Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nawida 2150

This is my third and (for now) last exploration of a deindustrial future using the tools of narrative fiction. Fifty more years have passed since "Solstice 2100." Massive climate change, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, and the final stages of catabolic collapse have transformed the setting almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of these changes, new cultural forms are evolving to replace the last fragments of industrial civilization.

*************

“Mes Joe? She kee.”

The old man looked up from his book, saw the boy’s smiling brown face at the door. “Da Manda Gaia?”

“Ayah, en da gran house. Habby Nawida!” He grinned and scampered off. Joe closed the book and rose slowly to his feet, wincing at the familiar pain, as the habits of half a lifetime picked at the boy’s words. Nawida, that was from old Spanish “Navidad.” Ironic that the name remained, when the faith it came from was no more than a memory now. Half the words in Alengo were like that, tenanted with the ghosts of old meanings like some haunted building in the old ruins.

He got his cane and a bundle wrapped in cloth, looked out the open door to make sure the rain would hold off a little longer. Out past the palms and mango trees, dark clouds billowed against the southern sky. Those promised another round of monsoon within a day or so, but overhead the sky was clear and blue all the way to space. He nodded, left the little thatched house and started down the broad dirt path that passed for the little village’s main street.

Ghosts, he said to himself as a pig trotted across the way, heading off into the rich green of the fields and the jungle beyond them. Alengo itself—that had been “our lingo” back when it was a makeshift pidgin born on the streets of a half-ruined city. Half Spanish, half English, half Mama Gaia knew what, that was the old joke, but the drought years turned it into a language of its own. These days people spoke Alengo all along the coast from Tenisi west to the plains, and only a few old fools like Joe kept English alive so that somebody could still read the old books.

He wondered what old Molly would have thought of that. She’d spent most of his childhood bribing and browbeating him into learning as much as she thought he could, and went to Mama Gaia convinced she hadn’t done enough. He hadn’t expected to step into old Tom Wu’s footsteps as the village schoolteacher, either, but somehow things turned out that way. Ghosts, he said to himself again. It wasn’t just the language that they haunted.

Off to the left a stream that didn’t exist at all in the drought years splashed its way between jagged lumps of concrete and young trees. There stood the grandest and saddest ghost of all, the little brick building they’d raised for the waterwheel-driven generator. What a project that was! Dan the blacksmith, ten years in the earth now, did all the ironwork just for the fun of it, and half a dozen others helped put up the building, craft the waterwheel, and wind the coils. Even the village kids helped, scrounging wire from the old ruins.

They got it working, too, turning out twelve volts DC as steady as you please. That was when reality started whittling away at the dream of bringing back Old Time technology, because they didn’t have a thing they could do with that current. Light bulbs were out of reach—Joe worked out the design for a vacuum pump, but nobody could craft metal to those tolerances any more, never mind trying to find tungsten for filaments or gases for a fluorescent bulb—and though he got an electric motor built and running after a lot more salvaging, everything anyone could think of to do with it could be done just as well or better by skilled hands with simpler tools.

Then someone turned up an Old Time refrigerator with coolant still in the coils. For close on twenty years, that was the generator’s job, keeping one battered refrigerator running so that everyone in the village had cold drinks in hot weather. That refrigerator accomplished one thing more, though, before it finally broke down for good—it taught Joe the difference between a single machine and a viable technology. It hurt to admit it, but without a fossil-fueled industrial system churning out devices for it to run, electricity wasn’t worth much.

When the refrigerator rattled its last, Joe bartered the copper from the wire—worth plenty in trade by then—for books for the school. He’d done well by it, too, and brought home two big dictionaries and a big matched set of books from Old Time called the Harvard Classics, mostly by authors nobody in the village knew at all. His students got plenty of good English prose to wrestle with, and the priestess borrowed and copied out one volume from the set because it was by one of the Gaian saints and nobody else anywhere had a copy. Still, he’d kept one loop of wire from the generator as a keepsake, and left another on Molly’s grave.

A voice broke into this thoughts: “Ey, Mes Joe!” A young man came past him, wearing the plain loincloth most men wore these days. Eddie, Joe remembered after a moment, Eddie sunna Sue—hardly anybody used family names any more, just the simple mother-name with a bit of rounded English in front. “Tu needa han?” Eddie said. Before Joe could say anything, he grinned and repeated his words in English: “Do you need any help?”

That got a ghost of a smile. “No, I’m fine. And glad to see you didn’t forget everything I taught you. How’s Emmie?”

“Doing fine. You know we got a baby on the way? I don’t know if you got anything in your books about keeping a mother safe.”

