Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reviving the Household Economy

Part One: The World Outside the Market

As the current pullback in oil prices continues – one of the benchmark grades dropped to a little over $120 a barrel yesterday, though it jumped back up $4 in early trading today – peak oil skeptics have seized the opportunity to insist that there’s nothing wrong with the petroleum market that a few more trillion-dollar giveaways to the oil industry wouldn’t fix. One interesting lesson worth drawing from the current barrage of punditry is that most of people who reject the concept of peak oil don’t actually seem to know what the phrase means.

A case in point is a recent opinion piece that denounced peak oil as “sheer nonsense,” on the grounds that the world still has some forty years of oil left at today’s rate of production. The author of this piece somehow managed not to notice that the peak oil theory focuses on precisely the point he took for granted, the sustainability of today’s rate of production. The world may well have the equivalent of forty years’ worth of current annual petroleum production left in its reserves, but if the amount it can produce each year plateaus and then begins to shrink due to geological limits, a global economy founded on ever-expanding energy supplies is in trouble. That’s the essence of the peak oil position, and waving around claims about the absolute size of global reserves doesn’t address it at all.

Still, it’s not surprising that so many people are finding such ingenious ways just now to avoid understanding the implications of peak oil. As worldwide oil production remains stuck in its current plateau – a plateau that increasingly has had to be propped up by massive production of high-cost biofuels and tar-sand products – some of the most basic presuppositions of the modern world are turning out to be well past their pull dates. Once production begins to slip down the far side of the world’s Hubbert curve, that process is likely to accelerate, and much of what counts as conventional wisdom today will end up sitting in history’s dumpster next to phlogiston and the divine right of kings.

One example with sweeping implications unfolds from a particular mismatch between current economic theories and the practical realities of the age of peak oil. Perhaps the best way to introduce this example is to invite my readers to put on their walking shoes, pick up their canvas shopping bags, and join me in one of yesterday’s errands.

In the southern Oregon town where I live, Tuesday is the day of the weekly grower’s market, and so yesterday, as we do nearly every Tuesday between March and November, my wife Sara and I walked the 3/4 of a mile or so to the National Guard armory parking lot where local growers and ranchers sell their produce. Among our purchases was a flat of fresh raspberries, and this afternoon we’ll be turning those into home-canned raspberry jam for the year to come.

Now it’s unquestionably true that we could just buy an equivalent volume of commercially manufactured raspberry jam and eat that instead. Still, these two ways of putting by a supply of raspberry jam are by no means equal. Set aside for a moment the higher quality of homemade jam, which (in this case, at least) is made of fresher ingredients and prepared in small batches; one of the most important differences between the two processes is that the homemade jam represents a much more efficient use of fossil fuels.

The grower who produced the raspberries used organic methods, which saved the petroleum and natural gas that would otherwise have had to go into pesticides and fertilizers. While she used a pickup to bring her crop to the market, the ten miles or so she drove compares favorably to the thousands of miles agricultural products are routinely shipped in their journey from farm to factory, warehouse, and supermarket, and even if we owned a car and drove to and from the market, the extra mile and a half of gas wouldn’t shift the balance much.

Turning berries into jam and canning the result probably takes about an equal amount of energy per pint of jam whether it’s done in a home kitchen or a huge factory, though it’s a lot easier to provide the energy via a solar cooker or other renewable source on a small scale. Even without that, though, the homemade jam takes a small fraction of the energy to go from raspberry canes to our pantry than commercial jam requires. One measure of these energy economies is that, including all expenses, our homemade jam costs us only about two-thirds as much as the same volume of commercial jam.

Compare the homemade jam with its commercial equivalent from the viewpoint of conventional economic measures, though, and the balance swings the other way. In terms of its impact on the gross domestic product – generally considered the broadest measure of national prosperity – our homemade jam is practically an economic disaster. The very modest price of raspberries, sugar, pectin, and new lids for our much-recycled canning jars is the only contribution it makes to the economy. By contrast, making, shipping, storing, and selling the commercial jam requires, directly and indirectly, the expenditure of a very large amount of money, all of which counts mightily toward a higher gross domestic product.

Consider the economics from the perspective of the participants in the creation of the homemade jam, though, and things take on a very different shape. Even aside from the other reasons Sara and I might want homemade jam, we have a potent economic motive; by making the jam ourselves we get a superior product at a lower price. The raspberry grower, in turn, benefits handsomely from the same decision; the price she gets for her berries when sold directly to the consumer is several times the price she can get from wholesalers. According to conventional economics, the end result of individuals freely pursuing their own interest in a market should be the maximization of prosperity – and yet if prosperity is measured by the gross domestic product, our free pursuit of our own interest decreases our contribution to national prosperity.

What is happening here, of course, reflects one of the largest of the blind spots of contemporary economics: the assumption that market transactions mediated by money are the only significant form of economic activity. Our household jam-making activities drop off the economic radar screen the moment we finish paying for the raw materials. Value is being produced – the same jam offered for sale at next week’s market would bring substantially more than the cost of the raw materials – but it’s being produced outside the market economy, and therefore has no official existence in an economy measured entirely by market metrics.

