Preparing For What Future?

Last week’s Archdruid Report post, as my regular readers will recall, tried to point out that the current round of price spikes in food and petroleum prices does not justify claims that industrial civilization was on the brink of a rapid and total collapse. Predictably enough, this suggestion brought down a flurry of criticism.

Some of that was simply another helping of the standard arguments for the progressive and apocalyptic fantasies that play so large a role in today’s collective consciousness. Fortunately, not all fell into that reflexive category. My essay cited a recent post by relocalization blogger Sharon Astyk suggesting that a fast crash was imminent, and she responded the next day with a thoughtful rebuttal. I won’t try to summarize her arguments here; those interested should certainly read her response in full.

One point, though, deserves a response in detail. My essay last week ended with what I thought was a fairly straightforward comment: “...unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.” Astyk took exception to this and suggested, if I follow her correctly, that the phrase was simply a rhetorical flourish. That it certainly was not. It could doubtless have been expressed more clearly, but it points to what, as I see it, is one of the most crucial factors in discussing the future of industrial society.

The actions we take to prepare for the future, after all, should be shaped by the future we expect. If we can reasonably expect the future promised us by the modern myth of progress – a future of constant improvement toward a destiny among the stars – then it makes sense to plan on business as usual, to treat each ephemeral new technology as the wave of the future, and to treat nature as a sort of green decor worth saving solely for esthetic and sentimental reasons. If, on the other hand, we can reasonably expect the future promised us by the modern myth of apocalypse – a future of sudden chaos and mass death that will leave, at most, a handful of survivors huddled in isolated hideouts – then it makes sense to abandon any hope of improving the status quo and eschew any plan for the future that doesn’t involve firearms, canned food, and subsistence skills basic enough to be practiced in the desolate silence of a mostly empty world.

The problem with either of these decisions is obvious enough. If our plans rely on the arrival of some particular future, and that future does not come about, whatever money, effort, resources, and time have been invested in our imagined future has gone down a rathole. If the future we get turns out different enough from the one we expect, in turn, our actions may have closed doors and wasted opportunities that could have spared us major difficulties. The textbook example in recent times is the decision taken around 1980, by nations across the industrial world, to discard the promising steps toward sustainability made in the previous decade. If those steps had been followed up, the transition to a postpetroleum world could probably have been made without massive disruption. At this point, after a quarter century of wasted opportunities, the chance of doing that is slim at best.

Seeing this catastrophic error as a matter of choosing the wrong future to prepare for, though, rather begs the question. There’s at some reason to think that the decisions that turned the industrial world away from sustainability in the early 1980s were not the result of a conscious decision that a future of infinite economic growth on a finite planet was possible and desirable. Rather, it seems all too likely that people wished to take certain actions – for example, scrapping expensive and inconvenient conservation programs – and justified those actions by imagining a future in which those actions seemed to make sense. Certainly the same thing has happened in a big way in the alternative scene.

Look for proposals for responding to the crisis of industrial society these days and you’ll find that nearly all of them fall into three groups. First are those who want to organize a political movement to throw the current rascals out of office and put a new set of rascals in. Second are those who talk about building ecovillages in the countryside, to provide a postapocalyptic version of suburban living to today’s smart investors. Third are those who plan on holing up in a cabin in the mountains with guns and canned beans, and waiting until the rubble stops bouncing. I’ve argued elsewhere that none of these is a viable response to the future we’re most likely to face, but there’s another point worth noting: each of them is also something many people in today’s American middle class want to do anyway. Quite a few people nowadays think they ought to have more political power; an equally large number like to daydream about moving to a new exurban development far out in the countryside; and of course, the appeal of firearms collections and fantasies of self-reliance remains strong in an age that has problematized traditional images of masculinity. To a great extent, peak oil has simply become another excuse for the pursuit of activities, real or imagined, that many people find desirable for other reasons.

Amplifying this is one of the most enduring habits in the American tradition of public rhetoric – the attempt to scare the bejesus out of people in the hope that this will motivate them to follow a desirable course of action. Colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” set a cultural fashion that remains alive to this day. Choose any cause you care to think of, and if it’s attracted anything like a mass movement, odds are that its prophets are announcing the imminent arrival of some variety of doom – closely modeled on the Book of Revelations, far more often than not – unless people change their wicked ways. If it’s not a mass movement, the odds are even better that its prophets will be proclaiming some inevitable doom which will sweep away the unbelieving multitudes and leave the earth to the righteous remnant – that is, the prophets in question and those who agree with them. In either case, the catastrophe is simply rhetorical ammunition meant to back the claim that whatever action you’re supposed to take is the only alternative to doom. Peak oil, of course, has attracted a sizeable number of would-be prophets of both kinds.

I should hasten to say at this point that I’m not assigning Sharon Astyk to either camp. Mind you, I suspect she would propose relocalization as a good idea – as, indeed, many people have been doing, for a variety of good reasons, since the early decades of the 20th century – even if nothing like peak oil were in the offing. Still, retooling lifestyles to rely more on local resources and one’s own efforts, and less on a far-flung and increasingly fragile global economic system, is likely to prove a very useful strategy during the cascading series of crises unfolding around us right now. In that, I think, we’re very much in agreement. Going beyond that, however, requires a clearer sense of what kind of future we are facing – and not just on a global basis.

