The Steampunk Future Revisited

One of the things I’ve noticed repeatedly, over the nearly eight years I’ve been writing this blog, is that I’m the last person to ask which of these weekly essays is most likely to find an audience or hit a nerve. Posts I think will be met with a shrug of the shoulders stir up a storm of protest, while those I expect to be controversial get calm approval instead. Nor do I find it any easier to guess which posts will have readers once the next week rolls around and a new essay goes up.

My favorite example just now, not least because it’s so close to the far end of the improbability curve, is a post that appeared here back in 2011, discussing Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game as a work of deindustrial science fiction. If ever a post of mine seemed destined for oblivion, that was it; next to nobody reads Hesse nowadays, and even in the days when every other college student had a battered paperback copy of Siddhartha or Steppenwolf on hand, not that many people wrestled with the ironic ambiguities of Hesse's last and longest novel. More than three years after that post appeared, though, the site stats here at Blogger show me that there are still people reading it most evenings. Has it gotten onto the recommended-reading list of the League of Journeyers to the East, the mysterious fellowship that features in several Hesse stories? If so, nobody's yet given me the secret handshake.

There are other posts of mine that have gone on to have that sort of persistent afterlife. What interests me just now, though, is that one of my recent posts appears to be doing the same: the essay I posted just a month ago proposing the steampunk subculture as a potential model for future technology on the far side of the Long Descent. While steampunk isn't anything like as obscure as The Glass Bead Game, it's not exactly a massive cultural presence, either, and it interests me that a month after the post appeared, it's still getting read and discussed.

Courtesy of one of my regular readers, it's also appeared in an Australian newsletter for fans of penny farthing bicycles. Those of my readers who don't speak bicyclese may want to know that those are the old-fashioned cycles with a big wheel in front and a small one in back; the old British penny was about the size of a US quarter, the farthing about the size of a US dime, and if you put the two coins side by side you have a pretty fair image of the bicycle in question. I wasn't aware that anyone had revived the penny farthing cycle, and I was glad to hear it: they're much simpler than today's bicycles, requiring neither gears nor chains, and many penny farthing riders these days simply build their own cycles—a capacity well worth learning and preserving.

Mind you, there were plenty of people who took issue with the post, and I want to talk about some of those objections here, because they cast a useful light on the blind spots of the imagination I've been exploring in recent posts. My favorite example is the commenter who insisted with some heat that an advanced technology couldn't be based on the mechanical and pneumatic systems of the Victorian era. As an example, he pointed out that without electronics, there was no way to build a FMRI machine—that's "functional magnetic resonance imaging" for those of my readers who don't speak medicalese, one of the latest pieces of high-priced medical hardware currently bankrupting patients and their families across America.

He's quite correct, of course, but his choice of an example says much more about the limitations of his thinking than it does about anything else. Of course a steampunk-style technology wouldn't produce FMRI machines, or for that matter most of the electronic gimmickry that fills contemporary life in the industrial world, from video games to weather radar.  It would take advantage of the very different possibilities inherent in mechanical and pneumatic technology to do different things. It's only from within the tunnel vision of contemporary culture that the only conceivable kind of advanced technology is the kind that happens to produce FMRI machines, video games and weather radars.  An inhabitant of some alternate world where the petroleum and electronics revolutions never got around to happening, and something like steampunk technology became standard, could insist with equal force that a technology couldn't possibly be called advanced unless it featured funicular-morphoteny machines and photodyne nebulometers. 

The same sort of thinking expressed in a slightly different way drove the claim, which appeared repeatedly in the comments page here as well as elsewhere, that a neo-Victorian technology by definition meant Victorian customs such as child labor.  A very large number of people in the contemporary industrial world, that is, can't imagine a future that isn't either just like the present or just like some corner of the past. It should be obvious that a technology using mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic power transfer can be applied to the needs of many different cultural forms, not merely those that were common in one corner of the late 19th century world. That this is far from obvious shows just how rigidly limited our imagination of the future has become.

That would be a serious difficulty even if we weren't picking up speed down the bumpy slope that leads toward the deindustrial dark ages of the not so distant future.  Given that that's where we are just now, it could very well turn into a fruitful source of disasters.  The economic arrangements that make it possible to build, maintain, and use FMRI machines in American hospitals are already coming apart around us; so are the equivalent arrangements that prop up most other advanced technological systems in today's industrial world.  In the absence of those arrangements, a good many simpler technological systems could be put in their places and used to take up some of the slack.  If enough of us are convinced that without FMRI machines we might as well just bring on the blood-sucking leeches, though, those steps will not be taken.

With this in mind, I want to circle back around to the neo-Victorian technology imagined by steampunk aficionados, and look at it from another angle.

