Toward An Ecotechnic Society

One of the consequences of taking ecological models seriously, in trying to understand the predicament of industrial society, is that many of the common assumptions of contemporary culture stand in need of being stood on their heads. Plenty of people aware of the peak oil issue nowadays, for example, think of it in terms of finding some new energy source so that we can maintain industrial society in something like its current form. From an ecological standpoint, this approach nearly defines the term “counterproductive,” because it’s precisely the current form of industrial society that makes our predicament inescapable.

As it exists today, the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate. Thus resource exhaustion and pollution problems aren’t accidental outcomes of industrialism, they’re hardwired into the industrial system: the faster resources turn into pollution, the more the industrial economy prospers, and vice versa. That forms the heart of our predicament. Peak oil is simply one symptom of a wider crisis – the radical unsustainability of a system that has evolved to maximize resource consumption on a finite planet – and trying to respond to it without dealing with the larger picture simply guarantees that other symptoms will surface elsewhere and take its place.

For most of a century now, people who have grasped this predicament have proposed that our civilization needs to make a transition toward sustainability. In the 1970s, in particular, quite a range of proposals for making the transition were floated, and even today a new one surfaces in print every year or so. Many of them are well conceived and would probably work tolerably well, and even the worst would probably turn out better than the present policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss. Not one of them, even in the midst of the 1970s energy crises, received more than a moment’s consideration, either from the power centers in government and business that make most of the routine decisions in modern societies, or from the mass of the population whose opinions form the court of last appeal.

There are plenty of ways to understand this failure, but the ecological perspectives covered in last week’s post offer a perspective that as far as I know has rarely been brought to bear on the problem. If the transition between different human social systems can be seen as a form of succession, with one society replacing another the way that one seral stage supplants another in nature, then it may be worth suggesting that social change might follow a timetable of its own making. In the succession process in an eastern woodland biome, for example, grasses replace weeds, shrubs replace grasses, and trees replace shrubs in a sequence whose order and time frame can to some extent be predicted in advance.

The reasons behind this predictability are not irrelevant to our present situation. The bare earth of a vacant lot in Ohio, say, is a suitable environment for weeds; it isn’t a suitable environment for the hardwood trees, understory plants, and other living things that make up the climax community of an eastern woodland. Pioneer weeds, which have evolved to thrive on disturbed soil, thus spring up fast and cover the ground in a few seasons. In the process, though, they change the environment and make it suitable, not for more pioneer weeds, but for grasses and other plants, and these proceed to outcompete the weeds and occupy the vacant lot in their place.

The same process then repeats itself, as the grasses and plants of the second sere change the environment of the vacant lot and make it better suited to a different sere than it is to their own descendants. The process continues, gradually slowing down, until it finally reaches a climax community – a sere that maintains an environment suitable for the offspring of its own member organisms. At this point sustainability has been achieved; the climax community still changes over time with shifts in climate and the arrival of new species from elsewhere, and it can also be knocked back down to bare earth by a fire or some other disaster, but it can retain the same recognizable form over thousands of years or more. The quest for a sustainable society, in other words, parallels the movement of ecosystems in the direction of a climax community, and neither process can be accomplished in a single transition.

This is supported by a clear example from human history. The invention of agriculture in the Old World took place following the end of the last ice age around 11,000 years ago, when drastic climate change disrupted stable ecosystems around the world and forced human cultures to find new ways to support themselves. In the Middle East, fertile grasslands turned into desert as winter rains that had fallen reliably for millennia stopped, and people turned to grain cultivation in river valleys and livestock raising on the surrounding hills as the only alternative to starvation. The same process took place somewhat later in Mexico, the heartland of New World agriculture, as a parallel set of climate shifts caused desertification there as well.

The new ecology of farming proved highly successful and spread rapidly, but it was still highly inefficient, relying on natural soil fertility. It took thousands of years and a series of catastrophic crashes to evolve into a truly sustainable system, and some of the final steps in that direction did not take place until the birth of organic agriculture in the 20th century. Still, it’s important to realize that it did become sustainable, and has been sustainable in some ecosystems for centuries. The immense sustainability of East Asian rice culture was documented long ago by F.H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries; not many people realize, however, that Syria – where grain farming was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere on earth – is still a major wheat exporter today.

The birth of industrialism a few hundred years ago, I suggest, represents the parallel emergence of another new human ecology. Like agriculture in the early part of its historical trajectory, this new ecology in its present form is hugely inefficient, wasting energy and resources at unsustainable rates. Like agriculture, in turn, its development will likely be punctuated by catastrophic crashes, of which the first promises to arrive on schedule in the next few decades. It’s possible that one of these crashes will spell the end of the entire project – not all new ecological ventures bear fruit, after all – but it’s also possible that less wasteful expressions of the same basic ecology may eventually find their way to sustainability in a new model of human community that relies on those elements of high technology that can be produced, powered, and maintained over the long term using renewable resources.

It seems worth proposing that from the standpoint of the far future, industrialism may prove to be only one early and inefficient form of what might be called the technic society. Like other modes of human ecology, the technic society might best be defined by the energy sources that power it. A hunter-gatherer society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from the natural ecosystem, and supplemented with very small amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and the like. An agricultural society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from an artificial ecosystem created and maintained by human effort, and supplemented with modest amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and other fuels, along with small amounts of wind, hydropower, and sunlight.

A technic society, in turn, relies primarily on nonfood energy from renewable or nonrenewable sources, supplemented by food that is produced partly or wholly using nonfood energy. Modern industrial civilization is simply a technic society that relies on nonrenewable energy resources for its power, and maximizes production of goods and services at the cost of vast inefficiency. At the other end of the spectrum is a mode of technic society that might usefully be called an ecotechnic society, which relies on renewable energy resources, and maximizes the efficiency of its energy and resource use at the cost of far more restricted access to goods and services.

In the twilight of the industrial age, the concept of an ecotechnic society may seem appealing, and not just to those who recognize the depth of humanity’s dependence on the Earth’s biosphere. Still, we’re not there yet, and if the succession model is anything to go by, trying to leap directly from the rank weeds of industrial society to the verdant forest of an ecotechnic civilization simply won’t work. Even outside the succession model, we have only the vaguest idea of what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, and history suggests that a long process of evolution by trial and error will be needed to get the bugs out and develop a form of technic civilization that can actually sustain itself for the long term.

The approaching breakdown of modern industrial society impacts this process, of course, but not in the way so often proposed by the current crop of secular apocalyptic faiths. Those people who expect the end of the industrial age to usher in their preferred version of Utopia, I am convinced, are in for a massive disappointment. Radical social ventures tend to flourish in the expanding phase of a culture’s history, when abundant resources allow room for experimentation; in the harsher realities of an age of decline and contraction, that freedom simply doesn’t exist. In the decades and centuries ahead of us, when most people will have to struggle for survival and many will lose the fight, dreams of building an ideal society will have to take a back seat to more immediate needs.

In an important way, though, this is simply a restatement of points already made. If human societies replace one another by way of something akin to ecological succession, the societies that rise among the ruins of industrial civilization will be those best suited to the environment created by their predecessors. They may still be a fair distance from sustainability, but odds are that they will have moved significantly in that direction, if only because the opportunities for extravagant resource use will be sharply reduced by the exhaustion of so many resources. What forms those societies are likely to take will be the subject of next week’s post.