What makes this particularly relevant in the twilight of the age of cheap oil is that the world’s industrial nations, and above all the United States, have spent most of the last century transferring as much as possible of the household economy into the market sphere. In making our own jam, among other things, Sara and I belong to a minority of American households. Glance back a hundred years, by contrast, and nearly every family in the country outside the very rich and the very poor had an active household economy that produced a large fraction of the total goods and services they consumed. Many factors contributed to this dramatic shift, but one of the most significant is the availability of cheap abundant energy.

Most of the economies of scale that make mass production of processed foods economically viable, after all, are economies only because the cost of transportation is low enough to permit them. As recently as the first half of the 20th century, most consumer products in the US were produced locally for regional markets, in large part because transportation costs were still high enough to make national distribution a costly proposition. (Those brands that did find a nationwide niche, such as Coca-Cola(tm), did it by franchising out manufacturing and bottling to local firms.) It took the birth of a new transportation network of diesel-powered trucks using a massive new interstate highway network to create today’s national distribution chains, and cheap petroleum provided the foundation on which the whole system arose.

The twilight of cheap oil, in turn, bids fair to throw this process of economic centralization into reverse. As transportation costs rise to become a major part of the cost of consumer products, the economies to be gained by local production will sooner or later outweigh the economies of scale that shape the current system, opening economic niches for small and midsized firms nimble enough to move with the currents of economic change. Equally, though, the financial advantages of the household economy will become overwhelming. In a world of scarce oil, anything that can decrease the amount of fossil fuel energy that has to go into an product will pay off handsomely, and if the transition to scarcity involves widespread impoverishment – as seems most likely just now – the choice faced by many households throughout the industrial world may well come down to doing things themselves or doing without.

At the same time, it’s crucial to recognize that the forces holding the current economic order in place reach beyond the realm of simple economic calculations into murkier areas of culture and collective psychology. For those who have access to fruit growers – and with the growth of farmers markets across the US and elsewhere, this has become a tolerably large fraction of the population – making one’s own jam, and a great many other food products, is already a paying proposition; so are many other activities that once formed part of the household economy, and very likely will do so again; yet these activities remain the hobbies of a minority of today’s Americans, and most of their neighbors turn to the market economy to get inferior products at higher prices instead. The forces motivating this sort of economic irrationality will be the focus of next week’s post.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Post-Peak Politics

The recent downward lurch in the price of oil, among its other effects, has provided a good look at the downward arc of a cycle of public discourse about energy that will likely become all too familiar during the months and years ahead of us. As oil prices rose to new records a few weeks back, the media bristled with pundits warning about an imminent energy crisis in language ranging from sober to apocalyptic. Now that prices are cycling down again, another round of pundits has surfaced in the media, insisting that the first lot were wrong and we really can burn as much energy as we want.

These same frenetic swings in popular media and public opinion showed up in the 1970s, of course, and this is not the first such cycle we’ve seen since energy prices began climbing out of the basement in 2003 or so. I suspect a comparison of the rate of pro- and anti-peak oil pieces in the media with upward and downward movements in the price of oil would find a solid positive correlation, though my college statistics classes are far enough in my past that I’ll let someone else apply for the grant.

Such short-term gyrations deserve attention. As I’ve suggested in several posts here, much of the impact of peak oil – and indeed of the wider crisis of industrial society, of which peak oil forms only one aspect – takes the form of increased volatility rather than linear change. This in itself is a source of serious economic and social disruption; if governments, businesses, and families have no way of knowing whether gasoline, or diesel fuel, or home heating oil will be $3 a gallon or $6 a gallon six months from now, planning for the future becomes an exercise in high-stakes gambling, especially as the same uncertainty percolates through the rest of the economy in the form of unstable energy and raw material costs.

Still, these short-term effects are only half the story. Behind them, and more than half hidden by them, is the long-term trend that has lifted energy prices from the all-time lows of the 1980s and 1990s to today’s troubling levels. If that trend continues into the future, as seems most likely, not many of the economic arrangements of the last thirty years are well equipped to survive the experience. The resulting transformations will play out on many levels, but one of the most important – and the one I want to talk about today – is the political sphere.

The politics of peak oil form one of the most explosive and least often understood dimensions of the emerging crisis of industrial civilization. Too often, when questions of politics enter the peak oil discourse, they focus on the belief that the problem of peak oil can be solved by throwing one set of scoundrels out of power so that another set of scoundrels can take their place. This seems hopelessly misguided to me.

To start with, peak oil is not a problem that can be solved. It’s a predicament – a phenomenon hardwired into our species’ most fundamental relationships with physical and ecological reality – and like any other predicament, it cannot be solved; it can only be accepted. It differs in detail, but not in kind, from the collisions with ecological limits that punctuate the historical record as far back as you care to look.

