Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Long Road Down

This is another interesting take on the future. It is a somewhat novel approach to figuring out what will happen as our bonanza of fossil fuels begins to dry up. The author takes both the doomers and cornucopians to task:

Most people would notice something odd if two meteorologists, discussing tomorrow's weather on a wet autumn day, ignored all possibilities except clear weather or a sudden snowstorm. Yet the same sort of illogic goes unchallenged in debates about our future. Thus it's crucial to set aside our assumptions, and look at what actually happens when civilizations run into the limits of their resource base. That's happened many times in the past, but technological spurts and sudden collapses are rare. Far more common is a process nobody thinks about nowadays: decline.
He also delineates these two mindsets a bit further:
The first is called the progressivist myth. According to this story, all of human history is a drama of progress. From primitive ignorance and savagery, according to the progressivist myth, people climbed step by step up the ladder of civilization. Knowledge gathered over generations made it possible for each culture to go further than the ones before it. With modern times, progress went into overdrive, and it's still in overdrive today. The purpose of human existence is to make this upward climb possible so that our descendants can someday reach the stars.

The second is called the separativist myth. According to this story, all of human history is a tragic blind alley. Once people lived in harmony with their world, each other, and themselves, but that time ended and things have gone downhill ever since. Vast cities governed by bloated bureaucracies, inhabited by people who have abandoned spiritual values for a wholly material existence, mark the point of no return. Sometime soon the whole rickety structure will come crashing down, overwhelmed by sudden crisis, and countless people will die. Only those who abandon a corrupt and doomed society will survive to build a better world.

Both the progressivist myth and the separativist myth have powerful emotional appeal; that's why they're popular. The myth of perpetual progress comforts those people who have made their peace with society as it is, and who want to believe that their lives are part of a process which leads eventually to better things. The myth of imminent apocalypse comforts those people who cannot accept society as it is, and want to believe in a catastrophe that topples the proud towers of a civilization they loathe. Still, the fact that a belief is emotionally powerful and comforting doesn't make it true.

While these two mindsets are prevalent, the author presents his view of the future...a long decline. This is not a unique viewpoint, as it is very similar to Kunstler's The Long Emergency. For my dollar, it is also not really that different from the doomer's philosophy, the only thing that differs is the time frame. If western civilization suffers a quick collapse or a long slow death, it is still dead. I suppose if it happens slowly enough that no one really notices, it is a tad better. Not something to really hang your hat on.

The final section, however, gives me a bit of optimism...

A different future requires a different kind of thinking. The crucial needs that must be met in an age of decline are damage control, cultural survival, and the building of a new society amid the ruins of the old. Political and business interests aren't going to meet these needs, or do anything else helpful; oil is to the modern industrial nations what corn was to the ancient Maya, and the ahauob of Washington and Wall Street have turned to war just as their Maya equivalents did. Fortunately, all three needs can be met by individuals and small groups with limited resources, and projects of this kind are being done on a small scale already.

Organic farming is an excellent case in point. In the last century organic agriculture has made immense strides, to the point that it's now possible to grow a spare but adequate diet year round for one person on less than 1000 square feet of soil, with only hand labor and no fossil fuel inputs at all, and do it while increasing the long term fertility of the soil. These methods may turn out to be our civilization's greatest gift to the future, provided they survive the approaching age of decline. Today they're covered in detail in dozens of books; whether that will be true in a hundred years depends on what we do right now.
I find myself in the middle of all these philosophies. I have cautious optimism about the future, yet feel that taking measures preparing for much harder times are not wasted efforts. Perhaps we can take clues from the past and apply them to the future. I believe that a slow transition from fossil fuels will give us time to adapt. Our market based economy will allow innovation of alternatives...they may never be as cheap as oil once was, but we may be able to bridge the gap.

We must not look to government or corporations for our salvation. We must rely on ourselves. If we are really relying on technology to be our salvation, invest in it...with both human and financial capital. Live within your means. Learn skills that will benefit yourself and your community. Teach your children...they will need guidance in the years ahead.

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