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Facing the Deindustrial Age

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What follows is an excerpt from John Michael Greer's new book, The Long Descent (New Society Press), which argues that industrial society is about to undergo a "catabolic collapse," a series of inevitable steps down toward a "deindustrial" future, where the absence of cheap fossil fuel energy means that most people will live by growing their own food and returning to older ways of life.

 

People try to anticipate the shape of the future for many of the same reasons that drivers pay attention to the road ahead: it's easier to respond to dangers and opportunities alike if you can see them at least a little in advance. As we move into the poorly mapped territory on the far side of Hubbert's peak, however, differences between the futures we anticipate and the one we are most likely to get may challenge us to our core. I've already talked about the ways our culture's familiar narratives turn into obstacles to understanding in the face of a predicament they fit poorly, if at all. The same factors raise obstacles at least as high to constructive action and help explain one of the most striking differences between the energy crisis of the 1970s and the one unfolding around us today: the disconnect between theory and practice and between proposals for change and the willingness to make change where it counts, in our own lives.

It bears noticing that between 1956, when Hubbert originally announced the approach of peak oil, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of peak oil has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect of any constructive response to peak oil has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports economic policies that effectively subsidize increases in fossil fuel use, and thus move the world further away from a transition to sustainability with each passing day. The more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world's political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run.

This astonishing failure of will and vision can be traced to factors already discussed in this book. The mythic narratives and the logic of the monkey trap (discussed earlier in the book) have had a potent influence on the way things have worked out over the last three decades. It's crucial to grasp that these are just as much part of our predicament as the petroleum in the ground and the cars on our highways, and they have as potent an influence on what can still be done as do any of the hard, technical facts of the case. The predicament we face is at least as much a social and cultural crisis as a technical one, and its technical side — difficult though that may be — is arguably the least challenging of its dimensions.

Political Action

A failure to grasp this last consideration, or at least to take it seriously, has hobbled the peak oil community since the first loud alarms were sounded in the 1990s. From the start, many people argued that the issue could best be dealt with by alerting the world's governments and getting them to solve the problem. This approach remains popular today, even though the world's governments show no sign of listening, and no significant political party in the developed world has seriously discussed adopting a realistic plan to deal with peak oil.

Another popular activity among people concerned with peak oil has been the drafting of plans to deal with the approaching crisis. Many of these plans are extremely well designed and, even this late in the game, they could do a great deal to cushion the rough path ahead of us. Even the least plausible of them would likely have better results than the industrial world's current policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss. Yet while the books pile up on the shelves of libraries and used book stores, the sleepwalkers continue on their way.

The reason for this disconnect lies in the awkward fit between the demands of a peak oil future and the realities of energy use in the industrial world. While it's popular in some circles to assume that extravagant energy use is purely the fault of the very rich, large corporations, or some other collection of upper-class scapegoats, the fact is that the availability of cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy has changed nearly every aspect of life throughout the world's industrial nations. Most of us, not just a privileged few, benefit every day from the wasteful use of energy that characterizes modern society, and these benefits are among the many things peak oil places in jeopardy.

This has implications few people take the time to think through. Consider a cup of coffee. The energy needed to run the coffee maker is only a tiny portion of the total petroleum-based energy and materials that go into the process. Unless the coffee is organically grown, chemical fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil are used to produce the beans; diesel-driven farm machinery harvests them; trucks, ships, and trains powered by one petroleum product or another move them around the world from producer to middleman to consumer, stopping at various fossil-fuel-heated or cooled storage facilities and fossil-fuel-powered factories en route; consumers in the industrial world drive to brightly lit and comfortably climate-controlled supermarkets on asphalt roads to bring back plastic-lined containers of ground coffee to their homes. To drink coffee by the cup, we use oil by the barrel.