Like every other species, humanity now and then overshoots the limits of its ecological support system. It’s our misfortune to live at a time when this has happened on a much larger scale than usual, due to our species’ recent discovery and reckless exploitation of the Earth’s once-abundant fossil fuel reserves. Expecting a change of leaders, or even of systems, to make that reality go away is a little like trying to pass a bill in Congress to repeal the law of supply and demand.

Still, leaders and governmental systems make great scapegoats, and just now scapegoats are very much in fashion. Consider the rogue’s gallery of villains blamed in the media for recent surges in the price of oil: speculators, oil companies, environmentalists, Arab sheiks, Nigerian rebels, and the US government, which – succumbing to a rare fit of common sense – refused to drain the nation’s strategic oil reserve so that vacationers could have cheap gas for their holiday driving. Veer away from the mainstream media, in turn, and you’ll find that the list of culprits for soaring oil prices has expanded far beyond an archdruid’s capacity to catalogue.

Missing from nearly all these lists, however, is the simple geological reality that there’s only so much oil in the Earth’s rocks, we’ve pumped out most of the really large and easily accessible deposits, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain current production levels – much less increase them – by drawing down the smaller and less accessible deposits that remain. It’s not hard to show that this is a major factor in the current energy crisis; when a commodity’s price doubles in a year, but the production of the same commodity fails to budge outside of a narrow range, it’s a reliable bet that physical limits on the supply of the commodity are to blame.

The difficulties with this otherwise sensible observation, of course, are twofold. It offers no easy answers; if we’ve reached the physical limits of petroleum production, that’s a fact we have to learn to live with, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be. At the same time, it offends against a common assumption of modern thought, the belief that human beings – and only human beings – play an active role in history. Older civilizations understood that nonhuman forces shared in the making of history, and there’s a fine irony in the way that our civilization, having rejected the nonhuman world as a historical agent, now finds its own history being shaped by a nonhuman reality with which it steadfastly refuses to come to terms.

Bring historical irony into the political sphere, though, and as often as not it turns explosive. The example of Germany in the aftermath of the First World War is instructive. Faced with the collision between an imperial ideology of world domination and the hard fact of military defeat, a great many Germans after 1918 searched feverishly for an explanation for that defeat that did not require them to recognize the geopolitical limits to German power in the dawning age of oil.

As the economic troubles of the postwar period mounted, so did the quest for scapegoats, until finally a fringe politician named Adolf Hitler came up with an answer that most Germans found acceptable. Germany’s second attempt at world conquest proved, even more conclusively than the first, that in an age of oil, a small country with no oil reserves and no defensible borders has no business dreaming of global empire. Still, it took the most destructive war in human history and the horrors of the Holocaust to bring that simple fact to the attention of the German people.

One factor that made the political situation in Weimar Germany so vulnerable to this sort of self-destructive evasion of crucial realities was the intellectual bankruptcy of the mainstream political parties at the time. The late 19th century saw the emergence of a political consensus across the then-industrial world that united all mainstream parties behind the principles of free trade, governmental noninterference in economic affairs, and imperial expansion into the Third World. Finding substantive differences between Liberals and Conservatives in Britain, Democrats and Republicans in America, and equivalent parties in other countries around the turn of the last century was a task best pursued with a magnifying glass. It took decades of crisis, culminating in the economic debacle of the Great Depression, to break the grip of that consensus on the political imagination of the industrial world.

We are in a similar situation in America today. If anything, contemporary political thought is far more impoverished than it was in 1908, when the radical fringes of society swarmed with alternative theories of political economy. Since the collapse of classical conservatism in the 1960s, and the implosion of the New Left in the 1970s, political debate in the American mainstream has focused on finding the best means to achieve a set of ends that few voices question at all, while a great deal of debate outside the mainstream has abandoned political theory for a secular demonology in which everything wrong with the world – including the effects of the Earth’s ecological limits, of course – is the fault of some malevolent elite or other.

The current presidential race in America is a case in point. Neither candidate has addressed what, to my mind at least, are the crucial issues of our time: for example, whether America’s interests are best served by maintaining a sprawling military-economic empire with military bases in more than a hundred nations around the world; what is to be done about the collapse of America’s economic infrastructure and the hollowing out of its once-prosperous heartland; and, of course, how America’s economy and society can best deal with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy and the transition to an age of scarcity for which we are woefully unprepared.

Instead, the candidates argue about whether American troops should be fighting in Iraq or in Afghanistan, and whether or not we ought to produce more energy by drilling for oil in the nation’s wildlife refuges. Meanwhile, the partisans of each of these career politicians strive to portray the other as Satan’s own body double, while a growing number of those who are disillusioned with the entire political process hold that both men are pawns of whatever reptilian conspiracy happens to be fashionable on the fringes these days.

Maybe it’s just me, but this sort of evasion of the obvious seems utterly counterproductive. If Weimar America is to have a less disastrous future than its 20th century counterpart, we need to move toward serious debate over the shape that future is going to have, and our economically ruinous empire, our disintegrating national economy, and our extravagant lifestyles need to be among the things up for discussion. The radical right have already begun to scent a major opportunity; Nick Griffin, head of the neofascist British National Party, has already commented that his party is precisely one major crisis away from power, and he may well be right.

