The fourth enduring theme of my blogging over the last sixteen years, the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization, is also the one that most people try hardest to misunderstand. It’s not just that so many people blankly insist that it can’t happen and of course we’re on our way to the stars, just you wait and see. Nor is it that most of the people who have gotten past that delusion are salivating over the thought that we’ll get flattened by exactly the kind of sudden apocalyptic end to industrial society that history doesn’t provide.
No, the thing that keeps me shaking my head in baffled fascination is that so many people still think of the twilight of our civilization as something that’s still somewhere off there in the future. It’s not. We’re around seventeen years into the decline right now, hitting our second round of resource-driven economic crisis—the first was in 2008-2010, in case you didn’t notice—and there are many, many more still to come. The Long Descent is unfolding around us. All those things I’ve been talking about since I started blogging about the future of industrial society? They’re here, taking shape right before our eyes.
It’s important to take a moment here to recall what is declining, and why. The thing that sets industrial civilization apart from other types of human society is that all other examples so far got their energy from the current supply of sunlight. That’s what crops, firewood, and livestock are: sunlight that has been transmuted by the miracle of photosynthesis into edible plants and flammable wood, and by the further miracle of digestion and assimilation into edible animals. That’s also what windpower and water power are: the winds that turn windmills and fill the sails of tall ships and the rivers that turn waterwheels and fill dams get their motive force from the sun, which drives the atmospheric processes that yield wind and rain.
The earth’s daily budget of sunlight is immense, but it’s also frustratingly diffuse. Hard thermodynamic limits restrict what humans can do with it, because you have to use energy—lots of it—to concentrate energy. That’s why plants can only store a tiny fraction of the sunlight that falls on them, and it’s also why attempts to run modern industrial societies entirely on sun and wind have worked so poorly. You can run a complex, literate, creative society on current solar input—all other human civilizations have done exactly that—but you can’t run the kind of complex society we have today, with the kind of extravagantly energy-wasting technology we consider essential. That requires something else.
In our case, the “something else” was fossil fuels. Those are also forms of sunlight—the bodies of living things from the geological past—but they’ve been concentrated to a fantastic degree by millions of years of heat and pressure inside the earth itself. Nobody had to pay for that heat and pressure, and so it’s easy to forget just how important it is. To help counter that forgetfulness, imagine yourself shifting an ordinary compact car into neutral and pushing it down the road for thirty-five miles: the amount of energy your muscles used in that feat is in a single gallon of gasoline. That’s energy concentration, and it’s what made the modern world possible.
There are three serious problems with fossil fuels, however. The first is that there’s only a finite amount of them in the earth’s crust. What’s more, prospectors and geologists have been hunting them with increasing eagerness all through modern history, and miners and drillers have been extracting them just as eagerly over that same period. There’s still quite a bit left, but all the deposits that were cheap and easy to extract got dug up or pumped up a long time ago. What’s left now are the dregs. With every year that passes, in other words, more money, more resources, and more energy have to be put back into the process of extracting fossil fuels. That’s the driving force behind peak oil, which I discussed earlier in this sequence of posts.
The second problem is that when the carbon in all that fossil fuel was still in the atmosphere, the earth was a jungle planet full of steaming swamps, and sea level was three hundred feet higher than it is today. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more of that carbon goes back into the air, and the more our climate shifts back toward the sort of thing the planet had when tyrannosaurs were all the rage. As I also discussed earlier in this sequence of posts, this isn’t the end of the world, but it’s already making life interesting for people who depend on stable climate and rain belts.
I haven’t discussed the third problem yet, but it follows from the points just made. Back before the beginning of the industrial age, fossil fuels were far and away the most concentrated energy source on this planet. Now that we’re beginning to run low, we’re stuck with a civilization and a technological infrastructure that requires gargantuan inputs of concentrated energy, and that’s just what we don’t have enough of any more. We’ve invested fantastic amounts of wealth, resources, labor, genius, and emotional commitment into a technological structure with a short shelf life, and that’s left us hopelessly unprepared to make the transition to societies, technologies, and lifestyles that can get by on the modest energy supply we’ll have left when it’s over.
This doesn’t mean, once again, that we’re going “back to the caves.” It doesn’t even mean that we’re going “back to the Middle Ages,” though it’s probably a safe bet that much of today’s overdeveloped world will see periods, ranging from decades to centuries, that will have a very medieval ambience to them. It means that we can expect a troubled period several centuries in length during which societies will get by using a patchwork of brittle legacy technologies and jerry-rigged substitutes, most people will have to make do with a small fraction of their current access to energy and manufactured products, population levels will decline steadily, and an enormous share of today’s knowledge will be lost irretrievably. That’s what happens when a civilization overshoots its resource base and stumbles down the long arc of decline and fall.
