Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Technological Triage

One of the major blind spots that gets in the way of trying to anticipate the shape of a deindustrial future in advance is the habit of thinking of technology as a single monolithic thing. Like so many mistaken habits of thinking, this one gets its strength from the fact that it’s by no means entirely mistaken. In today’s industrial society, certainly, most technologies depend on other technologies, forming an intricate web of interconnections that has to count among the central features of what Lewis Mumford called the neotechnic phase of history.

One of the most widely cited apocalyptic writers of my teen years, Roberto Vacca, argued in his book The Coming Dark Age that this extreme interdependence would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of industrial society. His argument that too much interconnection among unstable systems would lead to cascading systems failures and the collapse of industrial civilization impressed the likes of Isaac Asimov, who contributed an introduction to the book. In retrospect, it proved to be embarrassingly wrong. Like so many others at that time, Vacca put the cart before the horse; the rising tide of interdependence and interconnection he saw moving through the industrial world was a reaction to improvements in information processing, not a force in its own right, and further developments along the same lines – especially the explosive growth in computer technology – proved more than adequate to keep the process moving.

Still, Vacca was right to see the web of interconnections that unites today’s industrial technology as a critical vulnerability. It’s just that the vulnerability comes into play further along the arc of catabolic collapse. Many of today’s technologies depend so completely on the support of an intact industrial system that they cannot operate without it. Many more could operate without it, at least in theory, but have been designed in a way that maximizes their dependence on other technologies and will have to be reengineered in a hurry as the fabric of the industrial system comes apart. A final set of technologies are largely or wholly independent of the system and can be expected to carry on without a hitch while industrial society comes apart around them.

These three classes have an uncomfortable similarity to the three categories used by battlefield medics in the process known as triage. Triage — the word comes from French and means “trying” or “testing” – is a care-rationing process used when the number of wounded overwhelms the people and resources available to treat them. Incoming wounded are sorted out into three classes. The first consists of those who will die even if they get care. The second consists of those who will survive even if they receive no care. The third consists of those who will live if they get help but will die without it. In a triage situation, all available resources go to the third category. When the need for care outruns the available time and resources, this harsh but necessary logic maximizes the number of survivors.

The coming of deindustrial society will require us to approach technology in much the same way. Technological triage requires more complex judgments than the battlefield variety, however. Not all technologies are of equal value for human survival; it won’t do us any good to preserve video game technology, let’s say, if by doing so we lose the ability to grow food. Some technologies necessarily depend on other technologies—firearms, for example, presuppose a certain level of metalworking ability. Finally, technological triage involves four categories, not three. Alongside technologies that can’t be saved no matter what we do, technologies that are certain to be saved even if we do nothing, and technologies that will be saved if we act and lost if we do not, there are technologies that have gone out of existence but could be brought back and put into use if action is taken now.

Another difference, of course, is that we can begin the triage process on current and past technologies right now – and it’s of very high importance that this process start soon. The more work people preparing to deal with the predicament of industrial society put into understanding the issues and sorting through potential technologies in advance, the less wasted effort and missed opportunities there are likely to be. In the case of technologies that have to be brought back from the heap of discarded tools our civilization has left behind it, starting now – when information and, in many cases, working examples of old technologies can still be located – could easily make the difference between success and failure.

What sort of questions, then, need to be asked before technologies wounded by peak oil, global warming, and the other consequences of industrial society’s suicidal penchant for short-term fixes start showing up at our imaginary triage station? The following list might do as a starting point for discussion.

1. How long can it be fueled and maintained in a deindustrialising world? The imminence of peak oil makes this point obvious, but even so there are twists that many people in the peak oil community may not have recognized yet. Declining production and rising costs of petroleum cut into the supply of lubricants, solvents, and plastics as well as fuels, and anything that needs any of these things in order to operate must either find an alternative source or land in history’s junkyard. These same factors affect the whole supply chain for fuel, maintenance supplies, and spare parts, just for starters.

2. How long can it be manufactured or replaced in a deindustrializing world? This represents a much higher threshold than the previous question, since the capacity to manufacture complex technologies—for example, most of today’s electronics—will likely be lost much higher on the curve of technological decline than the inputs needed to keep them running. A whole class of technologies – call it “legacy tech” – falls between the two thresholds; these are machines that can be kept running for years or decades after they can no longer be made. The struggle to control various items of legacy tech may become a fruitful source of conflict as the deindustrial age proceeds down the curve of catabolic collapse.

