Thursday, October 04, 2007

Toward An Ecotechnic Society

One of the consequences of taking ecological models seriously, in trying to understand the predicament of industrial society, is that many of the common assumptions of contemporary culture stand in need of being stood on their heads. Plenty of people aware of the peak oil issue nowadays, for example, think of it in terms of finding some new energy source so that we can maintain industrial society in something like its current form. From an ecological standpoint, this approach nearly defines the term “counterproductive,” because it’s precisely the current form of industrial society that makes our predicament inescapable.

As it exists today, the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate. Thus resource exhaustion and pollution problems aren’t accidental outcomes of industrialism, they’re hardwired into the industrial system: the faster resources turn into pollution, the more the industrial economy prospers, and vice versa. That forms the heart of our predicament. Peak oil is simply one symptom of a wider crisis – the radical unsustainability of a system that has evolved to maximize resource consumption on a finite planet – and trying to respond to it without dealing with the larger picture simply guarantees that other symptoms will surface elsewhere and take its place.

For most of a century now, people who have grasped this predicament have proposed that our civilization needs to make a transition toward sustainability. In the 1970s, in particular, quite a range of proposals for making the transition were floated, and even today a new one surfaces in print every year or so. Many of them are well conceived and would probably work tolerably well, and even the worst would probably turn out better than the present policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss. Not one of them, even in the midst of the 1970s energy crises, received more than a moment’s consideration, either from the power centers in government and business that make most of the routine decisions in modern societies, or from the mass of the population whose opinions form the court of last appeal.

There are plenty of ways to understand this failure, but the ecological perspectives covered in last week’s post offer a perspective that as far as I know has rarely been brought to bear on the problem. If the transition between different human social systems can be seen as a form of succession, with one society replacing another the way that one seral stage supplants another in nature, then it may be worth suggesting that social change might follow a timetable of its own making. In the succession process in an eastern woodland biome, for example, grasses replace weeds, shrubs replace grasses, and trees replace shrubs in a sequence whose order and time frame can to some extent be predicted in advance.

The reasons behind this predictability are not irrelevant to our present situation. The bare earth of a vacant lot in Ohio, say, is a suitable environment for weeds; it isn’t a suitable environment for the hardwood trees, understory plants, and other living things that make up the climax community of an eastern woodland. Pioneer weeds, which have evolved to thrive on disturbed soil, thus spring up fast and cover the ground in a few seasons. In the process, though, they change the environment and make it suitable, not for more pioneer weeds, but for grasses and other plants, and these proceed to outcompete the weeds and occupy the vacant lot in their place.

The same process then repeats itself, as the grasses and plants of the second sere change the environment of the vacant lot and make it better suited to a different sere than it is to their own descendants. The process continues, gradually slowing down, until it finally reaches a climax community – a sere that maintains an environment suitable for the offspring of its own member organisms. At this point sustainability has been achieved; the climax community still changes over time with shifts in climate and the arrival of new species from elsewhere, and it can also be knocked back down to bare earth by a fire or some other disaster, but it can retain the same recognizable form over thousands of years or more. The quest for a sustainable society, in other words, parallels the movement of ecosystems in the direction of a climax community, and neither process can be accomplished in a single transition.

This is supported by a clear example from human history. The invention of agriculture in the Old World took place following the end of the last ice age around 11,000 years ago, when drastic climate change disrupted stable ecosystems around the world and forced human cultures to find new ways to support themselves. In the Middle East, fertile grasslands turned into desert as winter rains that had fallen reliably for millennia stopped, and people turned to grain cultivation in river valleys and livestock raising on the surrounding hills as the only alternative to starvation. The same process took place somewhat later in Mexico, the heartland of New World agriculture, as a parallel set of climate shifts caused desertification there as well.

The new ecology of farming proved highly successful and spread rapidly, but it was still highly inefficient, relying on natural soil fertility. It took thousands of years and a series of catastrophic crashes to evolve into a truly sustainable system, and some of the final steps in that direction did not take place until the birth of organic agriculture in the 20th century. Still, it’s important to realize that it did become sustainable, and has been sustainable in some ecosystems for centuries. The immense sustainability of East Asian rice culture was documented long ago by F.H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries; not many people realize, however, that Syria – where grain farming was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere on earth – is still a major wheat exporter today.

The birth of industrialism a few hundred years ago, I suggest, represents the parallel emergence of another new human ecology. Like agriculture in the early part of its historical trajectory, this new ecology in its present form is hugely inefficient, wasting energy and resources at unsustainable rates. Like agriculture, in turn, its development will likely be punctuated by catastrophic crashes, of which the first promises to arrive on schedule in the next few decades. It’s possible that one of these crashes will spell the end of the entire project – not all new ecological ventures bear fruit, after all – but it’s also possible that less wasteful expressions of the same basic ecology may eventually find their way to sustainability in a new model of human community that relies on those elements of high technology that can be produced, powered, and maintained over the long term using renewable resources.