“Sharon should have everything I have. Still, I’ll take a look.” Sharon was the village healer and midwife, and all three of the medical books she had came out of Joe’s library, but the reassurance couldn’t hurt. Emmie was Eddie’s second wife; the first, Maria, died in childbirth. That happened less often than it used to—Sharon knew about germs and sanitation, and used raw alcohol as an antiseptic no matter how people yelped about how it stung—but it still happened.

“Thanks! I be sure they save you a beer.” Eddie grinned again and trotted down the street.

Joe followed at his own slower pace. The street went a little further and then widened into a plaza of sorts, with the marketplace on one side, the Gaian church on another, and the village hall—the gran house, everyone called it—on a third. Beyond the gran house, the ground tumbled down an uneven slope to the white sand of the beach and the sea reaching south to the horizon. A few crags of concrete rose out of the water here and there, the last traces of neighborhoods that had been just that little bit too low when the seas rose. Every year the waves pounded those a bit lower; they’d be gone soon, like so many of the legacies of Old Time.

Another irony, he thought, that what brought disaster to so many had been the salvation of his village and the six others that huddled in the ruins of the old city. It took the birth of a new sea to break the drought that once had the whole middle of the continent in its grip. Another ghost hovered up there in the dark monsoon clouds—the day the clouds first came rolling up out of the south and dumped rain on the parched ground. He’d been out in the plaza with everyone else, staring up at the clouds, smelling the almost-forgotten scent of rain on the wind, dancing and whooping as the rain came crashing down at last.

There had been some challenging times after that, of course. The dryland corn they grew before then wouldn’t handle so much moisture, and they had to barter for new seed and learn the way rice paddies worked and tropical fruit grew. Too, the monsoons hadn’t been so predictable those first few years as they became later: Mama Gaia testing them, the priestess said, making sure they didn’t get greedy and stupid the way people were in Old Time. Joe wasn’t sure the biosphere had any such thing in mind—by then he’d read enough Old Time books that the simple faith Molly taught him had dissolved into uncertainties—but that time, at least, he kept his mouth shut. People in Old Time had been greedy and stupid, even the old books admitted that, and if it took religion to keep that from happening again, that’s what it took.

He crossed the little plaza, went into the gran house. The solemn part of Nawida was over, the prayers said to Mama Gaia and all the saints, and the bonfire at midnight to mark the kindling of the new year; what remained was feasting and fun. Inside, drums, flutes and fiddles pounded out a dance tune; young women bare to the waist danced and flirted with young men, while their elders sat on the sides of the hall, sipping palm wine and talking; children scampered around underfoot, bare as when they were born. People waved greetings to Joe as he blinked, looked around the big open room, sighted the one he needed to find.

He crossed the room slowly, circling around the outer edge of the dancing, nodding to the people who greeted him. The one he’d come to meet saw him coming, got to her feet: a middle-aged woman, black hair streaked with iron gray, wearing the plain brown robe of the Manda Gaia. Hermandad de Gaia, that had been, and likely still was west along the coast where Alengo gave way to something closer to old Spanish; Fellowship of Gaia was what they said up North where something like English was still spoken. The Manda Gaia was a new thing, at least to the Gaian faith, though Joe knew enough about history to recognize monasticism when he saw it.

“You must be the schoolteacher,” the woman said in flawless English, and held out a hand in the Old Time courtesy. “I’m Juli darra Ellen.”

“Joe sunna Molly.” He took her hand, shook it. “Yes. Thank you for agreeing to come.”

“For three years now we’ve talked of sending someone here to see you.” She motioned him to a seat on the bench along the wall. “Please. You look tired.”

He allowed a smile, tried to keep his face from showing the sudden stab of pain as he sat. “A little. Enough that I should probably come straight to the point.” He held out the cloth-wrapped bundle. “This is a gift of sorts, for the Manda Gaia.”

The cloth opened, revealing a battered book and a narrow black case. She glanced at the spine of the book, then opened the case and pulled out the old slide rule.

“Do you know what it is?” Joe asked her.

“Yes.” Carefully, using two fingers, she moved the middle section back and forth. “I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one. Where did you find it?”

“It’s been in my family for around a hundred years.” That was true in Alengo, at least, where “mi famli” meant the people you grew up with, and “mi mama” the woman who took care of you in childhood; like everyone else, he’d long since given up using Old Time terms of relationship. “The book explains how it’s used. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve done some respectably complex math on it.”

“This thing is precious,” she said. “I’ll take it to our mother house in Denva, get it copied by our craftspeople there, and bring it back to you.”

“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think it’ll be possible, either.” He met her gaze. “Cancer of the bowels,” he said then. “Not the way I would have chosen to go, but there it is. It’s been close to three years now, and by the time you get to Denva and back I’ll be settling down comfortably in the earth.”