3. How long will it be useful in a deindustrializing world? Many of the technologies we have today aren’t useful even now – I defy anyone to give me a meaningful definition of “useful” that includes, say, dancing mechanical Santa Claus dolls – but many more have value only because they provide services to other technologies that will not be viable in an age of limits. When rising fuel costs, for example, bring down the curtain on the age of mass air travel, whole constellations of technologies currently needed to keep airlines and airports running will lose their reason for existence. Unless they have other uses, saving them would be pointless.

4. How long will it take to become useful in a deindustrializing world? The flip side of question 3 is that many technologies that survive today only as hobbies or museum pieces are likely to become valuable and even essential further down the curve of catabolic collapse. Consider the technologies needed to build, rig, and sail square-rigged wooden ships. Right now, they survive only in relic form, preserved by our society’s fascination with its own past, but a century or two from now they could easily become the foundation of maritime trade networks like the ones that linked the continents in 1800. Steps taken now or in the near future to keep this “outdated” maritime technology viable on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak could pay off big later on.

5. How broad a set of human needs and other technologies can be supported by it? Some technologies fill narrow niches, some fill broad ones. Organic agriculture, to name an example from the broad end, can be used to produce food, herbal medicines, oil crops for fuel and lubricants, and a dizzying assortment of raw materials for craft and small-scale industry. This puts it in a different category from, say, lens grinding, which can make lenses and not much else. Both have value in their own contexts, but might reasonably be given different priorities in times of resource scarcity.

6. How important a set of human needs and other technologies can be supported by it? Some needs and technologies are more important than others. The basic human essentials of food, drink, shelter, and safety outrank most other considerations, and technologies that provide these efficiently belong at the top of the triage list. This is another reason why organic agriculture deserves special attention in sorting out potential technologies for the deindustrial age – it can provide the raw materials for most of the core necessities. Beyond the basics, priority lists differ, as indeed they should. Is the capacity to print books more or less important than the capacity to treat illnesses that herbs won’t cure? Such questions need to be taken seriously as people begin the process of deciding what to save.

7. What commitments follow from investing in it? All technologies without exception have consequences and entail commitments. By investing in automobile technology nearly to the exclusion of all other transportation choices, America committed itself to maintaining the flow of cheap abundant oil at all costs – a commitment that has landed it in a no-win situation in Iraq and made its national interest hostage to centuries-old religious and ethnic quarrels in a dozen different corners of the globe. Few other technologies are likely to entail commitments so disastrous, but every choice of technology closes some doors as it opens others. As people in the peak oil community consider different models for the deindustrializing societies of the near future and the fully deindustrialized cultures further off, attention to the consequences and commitments of proposed technologies might keep us out of a variety of blind alleys.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Hesperotechnic Phase

Lewis Mumford’s 1934 opus Technics and Civilization was one of the first major efforts to take technology seriously as a defining factor in human culture, and it still remains one of the better attempts at a broad vision of technology’s impact on civilization, light-years ahead of Marshall McLuhan’s glib generalizations or the dualistic morality plays of such current figures as John Zerzan. History has dealt harshly with Mumford’s more optimistic predictions, and the history of the next century or so will likely be even less merciful. Mumford was very much a thinker of his own time, a firm believer in the inevitability and moral value of progress, and the thought that the technological civilization of his own time might turn out to be the peak of a ballistic arc was, at least in 1934, unthinkable to him. Still, a writer who in 1934 could argue that the future belonged to sustainability rather than linear progress, and identified the restoration of balance between humanity and organic nature as a central need of his time, is hardly outdated today.

Mumford’s view of the rise of modern technics divides the process into three steps. The first step—the eotechnic phase (from Greek eos, dawn, and techne, craft)—unfolded from older handcraft traditions reshaped by advances in mathematics and pre-Newtonian physics. The technologies that typify the phase—clocks, windmills, printing presses, square-rigged sailing ships, firearms, and the like—all evolved gradually out of less effective medieval versions by the gradual buildup of small incremental changes. Like their medieval equivalents, they relied on sustainable energy resources: the same combination of wind, water, biomass, and muscle that had powered human technology since the late Neolithic.