It seems worth proposing that from the standpoint of the far future, industrialism may prove to be only one early and inefficient form of what might be called the technic society. Like other modes of human ecology, the technic society might best be defined by the energy sources that power it. A hunter-gatherer society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from the natural ecosystem, and supplemented with very small amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and the like. An agricultural society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from an artificial ecosystem created and maintained by human effort, and supplemented with modest amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and other fuels, along with small amounts of wind, hydropower, and sunlight.

A technic society, in turn, relies primarily on nonfood energy from renewable or nonrenewable sources, supplemented by food that is produced partly or wholly using nonfood energy. Modern industrial civilization is simply a technic society that relies on nonrenewable energy resources for its power, and maximizes production of goods and services at the cost of vast inefficiency. At the other end of the spectrum is a mode of technic society that might usefully be called an ecotechnic society, which relies on renewable energy resources, and maximizes the efficiency of its energy and resource use at the cost of far more restricted access to goods and services.

In the twilight of the industrial age, the concept of an ecotechnic society may seem appealing, and not just to those who recognize the depth of humanity’s dependence on the Earth’s biosphere. Still, we’re not there yet, and if the succession model is anything to go by, trying to leap directly from the rank weeds of industrial society to the verdant forest of an ecotechnic civilization simply won’t work. Even outside the succession model, we have only the vaguest idea of what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, and history suggests that a long process of evolution by trial and error will be needed to get the bugs out and develop a form of technic civilization that can actually sustain itself for the long term.

The approaching breakdown of modern industrial society impacts this process, of course, but not in the way so often proposed by the current crop of secular apocalyptic faiths. Those people who expect the end of the industrial age to usher in their preferred version of Utopia, I am convinced, are in for a massive disappointment. Radical social ventures tend to flourish in the expanding phase of a culture’s history, when abundant resources allow room for experimentation; in the harsher realities of an age of decline and contraction, that freedom simply doesn’t exist. In the decades and centuries ahead of us, when most people will have to struggle for survival and many will lose the fight, dreams of building an ideal society will have to take a back seat to more immediate needs.

In an important way, though, this is simply a restatement of points already made. If human societies replace one another by way of something akin to ecological succession, the societies that rise among the ruins of industrial civilization will be those best suited to the environment created by their predecessors. They may still be a fair distance from sustainability, but odds are that they will have moved significantly in that direction, if only because the opportunities for extravagant resource use will be sharply reduced by the exhaustion of so many resources. What forms those societies are likely to take will be the subject of next week’s post.

22 comments:

Stephen Heyer said...

John Greer: “…if the succession model is anything to go by, trying to leap directly from the rank weeds of industrial society to the verdant forest of an ecotechnic civilization simply won’t work.”

I fear, no, despair, that John is right here, though for different reasons than he thinks. I think it is human nature, and particularly the seduction of the mass of people in Western Societies over the past three or so decades into the current “hysteria of greed” model that will prevent any bold and relatively painless leaps into more sustainable models.

Note I said more sustainable, not totally sustainable: That would be too much on an ask yet.

It is possible to leap straight from weed to hardwood forest: My lady and I are doing that right now with some success as we rehabilitate her little property. Mind you, it does take a lot of work and above all, a lot of knowledge and experiment and some idea of where you want to go.

And of course, the other oh so 70s, non-PC elephant in the living room is population and reduction in surplus wealth (excessive personal wasting of resources). It just may be possible to do something about the latter, but we’ve let population get away from us since the 70s, perhaps because urban professionals, by they neocon or liberal, just love the idea of lots of poor folk, preferably illegal immigrants, to provide cheap lawn care and childcare.

There is no way this planet can sustainably support 6.5 or so billion people at a reasonable standard of living, even in the short term.

Hayduke said...

Human societies do not "replace one another by way of something akin to ecological succession." Human societies are not subject to the same selective pressures that drive biological evolution. Human societies arise, and change, through human thought and action. Human societies "rise" and "fall" for far different reasons than sustainability and fitness.

Furthermore, "societies that rise among the ruins of industrial civilization" are not necessarily "those best suited to the environment created by their predecessors." A case in point is the Roman Empire.

As Roman influence waned in Great Britain, as a result of over eager expansion beyond Rome's ability to support economically, the societies that "rose" in it's absence, were those local societies that had endured throughout the reign of the Roman interlopers; in other words, the local societies that had already developed lifeways in harmony with local conditions. The Romans did nothing to create a new environment, they attempted to ignore the environment into which they had moved, unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

The only human society that can long endure is that human society that lives within natural biological and geophysical limitations of reuse use and waste production. Industrial society, by definition, does not respect these limitations, therefore, industrial society is dead and doesn't yet know it.