“Mama Gaia will take you to Her heart.” Seeing his smile: “You don’t believe that.”

“I think the biosphere has better things to worry about than one old man.”

“Well, I won’t argue theology.”

That got another smile. “Pity.” Then: “I have one other thing to ask, though. I hear quite a bit about the Manda Gaia these days. They say you have schools in some places, schools for children. For the last twenty years all my best pupils have gone into the church, and there’s nobody here to replace me. I’d like to see someone from your order take over the school when this thing gets the better of me. I wish I could say that’s a long way off.”

She nodded. “I can send a letter today.”

“Thank you. You’ve made a cynical old man happy, and that’s not a small feat.” ” The dance music paused, and in the momentary hush he fancied he could hear another, deeper stillness gathering not far off. He thought about the generator again, and the concrete crags battered by the waves, and wondered how many more relics of Old Time would be sold for scrap or washed away before the world finished coming back into balance.

21 comments:

fatguyonalittlebike said...

Great series. Really enjoyed it.

Maeve said...

This one is my favorite of them all. I believe it is because you've captured well the poignancy of irrevocable loss. As the old way of life is forgotten by the new generations, and the few things which were assimilated into the new way of life have their origins also forgotten, it must be unsettling for the older ones who do remember.

It adds a layer of meaning to the term "generation gap". Not only is there a distance between the old and the new, but there is literally no way for the new to understand or comprehend the old ways.

I enjoyed the picture you've painted, of the hope we can have that something of good from our current lives will survive and live on in the future generations.

I don't think we're doomed, since in many parts of the world people still live mainly without all the luxuries of industrial society. And even for those of us in spoiled pampered societies it hasn't been all that long since we had no electricity in our houses, since toilets were a pit in the back yard. We only have to look back 100 years to see that kind of lifestyle being the norm.

We have a chance, especially if we don't waste time, and go talk to our elders NOW. Before they die. Before their knowledge is lost. These are the people who remember getting electricity in their homes- perhaps a single bare dangling bulb in the livingroom. These are the people who can tell you how to boil and scrub your clothes on the wood-burning stove. These are the people who had real responsibilities at the age of 5.

So doomed? No. But modern people are going to be rudely awakened. And I for one believe it will be within our lifetimes. I believe there will come a time, not too many years away from now, where we won't have the luxury of reading thought-provoking blogs at 9:30pm. I wonder how many people realize how precarious our way of life is. I wonder if they realize how short and fleeting it is. I wonder too, how many have given thought to their online world, and the fact that it won't always be there. I wonder if they do think of these things, and appreciate the internet a little more, if they take the time to make use of the great resource it is.

I wonder, beyond people such as those who come here, or are otherwise actively trying to prepare for a future that is inevitable, if people are doing anything other than rushing faster and faster towards the end of industrial society.

We're in the midst of changeable weather fronts where I live, and unsettling weather often provokes an unsettled mind. :) Especially when the grass on my lawn is still mostly green, yet in my childhood it was always brown and dormant by end October, and usually covered with snow.

Loveandlight said...

What was the old city referred to in the story? I'm guessing either San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle.

nwlorax said...

This was a rough set of stories to read, for a number of reasons. You have reasonably undercut a lof of overly hopeful scenarios for the future, and your fiction isn't that far removed from the way that billions of folks live today. I agree with probably 85% of your reasoning. That said, I would like to pick some nits.

One of the great myths of the modern, computer age strata of the world is the conceit that this is the best and only extant culture, aside from parts of Borneo where Microsoft and Starbucks don't yet have stores.

The most relevant citizens of the West (and East) are fictive persons, aka corporations. This Advance Guard for going to Hell in a Handbasket are energy intensive multinational corporations, whose existence rises or falls in accord with by the strength of rumors of the next quarter's profit/loss sheet. (Just look at the way that the rumors of the existence/non-existence of Apple Computer's never announced or rumored iPhone have driven Wall Street analysts buggy for the last three years.)

Just a fraction of an inch beneath this headline grabbing information exchange economy that is based on silicon, gigabit Internet and largely fictive wealth lies a complex series of cultures that co-exist with the computer age and live a lot more lightly on the earth.

This isn't just a third world phenomenon---most of Oklahoma, Mexico, Brazil and Cornwall live largely off the information grid.

I suspect that the information interchange that goes on in these wilder places and is mediated by the soil, the weather and folks in closer contact with external nature is qualitatively different from the one that exists in the Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" reality of our present.

It may be that participation in one of these lesser-tech webs is required to maintain human sanity and health.

