One of the lessons of history is that change, no matter how drastic it appears on the pages of history books, is rarely anything like so sudden for those who live through it. Read an account of the French Revolution, for example, and events seem to follow one another like explosions from a string of firecrackers, from the final crisis of the Ancien Régime straight through to the fall of Napoleon. For the man or woman in the French street, though, these happenings were scattered threads in a fabric of months and years woven from the plainer cordage of ordinary life.
Partly this is a function of the way historical narrative compresses time. It bears remembering that a teenage Parisienne who sat daydreaming of her upcoming wedding on the day that Louis XVI summoned the États-General in 1788 would most likely have been a grandmother on the day the Allied armies marched into Paris after the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Equally, though, it’s rare for historical events to have the same apparent importance at the time that they are assigned in the historian’s hindsight, not least because the everyday process of making a living and moving through the stages of human existence plays a larger role in most lives than the occasional tumults that make the history books.
This lesson needs to be kept in mind as we try to make sense of the implications of the crisis of industrial society, not least because it offers some protection against the common bad habit of projecting daydreams onto the inkblot patterns of the future. That habit of thinking is more than usually at issue in exploring the theme of this week’s post, the nature of daily life in the decades ahead of us.
The role of wishful thinking in driving the apocalyptic expectations so common in contemporary culture rarely shows itself so clearly as here. In the weeks leading up to the Y2K noncrisis, I knew quite a respectable number of people whose conviction that industrial civilization was about to undergo total collapse was all too clearly motivated by the belief that this meant that come January 1, 2000, they would no longer have to continue living the lives they had made for themselves. You’d think that the prospect of mass death would be a good deal more daunting than even the most humdrum modern existence, but it’s always part of the narrative of imminent apocalypse that dieoff only happens to other people; no matter how poorly suited the people in question were to the strenuous task of surviving the overnight collapse of a civilization, each one of them believed that they’d be among the lucky few.
The same sort of logic pervades certain corners of the peak oil scene. I’ve met far too many people who don’t know enough about plant care to keep a potted petunia healthy, and have very likely never put in an eight-hour day of hard physical labor in their lives – most middle class Americans haven’t, after all – and yet who nonetheless talk enthusiastically about the life they expect to lead in a self-sufficient rural lifeboat ecovillage as industrial civilization crashes into ruin a comfortable distance away. It’s all very reminiscent of the aftermath of the Sixties, when a great many people headed back to the land with equally high hopes; the vast majority of them straggled back to the cities a few months or years later with their hopes in shreds, having discovered that fantasies of the good life in nature’s lap make poor preparation for the hard work, unremitting discipline, and relative poverty of life as a subsistence farmer.
The would-be communards of the Sixties had an advantage not shared by their counterparts in the peak oil movement. Rural land was relatively cheap, and money was fairly easy to come by, not least because the counterculture scene always had a sprinkling of members with large trust funds who functioned as the sugar daddies of the movement. As the Summer of Love gave way to the summer of Altamont and the urban neighborhoods that nurtured hippie culture went to seed, communes in the countryside were a significant option, and a great many of them – I don’t know that a census was ever done, but there were certainly thousands – sprouted as a result.
That has not happened in the wake of peak oil. Partly, of course, it’s one thing to leave the city behind for a rural commune when you’re nineteen years old and can put all your worldly goods into a knapsack, with plenty of room left over for dreams; it’s quite another thing to do that when you’re forty and comfortably middle-class, with a family to support, a career to think of, and the prospect of retirement sufficiently visible on the horizon of your future that the impact of your choices on your pension is always somewhere in your thoughts. Today’s peak oil activists very often resemble the second of these categories a good deal more than the first, which goes a long way to explain the gaping difference between the number of lifeboat ecovillages that have gotten onto the drawing boards and the number of them that have actually been built.
