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov and Richard Heinberg among others) who has taken a stab at trying to predict what the world might look like as the interconnected crises of resource depletion, climate change and economic collapse unfold in the coming decades.

While he pursues his own unique line of thinking, Greer’s work shares with those other authors a few key convictions, the most important being that there is no combination of alternative energy, conservation or other technology that can keep our globalized system running as it has. And along with those other writers, Greer believes that its not just car culture and the Interstate highway that’s doomed; the Internet itself is unlikely to survive for many more years.

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Decaying infrastructure. By swanksalot via flickr.

Unlike some post-peak writers, however, Greer doesn’t believe that we are facing what some have called a secular apocalypse in which industrial civilization imminently and rapidly implodes over a course of months. Instead, he argues that we are likely to experience what he calls “catabolic collapse” in which industrial civilization reverses course, shedding layers of complexity, infrastructure and technological achievement in a series of painful downward steps, happening over time. Catabolic collapse begins at the point at which the available energy and other resources of a complex society are not enough to maintain its energy- and capital-intensive infrastructure.

According to Carson, the problem with the theory of catabolic collapse is that it ignores what he calls “one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology: ephemerality.” The classic example from Buckminster Fuller, he writes, is the replacing of “a transoceanic cable system embodying 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.”

Thanks to technological advancement in recent years, Carson argues, distributed infrastructure — including distributed renewable energy and distributed manufacturing enabled by peer-to-peer open source design— is making that same collapsing infrastructure obsolete.

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3D printer. By Opensourceway via flickr.

“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.”

Having followed Carson’s work for a few years, I think I understand what he is saying; unfortunately his choice of metaphors here seemed to have caused quite a bit of misunderstanding among Greer and his followers, who are so put off by the idea of Star Trek (“touchstone of the absurd” according to Greer) that they don’t notice that the replicator “technofantasy” Carson mentions is in fact a metaphor.

More to the point: Greer takes issue with the idea that the ephemeral technologies Carson mentions are really less resource intensive, arguing that we only think they are because of mistaken accounting. Satellites are not possible without a space program, and space programs require so much infrastructure that it’s ludicrous to suggest that they require fewer resources than transoceanic cables. As for the Internet, “Descend from the airy realms of cyber-abstractions into the grubby underworld of hardware, and it’s an archipelago of huge server farms, each of which uses as much electricity as a small city …”

So which is it? Are we headed for a future in which short-wave radio returns and a rebuilt postal service takes over from failing server farms, as Greer would have it? Or will we be able to “leapfrog” away from our old imploding infrastructure toward a world of distributed, highly efficient, peer-to-peer manufacturing facilitated by open source design?

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Mobile phone charging station in Uganda. Source: AdamCohn via flickr.

It is at this point when I feel it’s time to step back and ask: what do we really know, and what can we observe?

Some examples:

  • In spite of Greer’s claim that the infrastructure of satellite communications is larger than laying transoceanic cable, we simply don’t know whether this is true or not. We do know that countries such as North Korea and India, which have energy consumption orders of magnitude smaller than the United States, have managed to launch satellites.
  • Even so, it’s important to note that satellites are not necessary for cell phone communications. The vast majority of cell calls are not routed through satellites, but through local cell phone towers. As Hobert Pruitt puts it, “cellular phones are basically fancy radios that use cellular towers.”
  • Cell phone penetration in Africa is expected to exceed 80 percent in the coming year. This is 10 times the number land line users. In Somalia, a country with ongoing civil war and no government, there are six cell phone companies and a 16.3 percent penetration, which suggest that cell phone access could be quite resilient and even grow in very dire situations. Mobile-money services in Somalia actually substitute for banking, which is non-existent.
  • Globally, more people have cell phones than have access to grid electricity and safe drinking water. Internet penetration globally is at 34 percent. If Greer is right that modern telecommunications is full of hidden embodied energy and capital costs, how is this possible?
  • The idea that the Internet is a huge energy hog is a myth. Claims that it is can be traced almost entirely to reports written by Mark Mills for the coal industry, presumably to promote the idea that without coal everyone would have to give up Facebook.
  • Even if current Internet infrastructure is vulnerable, there are alternatives. In Athens and around the world, for example, growing numbers of people have been creating parallel internets by creating a “mesh” of rooftop wifi antennas. The fact that people are setting systems like these up in a place with amidst a collapsing economy is a hint to a direction things might go, at least in the short term.

Of course none of this obviates the need for things like food security, water and basic sanitation. But these are issues that are probably better addressed with existing site specific permaculture design approaches and open source appropriate technology.

Greer is a big advocate of distributed renewable energy, mostly using a time-tested, small scale off-grid approach as opposed to the net metering/plug-in path that most people pursue.

There is a third option however. The rapidly falling cost of solar power, combined with the microgrid revolution and improving storage technology makes community-scaled, shared renewable electricity even more viable than in the past. Stitching these microgrids into the broader grid greatly increases the resilience and potential efficiency of both.

Finally, there is the potential of distributed manufacturing from open source design, which Carson has written about in great detail. The only thing I would emphasize is that Carson’ view (as I understand it) is not that distributed manufacturing allows for continued consumption at our current level. Rather, as centralized production models collapse and overproduction ends, the need for a “push” economy fed by incessant advertising and consumerist addiction will fall away as well.

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Open source, modular tractor designed by Open Source Ecology. Source: EchelonForce via Flickr.

Putting these and other elements together–hi-tech, distributed communications, distributed energy and manufacturing, local sustainable food systems, appropriate technology and tactical urbanism among others–sets the stage for a future that looks quite a bit different than the present one. One might describe it as a kind of postmodern pastiche that looks neither like the antiquated futurisms we once imagined nor an idyllic return to preindustrial peasant society.

It’s a future that by current middle-class measures might look impoverished, but by other metrics is healthier, more resilient, more nourishing and more abundant in the ways that really matter.

Lakis Polycarpou

Lakis Polycarpou is a writer, ecological designer and sustainable development consultant.

A veteran of the 2008 banking crisis, Lakis watched from the inside as the company he worked for collapsed, nearly bringing down the global economy. This perspective reinforced his belief that society must find new approaches to confront the emerging climate, resource and economic challenges of the 21st century. Since then, he has worked to develop and promote sustainable development, regenerative design and social innovation at various scales.

Lakis’ articles on water, climate, energy, social media, sustainability and resilience have appeared in numerous national and international publications. He is the author of City of the Future, a blog about urban life in a lower-energy future that has been quoted worldwide in discussions of energy, economics and urban sustainability.

Tags: John Michael Greer