The second or paleotechnic phase (the Greek root here is paleos, old) arrived with the first efficient coal-fired steam engines. James Watt’s invention built on more than a century of earlier work, through the same sort of incremental change that turned the hand cannons of the 14th century into the flintlock rifles of the 17th; steam-powered pumps of various types had become standard in mining, where the problem of pumping water out of deep mine shafts had driven innovation since the Middle Ages. The breakthrough was as much conceptual as technical—the vision of steam power as a prime mover for any purpose, rather than simply a mining machine, transformed society and launched the industrial revolution. Efficiencies of scale made mass production profitable as well as feasible. The sheer availability of coal, far and away the most abundant of the fossil fuels, made it almost impossible for people of the time to see the risks of a transition that made human civilization dependent on a nonrenewable resource.

It is with Mumford’s third step, the neotechnic phase (Greek neos, new, is practically an English word now), that his analysis begins to break down. In his view the neotechnic phase is the age of electricity, and represents not a further progression along paleotechnic lines but a reversal, equal and opposite, leading to Utopia. Only the fact that a great deal of paleotechnic thinking and practice remained stuck solidly in place, he argued, kept the neotechnic phase from bringing in a new mode of society, clean, humane, decentralized and liberating.

Much of his argument makes sense even today. With electrification and the internal combustion engine, the vast centralizing force of Victorian technology went into reverse and began to encourage decentralization; electric motors allowed force to be applied at a level of delicacy steam could never achieve, and mass-produced cars replaced crowded, railroad-dependent Victorian cities with the first bloom of suburbia. In 1934, when the great hydroelectric plants of the Columbia and Tennessee watersheds were still coming on line and petroleum was so cheap to produce that even federal antitrust agencies permitted open price fixing to keep the American oil industry from bankrupting itself, the neotechnic era must have offered endless vistas of hope.

Looking back from two thirds of a century later, the flaws in these gleaming prediction are all too apparent. Despite the proverb, hindsight is not invariably 20/20—the United States, for example, seems almost perversely unwilling to learn the lessons of past empires as it embraces policies that embody nearly all their most fatal mistakes—but it does tend to cast a clear light on the faultlines that separate the ideal from the real. What Mumford could not have known in 1934 was that his neotechnic phase depended on nonrenewable resources far more limited than the abundant coal that powered paleotechnic society. He was right to see the neotechnic phase as a reversion to a more organic pattern; what he missed was that this pattern was the bloom and crash of yeast in a nutrient vat.

Arguably, Mumford’s vision was blinkered here by yet another variation on the same pattern of religious myth I’ve tried to critique in the last two Archdruid Report posts. His pretechnic, eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic phases are modeled on the version of Christian sacred history central to the identity of the liberal Protestant mainstream of Mumford’s time. The pretechnic phase, full of foreshadowings of the coming technological revelation, mirrors the time before the incarnation of Jesus; the eotechnic phase is Mumford’s version of the primitive Christian church; the paleotechnic phase is his Catholicism, the whipping boy for so much Protestant rhetoric in his time; while his present, stuck temporarily between paleotechnic and neotechnic phases, echoes the view of many liberal Protestants of his time that their churches had not yet finished casting off the formalism and central control of their Romish past, and would achieve pure Christianity just as soon as this happened.

Such exact parallels are anything but uncommon in writings of Mumford’s time, or for that matter any other, very much including ours. This is no accident; most human thought might be described, without too much inaccuracy, as the art of fitting new experiences to familiar myths. The question that needs to be asked, here as elsewhere, is whether the myths we use actually fit the texture of our experience. Mumford’s phases—the eotechnic age of square-rigged ships and windmills; the paleotechnic age of coal and steam; and the neotechnic age of petroleum and electricity—make a useful typology for the last four hundred years or so of technological history. If that same history fails to support the mythic pattern he overlaid on the typology, the first question a mythically literate person might ask is whether there’s another myth that fits it better.

While I’m hardly a fan of such neoprimitivists as Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan, they deserve respect for having grasped this last point clearly. The neoprimitivist movement seeks to replace the myth of progress with a myth of fall and redemption in which technology plays the role of original sin. It’s a clear and compelling narrative, and has the advantage of recasting our current predicament as a cause for optimism. I’m far from convinced that their myth makes any more sense of our actual situation than the myth of progress does, and a myth that defines the mass death of six billion people and the loss of every trace of eight thousand years of human culture as good things has obvious problems of its own, but at least they have taken the mythic dimension seriously.