More generally, the first political movement to come up with a plausible response to peak oil will likely define the political discourse around energy and society for decades to come. Griffin and his peers are eager to take on that role; their response may not look plausible to most people now, but then neither did Hitler’s, before the Great Depression lowered the bar on plausibility to the point that he could goose-step over it. Unless some other movement comes up with a meaningful politics for the post-peak world, Griffin’s ideas may yet win out by default.

That would be a tragedy, and for more than the obvious reasons. One advantage of crisis is that it becomes possible to make constructive changes that are much harder in less troubled times. While I am no fan of utopian fantasies, and the possibility always exists that well-intentioned changes could make things worse, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the dysfunctional mess that is modern American politics could stand some improvement. That might involve learning a few things from other democracies; it might also involve returning to something a little more like the constitutional system on which this country was founded, which after all worked well in a pre-fossil fuel age. One way or another, though, it’s time to take a hard look at some of our most basic assumptions, and replace scapegoat logic with a reasoned discussion about where we are headed and what other options our society might want to consider.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dreams of a Better World

As it launched the modern worldview on its trajectory, the intellectual revolution of the 18th century – the Enlightenment, as it’s usually called – passed on a legacy with profoundly mixed consequences for the future. Central to the Enlightenment ethos was the claim that myths were simply inaccurate claims about fact, and should be replaced by more accurate claims founded on reason and experiment. This seems like common sense to most people nowadays, but like most things labeled “common sense,” it begs more questions and conceals richer ironies than a casual glance is likely to reveal.

One of those ironies became central to a discussion sparked by last week’s Archdruid Report post, when a reader took issue with my characterization of progress as a myth. Like most people nowadays, he assumed that “myth” meant a story that isn’t true, and drew the usual distinction between myth and science – that is, between the cosmological narratives of other cultures, which don’t usually make experimentally testable claims about the natural world, and the cosmological narratives of ours, which does. It took, as it usually does, several exchanges before he realized that the popular definition of myth he was using is not the only game in town.

What makes this ironic is that the definition of myth he was using is itself part of a myth: the very one I mentioned in the earlier post. Only from within the myth of progress – the belief that all human existence follows a single line of advance leading straight from the caves to today’s industrial societies, and beyond them to the stars – does it make sense to treat the belief systems of the past as inadequate attempts to do what we do better. The notion that other mythologies might have other purposes, and accomplish them better than ours does, is practically unthinkable these days. Yet many traditional belief systems have done a fine job of enabling the people who hold them to live their lives in harmony with their environment for millennia, while modern industrial cultures have proven hopelessly inept at this basic and necessary task.

Now of course there are plenty of people nowadays who use arguments such as this last to stand the myth of progress on its head, and insist that these traditional cultures are more advanced than ours. As I see it, though, the predicament we are facing demands something subtler. Rather than swapping one narrative for its mirror image, it may be time to step back and look at our mythic narratives as narratives, rather than imposing them by force on the world around us.

This backward step has a useful if uncomfortable effect: it reveals the awkward fact that the cultural narratives we use to make sense of the world today, however new they look, are generally rehashes of myths that have been around for a very long time. The anthropologist Misia Landau pointed out some years ago, for example, that contemporary scientific accounts of the rise of Homo sapiens from its prehuman ancestors are simply rehashed hero myths that follow Joseph Campbell’s famous typology of the hero’s journey, point for point. In the same way, those like Ray Kurzweil who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a hypertechnological future, just as much as those who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a return to the hunter-gatherer past, are simply projecting the myth of paradise onto one or another of the very few locations a secular worldview offers for it.

All this has to be kept in mind when considering an odd phenomenon that has become steadily more prominent in recent months, and seems likely to become even more so in the near future.

Well over a dozen times in the last six months, I’ve found myself in conversations with people who believe that the imminent crash of industrial society will inevitably lead to the birth of the sort of society they themselves most want to live in. What I find most interesting is that no two of them agree on exactly what sort of society that will be. Some of them come to the discussion with detailed plans for their perfect future, backed up figuratively – and now and again literally – with a backpack stuffed with supporting documentation laboriously cherrypicked from their favorite authors and the media; on the other end of the spectrum are those who have no idea what the world of the future will look like, but cling to an unshakable faith that it must be better than the world of today.

This astigmatism of the imagination is remarkably common. A good friend of mine once recounted a conversation he’d had in the last days of 1999 with someone who confessed she was deeply worried about the imminent Y2K problem. He assumed that she meant she was worried about the struggle for survival in the aftermath of the massive systems collapse some people were still predicting at that point, but she quickly set him right. Her job was unsatisfying, her marriage was on the rocks, and her life was at a standstill; what worried her was the possibility that she might wake up on January 1, 2000 to find that nothing had changed.

