The Strategy of Salvage

It makes a great deal of difference whether the challenge of the next century is seen in terms of keeping modern industrial civilization moving along the asymptotic curve of progress, on the other hand, or managing the decline to a more modest and less ecologically suicidal deindustrial society, on the other. We’re in much the same situation as family members who have to decide on medical treament for an elderly parent with half a dozen vital systems on the verge of giving out. If the only outcome we’re willing to accept is keeping Dad alive forever, we guarantee ourselves a desperate, expensive, and futile struggle with the inevitable. People, like civilizations, are mortal, and no matter how much money and technology gets poured into the task of keeping either one alive, sooner or later it won’t be enough.

On the other hand, if we accept that Dad is going to die sooner or later, and concentrate on giving him the best possible quality of life in the time he has left, there’s quite a bit that can be done, and real success comes within reach. This can also have the additional benefit of making life better for later generations, because the money that might have been spent paying for exotic medical procedures to keep Dad alive for another three months of misery can go instead to pay college tuition for his grandchildren. The same thing is likely to be true in the twilight years of industrial civilization; the resources we have left can be used either to maintain the industrial system for a few more years, or to cushion the descent into the deindustrial future – not both.

The theory of catabolic collapse points out, though, that choosing managed descent over the unattainable goal of maintaining industrial civilization yields another crucial set of advantages, and that’s the point I want to discuss in detail here. To put things in the simplest possible terms, catabolic collapse happens when resource shortages interact with rising maintenance costs to produce a self-reinforcing spiral of decline that turns most of a society’s material, human, social and intellectual capital into waste. (There’s a lot more to the theory than that, but this is the core of it.) Historically speaking, the one way to stop a catabolic collapse that works more often than not is the strategy of salvage.

Salvage is the act of converting some of a society’s existing capital back into raw materials, and running its economy on that instead of on resources freshly extracted from nature. The strategy of salvage counters both sides of the catabolic collapse process. Capital that’s treated as raw materials doesn’t need to be maintained, so maintenance costs go down, and it provides resources without depleting natural stocks, so resource availability goes up. Since a good deal of the capital in most societies is unproductive, and unproductive capital tends to get salvaged first, salvage also tends to maximizes the productivity of a society’s capital plant. Do enough salvage, in fact, and you can get ahead of the catabolic cycle, and either stop it cold or slow it enough to manage a soft landing.

Here’s a relevant example. Right now in the United States there are something like 500,000,000 (that’s half a billion) alternators. For more than half a century, ever since they outcompeted generators in the Darwinian world of auto design, every car or truck with an internal combustion engine has had one. Right now they’re worth next to nothing; they’re old technology, they rarely wear out or break down, and when they do, you can usually make them as good as new by replacing a diode or a few ball bearings.

Old tech or not, they’re ingenious devices. You put rotary motion into the shaft, and 12 volts of electricity (6 volts in some older models) come out of the terminals. The faster the motion, the higher the wattage, but the voltage always stays the same. In a car or truck, the rotary motion’s provided by the engine, and the electricity goes to charge the battery, power the cooling fan, run the lights, and so on; it’s simply a way to take some of the energy produced by burning petroleum and do things with it that burning petroleum, all by itself, doesn’t do well. In terms of the catabolic collapse theory, they’re part of the capital plant our civilization uses to convert petroleum into air pollution and global warming.

Apply the strategy of salvage, though, and alternators become something very different. They stop being part of a car, and become a resource on their own. Rotary motion from any source you can imagine can be applied to the shaft, and you get those 12 volts of electricity. Since there are half a billion of them in cars, trucks, and junkyards all over North America, and those cars and trucks are going to lose their value as capital once petroleum becomes too scarce and expensive to waste on individual transport, their cost is effectively zero.

In a salvage economy, each of those half a billion alternators is a potential energy source. Take one, add some gears and chain salvaged from a bicycle and some steel borrowed from an old truck, spend a week carving and sanding a 5-foot length of spruce into a propeller, and you’ve got a windmill that will trickle-charge a set of scavenged lead-acid batteries and run a 12-volt refrigerator taken from an old RV. Take half a dozen more, add more bicycle parts, wood in various dimensions, and a year-round stream, and you’ve got a waterwheel-based micro-hydro plant that turns out 12 volts night and day at pretty fair wattage.

Care to try a solar heat engine? The French did it back in the 1870s. Before diesel generators running on dirt-cheap petroleum crashed the market for them, France’s North African colonies drew up extensive plans to use solar-powered steam engines for everything from pumping water to printing newspapers. Given sunshine, boiler parts, plenty of scrap metal, and alternators, you’ve got solar-generated electricity that you can maintain and replace with 1870s technology – that is, without access to pure amorphous silicon, monomolecular layers of rare earth metals, and the other exotica needed to make photovoltaic cells. None of these latter will be readily available in a deindustrializing world. On the other hand, boiler parts, scrap metal, and alternators certainly will.

It has to be said up front that none of these makeshift technologies will provide more than a minute fraction of the electricity needed to support a modern industrial society. None of them work at anything remotely like high efficiency, and it’s an open question whether any of them produce as much energy in their lifespans as went into producing them back when they were made. Still, in a salvage economy, none of that actually matters. The only relevant question is whether they will repay, on an individual basis, the effort of salvaging them and putting them to work. Is a week’s worth of work on a windmill a good deal in exchange for a working refrigerator? In a world where food preservation will once again be a matter of life and death, it’s hard to imagine that the answer could be anything but yes.

If the modern world had continued to pursue the promising steps toward sustainability pioneered in the 1970s, such makeshifts might not be necessary. As it is, though, the leadership of the industrial world has committed itself to keep the current system going at all costs, even if this results in a more impoverished world for their own children and grandchildren. The strategy of salvage offers one way to work around that tragically misguided choice. Alternators are useless as a way to keep industrial civilization afloat; that’s why there are millions of them in good working order sitting in junkyards at this moment. The same thing is true of hundreds of other products of industrial society that can be transformed into resources for a deindustrializing world. A little practical knowledge about how to use salvaged materials, preferably backed up by experiment in advance, would be a good investment for those people who plan on riding the waves of change.