Galloping With Blinkers On

Making sense of history as it happens is a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without any idea of the picture the puzzle will show. A blue piece with an edge, a speckled one with an odd bulge on one side, and hundreds of others sit on the table and taunt the imagination. Most solutions come together a piece at a time; still, it sometimes happens that two or more pieces from different parts of the puzzle can reveal a pattern that allows some large portion of the puzzle to be assembled in a few minutes.

A moment a little like that happened earlier this week, when two seemingly unrelated news squibs showed up in my inbox. The first was an article about a small company in New Zealand, EcoInnovation Ltd., that builds micro-hydro systems – for those of my readers who don’t speak appropriate tech fluently, this means a hydroelectric system meant to generate power from very modest amounts of running water. Less popular than wind and solar, mostly because sun and wind are more widely distributed than streams, micro-hydro has nonetheless had a presence in the alternative energy scene since the Seventies. What sets the EcoInnovation systems apart from others, though, is that the generators used in them are salvaged washing machine motors.

I’m not sure how many people realize that an electric motor and an electric generator are the same thing, a device for turning electricity and rotary motion into one another: take an electric motor and make something else spin the shaft, and it becomes a generator. This is what the people at EcoInnovation did. It’s not exactly a new idea; a book in my collection of Seventies appropriate-tech manuals, Cloudburst, provides plans for a micro-hydro plant built of salvaged parts along similar lines. Still, this sort of salvage-based manufacture of micro-hydro systems is an excellent way to minimize resource inputs for the production of clean, locally produced electricity – something that has been on many people’s minds of late, and for good reason – and so far, aside from this one small company, it’s been almost completely neglected.

The second news story was a puff piece about the latest efforts to make a reactor that will sustain nuclear fusion for more than a few milliseconds. Unlike micro-hydro, nuclear fusion will be familiar to all my readers, whether the words make them think of thermonuclear warheads, the long litany of past attempts to build a working fusion reactor, or the sole functioning fusion reactor in this solar system – the one that rises in the east every morning. The news story trotted out the usual rhetoric about limitless clean energy, and repeated the ritual assurance that given adequate funding, fusion reactors will solve the energy crisis in another few decades.

The fact that they were saying the same thing in the 1950s somehow failed to make it into the story. Nor did the reporter mention just how many billions of dollars have been spent over the last sixty-odd years chasing the fusion dream. Nearly all of it has pursued a single broad approach to fusion reactor design. The science books of my childhood had brightly colored pictures showing exactly that design: heavy hydrogen, heated to superhot temperatures, would be squeezed by powerful magnetic fields until the nuclei fused, releasing heat that would produce steam to drive turbines.

With a variety of modifications and refinements, that’s still the basic model behind most of today’s fusion-reactor projects. Yet fusion power remains a daydream; despite vast sums in research grants and government subsidies every year, the fusion power research community has never managed anything more than brief and self-terminating bursts of fusion, releasing rather less energy than they took to produce. Leading physicists in the field have admitted that it’s quite possible that commercial fusion power is unattainable using the current model, and the net energy from so energy- and resource-intensive an energy source shows every sign of being far into negative numbers; still, the money flows in.

Note the contrast in these two news items. One details a simple, efficient, and readily available energy source, using proven technology, with wide applicability – every spot that used to run a water wheel in the 19th century, if it hasn’t been flooded by a dam since then, is a micro-hydro site, and there are plenty of surplus electric motors around – to provide renewable energy for the difficult years ahead. The other story details the fantastically costly pursuit of what is arguably a failed model of fusion power generation, one that has yet to put a single watt into the power grid, and may well never do so. Care to guess which one of these approaches will receive billions of dollars of additional funding and the attention of major research teams next year, and which one will remain in the hands of a small entrepreneurial firm and its customer base?

This contrast offers a glimpse at one of the key factors in the collapse of complex human systems. It’s a commonplace of history that institutions of all kinds – governments, businesses, religious organizations, whole civilizations, and more – get locked into strategies that, at least in hindsight, can be seen as hopelessly self-defeating, and stay the course all the way down to collapse. No doubt archeologists of the future, hacking their way with machetes through a post-global-warming jungle to reach the lost city of Flint, Michigan, will wonder why CEOs shackled their companies’ survival to rapidly depleting fossil fuels, instead of pursuing electric cars and alternatives to the automobile, and then compounded their folly by setting up lending agencies that became hopelessly entangled in the delusional economics of what may still, even in that distant time, be remembered as the largest financial bubble in human history. Standing amid the overgrown ruins of some ancient assembly line, they will surely ask themselves: why did nobody see the obvious consequences?

Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work on the rise and fall of civilizations has been discussed in these essays several times, offered a useful way of thinking about this dysfunction. He argued that civilizations rise under the leadership of a creative minority, who are able to offer a vision of human destiny and possibility strong enough to overcome the inertia of tradition and launch a new phase of social integration. As long as the creative minority continues to come up with successful responses to the challenges and curve balls the world throws at every human society, the society they lead continues to expand. Sooner or later, though, the creative minority becomes so deeply committed to some particular set of solutions that it keeps on trying to apply those solutions, whether or not they actually fit the challenges. At that point the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority, ruling its society by increasingly blatant coercion rather than inspiring it with the force of its ideas. Unsolved problems pile up as failed responses are repeated on an ever more lavish scale, and the death spiral of decline and fall begins.

It’s a pity that Toynbee didn’t live long enough to see the current economic debacle, as there has rarely been a better example of the phenomenon he outlined. Consider the way that nobody in American political life has anything to offer in the face of economic crisis but more attempts to reinflate a bubble like the ones that popped in 1987, 2002, and 2008. All sides are declaiming about economic growth, at a time when further economic growth in the current sense of that phrase is the last thing America needs. A sane strategy would seek economic contraction instead – a massive downsizing of the banking and finance sector until our annual production of debt has some relationship to our annual production of goods and nonfinancial services; a steady decrease in energy use across the board until US energy use per capita equals that of Europe, about a third of the present US level; the systematic rebuilding of American manufacturing and agriculture protected by trade barriers, which would require Americans to pay prices reflecting American wages for their consumer goods; and so forth.

Conventional wisdom insists that any such program would be rejected by the American people. I’m not at all sure that that’s true; many people in the working class, I suspect, would be quite willing to accept higher prices for consumer goods in exchange for a return of manufacturing jobs and a sustained drop in housing costs. Still, nothing of the kind will be proposed at any level where the necessary decisions could be made, because such a program flies in the face of the set of economic solutions that Americans from the middle class on up want to apply – even though those “solutions,” which amount to flooding imaginary wealth into a broken system, have themselves become a major cause of the crises shaking our economy to its core.

One of the telltale signs that a creative minority has become a dominant minority is that failure no longer carries any penalty. Consider what happened to executives and middle management in the last quarter century or so when their actions, as so often happened, drove their companies into the ground. The number of them who had trouble finding new jobs was vanishingly small; members of a well-networked class that generally takes care of its own, they were shielded from the consequences of their own incompetence. Even those who openly looted failing companies rarely suffered any penalty, since this has long been standard practice in American corporate life; the cult of the bonus and the plundering of business assets to line the pockets of executives reaches far beyond the handful of financial firms where it has recently become infamous.

In much the same way, three generations of physicists have been able to count on lavish grant money for research pursuing a failed model of fusion power, and the fact that none of this immense investment has brought the world noticeably closer to working fusion power plants has done nothing to slow the torrent of government largesse. Meanwhile surplus washing machine motors, and a thousand other useful resources and practicable responses, pile up unregarded.

And that, dear reader, is why I tend to roll my eyes when people insist, as they often do, that the world’s industrial societies will surely get themselves out of the peak oil trap once they devote resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses to the problem. In theory, they might still be able to do so; in practice, this won’t happen, because devoting resources and intellectual effort to constructive responses is precisely the missing piece that can’t be supplied. When failure is no longer penalized, and losing strategies are the only options admitted to discussion, changing course becomes the least likely possibility; the tighter the blinkers, the more likely that the horse will keep on galloping straight ahead, even if the road leads straight off a cliff.

This is one reason why it seems crucial to me to suggest that any real response to the crisis of industrial society has to begin with individuals, families, and local communities, where constructive change might actually be possible; and to argue against imposing any grand strategy or one-size-fits-all plan on the ventures that result. It’s worth noting that some places have good sites for micro-hydro installations and plenty of spare washing machine motors, but others do not; equally, any other solution you care to name is likely to be well suited to some contexts and very poorly suited to others. It’s in dealing with these differences – in grappling with the messy, local, everyday details of life in a contracting economy and a deindustrializing society, with blinders off and a pace slowed to the point that the surroundings become more than a blur – that effective responses are most likely to emerge.