It's always a bit of a gamble to sit down at the computer and start writing one of these weekly posts. I don’t know how it works for other writers, but for me, the writing process is inherently unpredictable; I may think I know what I’m going to write, but once the fingertips get within range of the keyboard, all bets are off. A news story off the net, a stray passage from some old book, a series of those things we like to call coincidences because we haven’t yet noticed that a belief in coincidence is the most popular superstition of the age of science—take your pick, it can be any of those things or others, but all of a sudden what should have been a quiet evening of sipping tea and anatomizing the decline and fall of industrial civilization becomes a leap into the dark.
This time, it was a question raised by a reader of last week’s post. That post, as my readers will recall, ended with some suggestions about how readers in the world’s industrial nations might consider changing their own lives, to cut back on the burden their lifestyles put on the living Earth. The reader in question applauded those suggestions, but asked what suggestions I might have if I were addressing an audience of scientists and engineers—that is, people who might be able to come up with new technologies to help cushion our species’ face-first collision with the brick wall of planetary limits. What would I want them to explore?
I confess the question took me entirely by surprise, and I stammered something about how it was an interesting point, but I didn’t expect ever to have the chance to address an audience of scientists and engineers along those lines. Of course the inevitable result followed promptly, as an assortment of scientists and engineers popped up to say that they were regular readers of mine, and they would be interested in hearing my suggestions for what they could do.
It’s a far more complex question than it might seem at first glance. To begin with, there are at least two limits that nearly all attempts to imagine technologies for the future systematically duck. The first of those limits come out of the laws of thermodynamics, which dictate that the amount of work you can get out of any energy source is a function of the difference between the concentration of energy in that energy source and the background concentration in the environment. Fossil fuels are extraordinarily concentrated energy sources—a single gallon of gasoline, remember, contains as much energy as one ton of fully charged lead-acid auto batteries—and nearly all of today’s technologies depend on that huge difference in energy concentration between the chemical energy of petroleum and other fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the ambient heat of the lower atmosphere on the other.
The second limit comes out of White’s Law, which is arguably as important in human ecology as the laws of thermodynamics are in physics. White’s Law states that the level of economic development possible in any society is determined by the amount of energy per capita at its disposal. The immense infrastructure that makes today’s industrial world lifestyles possible depends on constant flows of concentrated energy, not merely to power it but to provide it with raw materials, spare parts, skilled and unskilled labor, and all its other necessities, and these requirements each have further requirements of their own, cascading outwards in a net of dependencies that ultimately includes much of the planet. Nearly all of today’s technologies depend on our current industrial infrastructure or a close facsimile thereof, not only to keep them fueled and running, but to give what they do some value.
These two limits interact in ways that are fatal to most projects for future technologies. Any future society in the real world is going to have to get by on a lot less energy, and a lot less of the products of energy, than people in today’s industrial societies are used to having at their beck. This means that any advanced technology will have to compete with other technologies for a share of the limited energy that’s available, and it will also have to compete with other, less technologically complex ways of accomplishing whatever it is that it does. Furthermore, the relevance of any advanced technology to a future society will depend on how complex an infrastructure that society would need to build the technology, fuel it, maintain it, and give its work economic value. Whether or not computers will be viable in a future society, in other words, is not a question of whether it’s technically possible to build them; it depends, first, on whether all the things needed to build, power, maintain, and get useful work out of them can be provided; second, whether other, simpler technologies can provide the same services at a lower cost in energy, resources, and labor; and third, whether the sharply limited resources available to a future society would be better spent on some other project altogether.
All these issues will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It’s also probably worth saying that while I try to stay abreast of major developments in half a dozen sciences, there’s no way any human being can keep up with everything that’s being done by the world’s scientists and engineers, and so any guesses I may offer here may already have been rendered unnecessary or proven impossible by somebody sitting at a lab bench in Cleveland, Cape Town, or Kowloon. I’m still going to take the risk of making some suggestions, but in a bit I’ll also have a challenge to offer to the scientists, engineers, and basement inventors among my readers.
First, though, my wish list. In honor of the holiday season just past, we can call it a solstice list—those of my readers who celebrate Christmas instead can call it a Christmas list if they wish. Still, I’d like to ask that the list not be sent to Santa Claus. No, this list is for Krampus.
Krampus? He’s a Yuletide figure across much of central Europe. Horned, clawed, covered with shaggy black hair, and equipped with a long red tongue, he carries a birch switch, has a basket on his back, and visits houses on long winter nights. Good little children wake to find gold coins in their shoes; bad little children get thwacked with the birch switch; and really, really bad little children—the sort of spoiled, shrieking little horrors who take consumer society’s cult of self-centered greed to its logical extreme—get popped into the basket on Krampus’s back and taken away by him, and nobody ever sees them again. I suspect that lingering belief in Krampus may be one reason why children in central Europe are by and large better behaved than their American equivalents.