This is exactly the sort of extravagance that will not be viable much longer as the age of cheap, abundant energy draws to a close. One implication is that, as fossil fuels stop being cheap and abundant, standards of living throughout the industrial world will sink toward the level of the nonindustrial world. There's no way to sugarcoat that very unpalatable reality. In the last century, oil and other fossil fuels made it possible for a majority of people in the world's industrial nations — and a small minority elsewhere — to embrace lifestyles that don't require constant hard physical labor. Fossil fuels allowed people to wallow in a torrent of consumer goods — cars, exotic foods, expensive health care systems, and much more. As we head into the territory on the far side of Hubbert's peak, all of that will go away. How many people would be willing to listen to such a suggestion? More to the point, how many people would vote for a politician or a party who proposed to bring on these changes deliberately, now, in order to prevent disaster later on?

This isn't simply a rhetorical question; the experiment has been tried. In 1992, the MIT team that did the original Limits to Growth study ran their numbers again with updated figures; the resulting study pointed out that the industrial world had frittered away most of its options in two decades of unconscionable delay. The team found that in the previous two decades industrial society had gone into overshoot — the term environmental scientists use for a population of living things that is consuming vital resources so extravagantly that the ability of their environment to keep supporting them is at risk. Their new book Beyond the Limits urged an emergency program to stave off disaster. They pointed out, however, that the level of cuts in energy and resource use necessary to stave off disaster would require the American people to accept a reduction in their average standard of living that would bring it in line with that of Brazil. No politician or political party anywhere has taken up their suggestion as a platform, for obvious reasons. It's hard to think of a better recipe for political suicide.

Back in 1992, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a brilliant, mordant book, The Culture of Contentment, about the reasons why today's societies have proven to be so incapable of constructive change. He compared today's American political class — the people who have a significant voice in our collective decisions — to the French aristocracy before the Revolution. Starting in the late 17th century, French governments pursued an aggressive imperialist foreign policy supported by the dubious short-term means of deficit spending and pulling resources away from a faltering domestic economy. By the second half of the 18th century, as a result, the kingdom of France teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, with debt service eating up half of all government income by 1770, while most of the French people lived in poverty that was extreme even by the standards of the time.

Reforms were a constant subject of discussion. The problem was that no real change could be put in place without loading serious short-term costs onto the government and the aristocracy. Everybody with access to the levers of power knew the situation was insupportable and that eventually there would be an explosion, but the immediate costs of doing something about it were so unpalatable that the French political class decided simply to do nothing and hope that things would somehow work out. Deficit spending continued in full spate until the fiscal crisis of 1788 and the collapse of government finances that led straight to the French Revolution. In the end, the unwillingness of Louis XVI and his courtiers to deal with the burden of living within their means brought them to the guillotine.

This is an excellent example of what sociologist C. Wright Mills called "fate." Mills argued that the driving force behind most of the unintended changes in society is the power exerted by the countless small decisions made by people in the course of their daily lives. Market economies and democratic governments both rely on fate; both trust in the steady pressure of people making their own small choices to keep society on track. Much of the time this works, but as the example of the French Revolution suggests, fate can also bring about the collapse of a government — or a civilization.

This type of disastrous outcome is most likely when it's hard to see the connection between a short-term benefit and its long-term costs, or when the connection is hidden by ideology. Any sort of collective decision making can suffer from what sociologists call "social traps," when the positive and negative consequences of a course of action sort out differently over time. Political systems of all sorts usually settle on choices with short-term benefits and long-term costs rather than choices with short-term costs and long-term benefits, even if the long-term issues are of far greater importance.

The pressure of fate is among the most important and least recognized forces blocking the way to a solution for the approaching crisis. If we had enough time and resources — and the political and collective will to use them — we might still be able to make the transition to a conserver society based on renewable resources, one with far fewer goods and services per person but with the promise of long-term stability. Neither the leadership of the industrial world nor its citizens show any sign of having the will to make the necessary changes; resources are running short — and so is time. The jaws of the social trap have closed tight around industrial society.