A reader of last week’s Archdruid Report post wrote to ask whether I had any myths of my own to propose as alternatives to the myth of progress, or whether I intend to limit myself to deconstruction and will leave the future to find its own myths. It’s a valid question, and too important for a glib answer. Like all intellectuals, I’m in the mythology business, and as a religious leader in a tradition that enthusiastically affirms the mythic nature of its own core narratives, I have the freedom to treat mythic narratives as such, rather than dressing them up in the borrowed clothing of some other field of thought. Over the weeks and months to come I hope to have something to say about the narratives that might help us make constructive sense of our present predicament.

Mumford’s myth offers a place to start. As we bump along the unsteady plateau at the top of the Hubbert curve, wondering how soon the plateau will turn into a slope and the toboggan ride down from today’s technological heights will begin, it seems increasingly clear that the neotechnic era is a passing phase, not the permanent achievement Mumford seems to have expected. Over the decades to come, then, we can expect to see the first major steps in the transition to a new phase. It won’t be an exact repetition of any earlier phase, but it will have certain similarities to past ages that faced similar conditions. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Borrowing a bit of Mumford’s own jargon, we can call this new technological stage the hesperotechnic phase (the Greek here is hesperos, evening)—the twilight phase of industrial technology. Just as important elements of the three earlier phases can best be understood by looking at the technologies and energy sources that drove them, at least some of the outlines of the hesperotechnic phase can be grasped by considering what technologies and energy sources human societies will have to hand once the neotechnic phase finishes fading out. Over the next few weeks I plan to make a first reconnaissance of this largely unexplored territory. As this exploration proceeds, those of my readers attentive to the language of myth may begin to get a sense of what narratives I might offer as useful tools for thinking in the coming times.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Immanentizing the Eschaton

“It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.” With those words Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea kicked off their brilliant parody of American conspiracy culture, the Illuminatus! trilogy. When I heard last week that Wilson had passed away, I took down the three battered paperback volumes from my shelf of old science fiction novels. I was never a fan of Wilson’s later work, but discovering Illuminatus! had been one of the few bright spots of my first and mostly unsuccessful stint at college, its wry sense of the absurd a useful antidote to the much less creative absurdities of the early Reagan years. The phrase “immanentizing the Eschaton” stuck in my mind even in the days when I didn’t have a clue what it meant.

I thought of it again after fielding some of the comments to last week’s Archdruid Report post, “This Faith in Progress,” another of my occasional attempts to challenge the religious basis of industrial civilization — the belief that technological progress is what gives human existence its meaning. One of my readers posted a comment to the effect that progress, far from being the source of all human values, was quite literally the root of all evil. In the prehistoric past, he insisted, human beings lived idyllic vegetarian lives in harmony with nature, until the invention of the first stone tools and their use to kill animals for food sent our species hurtling out of its place in the natural order on a trajectory toward violence, sickness, and everything else wrong with existence nowadays.

I think he thought he was disagreeing with the modern religion of progress. Trying to break free of a dualistic belief system by standing the dualism on its head is a popular one these days. Like those Satanists who accept nearly the entire worldview of Christianity and just root for the other side, or the proponents of matriarchy who insist that it’s bad for men to have more power than women but not the reverse, his worldview and that of the believers in progress share almost all the same assumptions. They differ only in the ethical value applied to progress. Both views, to return to Wilson’s useful phrase, immanentize the Eschaton.

“Eschaton” comes from an old Greek word for “end” or “border.” In Christian theological jargon it came to refer to the process by which the world as we know it is supposed, at some point in the future, to turn into the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God. An entire branch of theology, called eschatology – the science of last things – evolved over the last two thousand years or so in an attempt to piece together a coherent vision of the future out of the hints and visions provided by scripture and tradition. It’s a lively field full of fierce disputes, and no one version of the End Times commands agreement from more than a fraction of Christian theologians or, for that matter, ordinary believers. Central to nearly all Christian accounts of the Eschaton, though, is that it’s completely outside the realm of history as we know it. When the trumpet sounds, the sky tears open and something wholly other comes through.

