Climbing Down The Ladder

Last week’s Archdruid Report post raised the possibility that future societies might be able to maintain a relatively high level of technology without falling into the trap of relying on extravagant use of nonrenewable resources, the basis of our present industrial society. The dream of building a civilization of this sort – an ecotechnic society, to use the term I coined in that post – has been cherished by a good many people in alternative circles for years now, and not without reason.

Behind that dream lies a canny bit of philosophical strategy. Central to the rhetoric used to justify today’s social arrangements in the industrial world is a forced dichotomy between the alleged goodness of enlightened, technologically advanced industrial societies and the alleged squalor of primitive preindustrial life. Many of today’s critics of industrialism fall into the trap of accepting the dichotomy and simply reversing the value judgments, as though it’s possible to break out of a dualistic way of thinking by standing the dualism on its head.

The cleverness of the ecotechnic dream is that it breaks out of the dichotomy altogether. In the jargon of modern Druid philosophy, it turns an unresolved binary into a balanced ternary. In less technical terms, it proposes a third option that borrows many of the best qualities of the two sides of the dichotomy, and thus blows the dichotomy out of the water by widening the field of choices, not just to three but to infinity. The question stops being a matter of accepting one of two whole systems, in a choice that excludes all alternatives; it becomes a matter of picking and choosing among a dizzyingly large array of factors that go together to make up a future society.

The vision of an ecotechnic future is thus worth keeping in mind. As a plan for the near term, though, it faces extreme challenges of the sort suggested by my previous post on the succession process. In the language of ecological succession, a fully ecotechnic society is a climax community, and you can’t make the jump from pioneer weeds to climax forest in a single transition. The conditions that allow the climax forest to establish and maintain itself in the face of competition from other biotic communities haven’t been achieved yet.

This is as true in human affairs as in the development of any other biotic community. It’s as pleasant as it is popular to think that human social change is driven primarily by deliberate choice or by some other uniquely human factor, but the science of human ecology and the evidence of history – and history is simply human ecology mapped onto the dimension of time – both suggest otherwise. Industrial civilization triumphed over other forms of human society not because people agreed to make that happen, but because at the time of its emergence, in a world with untapped fossil fuel reserves, it was able to overcome the competitive pressure of other human social systems and the challenges of nature.

Industrial civilization faces collapse, in turn, because when fossil fuels are scarce and expensive, and the biosphere is undergoing drastic changes, its ability to maintain itself against the challenges of nature and competition from other, less energy- and technology-dependent human social systems is doubtful at best. The forms of human society that rise to prominence in the aftermath of industrialism, in turn, will be those that can establish and maintain themselves more effectively than their rivals in the changing world of the deindustrial age. We may have our preferences, but nature has the final say.

The conditions that would allow an ecotechnic society to establish and maintain itself are more or less those that existed before the industrial revolution broke open the treasure chest of the Earth’s stored carbon and started looting it for short-term advantage. In a world where energy resources are limited to sun, wind, water, muscle, and biomass, and all work must be accomplished by those means, those societies that evolve efficient and sustainable technologies using those resources have major survival advantages over rival societies that use them unsustainably – for a good example, compare imperial China’s 5000-year history with the death spiral that claimed the ancient Maya.

The problem ecotechnic societies of the near future face is that these conditions do not yet exist. So far, we’ve used up around half the world’s stock of petroleum, and somewhat less than half its stock of coal and natural gas. All these fuels are subject to peaks and declines in production, which means among other things that they will remain available in diminishing amounts for a long time to come. While modern industrial societies as they exist today probably can’t survive the end of constantly increasing energy supplies, the impact of peak fossil fuel production will likely drive the emergence of other forms of industrialism adapted to a world of diminishing fuel supplies – and while those supplies still exist, these neo-industrial societies will probably still be able to wield more economic and military force than ecotechnic rivals.

More broadly, many of the legacies of today’s industrial societies will continue to exist for decades or centuries into the future. These legacies represent stored energy – the energy needed to create them, and to build the material and knowledge base that made them possible – and the amount of additional energy needed to maintain and use them in many cases will be quite small compared to the stored energy contained in them; the energy needed to keep a hydroelectric plant or a computer in working order is fairly small compared to the energy they embody, or the advantages that owning and using them could confer.

It’s quite likely that for some decades or centuries, deindustrial societies that would not be able to build a hydroelectric plant or a computer could still maintain the rather less demanding knowledge and resource base needed to keep them functioning, in much the way that Dark Age communities all over Europe used and repaired Roman acqueducts they could never have built themselves. Still, much of the legacy technology inherited by the deindustrial age will not be a renewable resource; when it finally breaks down, it’s gone – for decades, or centuries, or forever.

The result is an interesting parallel to succession. In the near and middle future, as the deindustrial age unfolds, the societies that will be best able to flourish are precisely those that will be least able to survive over the long term. In the near term, societies that rely on the increasingly efficient use of the remaining fossil fuels, eked out with renewable resources and high technology, will likely do much better than either the wasteful dinosaur cultures of the present industrial period or the lower-energy cultures that will end up replacing them.

In the middle term, societies that combine sustainable subsistence strategies and economies with an effective use of the industrial age’s legacy technologies will likely do much better than the lingering fossil fuel-dependent societies they replace, or the ecotechnic societies that will replace them in turn. Only when fossil fuel production has dropped to the point that coal and oil are rare geological curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own.

It’s crucial to keep this process in mind when planning for the future. One of the great barriers in the way of the lifeboat communities imagined by so many thinkers in the peak oil community these days is that while they’re viable (at least in theory) in the future, they aren’t viable in the present. There just aren’t that many people who are in a position to chuck their industrial lifestyles, move to a rural ecovillage, and successfully support themselves there for decades while the machinery of industrial society slowly creaks and shudders to a halt around them.

In terms of the model I’ve presented here, the would-be builders of lifeboat communities are like seedlings of some climax forest species trying to grow in a piece of land still covered with pioneer weeds. The conditions that would allow them to flourish haven’t arrived yet. The last years of industrial society, and the decades of neo-industrial societies struggling to manage on declining energy reserves in an age of limits, thus form a hurdle that has to be leapt in order to build something relevant for the future.

That hurdle can be faced successfully, but it requires a different approach. Instead of trying to make the leap to an ecologically balanced, fully sustainable society all at once, it may turn out to be necessary to climb down the ladder a step at a time, adapting to changes as they happen, and trying to anticipate each step in succession in time to prepare for it, while working out the subsistence strategies and social networks of the future on a variety of smaller scales.

This approach is evolutionary rather than revolutionary – that is, it relies on incremental changes and a continuous process of experimentation rather than trying to break from the past and impose an ideal that may turn out to be no more viable that what it replaces. Among other things, this means that it can be carried out on local and even individual scales, a detail that makes it much more viable in practical terms than attempts to change society as a whole from the top down. How this process might unfold will be the subject of several future posts.