That trap has an important feature in common with Galbraith's example of the French Revolution. The social trap that doomed the French aristocracy in the years leading up to 1789 was especially insidious because its effects, and the costs of change, both built gradually over time. If the political classes of ancien régime France had found the courage and foresight to bite the bullet early on, the tax burdens and fiscal limits needed to bring matters back into balance would have been relatively easy to bear. That very fact made it easy for the political class to dismiss the need for change, since the problem seemed so small. By the time it was obvious that something had to be done, the costs of doing anything at all had become monumental — and those costs would have been borne directly and personally by each member of the political class. Thus the crisis built up to its inevitable explosion. Only in the explosion's aftermath did constructive change become possible once again.

The social trap imposed by the limits to growth works the same way. When the necessary changes could have been made easily, the danger was still so far away that it was all too easily be ignored; now that the danger is becoming obvious, the costs of change amount to requiring the population of the industrial world to surrender everything they think of as a normal lifestyle. Once the next wave of crises hits industrial society and today's elaborately defended political and economic arrangements are washed away like so many sand castles, political reform may become a viable option, but those reforms will only respond to disaster; they will not prevent it.

The dynamics of our social trap thus put a political solution to the crisis of industrial society effectively out of reach, at least for the time being. Claiming that a political solution is "the only option," to repeat a phrase too often used these days, misses a crucial point: collapse is also an option. The fact that it's not the option we'd prefer does nothing to make it less likely.

Survivalism

Too often nowadays, however, those who understand the futility of a political solution go to the opposite extreme, borrowing the strategy made famous by rats aboard sinking ships. It's become very common for people aware of the imminence of peak oil to embrace the narrative of survivalism — the belief that the only workable response to the decline and fall of industrial civilization is to hole up in a cabin in the woods with stockpiles of food and firearms and live the virtuous frontier life while the world outside goes crashing down in flames.

Much of the discussion of what to do about the aftermath of peak oil has thus focused on steps such as stockpiling gold, silver, and stored food; arranging effective means of defense against the rampaging mobs expected to roam the landscape in the aftermath of collapse; and then finding mates for one's children so that civilization can survive. This sort of thinking is surprisingly common these days. It draws on the myth of apocalypse, of course, but it has deep roots in another common cultural narrative as well.

In the colonial states of the European diaspora, from the 18th century right up to the present, it's been a popular bit of rhetoric to contrast the rich, crowded, and wicked cities of the coasts with the poor, isolated, and allegedly more virtuous back country. Fuse that rhetoric with one version or another of Christian apocalyptic mythology with the serial numbers filed off, and you get the classic survivalist creed. That creed first surfaced in the 1920s in the United States. Since then, survivalists have insisted that theirs is the one viable answer to any crisis you care to imagine — epidemic disease, nuclear holocaust, race war, the advent of Antichrist, the predicted meltdown of the world's computer systems on January 1, 2000, and the list goes on.

From a survivalist point of view, peak oil is simply one more reason to head for the hills until the rubble stops bouncing. All the same, it doesn't fill the bill very well. True, the peaking of world oil production will usher in an age of rising energy costs and dwindling supplies, and that will bring plenty of economic, social, political, and demographic problems in its train, but I have yet to see anyone make a reasonable case that these problems will cause civilization to collapse overnight. We're facing decline, not apocalypse, and in the face of a gradual decline unfolding over several centuries, a strategy relying on canned beans, M-16s, and an isolated cabin in the woods is a distraction at best. It's also among the best pieces of evidence that people nowadays pay no attention to the lessons of history.

One of the more common phenomena of collapse is the breakdown of public order at the rural peripheries and the rise of a brigand culture preying on rural communities and travelers. During the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West, for example, the countryside sank into anarchy long before cities stopped being viable, and bands of raiders made life outside city walls difficult at best. As the industrial world moves into its own decline and poverty shifts from the cities to the rural hinterlands — a process already well under way in North America — the same phenomenon is likely to repeat itself. Isolated survivalist enclaves with stockpiles of food and ammunition would be a tempting prize and could count on being targeted. Towns and small cities surrounded by arable land often do much better than rural areas when civilizations fall, because they can draw on a larger and more diverse labor force and more complex social networks to overcome problems that scattered rural villages or households cannot.

