Most serious discussions of the predicament of industrial society these days keep their focus tightly on the near future. The Limits to Growth, the seminal 1972 study along these lines, took its computer models out to 2100 or so but put most of its attention into the first half of the current century. In much the same way, Richard Duncan’s closely reasoned papers on the Olduvai Theory – his prediction that modern industrial society will turn out to be a one-time-only pulse waveform – center on the interval between 1930 and 2030, the mathematical boundary points of the waveform. Many other writers in the field have an even tighter focus, directing their efforts toward predictions about the arrival of peak oil and its immediate aftermath.
Now of course there’s much to be said for this approach. In the far future, as some wag or other has pointed out, all of us will be dead, and that makes the near future naturally a little more interesting to us. To some extent, and especially in the face of crises of the scale we are likely to encounter in the next few decades, it’s not wholly unreasonable to take care of what’s imminent and let the distant future take care of itself. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, though, the most likely trajectory of industrial society is a process of uneven economic and technological decline, a “long descent” over several centuries leading into a deindustrial dark age and beyond. An extended trajectory of this sort makes the occasional glance at the long view worth taking. The further an archer plans on shooting, to extend a metaphor from Machiavelli, the higher he needs to aim, and the further downrange he needs to track his target.
For this reason, over the next few weeks, I plan on trying to sort out some of the primary trends likely to shape the further reaches of the future. To keep the project within manageable limits, I’ll be limiting my focus in space to North America, and in time to the next five hundred years or so – a likely time frame for the Long Descent from the industrial age, through the dark age following, to the seedtime of the sustainable cultures of the future. Any conclusions proposed will be tentative at best, since history is above all else the realm of the contingent and unforeseen, and even those factors that can be predicted in advance routinely take strange shapes under the sway of unexpected forces. Many people in the first decade of the 20th century predicted the coming of the First World War, but as far as I know nobody dreamed that it would turn a penniless exile named V.I. Lenin into the Communist dictator of Russia and topple Tsar Nicholas II from what most observers at the time thought was one of the most secure thrones in Europe.
Surprises on the same scale are doubtless lying in wait in our own future. More generally, the one thing we can be sure of about the future is that it won’t look much like the present. A hundred years ago, the United States was not the most powerful nation on Earth; a hundred years from now, in all probability, it won’t be, either. Two hundred years ago, much of what now counts as American territory belonged to other nations; two hundred years from now, it’s entirely possible that the same thing will be true. The sweeping cultural transformations that turned a dowdy frontier society into a brash imperial power will most likely have their equivalents in our future as well.
At least five major factors, it seems to me, can be counted on to play a role in these transformations. The first is depopulation. We are so used to worrying about the population explosion that the possibility of its opposite has rarely entered into serious discussions of the future. Yet the population bubble of the last few centuries is just as much a product of the extravagant exploitation of fossil fuels during the same period as the industrial age itself. Without the massive changes in agriculture, trade, and public health set in motion by the needs of a fossil fuel-powered industrial society, the relatively modest surge in human numbers in the 19th century would have reversed itself in the normal way. (In point of fact, it nearly did so anyway; at the dawn of the 20th century, bubonic plague once again surged out of central Asia, and only massive efforts by the major colonial powers of the age prevented a third plague pandemic from sweeping the globe.)
We are already seeing a preview of the future in Russia and several other fragments of the former Soviet Union, where crude death rates have risen to nearly double rates of live birth, a trajectory that will cut population figures in half by 2050 or so. Similar population contractions can be traced in the declining phase of many past civilizations – the depopulation of large sections of the western Roman Empire is well attested by contemporary sources, for example. As the industrial age unwinds, similar patterns will likely unfold in North America; for that matter, whole regions of the American West are depopulating right now through outmigration, and archeologists of the future are likely to trace the beginning of ancient America’s decline and fall back to the failure of settlement on the western plains in whatever the late 20th century works out to in some future calendar.
