Technological Triage

One of the major blind spots that gets in the way of trying to anticipate the shape of a deindustrial future in advance is the habit of thinking of technology as a single monolithic thing. Like so many mistaken habits of thinking, this one gets its strength from the fact that it’s by no means entirely mistaken. In today’s industrial society, certainly, most technologies depend on other technologies, forming an intricate web of interconnections that has to count among the central features of what Lewis Mumford called the neotechnic phase of history.

One of the most widely cited apocalyptic writers of my teen years, Roberto Vacca, argued in his book The Coming Dark Age that this extreme interdependence would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of industrial society. His argument that too much interconnection among unstable systems would lead to cascading systems failures and the collapse of industrial civilization impressed the likes of Isaac Asimov, who contributed an introduction to the book. In retrospect, it proved to be embarrassingly wrong. Like so many others at that time, Vacca put the cart before the horse; the rising tide of interdependence and interconnection he saw moving through the industrial world was a reaction to improvements in information processing, not a force in its own right, and further developments along the same lines – especially the explosive growth in computer technology – proved more than adequate to keep the process moving.

Still, Vacca was right to see the web of interconnections that unites today’s industrial technology as a critical vulnerability. It’s just that the vulnerability comes into play further along the arc of catabolic collapse. Many of today’s technologies depend so completely on the support of an intact industrial system that they cannot operate without it. Many more could operate without it, at least in theory, but have been designed in a way that maximizes their dependence on other technologies and will have to be reengineered in a hurry as the fabric of the industrial system comes apart. A final set of technologies are largely or wholly independent of the system and can be expected to carry on without a hitch while industrial society comes apart around them.

These three classes have an uncomfortable similarity to the three categories used by battlefield medics in the process known as triage. Triage — the word comes from French and means “trying” or “testing” – is a care-rationing process used when the number of wounded overwhelms the people and resources available to treat them. Incoming wounded are sorted out into three classes. The first consists of those who will die even if they get care. The second consists of those who will survive even if they receive no care. The third consists of those who will live if they get help but will die without it. In a triage situation, all available resources go to the third category. When the need for care outruns the available time and resources, this harsh but necessary logic maximizes the number of survivors.

The coming of deindustrial society will require us to approach technology in much the same way. Technological triage requires more complex judgments than the battlefield variety, however. Not all technologies are of equal value for human survival; it won’t do us any good to preserve video game technology, let’s say, if by doing so we lose the ability to grow food. Some technologies necessarily depend on other technologies—firearms, for example, presuppose a certain level of metalworking ability. Finally, technological triage involves four categories, not three. Alongside technologies that can’t be saved no matter what we do, technologies that are certain to be saved even if we do nothing, and technologies that will be saved if we act and lost if we do not, there are technologies that have gone out of existence but could be brought back and put into use if action is taken now.

Another difference, of course, is that we can begin the triage process on current and past technologies right now – and it’s of very high importance that this process start soon. The more work people preparing to deal with the predicament of industrial society put into understanding the issues and sorting through potential technologies in advance, the less wasted effort and missed opportunities there are likely to be. In the case of technologies that have to be brought back from the heap of discarded tools our civilization has left behind it, starting now – when information and, in many cases, working examples of old technologies can still be located – could easily make the difference between success and failure.

What sort of questions, then, need to be asked before technologies wounded by peak oil, global warming, and the other consequences of industrial society’s suicidal penchant for short-term fixes start showing up at our imaginary triage station? The following list might do as a starting point for discussion.

1. How long can it be fueled and maintained in a deindustrialising world? The imminence of peak oil makes this point obvious, but even so there are twists that many people in the peak oil community may not have recognized yet. Declining production and rising costs of petroleum cut into the supply of lubricants, solvents, and plastics as well as fuels, and anything that needs any of these things in order to operate must either find an alternative source or land in history’s junkyard. These same factors affect the whole supply chain for fuel, maintenance supplies, and spare parts, just for starters.

2. How long can it be manufactured or replaced in a deindustrializing world? This represents a much higher threshold than the previous question, since the capacity to manufacture complex technologies—for example, most of today’s electronics—will likely be lost much higher on the curve of technological decline than the inputs needed to keep them running. A whole class of technologies – call it “legacy tech” – falls between the two thresholds; these are machines that can be kept running for years or decades after they can no longer be made. The struggle to control various items of legacy tech may become a fruitful source of conflict as the deindustrial age proceeds down the curve of catabolic collapse.

3. How long will it be useful in a deindustrializing world? Many of the technologies we have today aren’t useful even now – I defy anyone to give me a meaningful definition of “useful” that includes, say, dancing mechanical Santa Claus dolls – but many more have value only because they provide services to other technologies that will not be viable in an age of limits. When rising fuel costs, for example, bring down the curtain on the age of mass air travel, whole constellations of technologies currently needed to keep airlines and airports running will lose their reason for existence. Unless they have other uses, saving them would be pointless.

4. How long will it take to become useful in a deindustrializing world? The flip side of question 3 is that many technologies that survive today only as hobbies or museum pieces are likely to become valuable and even essential further down the curve of catabolic collapse. Consider the technologies needed to build, rig, and sail square-rigged wooden ships. Right now, they survive only in relic form, preserved by our society’s fascination with its own past, but a century or two from now they could easily become the foundation of maritime trade networks like the ones that linked the continents in 1800. Steps taken now or in the near future to keep this “outdated” maritime technology viable on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak could pay off big later on.

5. How broad a set of human needs and other technologies can be supported by it? Some technologies fill narrow niches, some fill broad ones. Organic agriculture, to name an example from the broad end, can be used to produce food, herbal medicines, oil crops for fuel and lubricants, and a dizzying assortment of raw materials for craft and small-scale industry. This puts it in a different category from, say, lens grinding, which can make lenses and not much else. Both have value in their own contexts, but might reasonably be given different priorities in times of resource scarcity.

6. How important a set of human needs and other technologies can be supported by it? Some needs and technologies are more important than others. The basic human essentials of food, drink, shelter, and safety outrank most other considerations, and technologies that provide these efficiently belong at the top of the triage list. This is another reason why organic agriculture deserves special attention in sorting out potential technologies for the deindustrial age – it can provide the raw materials for most of the core necessities. Beyond the basics, priority lists differ, as indeed they should. Is the capacity to print books more or less important than the capacity to treat illnesses that herbs won’t cure? Such questions need to be taken seriously as people begin the process of deciding what to save.

7. What commitments follow from investing in it? All technologies without exception have consequences and entail commitments. By investing in automobile technology nearly to the exclusion of all other transportation choices, America committed itself to maintaining the flow of cheap abundant oil at all costs – a commitment that has landed it in a no-win situation in Iraq and made its national interest hostage to centuries-old religious and ethnic quarrels in a dozen different corners of the globe. Few other technologies are likely to entail commitments so disastrous, but every choice of technology closes some doors as it opens others. As people in the peak oil community consider different models for the deindustrializing societies of the near future and the fully deindustrialized cultures further off, attention to the consequences and commitments of proposed technologies might keep us out of a variety of blind alleys.