There have been many times, during the two and a half years I’ve been writing posts for The Archdruid Report, when I’ve found myself staring at a blank computer screen of a Wednesday morning, wondering what on Earth I can say that my readers might find even remotely interesting. Happily, such times have been scarce this November. A passing reference, in my post two weeks ago, to my dissatisfaction with a presentation on the Transition Town movement brought a flurry of comments asking me to say more about that; I did so last week, and fielded another flurry of comments as well as some lively critiques on other blogs.
The core argument of last week’s post centered on the possibility of building a better future by deliberate planning, and many of the comments and critiques took issue with my suggestion that this is not only impossible but counterproductive. While most of these latter noted that they were participants in the Transition Town movement, the ideas they expressed in that context are anything but unique to that movement; rather, it expresses a consensus that extends through most of the peak oil scene, and indeed, most of contemporary society. Despite its popularity, though, this confidence in our ability to plan the future seems woefully misplaced to me, and the reasons that have forced me to dissent from the consensus may be worth discussing here.
Trying to plan a way out of the crisis of industrial society is an old habit. Back in the 1970s, when the challenge posed by the limits to growth was first showing up on the radar screens of our collective discourse, a great deal of discussion centered on how global planning could back humanity away from the brink; since then, similar plans on various scales – local, regional, national, global – have appeared at regular intervals. The durable Lester Brown, to name only one of these would-be planners, released the original version of his Plan B in 2003; he’s now on version 3.0, and further versions will no doubt be forthcoming in due time.
A double helping of irony surrounds all this flurry of planning. If the crisis we face could be met by making plans, we’d have little to worry about; the difficulty is that making plans is the easy part. Go digging in the archives of most American municipalities and you’ll find an energy plan drafted and adopted, after extensive citizen input, in the 1970s, calling for exactly the changes that would have made matters today much less dire: conservation standards, public transit projects, zoning changes to reduce the need for cars, and so on. You’ll have to brush a quarter inch of dust off the plan to read it, though, since nobody has looked at it since the Reagan years, and not one of its recommendations was still functioning when the housing boom began in the early 1990s. A certain skepticism toward another round of plans may thus be in order.
Yet there’s a second dimension to the irony, because the recurrent gap between plan and implementation is not the only difficulty that has to be faced. The assumption common to all these plans is that it’s possible to anticipate the process of transition to a deindustrial society in enough detail to make planning meaningful. I suggest that this assumption is badly in need of a hard second look.
There are two widely held beliefs these days about how we can deal with the end of the age of petroleum. The first claims that we simply need to find another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum, and run our society on that instead. The second claims that we simply need to replace those parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy with others that lack that dependence, and run our society with them instead. Most people in the peak oil scene, I think, have caught onto the problem with the first belief: there is no other energy source available to us that is as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum; the fact that we want one does not oblige the universe to provide us with one, and so we might as well plan to power our society by harnessing unicorns to treadmills.
The problem with the second belief is of the same order, but it’s much less widely recognized. Toss aside the parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and there’s nothing left. Nor are the components needed for a new low-energy society sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be used; we’ve got some things that worked tolerably well in simpler agrarian societies, and some promising new developments that have been tested on a very small scale and seem to work so far, but we have nothing like a complete kit. Thus we can’t simply swap out a few parts and keep going; everything has to change, and we have no way of knowing in advance what changes will be required.
This last point is often missed. One of the people who commented on last week’s post, a software designer by trade, pointed out that he starts work on a project by envisioning what the new software is going to do, and then figures out a way to do it; he argued that it makes just as much sense to do the same thing with human society. A software designer, though, knows the capabilities of the computers, operating systems, and computer languages his programs will use; he also knows how similar tasks have been done by other designers in the past. We don’t have any of those advantages in trying to envision a sustainable future society.
Rather, we’re in the position of a hapless engineer tasked in 1947 with drafting a plan to develop word processing software. At that time, nobody knew whether digital or analog computers were the wave of the future; the handful of experimental computer prototypes that existed then used relays, mechanical linkages, vacuum tubes, and other soon-to-be-outmoded technologies, while the devices that would actually make it possible to build computers that could handle word processing had not yet been invented, or even imagined. Under those conditions, the only plan that would have yielded any results would consist of a single sentence: “Invest heavily in basic research, and see what you can do with the results.” Any other plan would have been wasted breath, and the more detailed the plan, the more useless it would have been.
