Which Past is the Future?
I was getting ready to write this posting and just came across a great quote I want to share from a guy whose name is Vinay Gupta. He thinks like I do except with two major differences. One, he is actually paid to think about this stuff. And two, in my opinion, while his analysis of the problems facing humanity today is spot on, I think he shades a little bit too far into the techno-utopian perspective when he moves from analysis to envisioning solutions. The idea that technology will save us is really pervasive these days and fits in great with both our rational materialist bias and the agenda of those who do not care to stop pursuing the path that is destroying the planet. Speak out against technology in any way and you get labelled a Luddite, since until the technology actually runs amok and kills us all it is way too easy to write off those Cassandras who warn of its dangers as delusional fear mongers. Small symbolic acts, such as recycling, are allowed, but anyone advocating fundamental changes to our relationship with technology is written off as a nut-case. This allows those who profit from the continuing deployment of ever more powerful disruptive technologies to keep right on doing what they are doing even though the cracks in the techno-utopian façade are finally getting really hard to ignore. Unfortunately, you can’t tell until afterwards if a technology is stupid or dangerous or not.
Things I like to keep in mind when dealing with these types of people are that our friend Newton the Science Guy not only helped develop the calculus, but he was also an avid Alchemist. One was great science stuff the other was crap. But Newton himself didn’t know which one was crap at the time. As they say, only hindsight is 20/20. The other nice reminder I like to keep in mind about the dangers of what I like to call the forward-faster ideology is the small, insignificant fact that up until the very moment of the very first atom bomb test, the physicists involved were not sure if the nuclear chain reaction, once started, would ever stop. Fermi actually offered to take bets on whether or not the explosion would literally ignite the atmosphere and crust of the earth and consume the entire planet in a nuclear fire. I kid you not. Oh, and in case you are not freaked out enough by that idea, this same possibility was enough to deter Hitler boy from pursuing the same line of research in Germany at the time. Ironic? I think so.
Anyway, you may begin to see why I am more than just a little sceptical of the sanity of anyone who exhibits a strong mentality of forward-faster, technology will save us. Well, I say if technology was going to save us, it would have done it by now. What is taking so long? Could it be the imperfectability of the human part of the equation? I freely admit to leaning more in that direction and that is one reason why I maintain that the past is the future. Another is that progress is a myth. Progress is a linear function. But, the world operates at a fundamental level on cycles. What goes around comes around as they say. If its time for progress you get progress – hey look a flying car! But, if its time for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you do not get progress you get regress. Regress is also known as the regression to the mean. And now is certainly not the time for progress, if it were we would have that flying car by now, or the transporter from Star Trek, or maybe even a continued human presence in space and a small permanent base on the moon by now. But we don’t. Instead we have the debt-bomb going asymptotic, a new Cold War, increasing social misery, resource depletion, and increasing pollution. You know regress.
So, if its regress time and I’m right that the past is the future, as in the decline and fall of the global empire, then the question is: exactly which past is the future? If the opposite of progress is regress and collapse means we regress to a simpler level of technology resembling an earlier stage of progress, then metaphorically speaking, just how far back into the past do we have to go in the future? In other words, if collapse means we must become less complex in our living arrangements along the lines of falling back to an earlier level of technology, then how far back must we fall before we find an arrangement that is stable and sustainable in the new degraded environment? And, since the process of collapse is somewhat inherently self-reinforcing, like a snowball gathering mass as it rolls down a hill, will we even be able to stop the collapse at some desired level of complexity even if we want to? Well, I’m hoping with some foresight, clever organization, and careful preparation that we can save at least a few pockets or centres of learning from falling all the way back to the stone-age. And that is the idea behind The Cloister Initiative. The defensive stronghold is a defensive stronghold against the likelihood of the current collapse we are now in the early stages of undergoing becoming a total collapse all the way back to stone-age technology and barbarity.
So, which past is the future? For me it is the past that is far enough back that it may be sustained in inhospitable circumstances in a degraded environment. That means it needs to be pretty much totally self sufficient, able to be sustained on local resources only, based on primarily human labour in terms of energy capture, and simple enough to be robust enough to survive unforeseeable semi-catastrophic disasters and set backs. In terms of maintaining some degree of creature comforts, the principle I use is: Why go further back into the past than you have to? And, the answer I come up with when pondering these parameters is that we need to go back at least to the Feudal era. And, if we want to preserve any kind of legacy from our global civilization – especially literacy – then the model for having decentralized local centres of scholarship and learning is the cloistered monastery. I’m sure the local Feudal lord thing will emerge as well, all on its own and spontaneously, but don’t expect them to be centres of learning, literacy, and culture.