For my part, I knew quite a few people who became profoundly depressed when the world still worked after Y2K came and went, and there are many more people placing similar hopes on the potential catastrophes of the present and near future. It might seem that coping with a boring job, a troubled marriage, and a midlife crisis would still be preferable to starving to death in a burned-out basement in the aftermath of a cataclysmic social unraveling. The fact that many people in America today see things differently is one of the least noted and most troubling indicators of the temper of our times.

History has a good deal to do with the popularity of the belief in utopia through apocalypse these days. Over the course of the 20th century, the dizzying range of political-economic ideologies that once jostled for position in the western world narrowed gradually down to two – free market capitalism and Marxism – and then to one, which combines most of the objectionable features of both. The collapse of the New Left in the aftermath of the Sixties, and the abandonment of traditional conservatism by the pragmatist Right of the Reagan era, left a political vacuum that has yet to be filled. For some years now, as a result, most radicals of left and right alike have pictured their task in the purely reactive language of resistance and opposition, while the mainstream parties abandoned their old commitments in favor of the pursuit of business as usual for its own sake.

This has spared all sides the daunting challenge of coming up with constructive proposals for the future, but the downside is that those who sense the necessity for change are left with nothing but fantasies of a perfect world after an apocalyptic collapse to feed their hopes. In the process, it has been all too easy for many people to forget that in every other example in history, the decline and fall of a civilization leads not to utopia, but to a long and difficult age of warfare, mass migration, population decline, impoverishment, and the loss of priceless cultural treasures. Just as revolutionaries who insist that nothing can be worse than the status quo are often unpleasantly surprised to find just how much worse things can get, those who insist that today’s industrial societies comprise the worst of all possible worlds may find themselves pining for the good old days of suburbs and freeways if they get the collapse they think they want.

Furthermore, especially but not only in America, the last few decades has seen the emergence of a culture of political demonology in which the slight differences between competing political parties get redefined in terms of absolute good and evil. Vigorous debate over the relative merits of candidates for office is the lifeblood of a republic, but when opponents of a public official don’t seem to be able to walk past his picture without screaming obscenities at it – and I have seen this on both sides of the widening political chasm in America today – something has gone seriously wrong. Carl Jung’s useful concept of “projecting the shadow” is more than a little relevant here; too many Americans nowadays have fallen into the seductive but disastrous habit of blaming their political adversaries for their own feelings of shame and resentment. Even the briefest glance at history shows where that sort of scapegoat logic leads, and it’s no place any sane human being would want to go.

Still, sanity may be in short supply as the crisis of industrial society deepens around us. Lacking a clear sense of the logic of myth – and the legacy of the Enlightenment has made such a sense uncommonly hard to gain these days – it’s far too easy for people in crisis to get so deeply entangled in mythic narratives that they lose track of the direction those narratives are leading them. A good deal of what happened during Germany’s “few years in the absolute elsewhere” between 1933 and 1945, as Jung pointed out in a prescient essay, can best be understood as this type of entrapment in a myth, with a grand Wagnerian Götterdammerung as finale. It’s entirely possible that some similar madness could grip America in the years to come.

Whether or not anything so ghastly happens, the unfolding crisis of industrial society is likely to bring in a bumper crop of misplaced myths and self-defeating ideologies unless we can manage to gain a wider recognition of the role of myth in public life, even – or, rather, especially – in those modern societies that pride themselves on their hard-headed rationality. When claims that an imminent catastrophe will inevitably result in the coming of a desired new world are seen for what they are – religious myths of apocalypse decked out awkwardly in secular drag – it’s easier to see through them, and also to notice that the same claims have failed catastrophically every time in recorded history that they have been projected onto the inkblot patterns of current events.

If we can regain a certain degree of mythic literacy, and apply it to the myths that shape our public life, we might even be able to stop thinking of modern industrial society as either the best or the worst of human cultures, and recognize it as the ramshackle product of a long process of evolution, containing much that is worth saving alongside much that belongs in history’s compost bin. We might also find ourselves realizing in time that catastrophe is no guarantee of Utopia, and a better society will emerge out of the wreckage of this one only if a very sizable number of us are willing to muster the courage, forbearance, and capacity for hard work needed to make that happen.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Trailing Edge Technologies

One of the worst of the booby traps built into the contemporary mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that the way out of any difficulty is to keep moving the way we are already going, and do it faster. It may seem obvious that if you’ve gone down a blind alley, the only way out begins by shifting into reverse, but it takes very little attention to the current political scene to notice that this bit of common sense is far from common just now.

For a case in point, listen to the pundits – a sizeable chorus of them just now – who insist that the only way to bring soaring prices of oil, food, and other commodities back to earth is to push forward with the project of economic globalization. The problem here is that globalization was never more than an artifact of the final blowoff of the age of cheap oil, and as that age ends, so do the economic factors that made globalization work.

During the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, the cost of transport was so close to negligible that it seemed to make sense – and certainly made profits – to arbitrage labor costs by building sweatshop factories in Third World countries and shipping their products around the globe to markets in the industrial world. Far from being the wave of the future, as so many of its promoters claimed, or a malign conspiracy, as so many of its enemies insisted, it was simply the most profitable solution of an equation in which fuel costs, prevailing wages, and the relative strengths of various currencies were the most significant factors.