A "technic" society, whatever that is, can only be sustainable if it does not use resources faster than they are replenished naturally and does not produce waste faster than it can be dispersed naturally. There are no other criteria.

Jim said...

In terms of "succession", a useful resource is _Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition_ edited by Jantsch and Waddington.

As you pointed out last week, even forests don't really have a set of possible patterns laid out in a neat total order. The space of possible dynamic patterns is much more complex - tree-like at the very least, i.e. from a simpler pattern there are often many possible patterns into which the ecological system might evolve.

The language of dynamic systems, e.g. chaos theory etc., provides a rich vocabulary and ways of thinking about systems behaviors. The Jantsch and Waddington volume provides some nice starting points for how to apply this way of thinking to human systems.

Your idea of "ecotechnic" is interesting. It does seem likely that we won't return to the past. But, like any system, most of the time we will be constrained to behave in sustainable patterns. So what will we retain from the present industrial age?

The paradigm technology is the steam engine. Mechanical power came from people or animals or water or wind. None of which allowed a real concentration of power. So maybe we can look at how mechanical power is generated & use that as the key potential marker for whether a society is "technic".

Probably grinding grain is the root application of mechanical power. Or pumping water. But steam engines pumped water out of coal mines. Irrigation and drinking water can generally be gravity driven, if they're sustainable.

So the question becomes - under what circumstances is it efficient or sustainable to use some kind of combustion engine to grind grain. Or maybe it will be solar panels and electric motors?

Another great visionary resource is Kurosawa's film "Dreams". The final segment, "Village of Waterwheels", something like that anyway, was, I think, an attempt to dream what an ecotechnic society might look like. Post-apocalyptic, anyway.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, I have my doubts about anybody's claim to be making a leap to sustainability on the basis of a little piece of real estate in the country. The implosion of the Sixties commune movement showed, among other things, that sustainability is a much more complex thing than it looks. As for the population issue, of course you're right, and I've addressed that before -- we face a long and difficult period of population contraction as the deindustrial age unfolds.

Hayduke, yes, I'm familiar with the Victorian ideology that claims that human societies aren't subject to natural processes. I find it completely implausible. Human beings are living organisms and are subject to the same ecological principles as the rest of nature.

Human thought and action are simply the way those principles work out in practice. As an example, I'd point out the essentially mindless way the governments and people of the industrial world are stumbling blindly toward catastrophe, following a curve of overshoot and collapse indistinguishable from those of other living things.

That being said, I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about the potential sustainability of a technic society; if you'd paid a bit more attention to the post, you'd have noticed that the criteria you list are included in my comments about a future ecotechnic society.

Jim, nah, it was Bill who brought up the complexity of succession processes. Most of that complexity is in the small scale; the larger the scale of your analysis, the more each area in succession starts to resemble equivalent areas in its bioregion. I'm working on a very large scale here.

The question of what will be the paradigmatic technology of a future ecotechnic society is a good one, and almost impossible to answer with any kind of certainty. It could be any number of things, though if I had to plump for one, it'd probably be some form of solar heat engine -- I've long been impressed by the 19th century French solar steam engines, a sturdy, simple technology capable of generating quite a bit of power on zero fuel input.

BTW, I'll be out of reach of a computer this weekend, so comments may not appear until Monday. Thank you for your patience!

Andrew said...

Sadly, resource scarcity in human societies often appears to result in resource-costly conflict as groups compete violently for a bigger slice of the diminishing pie. A result can be a much diminished "ecological wasteland" unsuitable for any significant successor culture. A human capacity for destructive competition may limit the usefulness of the ecological model when applied to human societies presented with scarcity.

Jean-Michel said...

Hi to my friend yooper.

JMG, thanks for having written this post which summarizes the main thrusts of your approach. Almost everything is in there. (En passant, I have never said that I knew what the Spirit was about to do. You would be right to be sceptical. I said he was about to do something unexpected. Which means that the future is written nowhere. Good example of your sometimes dubious dialectical techniques. See http://www.energybulletin.net/35355.html)
about the holiness of Stuart Staniford)


I would like to jump on the argument about the role of ideas and thoughts in civilization changes. It is perfectly true that these are ecological products of some sorts, but it is in no way opposed to the fact that they play a crucial role.

Our ideas and thoughts are originally designed to insure survival.

But there is a little problem here: are they designed to insure survival of only those having these thoughts or are they designed to insure the survival of the specie to which those "thinkers" belong?

We are here at the core of philosophy: the difference between thinking and ideology. Sometimes they intersect, sometimes they are radically different.