North America is unusually vulnerable to a descent into rural anarchy because of its size, its dependence on automobiles, and its lack of a pre-petroleum infrastructure; Europe will be in much better shape, what with its massive rail system and cities that make sense on foot. The worst of the early phases of the collapse may be focused here in North America as much as anywhere; it doesn't help that the United States, at least, has a citizenry armed to the teeth. Contemporary North America also lacks a social infrastructure of human-scale, local community organizations, so once the mass institutions go under, people have nothing to fall back on — and little experience organizing themselves on a local level. That doesn't mean a Hollywood-style overnight collapse; it does mean we will have an unnecessarily hard time of it.

The same factors also make it hard to support the popular notion that stockpiling precious metals or other valuables will make the stockpilers exempt from the consequences of decline and fall. This strategy has been attempted over and over again in recorded history; the one thing that can be said about it is that it consistently doesn't work. Every few years, for example, archeologists in Britain dig up another cache of gold and silver hidden away by some wealthy landowner in Roman Britain as the empire fell apart. Such caches are usually not far from the ruins of a Roman villa that shows signs of having been sacked and looted by the barbarian raiders that ended Roman civilization in Britain.

As a working rule, if your value consists of what you've stockpiled, you can assume that an unlimited number of other people will be eager to remove you from the stockpile so they can enjoy it themselves. However many you kill, there will always be more — and eventually your ammo will run out. Of course, it's also more than a little relevant that you can't eat gold or silver — or do much else constructive with them. The fetishism that makes precious metals precious in our present society may not survive the sort of prolonged brush with ecological reality that the limits to growth will most likely bring.

The temptation to rely on stockpiles of food, technology, weapons, or precious metals to get through the impact of an age of decline is, among other things, a natural product of modern ways of thinking. For two centuries, as a result of the vast energy resources we've extracted from the Earth, machines and their products have been cheaper than skilled human beings. The result is a habit of valuing things over skills and, ultimately, a "prosthetic society" in which we're taught to neglect our innate abilities and then pay for technological replacements. We use day planners instead of training our memories, buy bread machines instead of learning to bake, watch television instead of using our imaginations. So many people have come to think that the best way to deal with anything is to buy enough of the right product that it's natural that they attempt to deal with the twilight of industrial society in the same way — natural, but fatal.

Once the fragile legal frameworks that give the concept of "ownership" its current meaning break down, stockpiles of wealth or weaponry become an invitation to seizure by governments as well as less officially sanctioned thieves. Those whose value consists of things they can do and teach, on the other hand, give everyone a reason to leave them unharmed. This latter strategy, unrealistic as it looks from the modern world's viewpoint, has worked consistently in the past. The success and survival of Christian monks in Dark Age Europe is paralleled by that of Buddhist monks in the bitter wars of the Sengoku jidai period of medieval Japan, Taoist priests and hermits in the repeated disintegrations of imperial China, and many other people who have embraced strategies based on the value of knowledge in past ages of collapse. Even in the pirate havens of the 16th century Caribbean, among the most brutal and lawless societies in recorded history, physicians, shipwrights, and other skilled craftspeople led charmed lives, because everybody knew their own lives might depend on access to those skills at some point in the future.

Finally, even collapse events with extreme depopulation, historically speaking, leave 5-10% of the former population. To put that in perspective, if you live in a town of 100,000 people, there will be 5,000 to 10,000 people still living there after the dust finally settles two hundred years from now. Your children, their children, and the grandchildren of their grandchildren will have no trouble finding mates of their own. Thus the entire survivalist strategy depends on a mistaken assessment of the challenges ahead, and it directs energy where it's not needed while missing the places where effort can have constructive results.