It's not often remembered that paved roads of the modern type were not originally put there for automobiles.  In America, and I believe in other countries as well, the first generation of what were called "Macadamized" roads—the kind with a smooth surface rather than bare bricks or cobblestones—were built in response to lobbying by bicyclists. Here in the United States, the lobbying organization was the League of American Wheelmen. (There were plenty of wheelwomen as well, but the masculine gender still had collective force in the English of that time.) Their advocacy had a recreational side, but there was more to it than that.  A few people—among them the redoubtable Sir James Jeavons—were already pointing out in the 19th century that exponential growth in coal consumption could not be maintained forever; a great many more had begun to work out the practical implications of the soaring population of big cities in America and elsewhere, in terms of such homely but real problems as the disposal of horse manure, and these concerns fed into the emergence of the bicycle as the hot new personal transport technology of the age.

Similar concerns guided the career of a figure who has appeared in these essays more than once already, the brilliant French inventor Augustin Mouchot.  Noting that his native country had very limited coal reserves, and colonial possessions in North Africa with vast amounts of sunlight on offer, Mouchot devoted two decades of pioneering work to harnessing solar energy. His initial efforts focused on solar cookers, stills and water pumps, and his success at these challenges encouraged him to tackle a challenge no previous inventor had managed: a working solar steam engine. His first successful model was tested in 1866, and the Paris Exhibition of 1878 featured his masterpiece, a huge engine with a sun-tracking conical reflector focusing sunlight on tubes of blackened copper; the solar engine pumped water, cooked food, distilled first-rate brandy, and ran a refrigerator. A similar model exhibited in Paris in 1880 ran a steam-driven printing press, which obligingly turned out 500 copies of Le Journal Solaire.

Two other technologies I've discussed repeatedly in these essays came out of the same era. The first commercial solar water heater hit the market in 1891 and very quickly became a common sight over much of the United States; the colder regions used them in the summertime, the Sun Belt year round, in either case with very substantial savings in energy costs.  The fireless cooker or haybox was another successful and widely adopted technology of the age:  a box full of insulation with a well in the center for a cooking pot, it was the slow cooker of its time, but without the electrical cord.  Bring food to a boil on the stove and then pop the pot into the fireless cooker, and it finishes cooking by residual heat, again with substantial energy savings.

Such projects were on many minds in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. There was good reason for that; the technology and prosperity of the Victorian era were alike utterly dependent on the extraction and consumption of nonrenewable resources, and for those who had eyes to see, the limits to growth were coming into sight. That’s the thinking that lay behind sociologist Max Weber’s eerie 1905 prediction of the future of the industrial economy:  “This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisiton, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”

It so happened that a temporary event pushed those limits back out of sight for three quarters of a century. The invention of the internal combustion engine, which turned gasoline from a waste product of lamp fuel refining to one of the most eagerly sought products of the age, allowed the industrial societies of that time to put off the day of reckoning for a while. It wasn't just that petroleum replaced coal in many applications, though of course this happened; coal production was also propped up by an energy subsidy from petroleum—the machines that mined coal and the trains that shipped it were converted to petroleum, so that energy-rich petroleum could subsidize the extraction of low-grade coal reserves.  If the petroleum revolution had not been an option, the 20th century would have witnessed the sort of scenes we're seeing now: rising energy costs and economic contraction leading to decreasing energy use per capita in leading industrial nations, as an earlier and more gradual Long Descent got under way.

Those of my readers who have been following this blog for a while may be feeling a bit of deja vu at this point, and they're not wrong to do so. We’ve talked here many times about the appropriate-tech movement of the 1970s, which made so many promising first steps toward sustainability before it was crushed by the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution and the reckless drawdown of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields. What I'd like to suggest, though, is that the conservation and ecology movement of the 1970s wasn’t the first attempt to face the limits of growth in modern times; it was the second. The first such attempt was in the late 19th century, and Augustin Mouchot, as well as the dozens of other solar and wind pioneers of that time—not to mention bicylists on penny farthing cycles!—were the original green wizards, the first wave of sustainability pioneers, whose work deserves to be revived as much as that of the 1970s does. 

Their work was made temporarily obsolete by the torrent of cheap petroleum energy that arrived around the beginning of the 20th century. One interesting consequence of taking their existence into account is that it’s easy to watch the law of diminishing returns at work in the can-kicking exercises made possible by petroleum. The first wave of petroleum energy pushed back the limits to growth for just over seventy years, from 1900 or so to 1972.  The second did the same trick for around twenty-five years, from 1980 to 2005. The third—well, we're still in it, but it started in 2010 or so and isn’t holding up very well just now.  A few more cycles of the same kind, and the latest loudly ballyhooed new petroleum bonanza that disproves peak oil might keep the media distracted for a week.