Local and personal scales also count; everyone shares the same future only when “the future” has been reduced to an ideological abstraction. The same problem afflicts current talk about the possibility of a crash, fast or otherwise: exactly what is crashing, and how far, and how uniformly? I’ve done my best to be clear about such issues here and elsewhere, but it’s probably worth repeating myself. My take is that modern industrial civilization is on the downslope of its history, headed for the compost heap of fallen empires alongside all the dead civilizations of the past. Peak oil and the other elements of the crisis of the contemporary world, in this analysis, are simply the current manifestations of patterns that shaped the fall of other civilizations, and our future will most likely follow a similar course – an extended, uneven decline extending over more than a century, including repeated periods of crisis followed by partial recoveries, ending in a dark age in which much of the technology, knowledge base, and cultural heritage of today will survive in fragments or be completely lost.

Those parts of the world peripheral to today’s industrial civilization will follow trajectories of their own – it’s worth remembering that the Muslim world and T’ang dynasty China reached the zeniths of their own cultural arcs while the western world was scraping the bottom of the last round of dark ages – and new cultures will arise from the ruins of the modern industrial world in time. The global reach of industrial civilization, though, makes it unlikely that any part of the world will escape the approaching troubles entirely, and the equally global drawdown of resources erases the possibility that societies of the future will be able to duplicate the industrial model; their technics, while potentially even more sophisticated than ours, will have to work with much less concentrated and abundant energy sources.

The current round of global troubles – the peak of conventional petroleum production worldwide, soaring prices and incipient shortages in other commodities, spiraling breakdowns in the international debt market, and the fraying of America’s global empire – marks, in this analysis, the onset of one of the periods of crisis mentioned above. If this is the case, we face several decades of serious social, economic, and political turmoil, with a high likelihood that many of these troubles will spill over onto the battlefield. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the period between 1929 and 1945, with its economic crises, political horrors, and global power struggles ending in a brutal world war, may make a tolerably good model for the period now dawning around us.

If I’m right – and every discussion of the future needs to start with those unpopular words – the future for which we have to prepare has two aspects, one overarching, one immediate. The overarching aspect is the slow curve of decline I’ve called the Long Descent, the final trajectory of industrial civilization toward its death. The immediate aspect is the need to deal with the particular round of crises breaking over us just now. Those two aspects are related but they’re not the same, and the resources and skills needed to deal with them are also not the same.

These, ultimately, are the reflections that lie behind my suggestion that fixating on the short term, and overstating the implications of short-term trends, may well get in the way of a constructive response to the broader picture. This is why it’s problematic to insist, as a number of internet bloggers did recently, that the discovery of a new oil resource in North Dakota means that peak oil is no longer a problem. On a global scale, with most of the world’s oil producing countries and most of its supergiant fields already in decline, the Bakken shale simply doesn’t make that much difference, and planning for a future that will allow us to keep up the extravagant energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past will likely have disastrous results.

Yet it’s just as problematic to insist that the current wave of crises will inevitably spin out of control into a fast crash that will bring industrial civilization to its knees. That claim carries its own agenda of actions for the future, and if the claim turns out to be inaccurate, many elements of that agenda could all too easily prove to be dysfunctional. Moving to an isolated rural area and making a go of subsistence farming is not a viable strategy for everyone, for example, and even those who are well suited to that life might turn out to have made a dysfunctional choice if the fast crash fails to arrive on schedule.

If the end of the industrial age turns out to be a longer and more complex process than fast-crash advocates suggest, in fact, isolated rural areas may not be the best places to start small farms at all. Truck gardens and organic food production on the outskirts of small and mid-sized cities will be much better positioned to thrive in a world where markets still exist but transport costs are a major limiting factor. In some areas this is already happening; the explosive growth of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, and direct sales of local produce to local restaurants have put down the foundations on which local and regional food production networks could easily grow. Fostering the emergence of such networks could contribute much to the future. So could the evolution of many other economic specialties that are irrelevant in the context of a fast crash, but not in the more complex terrain I suspect the future holds for us.

Of course there’s a broader context to all this. My vision of the future is very much a minority view these days. So many people believe in the fast crash scenario that there’s unlikely to be anything like a shortage of people preparing for it, but the Long Descent is another matter. It doesn’t echo any of the narratives our culture and media circulate about the future, and it doesn’t feed the widely held and wildly popular sense of our own uniqueness that underlies so much of today’s supposedly innovative thought, so its mass appeal is pretty minimal.

Thus you won’t find many people preparing to make the transition from today’s high-tech economy to the less complex, more impoverished, more fragmented, but still industrial economies that I expect to emerge from the Great Recession and global troubles of 2010-2030 or thereabouts. Nor will you find many people seriously taking on the role of cultural conserver that will be desperately needed if many things of value are to get through the deindustrial dark ages of 2200-2600 or thereabouts, and reach the successor cultures that will emerge beyond it. As I see it, these are among the crucial tasks before us; they could make the long road to the deindustrial future more bearable, and pass on important gifts to the future; but as I tried to suggest last week, they will not happen if the people who could make them happen get caught up in premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe.