Civilization and Succession

In an Archdruid Report post a couple of weeks ago, I used the well-worn metaphor of bacteria in a petri dish to talk about the way that ecological limits constrain the range of possibilities open to any life form, Homo sapiens included. Several people objected to the comparison, insisting basically that human beings are enough smarter than microbes that the same rules don’t apply. Flattering to human vanity as this insistence may be, I have to admit to a certain skepticism about the claim in the light of current events.

According to the best current figures, world production of petroleum peaked almost two years ago and has been declining ever since; world production of all liquid fuels peaked more than a year ago, and is likewise declining; much of the Third World is already in desperate straits as its access to fossil fuels dries up — and government and business leaders across the industrial world, which has far more to lose from the twilight of cheap abundant energy than the Third World does, are still treating peak oil as a public relations problem. If we’re enough smarter than microbes in a petri dish to escape the same fate, we have yet to demonstrate it.

On a deeper level, of course, such comments miss the point just as thoroughly as the claim they’re meant to satirize. The value of the petri dish metaphor is that it shows how ecological processes works in a context simple enough to make them clear. The same pattern can be traced in more complex biological systems, human societies among them. The logic of the petri dish, after all, is the same logic that drove dieoff on Easter Island and among the lowland Maya: if you use the resources necessary to your survival at an unsustainable rate, you get the classic overshoot curve — population boom, followed by population bust.

Thus humanity is no more exempt from ecological processes than from the law of gravity. The invention of airplanes doesn’t mean that gravity no longer affects us; it means that if we use a lot of energy, we can overcome the force of gravity and lift ourselves off the ground for a while. The same principle holds with the laws of ecology. Using an immense amount of energy, we lifted a minority of the world’s population high above the subsistence level for a while, but that doesn’t mean that ecological laws no longer affect us. It means that for three hundred years, we’ve been able to push past the limits normally imposed by those laws, by burning up huge amounts of fossil fuels. When the fossil fuels are gone, the laws will still be there.

One of the central principles of ecology, in fact, is that similar patterns can be traced among organisms at many different levels of complexity. The difference in intelligence between yeast and deer is many times greater than the difference between deer and human beings, and yet deer and yeast alike go through exactly parallel cycles of boom and bust when resource availability rather than predators functions as the primary means of population control. Thus it’s reasonable to look to ecological patterns among other living things for clues to the driving forces behind equivalent processes in human societies.

One ecological pattern that deserves especially close attention as we begin the long slide down the back end of Hubbert’s peak is the process called succession. Any of my readers who were unwise enough to buy a home in one of the huge and mostly unsold housing developments cranked out at the top of the late real estate bubble will be learning quite a bit about succession over the next few years, so it may be useful for more than one reason to summarize it here.

Imagine an area of bare bulldozed soil someplace where the annual rainfall is high enough to support woodland. Long before the forlorn sign saying “Coming Soon Luxury Homes Only $450K” falls to the ground, seeds blown in by the wind send up a first crop of invasive weeds. Those pave the way for other weeds and grasses, which eventually choke out the firstcomers. After a few years, shrubs and pioneer trees begin rising, and become anchor species for a young woodland, which shades out the last of the weeds and the grass. In the shade of the pioneer trees, saplings of other species sprout. If nothing interferes with the process, the abandoned lot can pass through anything up to a dozen different stages before it finally settles down as an old growth forest community a couple of centuries later.

This is what ecologists call succession. Each step along the way from bare dirt to mature forest is a sere or a seral stage. The same process shapes the animal population of the vacant lot, as one species after another moves into the area for a time, until it’s supplanted by another better adapted to the changing environment and food supply. It also proceeds underground, as the dizzyingly complex fabric of life that makes up healthy soil reestablishes itself and then cycles through its own changes. Watch a vacant lot in a different ecosystem, and you’ll see it go through its own sequence of seres, ending in its own climax community — that’s the term for the final, relatively stable sere in a mature ecosystem, like the old growth forest in our example. The details change, but the basic pattern remains the same.

Essential to the pattern is a difference in the way that earlier and later seres deal with energy and other resources. Species common in early seres – R-selected species, in ecologists’ jargon – usually maximize their control over resources and their production of biomass, even at the cost of inefficient use of resources and energy. Weeds are a classic example of R-selected species: they grow fast, spread rapidly, and get choked out when slower-growing plants get established, or the abundant resources that make their fast growth possible run short. Species common in later seres – K-selected species – maximize efficiency in using resources and energy, even when this means accepting limits on biomass production and expansion into available niches. Temperate zone hardwood trees are a classic example of K-selected species: they grow slowly, take years to reach maturity, and endure for centuries when left undisturbed.

