The Failure of Imagination — Part 2
Most people living in a high-tech modern society take it as a given that the only way forward is through even more technology. The matter of pollution and sadly the question of sustainability has now been successfully reduced to grams of CO2 — ecological overshoot, the rise and fall of civilizations, resource depletion and our utter dependency on hydrocarbons be damned. ‘We have electric automobiles, smartphones, AI driven lawn mowers and even indoor farming after all!’
From this short sighted viewpoint self driving cars, robots, and clean energy from hydrogen seems not only logical, but almost inevitable. Recency bias (discussed in Part 1) sheds some light to the psychological factors at play here. There is strong cultural element supporting this popular view however — a powerful story, something which is simply invisible to the everyday citizen. It’s like water to a fish. Something in which we were marinated in our whole lives from childhood cartoons to PhD awarding ceremonies, and throughout our entire professional careers.
This story, or set of stories to be precise, act like a modern albeit still very dogmatic belief system, not unlike traditional religions. Just like earlier cults it effectively prevents us from imagining a whole range of different futures, and urges us to dismiss these as unacceptable. It thus locks us into the false dichotomy of instant annihilation through a misconceived notion of collapse, and salvation through doing more of the same stuff that brought us to this point in the first place.
Technology is not a ratchet
The story originates in the false myth of progress. Namely, that cultures in earlier times were inherently inferior: undeveloped both in terms of technology and social structures. Life was ‘short, nasty and brutish’ (and unwashed, cold, uncomfortable, stinky and the list goes on.) The myth infers that the only way forward is through even more technology — coupled with more human rights and social justice. Despite any setbacks in the past we can only get better with time. ‘We shall conquer the stars!’
Missing from the story of eternal progress is the fact, that technology is not and never was a one way street. Yes, it is true that innovation stems more innovation, but only if there are ample material and energy resources to power it and provide it with the necessary raw materials (not to mention a well functioning ecosystem to underwrite it). Take these key ingredients away (even in a gradual fashion) and what you end up with is another dark age.
The third ingredient (often cited at the cost of dismissing the first two) is a stable social order. In many prior cases of civilizational collapse technology kept improving even after social decay began behind the scenes. As soon as the dissolution of society accelerated though technologies were quickly abandoned. Think of the Roman aqueducts, sophisticated pottery, concrete and even scientific knowledge. Still today we cannot reproduce Roman concrete which stood the test of time (some 2000 years) and we keep struggling with a much poorer version of it — which must be reinforced with rusting iron bars, and could last a half century at best before cracks appear and the whole structure starts to come apart.
The specialty of our situation is, that we have become so numerous and have consumed so much of Earth’s finite natural and mineral resources (i.e. we are so far into overshoot), that this time technological decline due to falling resource and energy availability will play a much bigger role in the decline of industrial civilization than in previous cases.
The loss of easy to access and cheap to extract resources will also prevent any subsequent civilization to reach this size, level of complexity and technological advancement at the same time. There might be high tech civilizations in the future, but the decline in resource availability would prevent them from expanding this far, and as the rest of the accessible resources will be gone in the subsequent ebbs and flows of future technological progress and decline we will eventually end up in a second stone age.
Mind you there is no problem with that — quite the contrary: at least we will be more or less sustainable once again. However this would also make the story of eternal progress look like a narrow spike in human history — which is measured in many hundred-thousand-years. The age of large agricultural/technological civilizations would be a short episode, which began 7–8 years ago, culminated in our age, and which is about to recede back to its true normal: a mix of foraging and small scale farming. At what rate of abundance this would be possible on a planet heated by four degrees, and having lost 98% of its wild vertebrate life is another question. Time will tell.
Still, this version of the future remains absolutely excluded from the popular discussion. There are no science fiction movies depicting humanity slowly moving away from technology use, and live a ‘wild free and happy’ life again, telling stories of our magnificent past at the camp fire with people flying over the sky in the bellies of dragons, and living in cities so wast that it would take several days to cross them on foot.
