In last week’s open post, I noted that I didn’t have anything in particular planned for this fifth Wednesday of the month, and asked my readers what they wanted to hear about. Quite a few subjects got brought up for discussion—among others, the novels of Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, and the metaphysics of sex—but the largest number of readers asked for something less abstract.
During more than half of the fourteen years plus that I’ve been blogging weekly, the main focus of my essays was the future of industrial society, and in particular the slow-motion train wreck set in motion by our society’s frankly brainless attempt to pursue infinite economic growth on a finite planet. More recently, and especially from 2015 on, my focus has been elsewhere, but the issues I raised in those days haven’t gone away—the political convulsions of the last few years have simply distracted attention from them. Many of my readers are aware of this, and what they asked for was an update on the ongoing historical process I’ve called the Long Descent.
Since some of my current readers weren’t yet reading me when I last discussed these issues, I’ll start with some general points and go from there. One of the great mental blind spots of our society is the notion that there are only two possible futures: on the one hand, business as usual stretching endlessly into the future, with a side order of technological progress dished up at intervals; on the other, sudden apocalyptic mass death, with or without a small band of plucky survivors sitting around a campfire as the final credits roll. An astonishing number of people these days literally won’t let themselves think about any other possible future, and will either change the subject or get furiously angry at you if you should be so bold as to suggest one.
The evasion and the anger come from the same source, which is that those imaginary futures are the ways most of us distract ourselves from the future we’re actually getting: a future of decline. We all know this. If you’re old enough to be out of elementary school, you’ve already seen ongoing declines in standards of living, public health, public order, the quality of education, the condition of our infrastructure, and much more. Those trends define our future. They also defined the future of every past civilization, because that’s how civilizations end, and it’s how ours will end, one to three hundred years from now. Again, at some level, all of us know this, but it’s taboo to discuss the matter or even think about it, which is why so many people bury their heads in shopworn fantasies of perpetual progess or overnight cataclysm.
One other thing. Technology will not save us from the Long Descent, because technology is the main factor driving the Long Descent. The more technology you have, the more energy and resources of every kind you need to build, maintain, repair, replace, and dispose of it, and the mismatch between endlessly rising resource costs and the hard limits of a finite planet is one of the main factors bringing about the declines I’ve just described. Nor does technology allow one energy resource to be replaced with another, except in small and irrelevant ways.
The world now burns more coal than it did at the peak of the Coal Age, for example, and more wood than it did when firewood was the main source of heating fuel worldwide. As renewable power sources got added to the mix, furthermore, the amount of fossil fuels being burnt didn’t go down—it went up. (That’s caused by a widely recognized law of energy economics, by the way; look up Jevons’ Paradox sometime.) If progress is the problem, more progress is not the solution—but here again, that’s utterly unthinkable these days. Faith in progress is the most popular idolatry of our time, and a vast number of people who claim to belong to other religions or to no religion at all are devout worshipers at the shrine of the golden calf named Progress.
So where are we headed? That hasn’t changed one iota since the last time I discussed these issues. The Limits to Growth, the most thoughtful (and thus inevitably the most savagely denounced) of the Seventies-era books that explored the landscape ahead of us, traced the arc of our future in a convenient graph. Between 1972 and the present, its predictions have proven much more accurate than those of the books’s critics—another reason why it’s been assailed in such shrill language for all these years. Here’s the graph:
I’d encourage my readers to pay attention to two things about the graph. The first, which should be obvious at a glance but has been ignored astonishingly often, is that it doesn’t show any kind of sudden apocalyptic event. What it shows is a long and relatively smooth transition from a world of abundant resources and sustained economic growth to a world of scarce resources and sustained economic contraction. Population doesn’t fall off a cliff, it rises, crests, and declines. Pollution doesn’t up and kill everybody; it rises, helps drive declines in food and population, and then declines in turn as industrial output falls off.
The second thing about the graph I’d like readers to notice is subtler, and you may need to read the book to grasp it: the limits to growth are economic limits, not technical ones. What happens, in brief, is that the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits, until finally they overwhelm growth itself and force the global economy to its knees. What this means, in turn, is that proposed solutions have to be economically viable, not just technically feasible.
The idolaters of Progress love to ignore this, and drag out this or that notional technology—it’s usually one of about a dozen options, most of which have been part of this rhetoric since the 1970s—and insist that since it hasn’t yet been shown to be technically impossible, it must surely save us all. Not so; if the medical treatment that could save your life costs ten million dollars and the most you can raise is a few thousand, no matter how well the treatment works, you’re going to die. By exactly the same logic, even if fusion power turns out to be technically feasible, the sheer cost of the last few fusion reactor projects has demonstrated conclusively that no nation on Earth will ever be able to afford to power its grid that way.
None of this has changed. All these factors are just as much in play as they were in 2006 when I wrote my first blog post on peak oil. So the big picture remains the same: we are in the early stages of the Long Descent, tracing out an arc that began in earnest around 1970 and has been accelerating slowly. What has changed since then?