This is the standard agency problem. Instead of looking for the True, the Good and the Beautiful, politicians insure there immediate survival.

Today, what we need is a type of thinking that insures survival of the specie. We do not have it yet. We mainly have ideologies insuring survival of managers, workers or investors or priests.

How comes that we are so stuck into thoughts and ideas so removed from our survival as a specie?


JMG, let us play a little game here. Honestly, in your post, what are the ideas that insure survival of the specie and what are the ideas that insure the survival of John Michael Greer? Or both at the same time, which would be fantastic!

It is just another way to return to the problem of methodologies.

The main "quality" of ideas designed to insure the survival of the thinker are their inconsistency (let me tell you I am not in a special category immune to that problem).

There is one in your thinking that has been puzzling me for a while. The idea of progress. For you it is a kind of myth. Industrial society is false progress and so on... It is fair to argue about it. But, we cannot reject all of modernity and post-modernity thinking, even if it is based on using oil at an unsustainable rate. So in some sense, we have made progress. And, you acknowledge that, when you look upon Ghost Dancing.

Your methodology based on history, implies that we learn and there that we make progress. This is a typical modern and post-modern methodology, at least in its critical implementation.

I suspect that this idea of "myth of progress " is designed to insure JMG survival as an archdruid.

Another example: if we prove we have run away global warming (read mark Lynas book) your case collapses completely. There are no more decades and century before us where we can adapt through trials and errors to sustainability. You will be be among the very last ones to admit that truth, if it is indeed true at some point.

But of course, to be fair, and that is why I read you, you have plenty more ideas designed to insure effectively mankind survival, when you say for instance, "we are sleep walking toward the abyss", to give just one example (certainly not the most important) or when you address religious issues. When you question "standard rationnality" as a vector for change, you are very relevant.


JMG, I am not a stalker. You challenge your readers. I respond to the challenge.

This is what you want, right? You are not a guru, aren't you?

Iaato said...

I really appreciate your use of the ecological succession model last week and this week as a basis for predicting our future in an era of serious resource transition. I also use succession as a mental model as to what I need to strive for in building a sustainable society.

I think in these terms because the ecologist Odum built his entire construction of a model for the future based on this premise of successful succession and decession:

http://www.unicamp.br/fea/ortega/
htodum/prosperous.htm

At the link above, he has left a roadmap for successful decession. One concept is that of population reduction; mature communities contain larger more permanent individuals, but a smaller population overall. Another concept is lower intensity agriculture with slower rotations and increased recycling of materials which is prevalent in mature communities. Another concept is an economy that changes from growth capitalism, which is a successional concept, to either descent capitalism or some other non-capitalistic form which is even more adaptive to a mature climax community. Finally, he addresses structure; weedy temporary structures need to be replaced with longer-lasting, durable structures within stable connected networks of mass transit.

This will certainly happen within a framework of dieoff; the weeds in the fields are transient temporary entities that are replaced by bushes and then trees. The challenge is to examine that ecological interface between weeds and trees to look for clues to our successful transition.

Dwig said...

One point about succession that John's mentioned tangentially: the transition between one sere and the next isn't a sharp one, but takes place over time -- during the transition, members of both seres will be seen. Applying this to the current situation, it's likely that the early stages of the next sere are already among us. (Of course, we don't/can't know in advance which of all the various "other arrangements" being made will become part of the next sere.)

Another likely aspect of ecotechnic society: longer perceptual/conceptual time frames, associated with the fact that most processes will be slower than now (travel, communication, the gathering and concentration of energy, etc.). The upside to this would be a clearer sense of "deep time" to go along with the greater scale of spatial and systemic awareness. (Stewart Brand and friends propose the idea of a "long now", with a span of 20 millenia centered around the present.)

This is part of a general metanoia that will be required if the successive seres are to follow a path different than that predicted by Duncan and others, back to the "Olduvai" stage. Part of the baggage that we'll carry into the next sere is the same kind of thinking that got us into the current crisis. If Eric Hoffer is right, the selectional pressures on the successive seres should favor those who can break out of old ways of thinking, and can "learn in real time". For this reason, I'm spending some free energy following the progress of the ideas being investigated and proposed by the Society for Organizational Learning.

Hypothesis: the "units" of the seres to come won't be individual humans, but "organizations" of different types and sizes, from extended families to regional holons. I doubt the survivability of individuals or even small families that are isolated (geographically, ideologically, etc.) This is why I'm a bit bothered when commenters on The Oil Drum (among others) talk about retreating to individual farms and "living off the land" in largely traditional ways.

FARfetched said...

JMG, I think you might not have gone far enough. After reading this morning and thinking about it through the day, I suspect that an ecotechnic society may be the only sustainable result that doesn't involve institutionalized barbarism. You touched on the long-term sustainability of the East Asian rice culture and the Syrian "bread basket," but those societies are only sustainable because wars and occasional famines regulated the population. (Not to mention lovely practices like infanticide.)