This quality of “otherness,” in theologian’s language, is called transcendence. Its opposite is immanence. One of the great quarrels of theology is whether God or the gods are transcendent –that is, outside nature and free of its limitations – or immanent – that is, part of nature and subject to its laws. Like all such binary patterns, this one admits of several different kinds of middle ground, but the basic distinction is relevant. People who have mystical experiences – which are, after all, tolerably common among human beings – very often comment on a difference between the ordinary reality of their lives, and the nonordinary reality that surges into their consciousness. Did the nonordinary reality come from someone, something, or somewhere outside ordinary existence? Or was it right here, unnoticed, all the time? That’s the difference between transcendence and immanence.

Most religions that put much thought into eschatology also have a transcendent concept of the divine; the whole point of the Eschaton is that ordinary reality dissolves into the wholly other. Most religions that have an immanent concept of the divine, in turn, either have no eschatology at all, or make the end of the world a recurring event in an endlessly repeated cycle of time. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with their transcendent god and richly detailed eschatologies, fall on one side of the divide. Hinduism, with its universes that bud, blossom, and fall through infinite cycles of time, and Shinto, which has no eschatology at all, fall on the other. So does Druidry, which traditionally sees divinity permeating every cranny of nature and treats the awakening to transcendence as something that occurs to each soul in its own unique time.

Now and then, though, the two patterns collide and cross-fertilize, and the resulting belief systems locate the Eschaton as a possibility to be realized within ordinary history, or even the inevitable result of the working out of historical patterns. Marxism offers an example familiar to most people nowadays. In Marxist theory, history is determined by changes in the mode of production that unfold in predetermined order, from primitive communism through slavery, feudalism, and capitalism to the proletarian revolution and the everlasting communist Utopia of the future.

While all this is wrapped in the jargon of 19th century materialist science, it’s not hard to see the religious underpinnings of the theory. Every element of Marxist theory has an exact equivalent in Christian eschatology. Primitive communism is Eden, the invention of private property is the Fall, the stages of slavery, feudalism and capitalism are the various dispensations of sacred history, and so on, right up to the Second Coming of the proletariat, the millennial state of socialism and the final arrival of communism as the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens. Point for point, it’s a rephrasing of Christian myth that replaces the transcendent dimension with forces immanent in ordinary history. Marx and his followers, in other words, immanentized the Eschaton.

They’re hardly alone in that. Over the last three centuries or so, Christianity’s influence on the Western intellect has crumpled beneath the assaults of scientific materialism, but no mythology has yet taken its place in the Western imagination. The result has been any number of attempts to rehash Christian myth under other names. The myth of progress is simply the most popular of these. The prophets of progress simply fast-forward the Book of Revelation to the thousand years between the Second Coming and the New Jerusalem; the redeeming revelation has already happened in the form of the Scientific Revolution, the allegedly prescientific past has been stretched and lopped to make it look like a Vale of Tears, and today’s scientists fill the role of the Church Expectant waiting for the great god Progress to bring Utopia in its own good time.

My reader, with his myth of a peaceful vegetarian prehistory, is simply another example of the same thing, focusing on the other end of time. His tool-free Utopia never existed – the habit of using stone tools evolved among hominids long before Homo sapiens did, and even chimpanzees catch, kill and eat animals – but this hardly matters to its believers; it’s a retelling of the myth of Eden, with the invention of stone tools as the Fall, and the approaching downfall of technological society as the Second Coming that will allow the virtuous survivors to return to paradise.

You can find Christian myths rehashed as future predictions all over today’s culture – and not the least in those corners of it that are concerned with peak oil, global warming, and other elements of the predicament of industrial society. There’s been a flurry of essays and blog posts in the peak oil community in recent months about the motivations of “doomers” – that is, the fraction of peak oil activists who believe that petroleum depletion will inevitably result in catastrophic dieoff and the end of anything like civilization on Earth. Many of these discussions have raised interesting points, but very few have noticed the extent to which old myths in new clothing have defined contemporary thinking, here and in so many other contexts.

Now I’m no great fan of Christianity myself. To me, all its myths and symbols put together don’t carry the spiritual impact of one blue heron flying through dawn mists or a single autumn sunset seen through old growth cedars; that’s why I follow a Druid path. Still, it seems to me that if people insist on thinking in terms of Christian myth, they might as well go the rest of the way and become Christians. That way, at least, they can draw on the riches of two millennia of Christian philosophy, rather than making do with hand-me-downs from Marx, say, or the current crop of neoprimitive pundits such as John Zerzan.