Certain bits of our technology are very robust. Nothing short of a direct hit by a tank shell or bolt of lightning can do much damage to a hardened computer or cell phone, and if even one tenth of one percent of those were to survive the collapse of modern civilization, we could still use that equipment.

At the height of the Cold war, in '78 there was a fiction story in "73 Magazine, set not so far in a future when the USSR won the cold war, liberals had taken over the country, and the only folks with technology and an education were the amateur radio operators around the world who held society together via communication over meteor burst technology or moonbounce transmissions relaying vital information and news over wind powered transmitters with equipment cannabalized from cars, dump sites, etc.

With about fifty cell phones, a couple of amplifiers and fifty windmills or low voltage water generators and a lunar calendar, any good ham could build a regional or world information network in a couple of weeks. How do I know? Because amateur radio low power contests (QRP) members do just this sort of thing at this time.

Just because our technology right now is generally bloated, inefficient and not environmentally friendly does not mean that it has to remain that way.

Would you rather have to pay the environmental costs of an led that will last a century or more, or one hundred years worth of blubber or tallow candles that require an ongoing and massive investment of energy and time?

As ugly as coal burning furnaces are, they can be cleaner than a high efficiency wood burning stove. There has been a recent re-assessment of the greenhouse gases produced in efficient wood stoves, and the numbers are not encouraging.

I really like the bit about the antique slide rule, as class of '76 was the last in our High School that had to learn to use them. As beautiful to look at as they are, they are not all that useful for anything other than a seat of the pants guesstimation, and never were in the era before calculators. Give me tables or a set of Napier's bones anyday!

People in high tech welding, pipefitting and related disciplines don't use calculators or slide rules, they carry log and trig tables, which can be derived readily with a minimal understanding of mathematics, at least to a reasonable standard of accuracy.

Keep writing!

Gordon

Loveandlight said...

Never mind, it's probably Kansas City (just reread the previous story), and the coast on which the protagonist is situated is the new southern cost, and probably virtually all of Dixie is submerged.

Steve said...

Maeve used the word "poignant". I guess I can't do better than that.

I have read all three of your future history pieces, and for some reason that I can't quite put a finger on, my eyes welled up at the last paragraph of each story.

Poignant, indeed.

- sgage

John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks, all!

Maeve, you're spot on one of the central themes of this blog -- the future isn't about doom and it isn't about today's version of business as usual, it's about returning to normal human existence after the wild, weird, and largely self-destructive ride of the industrial age. The downside of the ride is likely to be harrowing, but it's not the end of the world -- just the end of one more civilization that lost track of its dependence on nature.

Loveandlight, the city's not on the west coast -- if I set it there, I'd have to factor in tens of millions of Japanese refugees. (There are 100 million people living on the Japanese islands right now, 20 or 30 times what the islands can possibly support in a postpetroleum age; they have lots of boats, and the strongest current in the North Pacific flows from there right to the west coast of North America.) I didn't choose a specific city for the series, but it's a generic midwestern city close to the Mississippi river.

Yes, all of Dixie except for the Appalachians is underwater by this time, due to the melting of the Antarctic ice cap. If anyone knows a good source for a map of the world with sea level raised 250 feet, BTW, please post it -- I need one for another project.

Gordon, of course you're right that not all of the world participates in the current information web. Most of it participates in the global trade economy, though, and almost all of it depends on petrochemicals in one way or another -- especially for food and the maintenance of civil order by governments. On the other hand, those who are more peripheral in the industrial economy will be in better shape to weather the change than those close in to the center.

Your comments about technology demand a post all by themselves. Luckily, I'd already decided to put up something about the limitations of a salvage economy and the extent to which current technology will still be useful in the deindustrial age.

I'm planning a Q&A with Joe next week, and then it's back to essays, at least for a while.

Jan Steinman said...

If anyone knows a good source for a map of the world with sea level raised 250 feet, BTW, please post it.

The British Columbia Sierra Club has managed to hack Google Earth to show expected sea level rises, which we used before purchasing property:

popeye cahn said...

Here's a better link:

http://flood.firetree.net/

bunnygirl said...

I've enjoyed watching the language and culture changes as you move through the years with these stories.

Like you, I've struggled with the idea of technology-- what can be salvaged, what can be done in a different way. So much of our current technology isn't built to last or be repaired. Even our "repairs" are really just replacing one part for another.

If your hard drive fails in 2050 and no one is making them any more, or if the few that are being made are too hard to get due to transportation difficulties, it won't matter if you have electricity from wind or solar, an intact phone line, and the money to buy what you need. Your computer will be a museum piece, if anyone is still bothering with museums.