Why do I think we have to go all the way back to a feudal era type of social organization in order to find a stable sustainable point at which to try and arrest the collapse dynamic? Because of the limits on energy capture that I expect we will have to face in the future. It is one of the really sad aspects of the collapse dynamic that a complex system will go to great lengths to maintain homeostasis for as long as possible before allowing the system itself to crash. Unfortunately, by the time homeostasis can no longer be maintained the entire system is so messed up that it fails catastrophically, leaving behind in the process a depleted and degraded substrate or environment with a vastly reduced ability to support the elements of the previous system. In biological terms it means the environment will absorb a lot of nasty inputs like pollution for a long time without displaying any serious outward symptoms of stress. But, eventually one day when you dump just one more barrel of toxic waste into the river and the tipping-point of homeostasis is passed, suddenly the whole system changes state. In the river example, all the fish die and the river dies. Oh well. The problem is that in the process of absorbing as much toxic sludge as it can handle, the river has had its future carrying capacity degraded possibly permanently. This is how deserts form in case you did not know. So, basically by the time you notice something is wrong, it’s already too late. And even if you immediately stop doing the bad stuff, the system can no longer support the number of organisms in the future that it used to because of the severe damage to its carrying capacity. There is a great book that explains all this really simply and really well called When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein (2008). Because of this dynamic of reduced carrying capacity, our future ability to do energy capture is going to be severely limited since we have already pretty much used up all the easy, cheap sources of condensed energy on the planet. So, replacing them even on a small scale is not going to be easy.
Let’s look at the history of lighting up the darkness as a good example of this situation and the importance of energy capture in defining the quality of civilized life. You know, simple pleasures like being able to read something after the sun goes down. Low-energy, renewable, local options for a light source are basically to burn wood, beeswax candles, or tallow lamps. These sources are labour intensive, tend to give off poor light, are smokey and/or smelly, and are high-maintenance and unreliable. That is why whale oil lamps were so welcome when they came along. They burned with a brighter light and were pretty smoke free. And guess what? The whaling industry got started in the medieval period. The Basques were whaling as early as 1059 and making seasonal expeditions to the English Channel by the fourteenth century. Whaling was also happening around Newfoundland and Labrador by around 1525. Then whole fleets of ships from several different competing countries were whaling in the North seas around Norway starting in 1611. Later on, 1846 was the year of peak oil in terms of the production of Sperm Whale oil – the best grade of whale oil for lighting. And, the industry had already been in decline for a decade by then due to early coal oil products and, you guessed it, a lack of sperm whales to hunt and kill. A few years later in a big leap forward, kerosene was first produced in 1849 by a Canadian geologist. Next the petroleum industry began in 1858 with the first commercial oil well in North America being dug near Sarnia at Oil Springs, Ontario. And, the use of natural gas for lighting began in 1872 in the USA. Finally, the first commercial electric light bulb was invented by Edison in 1879, and the rest is history.
Unfortunately, we can no longer go forward to a future like the past where cheap, bright, clean-burning sperm whale oil lamps light our homes because there are almost no more sperm whales left to hunt. And, that ignores the fact that commercially hunting whales pretty much fits Immanuel Wallerstein’s characterization of a complex integrated stage of production called “mercantile capitalism” being fully in place prior to the industrial revolution. Producing whale oil for lamps is basically a pre-industrial industry and it relied on a complex infrastructure and very long supply chains even by today’s standards. Maybe that is why Captain Ahab was so grumpy. And if whale oil is a no-go for our future lighting needs, what about the other sources like natural gas, electricity, etc.? While I’m not willing to write off electricity as a source that may potentially be produced locally on a small scale that possibility remains to be tested after the collapse happens. And, it is unlikely the centralized power grid will survive. So, that leaves us contemplating a return to the sources that were common before whale oil – wood, beeswax, tallow. And that takes us at least back to the early medieval period. However, I do not wish to have to regress all the way back to the stone-age if I can avoid it.
Nonetheless, I also think it is unlikely that it will be possible to maintain much of the complex technology of 19th and 20th century modernity as well. Consequently, that leaves me thinking the latest period that we might successfully emulate in our little the-past-is-the-future scenario is again medieval Europe. It is going back far enough that it should prove sustainable even in a degraded environment, but it is sophisticated enough to robustly support a relatively high population density with a fairly high degree of occupational specialization along with a number of basic creature comforts.
Oh yeah I almost forgot, here is that quote from Vinay Gupta. I got sidetracked, see everything including this blog goes in cycles.
“I am trying to keep you alive. There are lots of threats which governments are either ignoring or causing. I am filling in the gaps. Overconsumption is reducing our planet’s ability to support life. Seven of us exist for every person alive 200 years ago! Nuclear war, bioweapons, even plain old conflict are driven by resource scarcity. Good engineering could at least double how far our resources can stretch, the rest has to be done by demand reduction: living within planetary limits. But governments do not fund engineering solutions to political problems, except in war, so the technologies which could bring plenty to the world (or at least more room for manoeuvre) are largely unfunded or undeployed. A likely response to increasing resource scarcity (manifest as economic problems and rising prices) is centralization of power (fascism). In the past, hard right-wing governments have come to power during and after economic collapses, leading to unnecessary wars or even genocide. Democides (governments turning on their people) killed a quarter-billion people in the 20th century. Finding better solutions than centralization and war is my life’s work.“
I too think there are better solutions to our current predicament than more centralized power and war, especially if you are one of the little guys. But, good old Vinay thinks his forward-faster decentralization technologies are the solution that will trump Fascism, oops I mean centralization. And, here read Vinay’s centralization as Tainter’s increased monitoring of a system well past the point of declining marginal returns on increased technological complexity. Ironic eh? Well, faced with that paradox, I think I’ll stick with The Cloister Initiative if you don’t mind and thank you very much.