All things considered, 2015 just isn’t shaping up to be a good year for believers in business as usual. Since last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, the anti-austerity party Syriza has swept the Greek elections, to the enthusiastic cheers of similar parties all over Europe and the discomfiture of the Brussels hierarchy. The latter have no one to blame for this turn of events but themselves; for more than a decade now, EU policies have effectively put sheltering banks and bondholders from the healthy discipline of the market ahead of all other considerations, including the economic survival of entire nations. It should be no surprise to anyone that this wasn’t an approach with a long shelf life.
Meanwhile, the fracking bust continues unabated. The number of drilling rigs at work in American oilfields continues to drop vertically from week to week, layoffs in the nation’s various oil patches are picking up speed, and the price of oil remains down at levels that make further fracking a welcome mat for the local bankruptcy judge. Those media pundits who are still talking the fracking industry’s book keep insisting that the dropping price of oil proves that they were right and those dratted heretics who talk of peak oil must be wrong, but somehow those pundits never get around to explaining why iron ore, copper, and most other major commodities are dropping in price even faster than crude oil, nor why demand for petroleum products here in the US has been declining steadily as well.
The fact of the matter is that an industrial economy built to run on cheap conventional oil can’t run on expensive oil for long without running itself into the ground. Since 2008, the world’s industrial nations have tried to make up the difference by flooding their economies with cheap credit, in the hope that this would somehow make up for the sharply increased amounts of real wealth that have had to be diverted from other purposes into the struggle to keep liquid fuels flowing at their peak levels. Now, though, the laws of economics have called their bluff; the wheels are coming off one national economy after another, and the price of oil (and all those other commodities) has dropped to levels that won’t cover the costs of fracked oil, tar sands, and the like, because all those frantic attempts to externalize the costs of energy production just meant that the whole global economy took the hit.
Now of course this isn’t how governments and the media are spinning the emerging crisis. For that matter, there’s no shortage of people outside the corridors of power, or for that matter of punditry, who ignore the general collapse of commodity prices, fixate on oil outside of the broader context of resource depletion in general, and insist that the change in the price of oil must be an act of economic warfare, or what have you. It’s a logic that readers of this blog will have seen deployed many times in the past: whatever happens, it must have been decided and carried out by human beings. An astonishing number of people these days seem unable to imagine the possibility that such wholly impersonal factors as the laws of economics, geology, and thermodynamics could make things happen all by themselves.
The problem we face now is precisely that the unimaginable is now our reality. For just that little bit too long, too many people have insisted that we didn’t need to worry about the absurdity of pursuing limitless growth on a finite and fragile planet, that “they’ll think of something,” or that chattering on internet forums about this or that or the other piece of technological vaporware was doing something concrete about our species’ imminent collision with the limits to growth. For just that little bit too long, not enough people were willing to do anything that mattered, and now impersonal factors have climbed into the driver’s seat, having mugged all seven billion of us and shoved us into the trunk.
As I noted in last week’s post, that puts hard limits on what can be done in the short term. In all probability, at this stage of the game, each of us will be meeting the oncoming wave of crisis with whatever preparations we’ve made, however substantial or insubstantial those happen to be. I’m aware that a certain subset of my readers are unhappy with that suggestion, but that can’t be helped; the future is under no obligation to wait patiently while we get ready for it. A few years back, when I posted an essay here whose title sums up the strategy I’ve been proposing, I probably should have put more stress on the most important word in that slogan: now. Still, that’s gone wherever might-have-beens spend their time.
That doesn’t mean the world is about to end. It means that in all probability, beginning at some point this year and continuing for several years after that, most of my readers will be busy coping with the multiple impacts of a thumping economic crisis on their own lives and those of their families, friends, communities, and employers, at a time when political systems over much of the industrial world have frozen up into gridlock, the simmering wars in the Middle East and much of the Third World seem more than usually likely to boil over, and the twilight of the Pax Americana is pushing both the US government and its enemies into an ever greater degree of brinksmanship. Exactly how that’s going to play out is anyone’s guess, but no matter what happens, it’s unlikely to be pretty.
While we get ready for the first shocks to hit, though, it’s worth talking a little bit about what comes afterwards. No matter how long a train of financial dominoes the collapse of the fracking bubble sets toppling, the last one will fall eventually, and within a few years things will have found a “new normal,” however far down the slope of contraction that turns out to be. No matter how many proxy wars, coups d’etat, covert actions, and manufactured insurgencies get launched by the United States or its global rivals in their struggle for supremacy, most of the places touched by that conflict will see a few years at most of actual warfare or the equivalent, with periods of relative peace before and after. The other driving forces of collapse act in much the same way; collapse is a fractal process, not a linear one.