That equation is changing now. A recent news article noted that the cost of shipping a container of freight from China to Europe is now three times what it was before the current oil price spike began, and US companies that had offshored their production lines to distant continents were beginning to reopen long-shuttered domestic factories to cut transport costs. As the age of cheap oil dwindles in the rearview mirror, companies that choose the same strategy will prosper at the expense of those who cling to the mirage of the global economy.

The same sort of reversal, I’m coming to think, may affect many more aspects of life in the near future, as a great many apparent waves of the future turn out to be temporary adjustments to the short-term aberration that sent energy prices plunging down to levels that, in constant dollars, they never reached before – and almost certainly will never reach again. Any number of examples come to mind, but the one I’d like to discuss here is technology.

Few aspects of contemporary life are as heavily freighted with mythic significance as the way that technologies change over time. It’s from this, more than anything else, that the modern myth of progress draws its force – and yet there are at least two very different processes lumped under the label of “technological progress.”

The first, progress within a particular technology, follows a predictable course driven by the evolution of the technology itself. The first clumsy, tentative, and unreliable prototypes are replaced by ever more efficient and reliable models, until something like a standard model emerges; thereafter, changes in fashion and a slow improvement in efficiency supply what variations there are. Compare a sewing machine, a clothes dryer, or a turboprop engine from the 1960s with one fresh off the assembly line today, and in the underlying technology, the differences are fairly slight.

The difference lies in the control systems. The sewing machines, clothes dryers, and turboprops of the 1960s used relatively simple mechanical means of control, guided by the skill of human operators. Their equivalents today use complex digital electronics, courtesy of the computer revolution, and require much less human skill to run effectively. On a 1960s sewing machine, for example, buttonholes are sewn using a simple mechanical part and a great deal of knowledge and coordination on the part of the seamstress; on a modern machine, as often as not, the same process is done by tapping a few virtual buttons on a screen and letting the machine do it.

Changes of this sort are generally considered signs of progress. This easy assumption, though, may require a second look. It’s true that the primitive computers available in the 1960s would have had a very hard time sewing a buttonhole, and the idea of fitting one of the warehouse-sized mainframes of the time into a home sewing machine would have seemed preposterous; computer technology has certainly progressed over that time. Yet the change from mechanical controls and operator skills with digital electronics is not a matter of progress in a single technology. It marks the replacement of one technology by another.

It’s at this point that we enter into the second dimension of technological change. Mechanical controls and home economics classes did not gradually evolve into digital sewing machine controls; instead, one technology ousted another. Furthermore, both technologies do an equally good job of making a buttonhole. The factors driving the replacement of one by the other are external to the technologies themselves.

In the case of the sewing machines, as in so many similar technological transformations of the last sixty years or so, the replacement of one technology by another furthered a single process – the replacement of human skill by mechanical complexity. What drove this, in turn, was an economic equation closely parallelling the one that guided the rise of the global economy: the fact that for a certain historical period, all through the industrial world, energy was cheaper than human labor. Anything that could be done with a machine was therefore more profitable to do with a machine, and the only limitation to the replacement of human labor by fossil fuel-derived energy was the sophistication of the control systems needed to replace the knowledge base and nervous system of a skilled laborer.

For most people today, that equation still defines progress. A more advanced technology, by this definition, is one that requires less human skill and effort to operate. The curve of progress thus seems to point to the sort of fully automated fantasy future that used to fill so many comic books and Saturday morning cartoons.

One of the major mental challenges of the near future, in turn, will consist of letting go of this image of the future and retooling our expectations to fit a very different reality. Behind the clever robots who populated the collective imagination, and the less clever but more tangible bits of household automation marketed so obsessively to the middle classes in recent decades, lies the replacement of human energy by mechanical energy derived mostly from fossil fuels. During the age of cheap abundant energy, this made economic sense, because the energy – and the machines needed to use it – were so much cheaper than the skilled labor they replaced. In the decades to come, as energy stops being cheap and abundant, that rule will no longer hold. What looked like the wave of the future, here as elsewhere, might well turn out to be a temporary adjustment to a short-term phenomenon.

It’s hard to think of an aspect of modern life that will not face drastic reshaping as a result. The collapse of American education, for example, was a consequence of the same economic forces that put computers into sewing machines; for the last few decades, it was more cost-effective to hand over bookkeeping chores to computers and equip word processors with spell checkers than it was to teach American children how to do arithmetic and spell correctly. In the future, this will very likely no longer be true, but the sprawling bureaucracies that run today’s education industry are poorly equipped, and even more poorly motivated, to deal with the need to teach the skills that will be needed for humans to replace the machines.

Now of course not all the machines will need to be replaced at once. Many modern technologies, however, demand very large energy inputs that will not be reliably available in the future. Many more cannot be repaired when they break down – during the age of cheap energy, it was more cost-effective to throw a machine away when it broke, and buy a new model, than it was to pay a repairman’s wages. Furthermore, the extraordinary levels of interconnection that pervade today’s technology mean that the failure of a single component that cannot be replaced or repaired can render an entire system useless.