Let’s start with peak oil. That was shorthand for the world peak of conventional petroleum production, which happened around 2005. Starting in the late 1990s, people who had been watching the oil industry started to warn that peak oil was imminent. Unfortunately too many of them suffered from the mental blind spot I mentioned above, and leapt to the conclusion that peak oil would be followed by a grand apocalyptic collapse. Of course that was never going to happen, as some of us tried to point out at the time. What happened instead was that the production of relatively cheap conventional oil peaked and started to decline, and the production of much more expensive unconventional oil deposits had to take its place.
All other things being equal, that would have caused a steep and ongoing increase in the price of oil, and of everything made from, with, or by petroleum products or petroleum-derived energy—that is to say, just about everything in the modern economy. All things weren’t equal, though, because steep and ongoing increases in the cost of everything would have been political suicide for any national government you care to name, ours very much included. A cascading series of financial gimmicks therefore came into play so that consumers didn’t have to pay up front the full cost of the energy and products of energy they were using. The arrangements that were made to keep shale oil producers afloat financially, even when the oil they produced didn’t cover the costs of extraction, are examples of the sort of thing I have in mind.
Of course consumers ended up paying the costs anyway in indirect ways, mostly through infrastructure being handed over to malign neglect and a decline in standards of living that in some parts of the US approached Third World levels. The pain wasn’t shared equally, though. Here as in most of the industrial world, the privileged classes (basically, the middle class on up) were sheltered from the decline through various gimmicks that pushed as many costs as possible on the poorer 80% or so of the population and restricted as many benefits as possible to the wealthier 20%. That was where we were in 2015, when politics began to claim a much larger share of my attention than before.
And now? The unmentionable issue of the last five years, the thing that has driven so many people into so many weird forms of paralogic, is that in the US, Britain, and several other countries, the 80% who were being made to carry all the costs of contraction figured out how to make their voices heard at the ballot box. In Britain, the turning point was the Brexit vote; here, the election of Donald Trump. In both cases, a sufficiently large share of voters in the deplorable classes said to their self-proclaimed betters, “No, you get to take some of the costs.” Of course the result was shrieking meltdowns from the privileged—but there’s more to this than theatrics.
It so happens that the most significant result of every reform movement of modern times has been to increase the number of well-paid administrative positions in government, business, and the nonprofit sector. Poverty’s a problem? Why, then, we’ll build an immense bureaucracy to administer a gargantuan system of overlapping benefit schemes, which provide a miserable life to the people who have to survive on them, but a very comfortable life indeed to the tens or hundreds of thousands of middle-class office drones who administer them. The environment’s in trouble? The same answer gets trotted out. Choose any cause du jour in the last three quarters of a century and you’ll see exactly the same logic at work: whatever the problem, the solution somehow always works out to hiring more bureaucrats.
Mind you, none of these programs have actually solved the problems they were supposedly meant to fix. The welfare state hasn’t eradicated poverty, environmental regulation hasn’t slowed the despoiling of the environment, the fantastic ballooning of administrative staff at schools and universities correlates precisely to the steady plunge in the quality of the education you get from these institutions, and so on Bureaucracy isn’t an effective tool for solving social problems—but it’s a very effective tool for maximizing the job prospects of university graduates and diverting most of society’s wealth into the hands of an administrative class. I suggest that this was the real point of the whole operation.
That, in turn, makes the administrative class profoundly vulnerable at this point. As I pointed out fifteen years ago in my original paper on catabolic collapse, societies decline when the cost of maintaining capital exceeds the resources available for maintenance. (By “capital” I mean here anything of value to that society: buildings, bureaucracies, factories, farmland, information, social networks, literacy, religious beliefs, ceremonies, you name it.) In order to deal with that situation, societies discard some of their capital to reduce maintenance costs to a level that can be supported with the available resources.
Right now, the single largest, most expensive, and most useless body of capital in any modern industrial society is its administrative sector—and that, in turn, is why the Trump administration is repealing eight Federal regulations for each new regulation it enacts, appointing heads of major bureaucracies who have the job of dismantling those bureaucracies, and so on. That’s also why cutting Federal funding for universities has become the latest battle-cry on the populist right in the US. That’s what happens to privileged castes that lose track of the fact that their benefit to society has to be large enough to cover their maintenance costs. As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out many years ago in his acerbic book The Culture of Complacency, the administrative class in modern America is remarkably similar to the feckless and parasitic French aristocracy just prior to the Revolution, and I’m sure my readers recall what happened to them.