They might also be able to learn a few lessons from Christian history, or any other kind of history for that matter, about the problems that follow when people try to immanentize the Eschaton. It’s one thing to try to sense the shape of the future in advance, and to make constructive changes in your life to prepare for its rougher possibilities; it’s quite another to become convinced that history is headed where you want it to go; and when the course you’ve marked out for it simply projects the trajectory of a too-familiar myth onto the inkblot patterns of the future, immanentizing the Eschaton can become a recipe for self-induced disaster.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

This Faith in Progress

Every culture has some distant place in space or time where it parks its dreams of a perfect world, and ours is no exception. Devout Christians in the Middle Ages imagined a heaven somewhere off beyond the outermost sphere of the sky, where angels and blessed souls sang in perfect harmony in the presence of God, far from the discords of life in the lowly world of matter. Centuries before, the ancient Greeks sang of a Golden Age somewhere in the distant past when fields sprouted crops without human labor and the world was at peace under the rule of the old wise god Kronos. We have our heaven and our Golden Age, too, but unlike most other cultures we put ours in the future, and tell ourselves that we’re moving closer to Paradise with every day that passes. Other cultures put their faith in gods or stars or cosmic cycles; we put ours in progress.

It’s not going too far, I think, to call belief in progress the dominant religion of the modern world. For most people nowadays, what matters about our past is that it’s a story of progress, a vast upward sweep from the brutal squalor of a primitive past to the Promethean splendor of a science-fiction future out among the stars. In the modern imagination, the present is by definition bigger and better than the past, just as the future will by definition be bigger and better than the present. For believers in progress, to call something “new” is to define it as “better,” while what’s old is by definition inadequate.

The intensity of our faith in progress can be measured by the way we play down the achievements of past peoples in order to make ourselves look better and smarter—for example, popular history books still insist that most of Columbus’ contemporaries believed the world was flat, even though this fable has been disproved countless times. The future is still more subject to distortion in the name of the myth. Even those people who believe that the story of progress will shortly come to an apocalyptic finale insist that our civilization’s end will have brighter fireworks and louder explosions than any before it.

To use the word “myth” for our belief in progress, though, is to court misunderstanding, since most people nowadays think that a myth is a story about the world that isn’t true. Other cultures had myths, the modern claim goes, but we don’t; we have facts. You can even find books insisting that the modern world suffers from “amythia,” a pathological lack of myths. Our word “myth,” though, comes from muthos, a Greek word that originally just meant “story.” Early on it came to be used for the most important stories, the ones people tell to explain who they are, where they come from, where they are going, and what powers guide them on their way and give the journey meaning. The Greek myths did this for the ancient Greeks, Christian theology did this for the Middle Ages, and faith in progress does it for us. The fact that a handful of countries have experienced quite a bit of progress in the last few centuries doesn’t prevent progress from filling a mythic role. Far from it, the myth of progress—like all myths—only has power over the human mind because believers can point to examples where it actually worked.

Every myth encodes its own values and its own agenda, and the myth of progress is no exception. To believe in progress, in the modern sense of the world, is to believe that history has a predetermined direction that leads to us. Pay attention to the way that people use historical periods as a way of classifying other people’s cultures as inferior—for example, saying that hunting and gathering peoples in the Third World are still in the Stone Age, or that the Muslim world is still in the Middle Ages, while only the industrial countries are actually in the 21st century. Of course this is nonsense, but it’s nonsense with a purpose. Admitting that hunter-gatherers and Muslims are just as much part of the 21st century as the industrial societies, as of course they are, strips the industrial world of its claim to be the logical culmination of history. You could as reasonably say that the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert are the culmination of history—and there’s some point to the claim, as their way of life is a good deal more durable than ours.

To believe in progress, then, is to believe that whatever trajectory our civilization happens to have followed is the right one, since it is clearly more advanced and therefore better than the paths taken by less progressive societies, and that for the same reason we ought to do even more of whatever we’ve been doing. Faith in progress thus provides powerful justifications for the status quo, whatever that happens to be, and it allows any attempt to choose a different trajectory for our civilization to be dismissed as “going backwards,” which to believers in progress is the one unforgivable sin.