It’s probably too late to avoid the future of systems failure the choices of the recent past have prepared for us, but quite a bit can be done to mitigate it. The first priority, it seems to me, is precisely to break free of the dubious assumption that the kind of technology that was more cost-effective in an age of cheap abundant energy will be well suited to the age of scarce and limited energy now dawning around us. The second is to redirect our attention and efforts to those technologies better suited to the new realities of our future.

Among the most useful resources in this context, in turn, are precisely the technologies that fell out of fashion in the last extravagant decades of the age of abundance, and the skills necessary to use them. As a culture, we’ve pursued cutting edge technologies for so long that shifting attention to trailing edge technologies may seem almost willfully perverse. Nonetheless, those older technologies that work effectively with relatively modest energy inputs, and rely on human hands and minds in place of energy- and resource-intensive electronics, may turn out to be much more viable in the long run.

That 1960s sewing machine – designed to allow for maintenance and repair, built of easily replaceable parts, and relatively easy to convert to foot pedal power if electricity becomes scarce – is likely to have a much longer working life in an age of decline than the computerized models filling showrooms today. In the same way, a great many trailing edge technologies – and the skills needed to use them, many of which can still be learned from living practitioners today – are worth preserving. The question, of course, is how many people will do that while the opportunity still exists.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Lessons from Amateur Radio

Of the many recent signals that peak oil has come of age as a social reality, the one I find most interesting is the efforts being made, on nearly all sides of the cultural spectrum, to find reasons not to talk about it. The ongoing superspike in the price of oil, for example, has been blamed on almost everything under the sun except the simple, easily verifiable fact that worldwide petroleum production has been stuck on a plateau since late in 2004, and shows no sign of going anywhere but down in the foreseeable future.

Now of course it’s true that speculation has played a role in driving up the price of oil, though as many speculators have bet on a decline in oil prices as on a continued rise – check the short interest on oil futures on any of the exchanges in recent months if you doubt that. It’s also true that Russia, for example, has been using its newfound energy wealth as a political weapon, though there’s rich irony to be savored in watching pundits in the United States, which built an empire on its own now-depleted petroleum reserves, criticizing Russia for doing the same thing. If oil production was still increasing at 2% per year, none of that would matter.

Look at the situation in the light of the relationship between supply and demand and the nature of the current crisis is hard to miss. Over the last year, the price of oil has approximately doubled. According to conventional economics, a price increase on this scale ought to stimulate new production, since oil reserves that were economically marginal when oil was $70 a barrel are much less so when oil is $140 a barrel. During the same period, despite frantic drilling on the part of oil companies, production has remained stuck in a narrow band. This only makes sense if production is constrained by non-economic factors. That, in a nutshell, is the peak oil concept: at a certain point, geology trumps economics, because you can’t pump oil that’s not there any more.

This may seem obvious enough. To most of the people in the world’s industrial nations right now, though, this sort of logic is unthinkable, for intensely personal reasons. Accept the reality of peak oil, and the future most people have planned for themselves and their children stands revealed as one of history’s all-time bad jokes. Worse still, the reality of peak oil means that all those who turned their backs on the lessons of the 1970s energy crises, and wallowed in the quarter century of excess that followed, have personally contributed to making the world their children will inhabit a poorer place. That’s a hard pill to swallow at the best of times, and this goes a long way to explain the passion for finding someone else – anyone else – to blame for the unfolding crisis.

They’ll get over it eventually, when it becomes clear that what I have called the age of scarcity industrialism is the new reality, and no amount of scapegoat-hunting is going to change that fact. In the meantime, it seems to me, it’s crucial that the peak oil movement keep going forward. Ten years ago, when the idea of oil priced above $100 a barrel was considered laughable by serious people, we correctly predicted the shape of the future. Now it’s time to move on, and propose constructive responses to that future as it takes shape around us.

And that, dear readers, is what landed me in a converted World War Two barracks building the Saturday before last, with a multiple choice test on the table in front of me and a group of elderly men from the American Radio Relay League to grade it.

A few words of explanation are probably in order at this point. One of the major achievements of the last two hundred years, it seems to me, is the emergence of communications networks that allow news and information to move from one side of the planet to another at a faster pace than messengers on horseback or sailing ships can travel. Though there had been plenty of earlier attempts, using semaphore and other visual systems, the telegraph revolutionized communication across the industrial world, and launched a series of more complex media – telephone, radio, television, and finally the internet. Not all these were an unmixed blessing, it has to be said; every technology has its downsides, but on the whole, widespread access to long-distance communication has been much more a blessing than the opposite.