Lifeboat Communities

One of the ironies of the current predicament of industrial society is that many of the people who recognize the problems with each of the previous approaches turn to a third option that combines most of the problems of both. For decades now, one of the most frequently repeated proposals for doing something about the predicament of industrial society has been building lifeboat communities: isolated, self-sufficient settlements stocked with the resources and technology to survive the end of the industrial age. Such 1970s classics as Roberto Vacca's The Coming Dark Age discuss such communities in detail, and these discussions have been picked up and expanded substantially over the last decade or so.

Now, to some extent, this sort of thinking is simply a variety of Survivalism Lite, with more emphasis on organic gardening than automatic weapons. One of the advantages of survivalism, though, is that it can be pursued on a very modest budget. Probably more than half the adults in North America today can afford to fit themselves out with a few firearms, some outdoor gear, a stock of stored food, and a cabin in the woods that can do double duty as a deer camp during hunting season. Plans for lifeboat communities in circulation these days are on a much more grandiose scale. Vacca's book, for example, suggests lifeboat communities on the scale of large villages, with multiple buildings, plenty of arable land for food crops, and stockpiles of useful technology. Others resemble nothing so much as an upper middle class suburb tucked incongruously away in some isolated mountain valley.

The historical model Vacca uses for his communities are the monasteries of the Middle Ages. This is potentially a valuable parallel, because monasteries have accomplished something very like Vacca's prescription in the twilight years of several civilizations. During and long after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian monasteries served as living time capsules in which many of the treasures of classical culture stayed safe through the centuries. Buddhist monasteries filled the same function in Japan's feudal age, and Buddhist and Taoist monasteries took turns doing the same thing through China's repeated cycles of imperial boom and bust. It's by no means impossible that some similar project could salvage the best of modern civilization as a legacy for future ages.

Yet monasticism accomplished these things because it drew on motivations very different from the ones that drive today's lifeboat community projects. The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages were not staffed by people trying to maintain some semblance of a middle-class Roman lifestyle while the world fell apart around them. Quite the opposite — the monks and nuns who copied old texts, taught at abbey schools, and kept the lamps of Western civilization burning, voluntarily embraced a lifestyle even more impoverished and restricted than that of the peasants among whom they lived. The same point is equally true of the Buddhist and Taoist monastics who accomplished the same vital task in other places and times. Arguably, it's precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty for the sake of higher goals that frees up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.

While the monastic model is still often cited in talk about lifeboat communities, a less challenging set of cultural narratives provides the unstated framework for most of these projects. In North America, from colonial times on, groups of disaffected people from all corners of the religious, political, and intellectual continuum have set out to build communities in the wilderness to prepare for the coming of a new world. A direct line of cultural continuity runs from the Rosicrucian communes of colonial Pennsylvania straight through to the Transcendentalists, the Mormons, and every other band of dreamers who convinced themselves that a better world could be reached by the simple expedient of following Huck Finn's example of heading out into the Territories and building it themselves.

This model had its most recent workout during the backwash of the 1960s. Many people alive today remember what happened when large numbers of white, middle-class young people left the urban centers where the counterculture had its roots and tried to build a new society in communes scattered across rural North America. It was a grand experiment but, on the whole, a failed one, and the root cause of its failure is instructive.

That root cause in most cases was a fundamental lack of recognition that rural life involves a great deal of very hard work. Of the many thousands of young communards who headed back to the land, few understood how much sheer muscular effort it takes to grow one's own food and provide the other necessities of life; even fewer had the most basic skills needed to tackle that technically complex and demanding task. Subsistence farming is a more than a full-time job; it requires firm command of a range of technical skills most middle-class people these days have never encountered, much less had the opportunity to learn. A little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand doesn't even begin to do the trick.