Krampus, in other words, is all about consequences. That in itself arguably makes him a better Yuletide figure than Santa Claus, whose ancient custom of putting a lump of coal in the stockings of offensive children is hardly even a memory these days. Still, that’s only part of the reason I propose to send my wish list to Krampus.
The fact of the matter is that I’ve been bedeviled by Krampus over the holiday season just past. Part of that’s due to the publication of a new fantasy novel, Krampus the Yule Lord, in which the horned Yuletide spirit escapes from half a millennium of imprisonment to do battle with Santa Claus for dominion over the holiday season: something, that is, like a cross between A Christmas Carol and Prometheus Unbound. It’s got a portrait of Krampus on the front cover, and for months, when I visited libraries or walked past bookstores or waited in train stations next to one of those wretched little newsstands with a few books tucked in among the junk food and the magazines, there he’d be, leering out from the shelves. Meanwhile Krampus-themed holiday cards arrived from friends, as did emails from other friends asking me if I’d ever heard about...well, you get the picture.
Mind you, in my line of work, you learn early on how to recognize when an archetype is trying to get your attention. Why exactly this particular archetype is clearing its throat and casting significant looks in the direction of a mild and middle-aged archdruid is something that I’ll doubtless figure out in due time. Meanwhile, though, it seems sensible enough to offer Krampus my wish list for next Yuletide, or whichever Yuletide is convenient; perhaps he can cash in some of those gold coins for a few research grants to get the process rolling.
So here are the things I’d like to see under the solstice tree one of these days, if a few scientists and engineers are willing to be Krampus’s little helpers and put them there.
At the top of the list—well, let’s start by talking a bit about the most important legacy our civilization is going to leave to the future. No, it’s not any of the things for which we like to preen ourselves; it’s the vast quantities of nuclear waste we’re heaping up for tomorrow to deal with. I don’t know words sufficiently forceful in any language to describe the sheer brutal selfishness of the attitude that insists that our supposed need to prop up our extravagant lifestyles a little longer justifies generating wastes that remain lethal for a quarter of a million years, while doing absolutely nothing to keep them away from the biosphere for more than the smallest fraction of that interval.
Still, that’s business as usual in most of the world’s industrial nations these days. Sooner or later—probably after we get the statistically inevitable nuclear waste accident that turns a couple of hundred square miles or so of some industrial country into a dead zone nobody will be able to enter for the next millennium—finding some less self-destructively stupid way of dealing with the backlog of nuclear waste is going to be a major issue. When that time arrives, I’d like a technology that can do the trick: if at all possible, some way of making spent fuel rods and other high-level waste physically stable, chemically inert, and biologically inaccessible. Oh, and it needs to be tested thoroughly; this is not a situation in which it’s helpful to rely on the alleged properties of vaporware.
So that’s one thing I’d like to see appear under the solstice tree. Another, along similar lines, is a more thoroughly developed system of bioremediation for getting persistent poisons out of soil and water. High-level nuclear waste isn’t the only kind of poison industrial civilization likes to produce, and most of the others aren’t even sequestered temporarily in storage pools. All over the world, a great deal of soil and water has been contaminated with toxic metals and other pollutants, and these are things that our descendants are going to have to deal with for a very long time to come.
Bioremediation is one of the few effective low-tech methods for dealing with that. It so happens that some plants, and some other organisms, selectively take up toxic substances from the soil and concentrate them in their tissues. Experiments have been done showing that it’s possible, using repeated plantings of the right plants, to extract enough toxins from contaminated soils to make them safe again. A great deal of further work needs to be done in order to evolve a sufficiently extensive toolkit of bioremediation methods that can be applied, without high-tech infrastructure, to clean up the mess our civilization is going to leave behind it. It should have plants and other organisms suited to the widest possible range of ecosystems and climatic conditions, and it should also include relatively simple tests—the sort of things that can be done in a makeshift lab using readily available reagents—for sorting out what toxic substances are in a given body of soil or water, and need to be extracted.
Right next to that kit, I’d like to see something a little more literary—a good clear manual of ecology for laypeople, written in relatively simple language, focusing on the principles that our descendants are going to need to know as they contend with the heap of problems we’re leaving them. William Catton has usefully described ecology as “the study of the processes that matter;” our civilization has tried to pretend that those processes don’t matter, and the consequences of that pretense are among the most important factors tipping said civilization into the rubbish heap of history just now. It would be particularly nice if the manual were to walk its readers through the scientific method, teaching them how to formulate hypotheses and test them, so that the most valuable part of the grand intellectual adventure of science doesn’t get lost irretrievably during the dark age ahead of us.