Thus there’s something on the far side of crisis besides more of the same. The discussion I’d like to start at this point centers on what might be worth doing once the various masses of economic, political, and military rubble stops bouncing. It’s not too early to begin planning for that. If nothing else, it will give readers of this blog something to think about while standing in bread lines or hiding in the basement while riot police and insurgents duke it out in the streets. That benefit aside, the sooner we start thinking about the options that will be available once relative stability returns, the better chance we’ll have of being ready to implement it, in our own lives or on a broader scale, once stability returns.
One of the interesting consequences of crisis, for that matter, is that what was unthinkable before a really substantial crisis may not be unthinkable afterwards. Read Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant The Proud Tower and you’ll see how many of the unquestioned certainties of 1914 were rotting in history’s compost bucket by the time 1945 rolled around, and how many ideas that had been on the outermost fringes before the First World War that had become plain common sense after the Second. It’s a common phenomenon, and I propose to get ahead of the curve here by proposing, as raw material for reflection if nothing else, something that’s utterly unthinkable today but may well be a matter of necessity ten or twenty or forty years from now.
What do I have in mind? Intentional technological regression as a matter of public policy.
Imagine, for a moment, that an industrial nation were to downshift its technological infrastructure to roughly what it was in 1950. That would involve a drastic decrease in energy consumption per capita, both directly—people used a lot less energy of all kinds in 1950—and indirectly—goods and services took much less energy to produce then, too. It would involve equally sharp decreases in the per capita consumption of most resources. It would also involve a sharp increase in jobs for the working classes—a great many things currently done by robots were done by human beings in those days, and so there were a great many more paychecks going out of a Friday to pay for the goods and services that ordinary consumers buy. Since a steady flow of paychecks to the working classes is one of the major things that keep an economy stable and thriving, this has certain obvious advantages, but we can leave those alone for now.
Now of course the change just proposed would involve certain changes from the way we do things. Air travel in the 1950s was extremely expensive—the well-to-do in those days were called “the jet set,” because that’s who could afford tickets—and so everyone else had to put up with fast, reliable, energy-efficient railroads when they needed to get from place to place. Computers were rare and expensive, which meant once again that more people got hired to do jobs, and also meant that when you called a utility or a business, your chance of getting a human being who could help you with whatever problem you might have was considerably higher than it is today.
Lacking the internet, people had to make do instead with their choice of scores of AM and shortwave radio stations, thousands of general and specialized print periodicals, and full-service bookstores and local libraries bursting at the seams with books—in America, at least, the 1950s were the golden age of the public library, and most small towns had collections you can’t always find in big cities these days. Oh, and the folks who like looking at pictures of people with their clothes off, and who play a large and usually unmentioned role in paying for the internet today, had to settle for naughty magazines, mail-order houses that shipped their products in plain brown wrappers, and tacky stores in the wrong end of town. (For what it’s worth, this didn’t seem to inconvenience them any.)
As previously noted, I’m quite aware that such a project is utterly unthinkable today, and we’ll get to the superstitious horror that lies behind that reaction in a bit. First, though, let’s talk about the obvious objections. Would it be possible? Of course. Much of it could be done by simple changes in the tax code. Right now, in the United States, a galaxy of perverse regulatory incentives penalize employers for hiring people and reward them for replacing employees with machines. Change those so that spending money on wages, salaries and benefits up to a certain comfortable threshold makes more financial sense for employers than using the money to automate, and you’re halfway there already.
A revision in trade policy would do most of the rest of what’s needed. What’s jokingly called “free trade,” despite the faith-based claims of economists, benefits the rich at everyone else’s expense, and would best be replaced by sensible tariffs to support domestic production against the sort of predatory export-driven mercantilism that dominates the global economy these days. Add to that high tariffs on technology imports, and strip any technology beyond the 1950 level of the lavish subsidies that fatten the profit margins of the welfare-queen corporations in the Fortune 500, and you’re basically there.
What makes the concept of technological regression so intriguing, and so workable, is that it doesn’t require anything new to be developed. We already know how 1950 technology worked, what its energy and resource needs are, and what the upsides and downsides of adopting it would be; abundant records and a certain fraction of the population who still remember how it worked make that easy. Thus it would be an easy thing to pencil out exactly what would be needed, what the costs and benefits would be, and how to minimize the former and maximize the latter; the sort of blind guesses and arbitrary assumptions that have to go into deploying a brand new technology need not apply.
So much for the first objection. Would there be downsides to deliberate technological regression? Of course. Every technology and every set of policy options has its downsides. A common delusion these days claims, in effect, that it’s unfair to take the downsides of new technologies or the corresponding upsides of old ones into consideration when deciding whether to replace an older technology with a newer one. An even more common delusion claims that you’re not supposed to decide at all; once a new technology shows up, you’re supposed to run bleating after it like everyone else, without asking any questions at all.