The only way to limit the supply of humans is to limit the birth rate… and the only practical means to that end is birth control. (Abstinence has been promoted for millennia, often by people who had no interest in controlling their own urges, and it doesn't work. Let's accept that fact and move on.) Effective contraceptives fall into three categories: barrier (condoms), surgical (vasectomy, ligation), or biochemical (The Pill). Each requires a certain level of technology to produce or perform.

A sustainable ecotechnic population is not, as I see it, defined by a line that represents a maximum population level, but rather by a band bounded by both a maximum and a minimum population. A population that falls too far risks a breakdown in the division of labor, which allows people to specialize and even extend knowledge — leading to essentials being forgotten (including, for obvious reasons, the need and means for population control).

I'm looking forward to seeing your thoughts about "transition societies" as well....

Bill said...

John
I would like to make a contribution to this conversation. I think that there is a possibility that a transformation towards a non-consumptive human ecology might be possible. I am old enough to have experienced the effects of the Great Depression on the human psyche. My parents became adults during the '30s. Their attitudes regarding consumption were forever shaped by their living through the depression. I still cannot comfortably buy things in the modern, "big box" style because of having been raised in this atmosphere.

My father was not easily able to spend money. Even when he was a successful manager in industry, he preferred to rent and to minimize his accumulation of "stuff." He lived the philosophy of sustainability without even knowing it. When he purchased something he expected it to last forever, and he maintained and repaired everything towards that end. He bought quality and as more and more throw-away products began to appear he showed his disgust for that whole concept.

My father died in 1975 at a rather young age and by that time even he was beginning to get sucked in by the pressure of our powerful consumer economy. But his outlook was permanently molded by the depression and if there is another economic event like this, and particularly if it is a long and drawn out affair like Kunstler predicts, I believe people will adjust their ambitions and if it is encouraged will adapt to a low consumption life.

Mark K said...

I have to respond to the statement "the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate" since information is also a product and this is discounted. Many physicist including John Wheeler and David Bohm believe that information is the most fundamental entity in the universe, not matter and energy. It is possible that what we see as consumptive is actually fulfilling a need that is attractive to the rest of the cosmos. I am a civ skeptic but find I can not ignore this factor that may be driving the entire experiment.

Stephen Heyer said...

John Greer: “Stephen, I have my doubts about anybody's claim to be making a leap to sustainability on the basis of a little piece of real estate in the country.”

Sorry for the confusion John. I wasn’t talking figuratively.

I really meant we were planting trees where before there had only been weeds or bare dirt. With some success I might say: Along the creek there is now a fine stand of trees mainly of the species that were there 150 years ago and the more recently planted little rainforest patch is maturing nicely.

We are presently furiously planting the belts of shelter trees that will protect and shade the gardens and paddocks from the savage Central Queensland summer sun.

As for sustainability, well, I though it was clear from what I wrote before that I think sustainability required a somewhat larger minimum size.

In fact, I say it would require:

1. A regional city of about 40,000 to 120,000 with a good number of engineering shops, a university and a cultural scene: That’s Rockhampton.

2. A good, reliable water supply: The Fitzroy River.

3. A fair distance to the nearest very large city so as to reduce competition for resources and security problems: About 700 km.

4. Some smaller towns: Yeppoon, Emu Park, Mt Morgan.

5. Good access to the sea: Yes.

6. A good rail network: Very good in places, not so in others. Still, we’ve had a LOT of practice laying rail for all the new coal mines, no doubt we can fill in the blank spots pretty smartly once oil goes past $300 a barrel.

7. A good agricultural hinterland: Well… this is the dry tropics which are much less productive than, say, the Cool Temperate zones, still we have vast amounts of land and relatively few people and West of us is one of the world’s great grain areas, ditto for cattle and also coal.

8. Access to a power source and other minerals: More good quality coal then even the Chinese could eat, let alone us. Also, some rather good deposits of metals.

9. Something to trade: See above.

I really, really hope it never comes to it, and think there is a reasonable chance it won’t in Australia, but if the worst came to the worst all this region lacks to make it through is community solidarity, clear thinking and organization. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, about ALL the current politicians at all 3 levels of government and all our current “opinion makers” are part of the problem: They would all have to be replaced before anything useful could be achieved.

On the bright side, we have some very good people in some rather good community organizations, so capable, clear thinking, flexible alternatives should be available.

Robin said...

Today, what we need is a type of thinking that insures survival of the specie,

http://ie.thefreedictionary.com/specie

If we want the specie to survive, we must revert from Johnson slugs to silver and gold.

