Managing Decline

Every culture has its blind spots, ours no less than others, and one of the more important of ours just now comes straight out of the modern mythology of progress. The claim that progress is inevitable and good has become so deeply woven into our collective thinking that many people nowadays simply can’t get their minds around the implications of fossil fuel depletion, or for that matter any of the other factors driving the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. All these factors promise a future in which energy, raw materials, and their products—including nearly all of our present high technology—will all be subject to ever-tightening limits that will make them less and less available over time. Thus we face a future of regress, not progress.

The problem here is that regress is quite literally an unthinkable concept these days. Suggest to most people nowadays that progress will soon shift into reverse, and that their great-great-grandchildren will make do with technologies not that different from the ones their great-great-grandparents used, as the industrial age gives way to the agrarian societies of a deindustrial future, and you might as well be trying to tell a medieval peasant that heaven with all its saints and angels isn’t there any more. In words made famous a few years ago by Christopher Lasch, progress is our “true and only heaven;” it’s where most modern people put their dreams of a better world, and to be deprived of it cuts to the core of many people’s view of reality.

Yet our modern faith in progress produces subtler blind spots as well. Too much of the thinking that surrounds today’s peak oil debates assumes that saving the modern industrial system is the only goal worth talking about, and if that can’t be done, then it’s time to hole up in a cabin in the hills and wait for the rubble to finish bouncing. Mind you, no matter how many rounds of ammo and cases of MREs you stash there, a cabin in the hills isn’t a workable response to a process of decline that promises to unfold over a century or more, but there’s at least one other serious problem to this sort of thinking. Saving the modern industrial system may not be possible at all, and even if it can be done, it may not be the best option this late in the game.

A metaphor that’s already seen use in this blog may help clarify the choices we face today. Imagine you knew that tomorrow, you would be taken up to 10,000 feet in an airplane and tossed out the cabin door into empty air. That’s a real crisis, and it demands serious thought and action. If the only solution you consider, though, is finding a way to keep yourself at 10,000 feet and prevent yourself from falling at all, you’d be narrowing your options far too drastically, and excluding at least one option—wearing a parachute—that can definitely solve the problem.

The metaphor can be extended a little further. The problem with being thrown out of an airplane at 10,000 feet isn’t that you fall; it’s that you fall too fast and land too hard. The same is true of the end of the industrial age. If the transition from industrial society to the sustainable deindustrial cultures of the future could be made gradually, by stages no more hurried than the ones that brought industrial civilization into being in the first place, there would be far less to worry about. At this point, that probably can’t be managed on a global or even a national scale. Still, once the problem we face is defined as controlling the decline of the industrial age, not preventing it, that problem becomes much more manageable.

One of my handful of regular readers pointed out, in response to my post last week, that it’s one thing to talk about finding some way to replace today’s extravagant use of fossil fuel energy with renewable sources, and it’s quite another, and a much more sensible, thing to talk about using renewable energy to meet the far more modest energy requirements of an agrarian society. Especially in America, restating the question in this way opens up immense possibilities. Very few people inside America’s borders, for instance, have noticed that it’s only our extravagantly energy-wasting lifestyles that keep us dependent on imported oil, with all the unwelcome economic and political consequences that brings. Even 35 years after its own Hubbert peak, the United States is still one of the largest producers of oil on Earth. If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to dysfunctional lifestyles keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table in discussions of national energy policy.

The same logic can be extended much more broadly. Today’s agriculture, for example, becomes utterly unsustainable once the huge fossil fuel inputs that go into farm machinery, agricultural chemicals, worldwide transport networks, and the like can no longer be supported. That doesn’t mean, as some of the more extreme peak oil theorists take it to mean, that once fossil fuels become too scarce and costly to use for agriculture, we’ll all starve. It simply means that the agriculture of the future will have to rely on human and animal muscle for energy, and compost and manure for fertilizer, the way farmers did for millennia before the invention of the tractor. There are still people alive today who grew up working horse-drawn combines in the 1920s, when American agriculture was already productive enough to make the Great Plains the world’s breadbasket. Converting back to horse-powered agriculture would be a challenge, but one well within the realm of the possible, and relatively simple changes in agricultural, taxation, and land use policy could do much to foster that conversion. With severe depopulation setting in across much of America’s old agricultural heartland, more dramatic steps such as a renewal of the old Homestead Act, coupled with price guarantees for grain crops (perhaps linked to an expanded ethanol-production program), would make a good deal of sense as well.

If the mythology of progress didn’t blind today’s policymakers to such options, any number of steps could be taken to ease the transition from industrial to deindustrial society. Those steps are likely to remain outside the realm of the conceivable for a long time yet, at least on a large scale, but the same logic can be applied on a local and individual scale. Individuals, groups, and local communities, just as much as nations and civilizations, face the challenge of managing the descent from Hubbert’s peak. The longer we try to cling to the peak, the harder and faster the fall is going to be, and the less likely we are to survive it. Accept that the descent is inevitable and try to make it in a controlled manner, on the other hand, and the way is open not only for bare survival, but for surviving in a humane and creative fashion that preserves as much of value as possible for the future.