Back Up The Rabbit Hole

One of this blog’s central purposes, the attempt to glimpse the future’s patterns in the Rohrshach inkblots of the present, poses a notoriously difficult challenge. Perhaps the worst of the difficulties involved in that attempt, as I’ve suggested here more than once, is the pervasive influence of mythic narratives so deeply ingrained in our culture that few people even notice them. In a retrospective essay on his own work, historian Arnold Toynbee offered a useful warning in this regard: “If one cannot think without mental patterns – and, in my belief, one cannot – it is better to know what they are; for a pattern of which one is unconscious is a pattern that holds one at its mercy.”

Toynbee was critiquing historians of his own period who treated the idea of progress as a simple fact, rather than the richly imaginative secular mythology it actually is. Still, his caution can be applied far outside the limits of the academic study of history. Nearly every dimension of contemporary culture, today just as in Toynbee’s time, embraces the unthinking assumption that the wave of history inevitably leads onward and upward through the present to a future that will look pretty much like the present, but more so.

This very widespread article of faith begs any number of questions. It seems to me, however, that one of them deserves special attention. The notion of history implicit in the modern mythology of progress is a straight line without branches or swerves, much less dead ends from which we might have to be retrace our steps. That idea of history, if it’s embraced unthinkingly, leaves us with desperately few options if adaptations to some temporary set of conditions turn out to be counterproductive when those conditions go away.

This is anything but an abstract concern just now. As the world closes in on the end of the 21st century’s first decade, its industrial societies are leaving behind a period in which just such a temporary set of conditions held sway. Until we recognize the blind alley down which those conditions led the developed world, we will be hard put to respond to a future that has begun to move in a very different direction.

A glance back three decades or so offers a necessary perspective. In the last years of the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that the energy crises of that decade were the first waves of an “Age of Scarcity” that would demand either a massive conversion to nuclear power or an equally daunting and costly transition to a conserver economy in which relatively modest renewable energy inputs would be used with maximum efficiency. Both possibilities involved serious challenges and huge price tags, but in the face of the inevitable depletion of finite fossil fuel resources, those were the only rational options.

Unfortunately human affairs are not always governed by rational options. At the beginning of the 1980s, the political leadership of most Western countries – with the United States well in the lead under Ronald Reagan’s myopic guidance – rejected both these possibilities in favor of short-term gimmicks that papered over the symptoms of the energy crisis while doing nothing to address its causes. The improved energy efficiencies bought so dearly during the Seventies made it possible for reckless overproduction in the North Slope and North Sea oil fields to send the price of oil plunging lower, in constant dollars, than ever before in human history. All through the Eighties and Nineties, political manipulation of the oil markets kept petroleum not too far from $10 a barrel: around 24 cents a gallon, in other words, for the industrial world’s most precious natural resource.

The results of this disastrous collective choice have not, I think, been adequately measured even by most thinkers in the peak oil community. For a quarter of a century, from 1980 to 2005, petroleum could be had throughout the industrial world at prices so low it might as well have been free. Other energy costs dropped accordingly, as cheap oil competed with other resources for market share while simultaneously cutting the production and distribution costs of its competitors. The economic, infrastructural, and cultural initiatives that emerged during those years all embodied the assumption that “can we afford the energy cost?” was not a question anybody in the industrial world ever needed to ask.

One result was the movement toward economic globalization that spawned so much media chatter and devastated so many communities during those years. Propagandists for the private-sector socialism that passes for capitalism these days have insisted that this reflects the natural emergence of a global free market from which everybody would allegedly prosper someday, while their opponents have argued that it reflects a deliberate plot to force down wages and working conditions worldwide for the benefit of the rich. What has rarely been recognized is that perhaps the most important of all the forces driving globalization in those years was artificially low energy prices.

During the quarter century of ultracheap energy, transportation costs were so low that they became a negligible fraction of the cost of goods. This allowed manufacturers to arbitrage the difference in labor costs between industrial and nonindustrial countries without having to take shipping costs into account. The sort of predatory trade relationships pursued by European colonial empires in the 19th century could be replicated without the ferocious trade barriers and imperial misadventures of that earlier time; local industries could be flattened by overseas production without any need for naval bombardments or colonial administrations, because distance had no economic meaning.