Critiques of industrial society have proliferated in recent years, but few of them deal with the fact that life in an industrial economy powered by abundant fossil fuels really is much easier than subsistence farming in nonindustrial conditions. When this awkward reality collided head on with the 1960s' idyllic fantasies of living the good life in the lap of nature, the fantasies came out much the worse for wear. In the aftermath of the collision, some of the communes of the 1960s figured out ways to batten off the larger society through welfare, drug dealing, or some other sideline, while most simply let out a few bubbles and sank once the first bright rush of idealistic enthusiasm wore off. By the middle years of the 1970s, most of the enthusiastic communards of the previous decade or so had returned to middle-class lives in the world they had once tried to abandon.

Potential lifeboat communities in a world perched unsteadily on the brink of peak oil will have to cope with the same mismatch between popular fantasies of rural life and the laborious realities of subsistence farming. Anyone who seriously wants to pursue the goal of rural self-sufficiency needs to leave any desire for a modern middle-class lifestyle at the door. The highest standard of living one can expect a rural lifeboat community to provide is that of a peasant farmer in the nonindustrial world, and that will be within reach only if the participants are as competent at the art of subsistence farming as farmers in the nonindustrial world generally are.

Given competent training and a high tolerance for hard physical labor, day in and day out, a group of healthy adults can keep themselves and their dependents adequately fed, clothed, housed, and equipped with necessary tools, with a little left over for barter or sale. For thousands of years this has been the standard human lifestyle over most of the world, and once the brief era of fossil-fueled extravagance we call modern industrial civilization is over, it will likely be the standard human lifestyle once again. Compared to the ease, comfort, opportunity, and abundance of a modern middle-class lifestyle, though, it is a very hard life. It has to be remembered, furthermore, that the decline of the industrial world is likely to be a slow and uneven process, with periods up to several decades long when it may well look as though the crisis is over and the warnings inaccurate. When these periods arrive, it will most likely be even harder to keep pursuing a rural subsistence lifestyle when the much easier lifestyles of the industrial world are still available.

As a result, the lifeboat community project faces a miniature version of the same social trap that has paralyzed political responses to peak oil. The land, buildings, and equipment needed to launch a lifeboat community of any size cost money — upward of a million dollars would be a good starting budget for such a project — and the people who commit themselves to the project must be willing to give up their careers in today's world in order to devote their time to building a new society that may not be needed for decades or centuries to come. The costs involved have to be paid up front by the people involved, while the benefits come only later and are shared by all. Thus it's not surprising that, despite all the talk about lifeboat communities, few of them have gotten past the talking stage.

Seeing Other Options

In one sense, the difficulty with all three of the alternatives surveyed so far in this chapter — awakening the political system in time to solve the crisis; holing up with guns and food in a fortified enclave; and building lifeboat communities to weather the fall of the modern world — is that they aren't actually responses to our predicament; they're existing cultural narratives looking for problems to solve. Visit the nearest multiscreen movie theater and you may just find all three of them playing this afternoon. Go through the door on the left and you can watch the movie about the lone visionary who recognizes an imminent crisis that no one else can see and then finally manages to get the authorities to pay attention in time. Through the door on the right, there's the movie about the small band of heavily armed heroes blazing away at mindless, faceless hordes in some apocalyptic setting. Up the stairs in the middle, you can find the movie about the community of plucky survivors thrown together by some world-ending catastrophe who struggle through the aftermath and rebuild a clone of today's society from the ground up. Endlessly repeated in popular entertainment, these narratives have a powerful presence in the collective imagination of the industrial world, and it's important to be aware of the gravitational attraction they exert on our thinking.

The core assumption common to all three proposals is that there's no middle ground between preserving the modern industrial system intact and a rapid descent into primal chaos. Both of the mythic narratives discussed over the last two chapters, the myth of progress just as much as the myth of apocalypse, feed into this assumption. Its popularity, however, doesn't make it anything like as reasonable as it seems. There's a wide middle ground between contemporary society and a Road Warrior struggle of all against all. It's in that middle ground that the most likely futures of the industrial world will take shape, and aiming for a constructive response to the futures of the middle ground is in all probability the best strategy we have.