Still, this is only one reflection of a much broader problem, which is that lifeboat ecovillages do not make economic sense in today’s world. However self-sufficient they may turn out to be in the deindustrial future their planners envision, they are anything but self-sufficient here and now, when they have to be built and paid for. Nor is it at all clear how soon they will become self-sufficient if the future turns out to be a gradual descent into the deindustrial age, rather than the sudden plunge so often imagined these days.
This is where the perspective I brought up at the beginning of this essay – the difference between history as read in retrospect, and history as lived at the time – becomes crucial. Seen in retrospect, the changes that will follow the decline of world petroleum production are likely to be sweeping and global. From the perspective of those who live through them, however, those changes are much more likely to take gradual and local forms. This will make them harder to notice, but paradoxically easier to meet.
Imagine, for example, a scenario in which worldwide production of conventional crude oil drops by an average of 5% a year, and other fossil fuels follow gradual depletion curves of their own. Especially at first, the gap can be offset with biofuels, tar sands, and other unconventional sources; yearly production totals for liquid fueld may even increase, though this won’t include an accounting of the fuel burnt to extract oil from tar sands or the petroleum products used to grow biofuel crops, and thus will hide the fact that there’s less energy available for other uses. The need to funnel an ever-increasing fraction of fuel into producing more fuel, coupled with expanding global population and the ongoing transfer of economic and political power from an aging American empire to its successors, will tend to drive fuel prices up; economic contraction driven by the twilight of cheap energy will tend to decrease demand, and drive them back down; factor in speculation, and you get wild gyrations in energy costs, coupled to cycles of economic boom and bust of an intensity not seen in the Western world since the nineteenth century.
All of this spells trouble, without a doubt. To rising energy prices and contracting economies, add the public health consequences of increasing poverty and the likelihood that the end of the American empire will result in wars as bloody and protracted as those that followed the decline of every other major commercial empire in recent history, and you get a recipe for massive change. I’ve argued in previous posts that these changes mark the first stage of the decline and fall of Western industrial civilization – the change from affluence industrialism to scarcity industrialism – and that it will be followed by further stages of contraction and social transformation, leading into a dark age several centuries long from which our successor societies will eventually emerge.
From the perspective of some future Edward Gibbon of the year 3650 or so, outlining The Decline and Fall of the American Empire as he strolls past sheep grazing on the mossy ruins of ancient Washington DC, all this will doubtless seem traumatic enough. For those who experience that transformation first hand, though, it will likely have a much different appearance. The young Parisienne whose image I invoked at the beginning of this essay, after all, did not go to sleep one night in the agrarian, half-feudal France of the Ancien Régime and wake up the next morning as a grandmother in the nascent industrial nation that France became in Napoleon’s wake. Even those changes in the interval that brought her grief – any sons she had, for example, would have faced high odds of dying a soldier’s death – would have been spread out over the years, part of a fabric of many other experiences.
Similarly, the unraveling of today’s industrial society can be expected to follow a similar tempo of change. If the scenario I’ve outlined above is anything close to the shape the future holds for us, we can expect to witness economic, social, and political turmoil beyond anything the industrial world has experienced in living memory. We will all be attending more funerals than we do nowadays, and our appearance as the guest of honor at one of them will likely come noticeably sooner than it otherwise would. Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many different jobs, to have paper wealth become meaningless, and to watch established institutions go to pieces around us. A quarter century or so from now, the world may be a very different place, but on the way there each of us will have had to deal with the same unoriginal challenges of everyday life we face today.
The continuity of history as a lived experience imposes requirements on planning for the post-peak future that haven’t always been noticed. Like the imaginary lifeboat ecovillages that would make perfect economic sense in an imagined world, but can’t even scrape together the funding to get built in this one, a good many of the plans and projects that have been discussed as a response to peak oil make no provision for the fact that people will still have to live their lives and make a living while they wait for those projects to justify themselves. Those projects that make good practical sense here and now, or at least place no great burden on the people who choose to pursue them, will be a good deal more viable than those that can only support themselves in a radically different world than the one we inhabit. In the weeks to come I plan on sketching out some outlines of how such an approach to the future might be crafted.