Apply the model of succession to human ecology and a remarkably useful way of looking at the predicament of industrial society emerges. In successional terms, we are in the early stages of the transition between an R-selected sere and the K-selected sere that will replace it. The industrial economies of the present, like any other R-selected sere, maximizes production at the expense of sustainability; the successful economies of the future, emerging in a world without today’s cheap abundant energy, will need to maximize sustainability at the expense of production, like any other K-selected sere.

To put this into the broader picture it’s necessary to factor in the processes of evolutionary change, because climax communities are stable only from the perspective of a human lifetime. Environmental shifts change them; so, often on a much faster timescale, does the arrival of new species on the scene. Sometimes this latter process makes succession move in reverse for a while. For example, when an invasive sere of R-selected species outcompetes the dominant species of a K-selected climax community; eventually the succession process starts moving forward again, but the new climax community may not look much like the old one.

Apply this to the human ecology of North America, say, and it’s easy to trace the pattern. A climax community of K-selected Native American horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers was disrupted and largely replaced by an invasive sere of European farmers with a much more R-selected ecology. Not long after the new community established itself, and before succession could push it in the direction of a more K-selected ecology, a second invasive sere – the industrial economy – emerged, using resources the first two seres could not access. This second invasive sere, the first of its kind on the planet, was on the far end of the R-selected spectrum; its ability to access and use extravagant amounts of energy enabled it to dominate the farming sere that preceded it, and push the remnants of the old climax community to the brink of extinction.

Like all R-selected seres, though, the industrial economy was vulnerable on two fronts. Like all early seres in succession, it faced the risk that a more efficent K-selected sere would eventually outcompete it, and its ability to use resources at unsustainable rates made it vulnerable to disruptive cycles of boom and bust that would sooner or later guarantee that a more efficient sere would replace it. Both those processes are well under way. The industrial economy is well into overshoot at this point, and at this point a crash of some kind is pretty much inevitable. At the same time, the more efficient K-selected human ecologies of the future have been sending up visible shoots since the 1970s, in the form of a rapidly spreading network of small organic farms, local farmer’s markets, appropriate technology, and alternative ways of thinking about the world, among many other things.

Three points deserve to be made in this context. First, one of the differences between human beings and other organisms is that human ecologies are culturally rather than biologically determined; the same individuals are at least potentially able to shift from an R-selected to a K-selected human ecology by changing their means of subsistence. Since it’s unlikely that a K-selected human ecology can or will be expanded fast enough to take up the slack of the disintegrating R-selected industrial system, there’s still likely to be a great deal of human suffering and disruption over the next century or so. Still, those individuals willing to make the transition to a K-selected lifestyle sooner rather than later may find that the disintegration of the industrial system opens up opportunities to survive and even flourish.

The second point circles back to the subject of last week’s Archdruid Report post, Fermi’s paradox. The assumption at the core of the paradox, as mentioned in that post, is that today’s extravagantly energy-wasting system is the wave of the future, and more advanced civilizations than ours will have even more energy and use it even more lavishly. The concept of succession suggests a radically different view of what an advanced civilization might look like. Modern industrial society here on Earth is the exact equivalent of the first sere of pioneer weeds on the vacant lot described above – fast-growing, resource-hungry, inefficient, and destined to be supplanted by more efficient K-selected seres as the process of succession unfolds.

A truly advanced civilization, here or elsewhere, might well have more in common with a climax community: it might use very modest amounts of energy and resources with high efficiency, maximize sustainability, and build for the long term. Such a civilization would be very hard to detect across interstellar distances, and the limits to the energy resources available to it make it vanishingly unlikely that it would attempt to cross those distances; this would hardly make it a failure as a civilization, except in the eyes of those for whom the industrial-age fantasies of science fiction trump all other concerns.

The third point leads into issues that will be central to a great many future posts on this blog. The climax community that emerges after a period of prolonged ecological disruption and the arrival of new biotic assemblages rarely has much in common with the climax community that prevailed before the disruptions began. In the same way, and for most of the same reasons, claims that the deindustrial world will necessarily end up as an exact equivalent of some past society – be that medieval feudalism, tribal hunter-gatherer cultures, or anything else – need to be taken with more than the usual grain of salt. Much of the heritage of today’s industrial societies will likely prove unsustainable in the future ahead of us, but not all; some technologies of the present and recent past could easily continue to play important roles in the human ecologies of the deindustrial future, and many more can help cushion the descent. Tracing out some of the options can help guide today’s choices at a time when constructive action is desperately needed.