A metaphor might be useful here. Imagine that you found out today that tomorrow morning you'll be taken up to 10,000 feet in an airplane and tossed out the cabin door. That's a real crisis, and it demands serious thought and action. If you believe that the only two options are either staying in midair at 10,000 feet or falling to your death, though, you may just overlook the action that would be most likely to save your life: wearing a parachute.

The metaphor can be extended a little further. The problem with being thrown out of an airplane at 10,000 feet isn't that you fall; it's that you fall too fast and land too hard. The same is true of the end of the industrial age. If the transition from industrial society to the deindustrial cultures of the future could be made gradually, with plenty of time to scale back our expectations and replace energy-intensive technologies with simpler ones, our predicament would be so mild it would barely merit the name. At this point, however, so many opportunities have been wasted and so many resources depleted that the transition out of the industrial age will likely be a good deal more disruptive, with close parallels to the breakdowns and dark ages that followed other civilizations in the past. This still leaves plenty of room for strategies that, like the parachute in the metaphor, will slow the descent and minimize the shock of landing.

Thus it's one thing to try to find some way to power today's industrial system with renewable sources while leaving intact the structures of everyday life that give our civilization its extravagant appetite for energy. It's quite another thing, and much closer to the realm of the possible, to use renewable energy to meet the far more modest energy requirements of an agrarian society. Especially in North America, restating the question in this way opens up immense possibilities. Very few people who live on this continent, for instance, have noticed that it's only our energy-wasting lifestyles that keep us dependent on imported oil — with all the unwelcome economic and political consequences that brings. Even 35 years after its own Hubbert peak, the United States is still one of the largest producers of oil on Earth. If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to the dysfunctional lifestyles of an age that is passing away keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table in discussions of national energy policy.

The same logic can be extended much more broadly. Today's industrial agriculture, for example, will become utterly unsustainable once the huge fossil fuel inputs that go into farm machinery, agricultural chemicals, worldwide transport networks, and the like stop being economically viable. That doesn't mean, as some of the more extreme peak oil theorists argue, that once fossil fuels become too scarce and costly to use for agriculture, we'll all starve. It simply means that the agriculture of the future will have to rely on human and animal muscle, and other locally produced sources, for energy, and turn compost and manure into fertilizer, the way farmers did for millennia before the invention of the tractor. It also means that the sooner we launch the transition back to this more viable way of farming, the better.

There are still people alive today who grew up working horse-drawn combines in the 1920s, when American agriculture was already productive enough to make the Great Plains the world's breadbasket. Converting back to horse-powered agriculture would be a challenge, but one well within the realm of the possible; relatively simple changes in agricultural, taxation, and land use policy could do much to foster that conversion. With severe depopulation setting in across much of America's old agricultural heartland, more dramatic steps such as a renewal of the old Homestead Act, coupled with price guarantees for organically grown grain crops (perhaps linked to an expanded ethanol-production program), would make a good deal of sense as well.

If the mythology of progress didn't blind today's policymakers to such options, any number of steps could be taken to ease the transition from industrial to deindustrial society. Those steps are likely to remain outside the realm of the politically thinkable for a long time yet, at least on a large scale, but the same logic can be applied on a local and individual scale. Individuals, groups, and communities, just as much as nations and industrial civilization as a whole, face the challenge of managing the descent from Hubbert's peak. The longer we try to cling to the peak, the harder and faster the fall is going to be, and fewer are the people and cultural resources that are likely to survive it. If we accept that the Long Descent is inevitable and try to make it in a controlled manner, on the other hand, the way is open not only for bare survival, but for surviving in a humane and creative fashion while preserving as much of value as possible for the future.

 

Image by Andy Ciordia, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

 

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