Another result, at least as dramatic as globalization though less ballyhooed then or now, was the rise of a throwaway economy all through the industrial world. Not all that long ago, one business you could readily find in most American towns and urban neighborhoods was the small appliance repair shop, where toasters, clocks, radios, hair dryers, and a hundred other consumer goods could be taken for repair when they stopped working. An entire industry of small-scale entrepreneurs, and the support businesses that kept them stocked with spare parts, tools, and materials, survived on the economic realities that made it worthwhile to pay a repairman to fix small appliances instead of throwing them out and buying new ones.

That industry was already faltering by 1980 as the economic consequences of American empire distorted currency exchange rates and allowed other countries to export goods to the United States at a fraction of the cost of domestic production. The plunge in energy costs after 1980, though, finished the job. Once the cost of energy no longer mattered, consumer goods could be manufactured and shipped for a fraction of what they had previously cost, and repairing them made no economic sense when the repair might cost twice as much as a new model.

The explosive spread of the internet, finally, was also a product of the era of ultracheap energy. The hardware of the internet, with its worldwide connections, its vast server farms, and its billions of interlinked home and business computers, probably counts as the largest infrastructure project ever created and deployed in a two-decade period in human history. The sheer amount of energy that has had to be invested to create and sustain today’s internet, along with its economic and cultural support systems, beggars the imagination.

Could it have been done at all if energy stayed as expensive as it was in the 1970s? It’s hard to see how such a question could be answered, but the growth of the internet certainly would have been a much slower process; it might have moved in directions involving much less energy use; and some of the more energy-intensive aspects of the internet might never have emerged at all. It remains to be seen whether a system adapted to a hothouse climate of nearly free energy can cope with the harsher weather of rising energy costs in a postpeak world.

These examples could be multiplied almost endlessly, from our extravagant and dysfunctional health care system right up to the delusional economics that helped millions of Americans convince themselves that it made sense to buy poorly insulated, shoddily built new houses a three-hour drive from jobs and shopping. For a quarter century, people throughout the industrial world have become accustomed to economic, social, and personal arrangements that only work if energy is basically free. Just as with every previous economic shift in modern history, too, proponents of these arrangements wrapped them in the rhetoric of progress. Globalization was progress, we were told, and therefore as inevitable as it was irreversible; so was the internet; so, when it was noticed at all, was the throwaway economy.

Yet describing these changes as progress, in the sense given that word by our contemporary mythic narratives, dramatically misstates the situation. For a 25-year interval, by reckless overproduction of rapidly depleting resources and purblind manipulations pursued for short term political gain, the cost of energy was driven down to artificially low levels that had never been seen before – and, barring a whole concatenation of miracles, will never be seen again. The resulting glut of energy fostered ways of doing things that make no sense at all under any other conditions.

In hindsight, I suspect, the entire period from 1980 to 2005 will be seen as one of history’s supreme blind alleys. A great many of the economic arrangements, infrastructure, and personal and collective habits that grew up in response to that age of distorted priorities will have to be reworked in a hurry, no matter what the cost, as energy prices rise to more realistic levels. At the same time, the grip of the myth of progress on the industrial world’s imagination remains unshaken.

The possibility that the only way forward out of the present blind alley may require going back to less convenient and more costly ways of doing things is nowhere on our collective radar screens just now. It’s easy to understand why. After all, most people living in the industrial world today have spent a majority of their lives in settings in which cheap abundant energy was the unquestioned birthright of anyone outside the poverty class, and those less than thirty years old never had the chance to experience anything else.

Those who borrow Lewis Carroll’s metaphor and talk about the need to go down the rabbit hole have thus, I think, missed an important point. For the last quarter century, that’s exactly where we’ve been. The challenge before us now – a challenge many upcoming Archdruid Report posts will grapple with in different ways – is to climb back out of the rabbit hole and deal with the world we will have to face when the extravagant Wonderland of the brief era of ultracheap energy dissolves into windblown leaves and the shreds of a departed dream.