As in other historical transitions, wealth and transportation will likely determine which places crash fast and hard, and which areas will limp along for awhile and maybe even find a way to preserve or recover certain aspects of today's technology that we hold dear.

The big wild card this time around, though, is our damaged environment. I like the way the global temperature rise has factored into this series of stories.

I look forward to the return of your essays, but I hope you won't abandon your fiction writing!

bodhifox said...

Another set of maps...

http://www.nexialinstitute.com/global_flooding.htm

I keep thinking about the druid chapterhouses you've discussed elsewhere, and the abbey in Canticle for Leibowitz should things go that far and I'm tending to put hopeful energy in that direction, for the sake of my children and theirs.

Thanks for these glimpses.

Adrynian said...

It frightens and saddens me to consider all of the knowledge we'll lose, even with Fellowships and such saving what they can.

There was an article in the Guardian (and CBC and elsewhere) recently about how some divers found what is essentially a commplex brass clock for the solar system from Ancient Greece. It had gears and craftsmanship that wasn't equalled again until the 18th century and scientists had previously had no idea that the Ancient Greeks were capable of that level of crafting. They think the only reason it survived without being melted down as scrap for some other purpose was because it was on a ship that sunk, and so was inaccessible.

I hate to think that we'll lose all of our knowledge and technology like that and that it will take people a few thousand years to rediscover things like radio again. It's my hope that at least some of the more simple but powerful technologies, like lens crafting for telescopes and microscopes, gear crafting for simple motors and machines (e.g. bicycles, water pumps, etc.), and perhaps even a few more complex techs like radios will survive. (By the way, from having taken a bit of engineering before switching degrees, it's my understanding that a simple radio - receiver, at least - can be constructed out of everyday household items; for example, a capacitor can be made from plastic wrap and tin foil, not that either will be in abundance for long after an industrial collapse.)

But, to put a tiny spin of realistic optimism on my otherwise seemingly fruitless hope that some of these technologies will survive, I turn to Jane Jacobs' description of the city as the engine of creativity and economy. It seems fairly clear that probably all of the super-mega-hyper-cities of today will implode just as their ancient equivalents did when food supplies became scarce. But, for example, with the Maya, several of their less intensely populated cities survived and even thrived for hundreds of years past the start of the Mayan collapse. My hope, then, is that some of the places that we now consider towns or small cities will become the incubators of future prosperity, as well as the sites of industry for some of the aforementioned technologies.

JMG, your last story focused on one of six vilages that live among the ruins of an old city. In such a place, I think it's only fitting that most old techs wouldn't survive, because as you wrote, no one could craft metal to within the necessary tolerances anymore. Not that I think people in a city necessarily could, but my point is just that there couldn't be enough specialization of labour, or a large enough pool of talent to draw from, or a large enough market to support the technologies, in a small village or group of villages. But in a small city, or a collection of a few small cities linked by trade, it is more likely that some technologies and expert craftsmanship will survive and thrive (I think).

Stephen Kerr said...

I've been following your blog, and I really like most of it, but I think you've forgotten something. What about the arts?

Right now I'm listening to an old Bix Beiderbecke recording of the Ostrich Walk. Man, that guy could really swing. I love the music of the swing era, and I can't imagine a world that would be stupid enough to forget about the tremendous legacy of recorded music that we've been lucky enough to accumulate in the 20th and 21st centuries.

If I could only power one electronic appliance in my house, it would be my stereo system, and I know there are millions out there who would say the same thing. Next would be my laptop, but without the net there wouldn't be much point, would there?

Music is one of the great ways of transmitting culture, and I think that as peak energy hits us, people will come to rely on cultural expression more and more to make sense of the world. I don't buy that the exigencies of massive political and economic crisis will prevent cultural expression. Music will be central, because it's so immediate.

I can't relate to a Mozart opera like his contemporaries could, nor can I even relate to swing like my grandparents might have, but I still love both. Both speak directly to my soul, across time, and culture, gender, race and class.

I'm sure that for future musicians, the legacy of modern and classical music will still be a powerful influence, and that somewhere in 2150 somebody with a DC power source will have the presence of mind to plug it into the last CD player, not the last refrigerator!

Maeve said...

I spent my school years singing in choir and playing in the band and I love music. I believe music is a vital, integral part of cultures. So I am very pro-music. :) I would find a world without music a very dreary place.

I do understand how precious that sound of the individual artist is. But who knows what would be around in one's community. You could be stuck with a cassette of Weird Al singing "Vanessa, pick me a letter", or someone's mp3 of American Idol auditions. I'm pretty sure I'd pick the cold drinks unless the music was good.