No, I don’t expect Madame Guillotine to be involved this time around. Among the benefits of living in a constitutional republic are that such matters can be settled at the ballot box, and the level of bloodshed can be kept reasonably low. The new populist right is in the process of completing its takeover of the Republican party, so whether or not Trump wins reelection, the administrative caste is no longer sacrosanct; its privileges will be at risk any time the GOP gets control of Congress or any state legislature. The terms of debate are thus shifting decisively, and over the next few decades I expect to see a very large number of public and private administrative bureaucracies pared down to pre-1960 scales or simply abolished.
That, in turn, will free up a great many resources that can then be used for other things. We’ll need those. The depletion of fossil fuels and nonrenewable resources continues apace; right now, with demand for petroleum down sharply due to the coronavirus outbreak, next to nobody’s drilling new oil wells, a detail that promises a steep spike in oil prices once the outbreak is over. Meanwhile climate disruptions due to greenhouse gas emissions (that’s part of the line labeled “pollution” in the graph from The Limits to Growth) are ongoing, piling additional costs on already stumbling economies around the globe.
Let’s glance at this last point a little more closely before we go on. Climate change activists were just as addicted to apocalyptic fantasy as the clueless end of the peak oil movement, and fixated on absurdly unrealistic linear models as well. Their predictions failed, and failed, and failed, and yet they never did figure out why so many people stopped taking them seriously. (They finally shut up and found other things to protest instead, but that’s because people started pointing out how many climate change activists were unwilling to change their own lifestyles to stop dumping carbon into the air.)
It’s possible, however, to have mistaken ideas and behave in hypocritical ways about a real problem. Climate change is a known phenomenon in Earth’s long history; it can be caused by any phenomenon that dumps trillions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, be that volcanic eruptions or industrial smokestacks; it’s not the end of the world, though it can cause some whopping disruptions—sharp changes in sea level, drastic shifts in what plants grow where, and so on. Climate change is still in process, and we’re going to see a lot of climate-related disasters in the years ahead, but here again, it’s not the end of the world.
So what does the future look like? In some ways, it’s a far less dismal prospect over the short term than I expected not so long ago. Watching the consequences of neoliberal economic policies in the US, I was seriously worried about the rise of a domestic insurgency or outright civil war—that’s why my novels Star’s Reach (2014) and Retrotopia (2016) both presupposed a Second Civil War sometime in the first half of the 21st century. I think we may have dodged that bullet, since Trump’s election showed a great many desperate people that the ballot box was still a viable alternative to war. Even if he loses this November, so long as the election isn’t obviously fraudulent, there’s reason to hope that the lesson has been learned.
If we do see any significant clearing away of bureaucratic deadwood in the years ahead, combined with a rejection of the disastrously wrongheaded model of economic globalization and a retreat from the unsustainable global hegemony the US had and squandered in the late 20th century, we could see a period of relative stability and calm in the United States in the 2030s and 2040s. On the far side of that will be a new wave of crises, for that’s the nature of the Long Descent: each period of crisis is followed by a period of stabilization and partial recovery, and then by another period of crisis.
For the world as a whole? That’s a complicated matter and probably deserves a post of its own sometime soon. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, in east and south Asia, in the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia. As the US stands down from its former status as hegemonic power, massive readjustments are in process, with ambitious and aggressive powers such as China and Turkey bullying their neighbors, who are responding by entering into new alignments against them. Meanwhile, as NATO and the EU become increasingly brittle and irrelevant, European nations are sorting themselves out into rival blocs. Some global flashpoints right now have outsized importance due to energy resources—Libya and the Caucasus, both of which are on the brink of war as I write this, both have important petroleum reserves—while others follow age-old patterns—the growing strains in the EU between its western and eastern halves come as no surprise to anyone who knows the history of Europe since 1648 or so.
That is to say, history as usual. We’re not going to the stars, nor are we headed for some other kind of Utopian world, courtesy of Progress or the Space Brothers or any of the other idols worshiped by believers in that particular brand of intellectual snake oil. Nor, of course, are any of the canned catastrophes brandished around by believers in the equal and opposite brand of intellectual snake oil going to finally get off their duffs and put in an appearance, either. All of that is handwaving, meant to distract us from the future we’re actually going to get.
In the future we’re actually going to get, there will be many fewer people on Earth, living more restricted lifestyles on a much less lavish resource base and having access to much less in the way of industrial production—look at the graph from The Limits to Growth above if you need a reminder. We won’t be “going back” to some specific point in the past, by the way—quite the contrary, what happens in the declining days of a civilization is that its entire legacy gets subjected to triage, and technologies, practices, customs, and cultural forms from any point in its past can be put back into place if they meet a need more economically and sustainable than the alternatives, while innovations also play a role if they can pass the same test.
That’s the future we’re headed toward. As I suggested above, I think we all know this perfectly well at some level, but most of us haven’t yet been willing to break the taboo and admit that fact even to ourselves. The time when the taboo collapses isn’t quite on us yet, I think, but it may not be far away—and when it arrives, it may be possible to take constructive action in ways that are almost unimaginable just now. Still, we’ll see.