The myth of progress also implies that whatever industrial civilization happens to be good at doing is the most important thing human beings can do, and whatever we aren’t good at doesn’t count. This belief remains fixed in place even as the details change. In the 19th century, for example, many believers in progress pointed to the western world’s literature, philosophy, music, and art as evidence that it was more advanced and therefore better than anyone else. 20th century literature, philosophy, music and art all slipped well below 19th century standards, but 20th century science and technology passed the previous century’s mark, so inevitably people today point to our science and technology as proof that we are more advanced and therefore better than anyone else. Like most faiths, in other words, belief in progress chooses its own evidence and provides its own justifications.

All this has an important role in driving the predicament of industrial society, because the dead end of dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels can’t be escaped by going further ahead on the path we’ve been following. Almost without exception, the technological progress of the last century will have to shift into reverse as its foundation—cheap abundant petroleum—goes away, and most of the social and cultural phenomena that grew out of petroleum-based technology will go away as well. I’ve argued elsewhere that the downside of the Hubbert peak will force a return to 19th-century technology, and the slower exhaustion of coal and other nonrenewable fuels will complete the process of reversion, returning the western world to something like the technology and society it had before the industrial revolution began in the first place.

What will happen to the faith in progress in an age of obvious technological regress, whencars and computers and footsteps on the Moon all belong to the departed glories of the past? No doubt some diehards will claim that whatever the cultures of the deindustrial age happen to be good at is what counts, and therefore further evidence of progress. We’ve already seen the first wave of that among green-tech proponents who argue that their technologies are more advanced and more progressive than alternatives. Still, I doubt many people will keep the faith. The religion of progress has maintained its hold for the last three centuries because it has delivered on its promises, filling our lives with technological marvels wondrous enough to distract us from the cost to our world, our communities, and ourselves.

When the parade of wonders stops, then, the impact on deindustrializing cultures may be immense. If, as I’ve suggested, progress is the unrecognized religion of the industrial world, the failure of its priests to produce miracles as expected could plunge many people into a crisis of faith with no easy way out. Peoples of the past, stripped of faith in their traditional religions in one way or another, have responded in many different ways: some have launched revitalization movements to renew the old faith, some have embraced newly minted visions of destiny or traditions imported from abroad, and some have simply huddled down into themselves and died. Which of these reactions turns out to be most common may have drastic effects on the way the history of the deindustrial age works out.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Principles for Sustainable Tech

When I sat down to start work on the three narratives of the deindustrial future that featured on The Archdruid Report in the last months of 2006, I didn’t know the first thing about slide rules. In the school district I attended, they went out of fashion just before I reached the math classes where they had previously been taught. My only exposure to them was in the form of a 6-foot-long example, a former teaching aid, gathering cobwebs up near the ceiling in a forlorn corner of my junior high school math classroom. Pocket calculators were brand new and fashionable then. Like every other kid at my school, I learned how to make my TI-30 utter the one expletive in its limited vocabulary (punch in 7734 and look at the screen upside down) and blithely forgot about practicing arithmetic.

Curiosity is a powerful force, though, and once the slide rule surfaced as a bit of stage property in my stories, I decided that a calculator that didn’t require batteries or silicon chips might be worth investigating. A few inquiries revealed that most of my older friends still had a slipstick or two gathering dust in a desk drawer. That was how, last Saturday, I found myself being handed a solid aluminum Pickett N903-SE slide rule in mint condition. The Druid who gave it to me is getting on in years and has a short white beard, and though he makes a better double for Saint Nicholas than Alec Guinness, I found myself instantly inside one of the fantasies burned into the neurons of most of my generation:

”This,” Obi-wan Kenobi tells me, “is your father’s slide rule.” I take the gleaming object in one hand, my gaze never leaving his face. “Not so wasteful or energy-intensive as a calculator,” he says then. “An elegant instrument of a more sustainable age.” I press my thumb against the cursor, and...

Well, no, a blazing blue-white trigonometric equation didn’t come buzzing out of the business end, and of course that’s half the point. The slide rule is an extraordinarily simple, low-tech device that lets you crunch numbers at what, at least in pre-computer terms, was a very respectable pace. Even by current standards it’s not slow. I’ve only begun to learn the ways of the Force, so to speak, but after less than a week of practice I can already multiply and divide on my Pickett as fast or faster than I can punch buttons on a calculator.