There are also few dimensions of modern industrial society more vulnerable to breakdown in the age of scarcity now beginning. The internet, the crown jewel of modern communications, depends on a huge and energy-intensive infrastructure that may well prove unsustainable in the future. A single server farm can use as much electricity as a small city, and the technology that makes the internet possible in the first place requires plenty of energy, exotic raw materials, and a very high level of technology – none of which can necessarily be guaranteed in the decades to come. On a broader level, most of today’s telecommunications, including the internet, support themselves through advertising sales, and the economic model that makes this work will have a hard time surviving the collapse of the consumer economy.

At the same time, electronic communications media need not be as dependent on today’s industrial systems as they are. It’s quite possible to build a vacuum tube – the backbone of radio communications in the days before transistors – from commonly available materials using hand tools; Peter Friedrichs’ excellent book Instruments of Amplification, which details how to do this, has become popular reading on the more outrĂ© end of the do-it-yourself crowd. Fifty years ago, widely available books for the teen market such as Alfred P. Morgan’s The Boy’s First (and so on up through Sixth) Book of Radio and Electronics taught aspiring young electricians how to build remarkably sophisticated gear out of oatmeal boxes, spare parts and salvaged scrap. The possibility of viable electronics in a post-peak oil era deserves exploration.

What would a viable long-distance communications network in the age of peak oil look like? To begin with, it would use the airwaves rather than land lines, to minimize infrastructure, and its energy needs would be modest enough to be met by local renewable sources. It would take the form of a decentralized network of self-supporting and self-managing stations sharing common standards and operating procedures. It would use a diverse mix of communications modalities, so that operators could climb down the technological ladder as needed, from computerized data transfer all the way to equipment that could be built locally with hand tools. It would have its own subculture, of course, in which technical knowledge and practical expertise would be rewarded, encouraged, and fostered in newcomers. Finally, it would take a particular interest in energency communications, so that operators could respond to disruptions and disasters with effective workarounds at times when having even the most basic communications net in place could save many lives.

The interesting thing, of course, is that a network that fills exactly these specifications already exists, in the form of amateur radio. During a long and complex history, the original loose network of radio experimenters who pioneered the airwaves in the first three decades of the 20th century morphed into a worldwide community of radio hobbyists, who are assigned their own segments of the radio spectrum. Licensed and occasionally encouraged by governments, “ham radio” – the origins of the nickname are a subject of some debate – flies almost completely under the radar of the wider culture these days, surfacing only when someone in the media notices that in the wake of some natural disaster, a group of local radio amateurs stepped up and kept emergency communications going when all other channels shut down.

All this was in my mind when I sat down two Saturdays ago and prepared to take the first of a series of FCC exams that would qualify me for an amateur radio license. Like a fair number of my generation, I’d been involved in amateur radio in my teen years – my Boy Scout troop had a ham radio club – but it got lost somewhere in the tangles of a difficult adolescence. Six months of study had, I hoped, prepared me for the most challenging test of all, the Element Four exam required to get an Amateur Extra class license, which authorizes operations on all amateur bands and all modes. Longtime readers of this blog will have already guessed that I had my Pickett slide rule with me, to crunch numbers as needed.

As it happened, that six months of study paid off, and the Pickett performed splendidly. I passed all three required exams, and a week later got an envelope from the FCC containing my Amateur Extra “ticket,” call sign AD7VI. The next task is to assemble a station; given the limits on my budget, that will involve a good deal of scrounging and probably some homebuilt gear as well, but that’s hardly a disadvantage; a Druid interested in appropriate technology has much to gain by practicing technological salvage and getting some facility with a soldering iron.

All this has several lessons that may be worth considering as we move deeper into the age of peak oil. First, of course, members of the peak oil community interested in practical responses to the future ahead of us could do worse than look into amateur radio. The internet has been the crucial framework for peak oil organization and information sharing since the dawn of the peak oil scene in the late 1990s. If the net becomes unstable, or outlying areas begin to lose access – both real possibilities as energy prices rise and infrastructure falters – having something else in place as a backup has much to recommend it. The Druid order I head has similar concerns, and similar plans in process.

Second, many other technologies vulnerable to the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and the other impacts of the predicament of industrial society have potential backups and replacements in the large and little-known world of hobby subcultures. An astonishing number of what we might as well call “trailing edge technologies,” from black powder firearms through handloom weaving to long-distance sailing on windpowered boats, have survived intact to the present in the form of hobbies pursued by their own community of aficionados. Those communities, and the knowledge they preserve, are potentially an immense resource as we look for more sustainable ways to do things in the aftermath of the age of oil.

A third lesson, though, may be the most relevant of all. I’ve suggested elsewhere that our civilization is the first, and thus the most clumsy and tentative, of a new class of human societies – technic societies – as distinct from earlier forms as the first urban agricultural societies were from the tribal cultures that preceded them. One of the inevitable blind spots our historical position imposes on us is a tendency to confuse the particular cultural forms evolved by our technic society with the requirements of technic societies in general. Amateur radio is a reminder that there are ways to handle long-distance electronic communications that do not involve, say, mass broadcasting supported by huge energy inputs and the financial payback of a consumer economy. This is worth keeping in mind as we begin the long transition toward the ecotechnic societies of a sustainable future.