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, outside of the marginal environments Jared Diamond used as the basis of his arguments in Collapse, the ecological damage caused by human subsistence collapse during the fall of a civilization tends to be self-limiting, because the fall of a civilization and the resulting depopulation sharply decrease the ability of the human population to place burdens on the ecosystem, and nature steps in. After the Roman Empire fell, large sections of western Europe that had been settled turned back into dense forest; I expect that process to go into overdrive in the declining curve of our civilization, since our ability to damage nature is so dependent on our fossil-fueled technology.

Jean-Michel, for someone who claims to be uninterested in arguments, you're certainly pursuing this one with alacrity. In insisting that history doesn't matter this time, of course, you're very much in the majority; almost everyone -- the believers in progress who think that exponential curves can go on forever, those like you who insist on the imminence of a catastrophe to end all catastrophes, with or without divine intervention to bail us out of it, and the rest of them -- all claim that history can't be used to judge their claims.

Such thinking is very popular these days. The people who bet their financial survival on the now-deflating real estate bubble insisted with equal heat that this time it was different. As the bubble demonstrated, though, it's precisely when nearly everyone insists that history doesn't apply to them that attention to history is most important.

As for your nicely handled bit of ad hominem innuendo, if I wanted to make money or attract followers to the Druid order I head, I'd be out there telling people what they want to hear -- claiming that Gaia will bail us out from the consequences of our own bad decisions, say, or that some supercatastrophe will take us out so we won't have to experience the world we're making for ourselves. Our age desperately wants to believe in any future except the one ahead of us, and those who dispute that belief can expect to find few listeners. Still, I'm going to call it as I see it, because it's the people who take action in their own lives now -- rather than insisting that the catastrophe ahead of us is too vast to do anything about, and that some supernatural agency will take care of it for them -- who are most likely to leave something of value for the future of our species.

Finally, if I were a guru, your posts would not get through moderation. A grand total of two people have been banned from commenting here, and they had to work hard to receive that dubious honor. It may be worth pointing out, though, that you've already made your point on this subject, and flogging a dead horse won't make it gallop any faster.

Iaato, all good points. For reasons I've discussed at length in earlier posts, I don't see a lot of hope for deliberate large-scale efforts to manage decline, but Odum's ideas would be well worth studying by individuals and local communities who are trying to figure out what to do.

Dwig, very good. The basic unit of human social evolution is the community, not the individual, and it will be communities of various sorts that respond, or fail to respond, to the crisis of industrial society. I'm no more impressed with the survivalist fantasy than you are -- hiding out in a cabin in the woods until the rubble stops bouncing is daydream fodder, not a functional plan.

Farfetched, I'm less optimistic than you are; I expect there to be quite a bit of barbarism, institutionalized and otherwise, in the centuries to come. Nor do I think it's possible to achieve an ecotechnic society in the short term. That's for the future; the important thing is to manage the transition just ahead of us in a way that doesn't sacrifice everything gained in the last three centuries or so.

Bill, my grandfather was also a survivor of the Depression, but came through it with a passionate desire for the things he'd had to do without in his young adulthood. He managed to do just that, and he and my grandmother spent the last couple of decades of their lives in a sun belt retiree community with all the bells and whistles. I think it's quite possible that a significant part of the population will draw useful lessons from the approaching economic contraction, but there'll also be those for whom it's simply a motivation driving attempts to regain the prosperity of the Age of Excess.

Mark, I'd encourage you to have a look at Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information for a contrary view. Industrial society, like any dissipative system, produces complexity, and that can be seen as information in an abstract mathematical sense. Whether or not it's attractive to the rest of the cosmos, though, has no particular relevance to our fate; flowers are attractive, too, but that doesn't keep the petals from falling off as the seasons change.

Stephen, thanks for the clarification. What you're doing on that little patch of land is exactly what I've been talking about -- not a sudden leap to sustainability, but the first crucial steps in a slow transition that could bring us there. How's your water supply, BTW? I've been hearing a lot about severe droughts on your end of the planet.

Robin, the use of precious metal currency didn't keep Rome or Babylon from falling, and the use of paper currency didn't keep traditional China from being one of the longest-lived civilizations in human history. I rest my case.

Dwig said...

Stephen writes: I really meant we were planting trees where before there had only been weeds or bare dirt. With some success I might say: Along the creek there is now a fine stand of trees mainly of the species that were there 150 years ago and the more recently planted little rainforest patch is maturing nicely.

This reminds me of what they've done at Las Gaviotas in Colombia, where they also started with a barren plot of land. (The link is to an Australian site, which I thought you might appreciate; web search for "las gaviotas" colombia for more info.) Sounds like you're on the right track.