As a thought experiment, though, I encourage my readers to imagine what might have followed if that first great distraction never happened—if, let's say, due to some chance mutation among plankton back in the Cambrian period, carbon compounds stashed away in deepwater sediments turned into a waxy, chemically inert goo rather than into petroleum.  The internal combustion engine would still have been invented, but without some immensely abundant source of liquid fuel to burn, it would have become, like the Stirling engine, an elegant curiosity useful only for a few specialized purposes.  As coal reserves depleted, governments, industrial firms, and serious men of affairs doubtless would have become ever more fixated on seizing control of untapped coal mines wherever they could be found, and the twentieth century in this alternate world would likely have been ravaged by wars as destructive as the ones in our world.

At the same time, the pioneering work of Mouchot and his many peers would have become increasingly hard to ignore. Solar power was unquestionably less economical than coal, while there was coal, but as coal reserves dwindled—remember, there would be no huge diesel machines burning oceans of cheap petroleum, so no mountaintop removal mining, nor any of the other extreme coal-extraction methods so common today—pointing a conical mirror toward the Sun would rapidly become the better bet.  As wars and power shifts deprived entire nations of access to what was left of the world's dwindling coal production, the same principle would have applied with even more force.  Solar cookers and stills, solar pumps and engines, wind turbines and other renewable-energy technologies would have been the only viable options.

This alternate world would have had advantages that ours doesn't share. To begin with, energy use per capita in 1900 was a small fraction of current levels even in the most heavily industrialized nations, and whole categories of work currently done directly or indirectly by fossil fuels were still being done by human beings.  Agriculture hadn't been mechanized, so the food supply wouldn't have been at risk; square-rigged sailing vessels were still hauling cargoes on the seas, so as the price of coal soared and steamboats stopped being economical, maritime trade and travel could readily downshift to familiar sail technology.  As the new renewable-energy technologies became more widely distributed and more efficient, getting by with the energy supplied by sun and wind would have become second nature to everybody.

Perhaps, dear reader, you can imagine yourself sitting comfortably this afternoon in a café in this alternate world, about to read my weekly essay. No, it isn’t on a glowing screen; it’s in the pages of a weekly newspaper printed, as of course everything is printed these days, by a solar-powered press. Before you get to my latest piece, you read with some interest that a Brazilian inventor has been awarded the prestigious Mouchot Prize for a solar steam engine that’s far better suited to provide auxiliary power to sailing ships than existing models. You skim over the latest news from the war between Austria and Italy, in which bicycle-mounted Italian troops have broken the siege of Gemona del Friuli, and a report from Iceland, which is rapidly parlaying its abundant supply of volcanic steam into a place as one of the 21st century’s industrial powerhouses.

It’s a cool, clear, perfectly seasonable day—remember, most of the gigatons of carbon we spent the 20th century dumping into the atmosphere stayed buried in this alternate world—and the proprietor of the café is beaming as he watches sunlight streaming through the windows. He knows that every hour of sunlight falling on the solar collectors on the roof is saving him plenty of money in expensive fuel the kitchen won’t have to burn. Outside the café, the sun gleams on a row of bicycles, yours among them: they’re the normal personal transport of the 21st century, after all.  Solar water heaters gleam on every roof, and great conical collectors track the sun atop the factory down the road.  High overhead, a dirigible soars silently past; we’ll assume, for the sake of today’s steampunk sensibility, that lacking the extravagant fuel supplies needed to make airplanes more than an exotic fad, the bugs got worked out of dirigible technology instead.

Back in the cafe, you begin to read the latest Archdruid Report—and my imagination fails me at this point, because that essay wouldn’t be about the subjects that have filled these posts for most of eight years now. A society of the kind I’ve very roughly sketched out wouldn’t be in the early stages of a long ragged slide into ecological failure, political disintegration, economic breakdown, and population collapse.  It would have made the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy when its energy consumption per capita was an order of magnitude smaller than ours, and thus would have had a much easier time of it.  Of course a more or less stable planetary climate, and an environment littered with far fewer of the ugly end products of human chemical and nuclear tinkering, would be important advantages as well.

It’s far from impossible that our descendants, some centuries from now, could have a society and a technology something like the one I’ve outlined here, though we have a long rough road to travel before that becomes possible. In the alternate world I’ve sketched, though, that would be no concern of mine. Since ecology would be simple common sense and the unwelcome future waiting for us in this world would have gone wherever might-have-beens spend their time, I’d have many fewer worries about the future, and would probably have to talk about Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game instead. Maybe then the League of Journeyers to the East would show up to give me the secret handshake!