Beyond its practical uses, however, the slide rule has more than a little to teach about what sustainable technology looks like. It is quite literally pre-industrial technology – the basic principle was worked out in 1622 by Rev. William Oughtred, though it took many years of evolution after that to produce the handy ten-inch device with multiple scales that played so important a role in 19th and 20th century science and engineering. Set a slide rule side by side with an electronic calculator and certain points stand out.

First, a slide rule is durable. By this I don’t simply mean that you have to use more force to break a slide rule than a pocket calculator, though this is generally true. More important is the fact that a pocket calculator has a limited shelf life. Over fairly modest time spans, batteries go dead, memory and processing chips break down, and many plastics depolymerize into useless goo. Even the cheap plastic slide rules once mass-produced for schoolchildren will outlast most pocket calculators, and a good professional model can stay in working order for something close to geological time.

Second, a slide rule is independent. You don’t need to rely on any other technology to make it work or do something useful with the output. Pocket calculators depend on a certain level of battery technology to work, though admittedly this puts them toward the independent end of the spectrum; for a more representative example, think of the number and extent of the technological systems needed to keep a car or an internet terminal functioning and useful.

Third, a slide rule is replicable. If you have one, it doesn’t take advanced industrial technology to make another, or a thousand more; a competent cabinetmaker with hand tools and a good eye can produce them as needed. Making a pocket calculator, by contrast, demands a mastery of dozens of extraordinarily complex and energy-intensive technologies, ranging from clean rooms through solvent chemistry to the manufacture of monomolecular metallic films. Once industrial technology falls below this level, a dead certainty in the deindustrial age, pocket calculators become a nonrenewable resource.

Fourth, a slide rule is transparent. By this I mean that it’s not difficult to work out the principles that make it function from the thing itself. This is crucial, because a transparent technology can communicate much more than its own output.

Imagine for a moment that the deindustrial age turns out much more severe than we have any reason to expect, and nearly all knowledge gets lost. A thousand years from now, a slide rule ends up in the hands of a scholar who knows how to read ancient numbers and can do basic arithmetic. A few minutes of fiddling would show her how the C and D scales can be used to multiply and divide numbers, and a few more would reveal that the A scale shows the squares of corresponding numbers on the D scale. Once she realizes that each scale shows a different mathematical operation, the device itself becomes a Rosetta stone of mathematics that can teach her all about fractions, decimals, squares and square roots, cubes and cube roots, reciprocals, and logarithms, because all the mathematical relationships are right there in plain sight.

If she gets a pocket calculator instead, none of this happens, because the algorithms that make a calculator work are hidden away in its circuitry. Even if the thing still works, it’s a black box that spits out numbers, and the relationships between the numbers would have to be worked out the hard way, by trial and error. Nor is it at all certain that our hypothetical scholar would realize that the calculator was a calculator rather than, say, a remote control or some other enigmatic ancient relic.

SF writer Arthur C. Clarke unknowingly pointed out one of the potential long-term weaknesses of our present technology in his famous Third Law: “Every sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What makes a technology more or less advanced is a subtler question than it may appear at first glamce, but Clarke’s point is a valid one nonetheless: once a technology becomes complicated enough that it loses transparency, it can be very hard to recognize the technology for what it is, and very easy to turn it into a stage property for ritual use. (A respectable number of today’s technologies, for that matter, have already become ritual props in industrial society’s mostly unacknowledged ceremonial life; consider the way that computer s are used to justify official economic projections that simply mirror the ideologies and expectations of those who pay for them.)

This has to be avoided if the technologies we pass on to the future are going to be of any use to anyone once the fossil fuels run out and today’s industrial civilization becomes tomorrow’s scrapheap. For that matter, all four of the principles suggested by the humble slide rule – durability, independence, replicability, and transparency – make good criteria for technologies meant to endure into the deindustrial age. Too many of the technologies currently being touted as answers to peak oil fail one or more of these tests, and a good many fail all four. As people in the peak oil community move beyond debating the fact of fossil fuel depletion and start tackling the challenges of planning for a difficult future, a careful study of potential technologies in something like the terms I’ve outlined may be a good place to start.

As a postscript, it might be worth suggesting that since the slide rule itself passes all four tests, getting it back into circulation among people concerned about the future may be a step worth taking. The Oughtred Society (, a nonprofit group of slide rule historians and collectors, provides a good access point for slide rule information, and its website includes a listing of dealers in case your local Obi-wan surrogate doesn’t have a spare slipstick in his desk drawer.