An interesting point about this: you are, in effect, at least somewhat changing the order of natural succession, through "a lot of work and above all, a lot of knowledge and experiment and some idea of where you want to go". This illustrates one way in which the coming "human succession" may diverge from the natural; if the human seres manage themselves, and their transitions from one to the next, with a similar mix of work, knowledge, experiment, and ideas, it could turn out dramatically better than the often assumed disastrous descent (still far from any paradise, though).

John: ...the important thing is to manage the transition just ahead of us in a way that doesn't sacrifice everything gained in the last three centuries or so. That's uppermost in my mind as well; for all the damage we've caused, we've also gained some important nuggets of knowledge, and perhaps even wisdom. One highly important activity of the next sere will (or at least should) be to instantiate systems that will preserve what's worth preserving, both for the immediate transitions and for the longer term. (Being a software type, I'm thinking about efforts toward creating a sustainable global communications network, and building prototypes of sustainable computers.)

On a down note: ...the ecological damage caused by human subsistence collapse during the fall of a civilization tends to be self-limiting, because the fall of a civilization and the resulting depopulation sharply decrease the ability of the human population to place burdens on the ecosystem, and nature steps in. I don't believe any previous civilizations have had the ability to "prime the pump" on ecological damage like we have. Even if we have a precipitous energy descent down Mt. Hubbert, it seems that there's enough built-up momentum in the global warming system to keep it going for maybe a century or so in the worst-case scenario. This is "the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons" with a real vengeance!

Jonathan said...

The ecotechnic society, and the longterm survival of small village communities in a sustainable life-style is an ecological myth.

History shows that small villages eventually fall into a feudal order, and that feudal orders gives birth to states. It has happened everywhere on earth where "history had enough time to unfold" : Andes, Mexico, Europe, Middle East, North Africa, China, Japan, Sub-saharian Africa, and even New-Zealand and some Pacific Archipelagos were finally unified into single States. All mostly through the process of wars of conquest.

A village that doesn't support any military power is bound to be destroyed or swallowed by an armed neighbour. In order to end-up with sustainable societies on a global scale, sustainable societies have to win the fight and overcome other societies...

But this requires a certain amount of military superiority. And military superiority is often achieved at the expanse of ressources. That's what allowed Europe to have an early conquest of the rest of the world, and what make it a weak area now : Europe depleted its ressource first, achieving high military and expansion power, and has been on the curve of deindustrialization for 30 years now.

Some country (like France) make the mistake they can regain industrial growth through political impulse. But the fact is that industrial growth is only temporarily regained by reducing its own standards of life (like in Germany), to compete with rising industrial nations (China, India). The "growth" in those countries in Europe is merely a reflection of inflation : virtual growth, what you call "bubble".

You can dream that an ecological will be the only survivor in the long term, because it's the only one that doesn't destroy the environment. But this is assuming all societies collapse through environmental degradation (self-destruction). And this is obviously false. Single entities disappear because of environmental destruction, like Easter Isle or Mayans, who had no neighbours (at least no significantly competitive ones). But among groups of states, survival in the long term is a much more complex problem, were environment destruction can actually be a short-term advantage : power at the expanse of ressource.

So, what's the point ? You can dream that sustainable ecotechnic will rise. Yes, it already did happen. Small villages were in equilibrium with their local environment. Tropical forest tribes, too. Australian Aborigines adapted to very scarce ressources to survive on the long term (after having exterminated all big marsupian mammals). Now, small villages or families are trying to live in a "sustainable" way : on ressources they manage and hope will stay roughly stable in the long term.

The truth is, at the first drought or flood, those villages will die out. What made the success of States over small chiefdoms, and of small chiefdoms over tribes, was the ability to compensate local problems by large scale repartition.

To be sustainable, the environment must be managed on a large scale by a state, as much as it has to be a cultural trait of individuals in the society.

Individual villages tend to grow, at least in term of population. This kept early urban society alive during the great plagues until the 20th century. Now, population growth is a problem. And it can't be solved through policy (be it sterilization or funds/taxes). It must be a cultural trait in order to become effective.

And as much as important, the State must have a dissuasive military power. Dissuading other States to invade is as important as having all those ecological cultural straits, in order to survive.

The very long-term hope is that a global institution like UNO will arise, but with "peace and sustainability" as its primary goals, not "peace and growth".

Jean-Michel said...

Sorry JMG, I did not mean to discredit you. The end of my comment was a little bit too provocative.

But I feel you are still in the old matrix.

Your ideas are very much instrumental in your sense of personnal identity. They are more than just tools.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, you're right that previous civilizations haven't been able to push ecological change as far as ours have. Equally, though, our ability to do so will drop off very quickly as our fossil fuel reserves dwindle. That won't stop global warming -- but then global warming and cooling are common events in our planet's history; they'll make life very challenging for us and our descendants, but the biosphere will be fine once it has a few millennia to adjust to new conditions.