:)

We will always have music though. Someone will pick up a rock or a stick, if nothing else, and beat it on something else. And someone will chant or sing. And others will dance. It won't be impersonal, me and my machine. It will be community, you-all and I and the neighbor coming together in the village square to make merry. It will be having a celebration and a feast when the peddler or bard pass through town.

Gaelan said...

Thank you for a wonderful set of stories. I like how you followed a single thread, generation to generation, with the slide rule featuring in each one.

I shared these stories with my wife, and aside from being moved by them generally, she was so enchanted by the idea of cloth gift wrap that she's decided to wrap all our holiday gifts that way from now on.

While essays are a great way to say what needs saying, I think fiction brings thoughts to life in a way that readers can experience more personally. Such inspiration provokes change.

Keep up the good work!

Loveandlight said...

JMG:

So the sea-level has risen by 100 meters by this time. Bye-bye Cuba and Ireland. :-(

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

John, so many of us are so inexpressibly grateful both for this series of Solstice stories and for the fine comments it has elicited from your readers. Especially moving for some of us are your remarks on monasticism (a theme to which I return toward the end of this long post).

I'll make detailed remarks under three headings: (1) the pertinence of your example of the slide rule; (2) the fragility of high technology; (3) the current availability of opportunities for investigating monasticism.

(1) Yes, the slide rule is indeed a device worth preserving. A 0.25-metre slide rule such as we used to use in high school in the 1960s enabled calculations to three significant figures, in other words to a precision of 1 part in 1000. This is enough for most physics problems in the undergraduate syllabus. And we note from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slide_rule that one observatory in 19th-century Germany achieved a precision of six significant figures, in other words an accuracy of 1 part in 1,000,000, with a slide rule 2 metres long. It would be unusual anywhere in science or engineering to need, or indeed to be able to make physically meaningful use of, more than six significant figures in calculations.
(Recall here that even MEASURING a physical quantity to six significant figures is an unusual feat, not normally performed in the undergrad physics lab or undergrad observatory.)

(2) It is worth stressing how very fragile our technology is. I will spell out this point at length, referring to (a) computers, (b) radio, and (c) machining.

(a) Computers in their presently familiar form require either a hard drive or a large flash memory simulating a hard drive. A hard drive is like an incandescent light bulb: it is virtually certain that, being a device with moving parts, it will fail after a few years. Flash memory lacks moving parts, but cannot tolerate more than a finite number of read-write cycles, and so likewise has a finite service life. We may expect, then, that our computers will fade away as their drives conk out, unless we can keep continually renewing our hardware. With the loss of computers will go the loss of such information as is not consigned to printed paper or oral tradition.

What about CD-ROM, as a medium for preserving at least read-only records, and so doing at least a part of the work of hard drives? Well, alas, CD-ROMs degrade to the point of unreadability after some decades, thanks to the chemistry of their delicately pitted surfaces. (This sad fact has consequences not for computing alone, but also for musicology. The Bach performances of the future will have to come either from vinyl LPs or from live musicians skilled in reading and interpreting paper scores.)

A further vulnerability in our computers comes from the centralized nature of component manufacturing. I don't know how dangerously centralized hard-drive fabrication is. (The cleanroom requirements are severe, but just HOW severe?) However, I do recall on the side of RAM, as opposed to hard drives, that one fire, or earthquake, or something, temporarily stopped memory-chip fabrication in some such place as Taiwan around 1995 or 2000, and that the effects of that seemingly small disruption (perhaps involving only a single plant, or a neighbourhood of plants!) were so severe as to drive up the price of memory chips worldwide.

In addition, computers can be destroyed in military operations by electromagnetic pulse (EMP; Wikipedia has a writeup). A single high-altitude nuclear detonation over, say, the American midwest can generate an EMP sufficient to wreck computer electronics over much of the USA and Canada. The only realistic preventative measure is to "harden" one's computer by putting it into a metal box, technically a Faraday cage, with no data cables extending from inside the box to the outside world.

Now what about the Internet? Here we have a technology that could fail even before individual personal computers do, since it relies for its integrity not only on long-distance fibre but on the pairing of (i) thousands of gateways harbouring correctly updated routing tables with (ii) a cohort of about a dozen top-level Domain Name System (DNS) servers and their thousands of subordinate, sub-subordinate, or sub-sub-subordinate DNS servers. I seem to recall hearing from a relevantly informed sysadmin that all of us here in Toronto are ultimately dependent for our link to the global Internet on one single facility - in essence, on some gear in one single building - through which the totality of our Toronto TCP/IP packets, whether inbound or outbound, is ultimately routed. That's something like 4 million Toronto citizens, or say on the order of 1 million frequent Toronto computer users, all dependent on some routing hardware that must occupy a volume of just a few cubic metres!