Can we prevent that? Not this late in the game. We could have managed a soft landing if the first tentative movements toward a sustainable society in the 1970s had been followed up, but that didn’t happen. We might have been able to cushion the process to some extent if the warnings of the peak oil movement in the first decade of this century had gotten a fair hearing, but that didn’t happen either. At this point we’re closing in on the end of our second decade of decline. The truck is picking up speed as it heads down the hill and there are no brakes.
That fact got proclaimed right out there in public a few days ago, though I’m not sure how many people noticed. At the NATO meeting in Madrid last week, French president Emmanuel Macron mentioned in passing that he’d talked to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to try to get them to pump more oil to replace what Europe soon won’t be getting from Russia. The response of the Saudi and Emirati governments was that they’re already pumping as fast as they can. With the price of oil above US$100 a barrel, for that matter, every nation that has oil in the ground has been pumping like mad, and of course the Russians are busy selling their oil on the gray market at good prices and laughing all the way to the bank. None of this has driven the price of oil down to levels that modern industrial society can afford to pay.
What this means, of course, is that no nation on Earth has enough spare oil production capacity to make up for the modest fraction of Russian production that’s shut in at the moment, due to the sanctions that the US and its dwindling circle of allies have put in place. Those of my readers who recall the rise and fall of the peak oil movement will recall people in that movement discussing in worried tones what would happen once no one anywhere had enough spare petroleum production capacity to fill the gap if a crisis hit. Guess what? Here we are.
It’s not as though this is the only warning of trouble, for that matter. Here in the United States, it’s become a rare thing to go to a grocery store and find the shelves fully stocked, and it’s become a commonplace to see restaurants marking up their prices so fast they have to adjust their menus by hand. Our economy is lurching and shuddering in ways most Americans have never learned to recognize, though readers of mine who’ve lived through the disintegration of other regimes know what to look for. As usual in this country, the first response of the people in power is to manufacture excuses for the problem. Blame product shortages on the coronavirus! Blame oil prices on Vladimir Putin! Blame inflation on not enough people buying into the Democrats’ attempts to exploit the January 6 protest! (I swear I’m not making this last one up.)
As usual in this country, for that matter, most people don’t believe it. No, like the great majority of Americans throughout this country’s long and checkered history, they know exactly who to blame for anything that goes wrong: the current inmate of the White House. In this case, that’s poor vacant-eyed Joe Biden, who had the misfortune to be saddled with that overrated job when the current cascade of problems started to hit. I’m not a fan of Joe Biden—a Tupperware container half full of creamed chipped beef would likely do a better job as chief executive of our republic—but I pity the man. He just happened to be there, staring blankly out the window of the Oval Office, when the consequences of most of a century of collective stupidity, arrogance, and greed landed on him.
The current mess isn’t Joe Biden’s fault, in other words, and it won’t go away even when his political career comes to an ignominious end and his reputation gets vilified for generations to come. The current mess is the inescapable consequence of the factors I’ve discussed in the last three posts in this series—the accelerating depletion of fossil fuel reserves, the destabilization of the global climate by pollution, and the twilight of the global hegemony of the United States—all playing out against the greater background of the decline and fall of industrial civilization. Biden simply got left holding the bag, the way Herbert Hoover did when seventy years of gaudily corrupt American plutocracy blew sky high in 1929. (Those of my readers who rooted for Donald Trump should thank their lucky stars that the 2020 election went the way it did; otherwise it would be their candidate and their party who’d be up against the wall.)
This is not to say that things can’t get better. In fact, they will get somewhat better in a few years and then we can expect another few years of relative stability before the next round of crises hits. That’s the normal rhythm of events when a civilization tips over into decline. Those of my readers who are interested in the mechanics behind that might want to consider this essay of mine, which talks in some detail about how that happens. For those who don’t want to look under the hood, the basic principle is simple. A society in decline has to shed extravagant habits that it can no longer afford, but no society in history has done this willingly. What happens instead is that it clings to those habits until the pressures of crisis build to the breaking point; then a lot of unsustainable things go by the boards in a hurry, and the losses free up enough resources to allow some degree of stability to return, for a while.
That’s not just the shape of the future, it’s also the shape of the present and the recent past. Look back over the arc of history since 2005, and that’s what you’ll see. Why 2005? That was when world conventional petroleum production reached its all-time high and began to decline. The paper increases in production since that time have been based on feverish exploitation of a galaxy of unconventional liquid fuel resources—tar sands, natural gas liquids, shale oil, ethanol, you name it—which all take much more energy to extract than conventional oil does. (Are those energy inputs subtracted from the output, on the same principle by which you subtract your expenses from your income to figure out your profit? Surely you jest.) Getting honest numbers on the energy cost of energy production is exceedingly difficult just now, so the best we can do is watch proxy measures. The uneven but accelerating breakdown of the global economy is one of the most obvious of these just at the moment.