The difficulty faced by our imaginary engineer is that meaningful planning can only take place when the basic outlines of the solution are already known. A different metaphor may help clarify how this works. Imagine that you suddenly wake up in a hotel room in Edinburgh. A mysterious woman tells you that you have been drugged and brought there secretly, it’s now December 30, and you have to get a message to someone you will meet beneath the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If you succeed, Earth will be saved and you will get 100 million Euros. Since you know where you are, where you have to be, and how much time you have – the clock by the bed says 10 am – you can easily make plans and carry them out.
Now imagine the same scenario, except that the hotel room could be anywhere and you have no idea what day or time it is. Until you know where you are and how much time you have, planning is impossible. When the mysterious woman leaves, rather than heading for the door, the first thing you might logically do is to throw open the curtains. The results determine your next step. If you see the familiar skyline of Edinburgh, you can proceed at once to make and implement plans; if the vista before you is the clutter and bustle of an industrial town in Asia, you may need to learn more before planning becomes possible; if you see two moons setting in a pink sky above a cityscape of glittering domes, and the beings walking alongside the canal nearby have pointed ears and green skin, the one thing you know for certain is that the trip to Trafalgar Square is going to be interesting!
Now imagine the same scenario, except that the landscape outside has the pink sky, two moons, and alien promenaders, and the mysterious woman tells you that you have to get to the local equivalent of Trafalgar Square by the local equivalent of New Year’s Eve. All hope of planning has just gone out the window. Your only option is to improvise as you go, try as many options as possible, collect tidbits of information, and attempt to piece together what you learn into a workable mental model. Nor will you have any way of knowing whether your model is right or wrong until you fling yourself out of an ornate airboat, sprint up to the giant bas-relief of Gresh the Omnivorous at Roong Thisdara right at the purple of the high red of twelfth Isbil past Eshrey of the rising calendar, and find the person you need to meet waiting there for you.
Conventional ideas of planning tend to assume situations like the first scenario I’ve just outlined, where the problem and the potential solutions are both clearly visible and the only issue is how to connect them. More innovative ideas of planning – and it’s to the credit of the peak oil scene that these latter have been very well represented there – tend to assume situations like the second scenario, where investigation must precede planning, and then follow along the planning process to keep it on track, rather like a herdsman’s dog trotting alongside a flock of sheep. As I see it, though, the situation we face at the end of the petroleum age most resembles the third scenario, where all we have to go on is a relatively vague idea of what a solution might be like, success or failure can be known only in retrospect, and improvisation is the order of the day.
The core fact of the matter, after all, is that what we are trying to invent here – a society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis – has never existed on Earth. We have no working models to go by; all we have, again, is a mix of agrarian practices that seem to have been sustainable, on the one hand, and some experiments that seem to be working so far on a very small scale, on the other. Our job is to piece something together using these, and other things that don’t exist yet, to cope with future challenges we can only foresee in the most general terms. That leaves us, in terms of the metaphor, looking for Roong Thisdara when the only thing we know about it is that it’s roughly equivalent to Trafalgar Square.
Now of course it’s quite possible to imagine post-industrial communities and societies in a fair amount of detail, and several imagined futures of this sort have found enthusiastic followings. The fact that something can be imagined, though, does nothing to prove that it will work. It’s not too hard to envisage a perpetual motion machine, say, or an investment that keeps on gaining value forever, and as we’ve seen, it’s quite possible to build a substantial social movement around belief in the latter, only to find out the hard way that attractive visions and passionate beliefs can rest on foundations of empty air. I recognize that many people find belief in such visions a powerful source of hope in a difficult time, and I sympathize with their feelings, but if we allow the desire for emotional comfort to trump the need to face unwelcome realities, we are in very deep trouble indeed.
There is actually a third irony to all this. As mentioned above, the last round of energy crises in the 1970s saw a great deal of energy go into making plans. A great deal of energy also went into improvisation, in a wide range of fields – notably alternative agriculture, renewable energy, and home design and construction. The plans have been forgotten; I don’t know of a single one that was still in force a decade down the road. The improvisations, on the other hand, have not; they include today’s organic intensive gardening, permaculture, most of today’s arsenal of solar energy methods, a range of alternative homebuilding methods, and much more.
Nobody drew up plans to develop these things, after all; the developers simply developed them, working things out as circumstances demanded, and shared what they learned with others as they went. Thus nearly all the ingredients being inserted into the current crop of plans for the deindustrial future were themselves the product of improvisation. It might be worth suggesting on this basis that our best option would be to skip the plans altogether and get to work on more improvisations.
All the points made here can be phrased in another way: a society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve. This last point, though, presupposes an understanding of the difference between evolution and the ideologies that have sometimes been dressed up in evolution’s cast-off clothing – an issue that will be central to next week’s post.