(b) Cell phones are not a route into ham radio, since effective ham communications require frequencies in the HF part of the spectrum, not the UHF part used by cell phones. Circuit designs are different in these two wavelength regimes. With UHF, we can communicate only as far as the horizon. And indeed cell phones do not talk directly to other cell phones, but only via elaborate, expensive, relay towers, themselves internetworked to provide over-the-horizon capabilities.

But the participant in this discussion thread, Gordon (nwlorax), who raised the issue of cell phones in terms that I have herewith taken the liberty of correcting also refers usefully, pertinently, relevantly, to QRP in the world of ham radio. QRP involves Morse code, generally in the HF part of the spectrum. The underlying electronics is conceptually simpler than what we have in a cell phone and is more amenable to being put together from individual components in the home workshop. Particulars on constructing one's own QRP rig are given in David P. Rutlege's book, "The Electronics of Radio". Prof. Rutledge's project is designed to be handled by good engineering undergrads, say at 2nd- or 3rd-year level, possessing access to the usual university lab-and-tutor resources, and possessing perhaps 150 or 300 spare study hours.

With QRP Morse, one can transmit at about 20 words a minute. This is one quarter the speed of a good typist, and so gives one not the equivalent of the Internet, but the (very useful, even life-saving) equivalent of the intercity Victorian telegraph service.

I am for my part addressing Peak Oil by learning Morse, using the MFJ-418 tutor (price is approx 100 USD; allow 300 hours to attain 20-words-per-minute proficiency), as well as by participating in our local University of Toronto amateur radio club.

We have in our club radio shack a further piece of technology that might prove handy in Peak Oil scenarios, namely, a capability to transmit TCP/IP packets from radio-equipped computer to radio-equipped computer, bypassing the fragile Internet. As I briefly argue in the advanced-readers appendix to "Utopia 2184", at my site www.metascientia.com, this technology could be used to maintain a rudimentary, text-only, quasi-Internet, in the spirit of 1980s AOL, should our normal apparatus of routers and intercity fibre get damaged beyond repair.

(c) The importance of precision machining is appropriately brought out in the third of these extraordinary Solstice stories, at the point at which we learn that the schoolmaster Joe and his co-workers could not make the vacuum pump needed for fabricating incandescent lightbulbs. I'd remark here that when my own country, Estonia, was in ruins in 1945, one of the engineers in my student organization, Korporatsioon Vironia, came back home from (or was transported by the Party, the loathsome CP-USSR, back home from) Russia and immediately asked: Are there any machine tools left? He asked, in other words: Are there in these bombed-out streets any remaining lathes and drills suitable for making precision metal tools? It was when he learned that the answer was "Yes" that he decided economic recovery was possible. When we lose the ability to machine a rod to a precision of, say, 25 microns (in USA parlance, a "thou", or thousandth-of-an-inch), we have lost our ability to make good tool-making tools, and then indeed can look forward only to the limited life of the "savager" so stoutly disparaged by the big-hearted Molly in John's poignant stories.

(3) In pondering monasticism, we may wish to analyze the hardiness of some existing monastic institutions. In Estonia, they kept the Petseri monastery, which dates from around the time of Ivan the Terrible, going in the teeth of communism. In the USA, we can ponder the hopeful example of the Archabbey of St Vincent, near LaTrobe in Pennsylvania. This archabbey I know, being one of its Oblate Novices. The Archabbey has been going since around 1850, and is far enough from Pittsburgh to offer a degree of safety in even a severe and rapid social collapse. Usefully, its little college campus is set in farmland, which I suspect is still in the ownership of the monks. In Canada, we have the example of Madonna House, whose foundress was already in the 1950s preaching and promoting what we nowadays call "organic farming". (The foundress was herself a refugee of the Russian Revolution. I know at least one lady who knew her, and that lady or her immediate colleagues have kindly conveyed to me a small relic of the foundress, which I keep on my home desk.)

It is moving almost beyond words to find John linking monasticism with the survival of learning.

John, please keep writing!


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(Catholic lad in Toronto)
http://www.metascientia.com
verbum at interlog dot com

bunnygirl said...

Tom,

Thanks for your detailed explanation of some of the technologies under discussion.

I had a friend read my first peak oil novel (unpublished) which takes place about 30-40 years post-crash. She just couldn't understand why people were listening to records and CDs instead of mp3s!

The mp3 players on the market today have a frighteningly short lifespan of only a few years. Computer hard drives can crank along for longer (as long as all goes well), but after that, you need new stuff.