Of course the tightening vise of fossil fuel depletion is only part of what’s happening just now. The rising economic burden of climate change is another part. The disintegration of America’s global hegemony, and the unraveling of economic arrangements based on that hegemony which funnel an absurdly large share of the world’s wealth to the United States, is another part. There are more. Our skies are black with birds coming home to roost. That’s usually the way things work out in the twilight of a civilization: the problems that have been piling up steadily all along, but have been held at bay by increasingly desperate efforts, finally overwhelm the barriers meant to contain them and come crashing in all at once.
The question that remains is what I recommend readers might do about it all.
My basic advice hasn’t changed. “Collapse now and avoid the rush” remains the keynote of an effective response. What this means, with the snark filtered out, is that you are going to be living for the rest of your life with much less energy and much less of the products of energy than you’re used to. The sooner you start living that way, the sooner you’ll get competent at it, and the sooner you’ll discover that most of the energy- and resource-wasting activities central to the American way of life of the recent past don’t actually do you any good—their real function, after all, is to keep you shackled as closely as possible to the corporate-bureaucratic technostructure. The more high-tech gimmickry you can do without, and the more you rely on your own capacities instead of slurping at an assortment of technological teats, the more free you are and the more resilience you have in the face of the future.
The same rule applies to families, groups, and communities. There was a lot of noise back in the peak oil days about building sustainable communities, and nearly all of it ended up as wasted breath, for two simple reasons. The first was that everybody wanted the benefits of community but next to nobody wanted to put up with the costs, burdens, commitments, and annoyances that a viable community involves. The second was that a genuinely sustainable community in the deindustrial future taking shape around us is going to involve a lot fewer middle-class comforts and a lot more plain hard muscular labor than most Americans these days are willing to consider.
Those considerations haven’t gone away. Rod Dreher made quite a splash back in the day by urging American Christians to follow the example of St. Benedict and withdraw from a corrupt society, but it’s worth keeping in mind that St. Benedict himself didn’t come on the scene until a couple of lifetimes after the fall of Rome, when the comfortable lifestyles of the Roman middle classes had gone whistling down the wind. By that time, a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a monastery in the middle of nowhere wasn’t that much worse than the ordinary daily round most people could look forward to in the wreckage of a decaying civilization. We aren’t there yet, and we won’t be there for longer than most of you will be alive.
Thus I don’t encourage people to go rushing out into the countryside in one last futile effort to build “lifeboat ecovillages” as the current crisis tightens its grip. Instead, collapse ahead of the rush, and to the extent that you can, network with other people who are doing some version of the same thing. Minimize your dependence on the corporate-bureaucratic technostructure as far as you can; where you can’t, expect disruptions and be prepared to be nimble. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to hang onto whatever wealth, possessions, or status you happen to have, though you might be able to pull this off if you’re lucky and smart; have a plan B in place if you have to start over again with nothing but the clothes on your back.
While you’re at it, you might consider reading up on what it was like to live through hard times in the past. Here in the United States, certainly, there are plenty of good books on the Great Depression, the last period of serious collective trauma in our national history—Studs Terkel’s volume Hard Times is a good place to start. South of the Mason-Dixon line, though not elsewhere in the country, it’s not too hard to find detailed accounts of what life was like during the Civil War and Reconstruction. I don’t happen to know the contents of public libraries in other parts of the world, though most other countries have been through really hard times much more recently than we have here in North America.
While you’re reading these, if you do, I want you to remind yourself of something now and again: this is normal. Recently a lot of Americans have been making plaintive comments, hoping that things will get back to normal someday. I have bad news for them. The astounding prosperity and sheer extravagance that people in the United States got used to during the second half of the twentieth century, which was the zenith of the industrial age and the heyday of American empire: those were never normal, though there was never a shortage of politicians or marketing flacks loudly insisting otherwise. We are returning to normal at this point—“normal” being defined as the kind of world where most people make their living by working with their hands, where the basic necessities of life cost most of what you can expect to earn, and the kind of lifestyles currently available to the middle classes aren’t reliably available even to the very rich.
To sum things up even more simply: the dream is over. Welcome to the gray light of a cold and bitter dawn. In posts to come we’ll talk more about what that means in the short and middle term. In the longer term, well, I think we all know by now where this ends:
Welcome to the future. We’ll talk about that, too.