Depopulation moves at different paces in different cultures and regions, though, and one of the classic results of this differential is migration. When civilizations collapse, one of the most notable consequences is a massive relocation of peoples and cultures. Before the fall of the Roman Empire, for example, the ancestors of today’s English lived in Denmark, the ancestors of today’s Hungarians lived in central Asia, and many of the ancestors of today’s Spaniards lived north of the Black Sea. Today, as tidal streams of economic and political refugees press at borders worldwide, the only thing preventing equally drastic migrations is the fraying fabric of national sovereignty, backed by military forces totally dependent on fossil fuels. As the industrial age enters its twilight, the likelihood that those bulwarks will hold is vanishingly small, and when they give way, movements of peoples on an epic scale are likely to result.
Just now, the pressures that get news coverage involve people from outside the industrial world trying to get into it – Mexicans entering the United States, Arabs and Turks entering Europe, and so forth. As the industrial age comes to its close, though, other dynamics are likely to come into play. Consider the situation of Japan. Close to 150 million people live on a crowded skein of islands with little arable land and no fossil fuels at all, supported by trade links made possible only by abundant energy resources elsewhere. As fossil fuel production peaks and begins its inevitable contraction, industrial agriculture and food imports both will become increasingly problematic, and over the long term the Japanese population will be forced to contract to something like the small fraction of today’s figures the Japanese islands supported in the past. Mass migration is nearly the only viable option for the rest of the population, Japan’s ample supply of ships and fishing boats provide the means, and possible destinations beckon all around the Pacific basin.
All this assumes the collapse of current political arrangements over at least some of the world, but this is a good bet. A third factor that needs to be taken into account, then, is political disintegration. When civilizations fall, their political systems rarely remain intact, and when they do it’s usually as a shell of titles and formalities covering drastically different political realities. The shell can exert a potent influence of its own – in western Europe after the fall of Rome, just as in China after the collapse of the Han dynasty, the title of “emperor” retained immense power even when nobody existed who could plausibly claim it, and the gravitational attraction of the old imperial state in both cases helped drive efforts toward political unification many centuries later. Along the same lines, warlords of the future may well lay claim the title of President of the United States, centuries after the office and the national polity it once served exist nowhere outside of the realm of legend and chronicle.
A fourth factor, parallel to the third, is cultural drift. Right now the manufacture and mass marketing of popular culture maintains a thin shell of cultural similarity across large parts of English-speaking North America, but even that is under strain as regional, religious, and ideological subcultures take advantage of the decentralizing power of today’s communications technology and move more and more boldly in their own directions. While the end of the industrial age will bring down the Internet, it will also play taps for the mechanisms of mass communication and manufacture that make popular culture, in the modern sense of the word, possible at all. In the bubbling cauldron of deindustrial North America, many of today’s new cultural initiatives will fuse with older traditions and brand-new movements in ways we can’t even begin to imagine today. The disintegration of political unity and the end of reliable long-distance travel, two very likely effects of the Long Descent, make the emergence of new local and regional cultures all but certain.
Finally, ecological change is the wild card in the deck. Natural systems form the bedrock foundation of all human societies, and the sweeping impacts of industrial civilization’s brief heyday and collapse promise to set ecosystems spinning into radically new forms over much of the globe. Climate change is only one aspect of this picture, though its importance needs not to be understated. Major climate shifts have affected North America powerfully in the geological and historical past, and in the latter case have played a crucial role in the rise and collapse of entire civilizations. Ecosystems are complex enough, and change over such varied timescales, that many of the effects of industrial civilization’s rise and fall may unfold over many more centuries than I intend to survey, but some possible changes can certainly be guessed at.
These five factors are the palette of colors I plan on using in an attempt to sketch out where we may be headed in the aftermath of the industrial age over the next few weeks. Many other factors will doubtless play important roles as well, including some that can’t possibly be anticipated here and now. Still, if an attempt to glimpse the shape of the coming deindustrial age can help guide us toward constructive action in the present, it’s worth a shot.