Current technology has immense downsides. Future technologies are going to have them, too—it’s only in sales brochures and science fiction stories, remember, that any technology is without them. Thus the mere fact that 1950 technology has problematic features, too, is not a valid reason to dismiss technological retrogression. The question that needs to be asked, however unthinkable it might be, is whether, all things considered, it’s wiser to accept the downsides of 1950 technology in order to have a working technological suite that can function on much smaller per capita inputs of energy and resources, and thus a much better chance to get through the age of limits ahead than today’s far more extravagant and brittle technological infrastructure.
It’s probably also necessary to talk about a particular piece of paralogic that comes up reliably any time somebody suggests technological regression: the notion that if you return to an older technology, you have to take the social practices and cultural mores of its heyday as well. I fielded a good many such comments last year when I suggested steam-powered Victorian technology powered by solar energy as a form the ecotechnics of the future might take. An astonishing number of people seemed unable to imagine that it was possible to have such a technology without also reintroducing Victorian habits such as child labor and sexual prudery. Silly as that claim is, it has deep roots in the modern imagination.
No doubt, as a result of those deep roots, there will be plenty of people who respond to the proposal just made by insisting that the social practices and cultural mores of 1950 were awful, and claiming that those habits can’t be separated from the technologies I’m discussing. I could point out in response that 1950 didn’t have a single set of social practices and cultural mores; even in the United States, a drive from Greenwich Village to rural Pennsylvania in 1950 would have met with remarkable cultural diversity among people using the same technology.
The point could be made even more strongly by noting that the same technology was in use that year in Paris, Djakarta, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Tangiers, Novosibirsk, Guadalajara, and Lagos, and the social practices and cultural mores of 1950s middle America didn’t follow the technology around to these distinctly diverse settings, you know. Pointing that out, though, will likely be wasted breath. To true believers in the religion of progress, the past is the bubbling pit of eternal damnation from which the surrogate messiah of progress is perpetually saving us, and the future is the radiant heaven into whose portals the faithful hope to enter in good time. Most people these days are no more willing to question those dubious classifications than a medieval peasant would be to question the miraculous powers that supposely emanated from the bones of St. Ethelfrith.
Nothing, but nothing, stirs up shuddering superstitious horror in the minds of the cultural mainstream these days as effectively as the thought of, heaven help us, “going back.” Even if the technology of an earlier day is better suited to a future of energy and resource scarcity than the infrastructure we’ve got now, even if the technology of an earlier day actually does a better job of many things than what we’ve got today, “we can’t go back!” is the anguished cry of the masses. They’ve been so thoroughly bamboozled by the propagandists of progress that they never stop to think that, why, yes, they can, and there are valid reasons why they might even decide that it’s the best option open to them.
There’s a very rich irony in the fact that alternative and avant-garde circles tend to be even more obsessively fixated on the dogma of linear progress than the supposedly more conformist masses. That’s one of the sneakiest features of the myth of progress; when people get dissatisfied with the status quo, the myth convinces them that the only option they’ve got is to do exactly what everyone else is doing, and just take it a little further than anyone else has gotten yet. What starts off as rebellion thus gets coopted into perfect conformity, and society continues to march mindlessly along its current trajectory, like lemmings in a Disney nature film, without ever asking the obvious questions about what might be waiting at the far end.
That’s the thing about progress; all the word means is “continued movement in the same direction.” If the direction was a bad idea to start with, or if it’s passed the point at which it still made sense, continuing to trudge blindly onward into the gathering dark may not be the best idea in the world. Break out of that mental straitjacket, and the range of possible futures broadens out immeasurably.
It may be, for example, that technological regression to the level of 1950 turns out to be impossible to maintain over the long term. If the technologies of 1920 can be supported on the modest energy supply we can count on getting from renewable sources, for example, something like a 1920 technological suite might be maintained over the long term, without further regression. It might turn out instead that something like the solar steampower I mentioned earlier, an ecotechnic equivalent of 1880 technology, might be the most complex technology that can be supported on a renewable basis. It might be the case, for that matter, that something like the technological infrastructure the United States had in 1820, with windmills and water wheels as the prime movers of industry, canalboats as the core domestic transport technology, and most of the population working on small family farms to support very modest towns and cities, is the fallback level that can be sustained indefinitely.
Does that last option seem unbearably depressing? Compare it to another very likely scenario—what will happen if the world’s industrial societies gamble their survival on a great leap forward to some unproven energy source, which doesn’t live up to its billing, and leaves billions of people twisting in the wind without any working technological infrastructure at all—and you may find that it has its good points. If you’ve driven down a dead end alley and are sitting there with the front grill hard against a brick wall, it bears remembering, shouting “We can’t go back!” isn’t exactly a useful habit. In such a situation—and I’d like to suggest that that’s a fair metaphor for the situation we’re in right now—going back, retracing the route as far back as necessary, is the one way forward.