I've read that CDs have an estimated life of 70 years with good care, but no one really knows. Vinyl has proven staying power, but even with the best of care it warps, cracks, becomes brittle or just gets worn down.

Without precision manufacturing, people 100 years post-crash might not be familiar with recorded music.

I believe that there is no one-size-fits-all post-crash scenario. Some places will crash back to the stone age, while others will prosper and even develop new technologies. Places will change on different time schedules, and what is forgotten in one place will be cherished in another.

But many of the machines we rely upon today are so complex that keeping them running or inventing replacements for them will be a formidable challenge.

Oh, regarding communications, how about the heliograph (using mirrors to send morse code signals)? I could see it making a comeback in sunny places.

John Michael Greer said...

A fast round of comments before I get back to work on this week's post...

First, thanks all for the sea level maps -- these were exactly what I needed.

Bunnygirl and Adrynian, you both bring up points about technology that, like Gordon's, will be going into a future post. The basic concept I'd like to drop into the hopper, though, is the extent to which all our technology -- not just the stuff that actually burns oil, coal, natural gas, etc -- is dependent on having extravagant amounts of basically free energy to throw around. Many, perhaps most, of our present technologies, even if they are preserved or rediscovered, will never again be more than exotic toys because the energy per capita that made them work as part of an economy and a society will not be around in the foreseeable future. More on this later, though.

Stephen, I haven't forgotten about the arts, but I want to redefine your comment. What you're saying is that the musical dimension of our culture depends on fossil fuels just as completely as, say, transportation. We've gotten used to listening to recorded music, rather than playing it ourselves, as most people did as recently as the early 20th century. That can't be sustained. It'll be sad to lose Bix Beiderbecke recordings, and all the rest, but that can't be prevented. Sorry.

Joe and his friends in 2136 won't be able to listen to CDs, because the CDs will have broken down by then -- the plastic they're made of has a sharply limited lifespan -- and the likelihood of finding an intact, functioning CD player in 2136 won't be good anyway. Even if they do, that's a short-term fix, because they can't replace the components if the player breaks. It's the same story as the refrigerator; a salvage economy is necessarily self-limiting. This is another thing I plan on discussing in more detail in a later post.

Tom, thank you for another very detailed and useful post! I think it's quite possible that radio communication will be sustainable over the long term, on the sort of Morse-code basis you suggest; the very modest amount of energy and resources needed to make, maintain, and power a longwave radio transmitter and receiver may well put it within reach of a deindustrial society, and the benefits of long-distance communication are obvious. As for the slide rule, I figure that, the abacus, and log tables will likely be the salvation of mathematics, if anybody still remembers how to use the first and last by the time computers drop from use. (The abacus is still very much in use in Asia, so ought to be available.)

As for monasticism, this is definitely preaching to the choir -- pun not intended! Another post that's on the agenda soon is a discussion of the religious implications of peak oil. While the future history of these narratives had Christianity fading out in the deindustrial period, that's mostly a reflection of the precipitous decline already under way in American Protestantism (in 2005, for the first time in the history of the Republic, Protestant Christians were a minority in the US, down from more than 70% thirty years before).

From my outsider's perspective, if there's to be a future for Christianity on this continent, it badly needs to reclaim its old monastic heritage, and become known once again for humble, devoted men and women tending gardens in plain robes and sandals, not sprawling million-dollar megachurches whose pastors drive Mercedes. I think religion will be much more obviously relevant in a deindustrial society than it has seemed in the industrial cultures of the recent past, but again, this is something for a full-length post.

Back to work on this week's post!

Matt Cardin said...

Many thanks for this series. I've enjoyed it immensely -- and, I hope, profited from it, which in the case of narrative fiction generally amounts to the same thing. Over the past couple of years I've returned and read your posts frequently, ever since I was first alerted to your blog's existence by Energy Bulletin. You've always impressed me with your level-headedness, breadth of knowledge, depth of wisdom, and clarity of writing style. Now I'm equally impressed with your flair as a fiction writer. I do hope you pursue more of these kinds of projects in the future, if the muse so leads you.

Raymond said...

Hello, this is a good story you've written, and all the posts above are quite informative.There is a bit of a peeve I have.

Your stabilization of global sealevel at 250 feet doesn't take into effect continental rebound from both greenland or antarctica.
It's been estimated that as much as 100 feet of sea level rise in the last glacial waning was due to compressed continental plates rising back up and sloughing off water from their interiors out to sea.Much of greenland and antarctica that is submerged beneath temporary shallow seas will rebound, that extra water will have to go elsewhere as far as I know.

Your sea level estimates might well be dozens if not as much as a hundred feet lower than what actually settles in.