Climbing Down the Ladder

Over the last month or so I’ve talked about some of the mental barriers that keep people from thinking clearly about the predicament of industrial society, and in the process sketched out, at least by implication, the shape of that predicament and its likely consequences. At this point it may be useful to shift the conversation a bit, from the obstacles we face to the potentials for constructive action that are still left to us. It’s one thing to announce that the wolf is at the door, but quite another to propose some way to deal with that fact.

Now it’s sometimes true that the only way to deal with a hard fact is the even harder path of acceptance, and in at least one sense that describes the situation we’re in right now. The current predicament can’t be dealt with at all if “dealing with it” means finding a way to prevent the end of our civilization and the coming of the deindustrial dark age that will follow it. That option went out the window around 1980, when the major industrial nations turned their collective backs on a decade of promising movements toward sustainability. At this point we’ve backed ourselves into the trap predicted by The Limits to Growth back in 1972; we no longer have the resources to simultaneously meet our present needs and provide for our future. So far the future has gotten the short end of the stick – a choice that guarantees that not too far down the road, when the future becomes the present, we will no longer have the resources to do much of anything at all. That’s when catabolic collapse begins in a big way, and industrial society starts consuming itself.

History reminds us, though, that this isn’t a quick process, or a linear one. Civilizations fall in a stepwise fashion, with periods of crisis and contraction followed by periods of stability and partial recovery. The theory of catabolic collapse explains this as, basically, a matter of supply and demand; each crisis brings about a sharp decrease in the amount of capital (physical, human, social, and intellectual) that has to be maintained, and this frees up enough resources to allow effective crisis management, at least for a time. This same sequence is likely to repeat itself many times over the next few centuries, as industrial civilization slides down the slope of its own decline and fall.

The stepwise decline of industrial civilization (or any other) can be understood in another way, though, and this points toward possibilities for constructive action that can still be pursued, even this late in the game. Civilizations in full flower typically evolve complex, resource-intensive ways of doing things, because they can, and because the social benefits of extravagance outweigh the resource costs. The infrastructure that serves these functions contains substantial resources that, in a less extravagant time, can be salvaged and put to more prudent uses. As whatever passes for high technology drops out of use, the resources once locked up in high-tech equipment become raw material for simpler and more resource-efficient technologies. People realize that you don’t need a pyramid to bury a king, or Roman baths to wash your skin, and pretty soon the stone blocks of the pyramid and the plumbing of the Roman baths get salvaged and put to more immediately useful purposes.

This same process bids fair to play a massive role in the twilight of the industrial age. Some people in today’s neoprimitivist movement have claimed that as industrial civilization winds down, the survivors will slide all the way back to the stone age, because the last few centuries of feverish mining have stripped the planet of metal ores that can be processed by low-tech means. If we had to rely on ores in the ground, this might be true, but we don’t; the richest sources of metal in the world today are aboveground. The average skyscraper contains hundreds of tons of iron, steel, aluminum, and copper, ready to be cut apart by salvage crews, hauled away on oxcarts, and turned into knives, hoes, plowshares, and other useful things. The millions of autos currently cluttering America’s roads, used car lots, and junkyards are another rich source of raw materials, and the list goes on.

In this way, the sheer material extravagance of the industrial age could provide a vital cushion of resources as we move down the curve of decline. The most important limiting factor here is the practical knowledge necessary to turn skyscrapers, cars, and the other detritus of the industrial system into useful goods for the deindustrial world. Not many people have that knowledge just now. Our educational system, if America’s dysfunctional schooling industry deserves that name, shed the old trade schools and their practical training programs decades ago. At a time where the creation and exchange of actual goods and services has become an economic sideline, while the manipulation of baroque pyramids of unpayable IOUs has become the core of today’s economy, this comes as no surprise, but it’s a situation that has to change if anything is to be salvaged once the first major wave of crises hits.

Technological progress has a curious feature that bears on this situation. One of the children’s books I read when I was growing up used the metaphor of a ladder for progress; this rung is a chariot, the next a stagecoach, the one after that a locomotive, and up at the top a car. The problem with this metaphor is that it makes it look as though the earlier rungs are still there, so if the top one starts to crack, you can step down to the next one down, or the one below that. In most fields of technological progress, that isn’t even remotely true. How many people nowadays, faced with a series of complicated math problems and denied a computer, could whip out a slide rule or sit down with a table of logarithms and solve them? These days even elementary school students in math class do arithmetic on pocket calculators.

The same thing is true in nearly any other branch of technology you care to name. Each new generation of technology is more complex than the one before it, more resource-intensive to build and maintain, and more interdependent with other technologies. As each new generation of technology is adopted, the one before it becomes “obsolete” – even if the older technology does the job just as effectively as the newer one – and is scrapped. Twenty years later not even retired engineers still remember how the old technology worked, much less how to build it again from scratch.

In effect, as we’ve climbed from step to step on the ladder of progress, we’ve kicked out each rung under us as we’ve climbed to the next. That’s fine so long as the ladder keeps on going up forever. If you reach the top of the ladder unexpectedly, though, you’re likely to end up teetering on a single rung with no other means of support – and if you can’t stay on that one rung, for one reason or another, it’s a long way down. That’s the situation we’re in right now. As the end of cheap fossil fuels pushes us into the spiral of rising costs and dwindling resources The Limits to Growth predicted more than thirty years ago, the rung of high-tech, high-cost, and high-maintenance electronic technology is cracking beneath us.

In the last few years, fortunately, people have begun to replace a few of the lower rungs. I know working farmers who use draft animals or their own muscles instead of tractors, and fertilize the soil with compost and manure instead of petroleum-based agricultural chemicals, blacksmiths who make extraordinary things using only hand tools, and home brewers who turn out excellent beer with ordinary kitchen gear and raw materials their great-great-great-grandparents knew well. The lowest rung of all, making stone tools by flint knapping, has had a modest renaissance of its own in recent years.

This is only a beginning; there’s a huge amount still to be done. One of the most hopeful features of this side of our predicament, though, is that this work can be done successfully by individuals working on their own. This is no accident; it’s precisely those technologies that can be built, maintained, and used by individuals that formed the mainstay of the economy in the days before economic integration spun out of control, and these same technologies – if they’re recovered while time and resources still permit that – can make use of the abundant salvage of industrial civilization, help cushion the descent into the deindustrial future, and provide part of the basis for the sustainable cultures that will rise out of the ruins of our age.