Finally, I’d like to see a way to turn sunlight into electricity that doesn’t depend on silicon chip fabrication and doping, or any of the other high-end infrastructure of the modern industrial system. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that the way we use electricity nowadays, with sprawling regional grids to convey power from centrally located power plants to wall sockets that are constantly supplied with current, is as wasteful as it is unsustainable. That doesn’t mean that the future must do without electricity; it means that electricity in the future is far more likely to be generated and distributed on a village-scale or homescale basis, and used when it’s available, however intermittently that may be. Generating electricity from wind and water will be easy for our descendants even in the absence of an industrial system—generators suited to that use can be built easily enough in a garage workshop, and so can waterwheels and wind turbines quite adequate for the purpose.
Solar electrical generation is considerably more challenging. Photovoltaic (PV) cells, the mainstay of most solar electric systems today, require much the same manufacturing infrastructure as any other silicon-based semiconductor, and the likelihood that chip fabrication plants and everything needed to keep them running will be available in a deindustrial world is probably too small to worry about. The question remaining is whether there’s a less infrastructure-intensive way either to make PV cells, or to turn light into electricity in some other way. My hunch—and it’s only a hunch, I admit—is that thermoelectric generators using the Seebeck effect, and simple parabolic or conical mirrors to collect light, are a good bet; the technology’s simple enough that an ordinarily enterprising medieval alchemist could have knocked one together while waiting for the athanor to get up to heat. Still, it will take a good engineer or two to tinker with the technology, try different options, and work up a prototype that can show whether my hunch is right; meanwhile, there are no doubt plenty of other options to explore.
So that’s my first tentative list. If I ever were to be plopped down in front of an audience of scientists and engineers, though, I’d get through the list as quickly as possible, and concentrate thereafter on the far more interesting project of seeing if the scientists and engineers can come up with other proposals to add to it. The challenge there, of course, would lie in getting them to grips with the hard limits of a deindustrializing world, where population, gross domestic product, and resource availability are all declining steadily. In such a world, as already noted, the only technologies that can count on being preserved are those that can be kept running in an environment of scarcity, provide goods or services valuable enough to justify continued investment, and do so more economically than any other way of getting the same goods and services. These are not constraints that today’s scientists and engineers are used to facing, and getting them to take them seriously may take a certain amount of patience.
Still, it’s arguably worth doing, and for that reason I’m going to propose the challenge I mentioned earlier in this post. The peak oil science fiction contest this blog hosted back in 2011 left me very impressed with the creativity of this blog’s readership—those of you who weren’t following this blog yet back then can see for yourself in the pages of the anthology that resulted from that contest, After Oil—and I think it’s time to draw on that same resource again. So...drumroll please...we’re going to have another contest.
Here’s what I’m proposing. I’d like to ask this blog’s readers to break out their word processing programs again, but this time I’m looking for nonfiction papers with a scientific or technical slant, written for an intelligent nonprofessional audience. Each paper should either describe a problem that will confront the deindustrializing world in the course of the Long Descent, or propose a practical solution to some problem of this kind, or both. Successful entries will start from the assumption that the unraveling of industrial society sketched out in this blog and my books The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future is a reality that has to be accepted, and go from there to deal with specific challenges that will follow from the shape of that future.
Please don’t simply rehash some issue that’s already been discussed a godzillion times already. On the other hand, you can certainly propose a novel solution to a familiar problem, just as you can come up with an unfamiliar problem that has some readily available solution; you can take a solution that’s currently in the conceptual stage, build a prototype, and report on it, and you can also present a problem that nobody’s thought of yet and say "we need to come up with some effective response to this." If your solution relies on vaporware—that is to say, theoretical technologies that haven’t been built or tested yet—say so, and don’t pretend that you can be sure in advance that it will work as well as you hope; you might also suggest some ways in which your vaporware can be tested for efficacy once a prototype gets built. If you build a working prototype of your proposed technology and describe how it worked, on the other hand, you get a good dollop of extra credit.
I should stress here that I’m not looking for vague generalities, wishful thinking, or another round of apocalyptic fantasies. The Long Descent is going to be a very challenging process all ‘round, but a great many of those challenges will be concrete problems that can be solved, or at least ameliorated, by applying the methods of science and engineering, or of plain pragmatic common sense. Creative thought is important here, but so is a solid grasp of the realities we face, backed up by a clear sense of what’s already known and has already been done; thus the essays that will come out in front in this contest will be those that combine original thinking with plenty of relevant footnotes.
Essays should be between 1500 and 6000 words in length, not counting footnotes and references; they should be posted somewhere online—if you don’t have a blog, Blogger will happily set you up with one—and a link posted on the comments page here. As before, the best dozen or so essays, as selected by me, will be going into an anthology, which I’ll edit and introduce; whatever royalties there may be will be split among the authors. Entries to the contest should be posted online by November 1, 2013. After all, Krampus will doubtless need a little time to get the results ready to tuck underneath the solstice tree.