Jonathan, perhaps you'll show me where in my blog I claimed that ecotechnic societies would by definition consist of small and peaceful villages. I can't find any such claim there. Of course villages will give rise to cities -- I've argued in previous posts that cities on the preindustrial scale are viable over the long term -- and cities to nations; my point is that it may be possible for some of those societies to have relatively high technology without relying on the sort of wanton resource destruction our current system encourages.

One of the best examples of a proto-ecotechnic society in the recent past is Tokugawa Japan, which supported a thriving urban society with relatively (by preindustrial standards) advanced technology within sharp ecological limits. I'm not in favor of the hierarchical and militaristic ethos that guided the Tokugawa state, mind you, but it's a good reminder that common assumptions about what an ecologically viable society might be like deserve a skeptical look.

Jean-Michel, I could say exactly the same of your ideas, of course. Still, many thanks for the apology.

yooper said...

John, I very much like you're thoughts of succession "towards an ecotechnic society".

I've been thinking of the ecological concept of "overshoot". I certainly hope, we'll not be like blades of grass consumed by fire or drought. How quickly that can happen. The rate of decline depends on so many factors...

I've also been thinking of your thoughts about adaptive cycles and resilience. This concept,(for readers who might not know),suggests, complex adaptive systems, such as the human race, go through looping cycles as they grow and decline. Resilience forms from the preceeding cycle to effect the next one, and so on. Or on the downhill slide of the curve, periods of "recovery" to be followed by more decine.

Overshoot, does have it consenquneces... Especially, as the earth continues to loose biodiversity and developes into a human monoculture......

John, how can you be so sure, that there will be anything left to provide a "graceful" slide lasting 50, 100, 200 or 300 years?

Thanks, yooper

Paul Hotchkin said...

John, I love your writing, and I just finished the Ecotechnic Future audible edition. I really enjoyed it and I hope you consider having your new book, the Wealth of Nature as an audiobook as well - it helps to reach a wider audience and those who enjoy/need to get some of their reading through audio format.

Strypes said...

Jonathon writes:

"History shows that small villages eventually fall into a feudal order, and that feudal orders gives birth to states. It has happened everywhere on earth where "history had enough time to unfold" : Andes, Mexico, Europe, Middle East, North Africa, China, Japan, Sub-saharian Africa, and even New-Zealand and some Pacific Archipelagos were finally unified into single States. All mostly through the process of wars of conquest."

Wrong. Stephen Jay Gould's work and 'Ishmael' by Daniel Quinn both expose these fallacies. Does natural history show that all bacteria will eventually fall into a multicellular order, eventually leading to humans? No, actually it shows that the majority of bacteria evolve into more and different bacteria, and the chances of humans reappearing after a hypothetical mass extinction of all mammals are negligible, due to the massive number of other possible outcomes.

Similarly, many thousands of villages continue to exist across the planet, successfully avoiding or resisting being assimilated by industrial society,let alone "falling into a feudal order". The original village-scale society - including peer-to-peer trade and cultural links across huge areas - was stable for hundreds of thousands of years.

Industrial society is already beginning to collapse after a few hundreds years, due to the decline of the centralised energy systems on which it depends, and being eclipsed a global peer-to-peer trade and cultural network (of which the Internet is only one manifestation) which is steadily outgrowing its states and empires. Many new villages are being established and joining the development of this peer-to-peer network, becoming less dependent on the declining society.

However, JMG's point is that these (and other outgrowths of the impulse to return to sustainability) are baby steps, not all of which are necessarily in the right direction, which may over hundreds or thousands of years lead to socio-economic forms which can provide many of the functions of industrial technology (and maybe others), with a fraction of the energy, partly due to a closed loop approach that turns 'waste' outputs of one productive process into the 'inputs' of another. In other words, an ecotechnic society.

Neo Tuxedo said...

Here in the way of ruins, via reading forward from the link to "Solving Fermi's Paradox" that appears in the comments to Chapter 29 of Star's Reach.

[T]he societies that rise among the ruins of industrial civilization [...] may still be a fair distance from sustainability, but odds are that they will have moved significantly in that direction, if only because the opportunities for extravagant resource use will be sharply reduced by the exhaustion of so many resources.

Makes sense to me. The First Immigrants* are held up as an example of a sustainable society, but I've seen it said that they only developed in that direction -- using every part of the bison but its grunt, as the saying goes -- after doing things like hunting the horse to extinction. They had to learn that lesson the hard way, just as our civilization is having to learn it now.

(* First Nations, First Peoples, Amerinds if you prefer. You can even say "Native Americans" if you're of a mind too, although I myself take Philip Jose Farmer's position that anyone born in the Americas is a native American.)