Actually this is the main reason why 99% of the science fiction novels lose me after the first few pages: they all perpetuate the myth of eternal technological progress by assuming that we will always and forever have access to all the raw materials and energy we need to continue technological development, and that social order will somehow continue to be maintained at a level necessary to keep on innovating. The only popular alternative being is that us smart humans would be exterminating ourselves through — what else? — the use of our very own technology. Very intuitive.
It is not hard to understand why it is so. Eternal progress was the founding myth of modern societies: that technology will make all of our lives better, make goods and this high consumption lifestyle even more affordable to an even larger population. This was the only reason why people haven’t already started to throw their shoes at Jeff, Mark, or Elon for being such selfish jerks. (I guess we don’t have to wait too much to see this happening though.)
The dogma of eternal technological progress remains out of question; no matter how material and energy blind it is, how it defies the laws of physics and nature. As long as it supports the current set of (corporate and legal) rulers in achieving their goals it will be perpetuated and used to stop people imagining, then wanting to have a different future.
Placed at the center of this belief system, formed around the myth of progress, is the rational autonomous human being. One that stands apart and above Nature. One that has mastered all the forces and resources of this planet. One that makes rational choices and thus has the agency to change course for his/her entire species. One that believes that he/she is at the center of everything happening: that everything concerning him/her is a result of a human being’s conscious decision.
The belief that we are in full control, probably stems from the deluding power of fossil fuels. The fact that we have successfully replaced draft animal power, wind mills and water driven engines with the use of it. That we can now dam vast rivers, fly over continents, move million tons of ore across oceans and feed 10 billion people if we would so wish. It gave us the illusion that we can do just about anything — even split the gene and turn it to our benefit. To attribute this great power to our creativity however is hubris at best — but I would rather call it a dangerous level of ignorance
This bug has bitten us so badly that we have started to believe that every problem originates from bad / evil / stupid human thinking, and thus correcting it is only a matter of policy change. Or removing the bad guys and replacing them with good ones. Thus conferences, with endless talks keenly avoiding the topic of resource, biophysical or ecological limits to our collective human folly are abound. Talking heads on TV, podcasts, blogs, news sites — everywhere — talk about creative solutions, policy changes, agreements… everything, but the elephant in the room.
Not realizing that we have both physically and ecologically run out of options — and now the time too — to replace our magic fuels with anything so versatile is one of the biggest untold story of our time. Knowing how vital these dirty fuels are to maintain our vast population numbers through fertilizers, enabling six continent supply chains with just in time shipments, or just maintaining a stable electric grid, and realizing how ecologically destructive and finite they are at the same time is really frightening.
The much touted alternatives are not at all different from this perspective: they all promote more mining and pollution on a geologically finite planet which has become unable to provide an ever increasing amount of inputs and soak up even more of our pollution.
It is absolutely no wonder then, that people turn to humanism and instead of confronting this rather inconvenient truth turn their starry eyes to the sky and sing in chorus: ‘We will find an answer. We will solve all these issues, because if we set our minds to it, nothing can stop us…!’ Geological limits and physics are of course on a different opinion... So it increasingly looks like, that we will have to learn the truth in Ernest Rutherford’s controversial statement the hard way:
“All the science is either physics or stamp collecting”
When the future you have ordered is out of stock
It was exactly this lack of appreciation for biophysical limits and the laws of physics that took us to this point. This is why we have continued to kick the can down the road instead of admitting that ‘sorry folks, this civilization thing just really doesn’t scale well’ — and purposefully manage a long slow decline until a really sustainable state sets in; as it was proposed by the Limits to Growth study 50 years ago.
Of course the idea of managed de-growth itself is nothing but a rosy fantasy, just like flying cars, and hydrogen fusion. It’s alluring because it seems to work on a small controlled environment, but ignores the fact that it — just like many other proposed ‘solutions’ — simply doesn’t scale well.
The truth which cannot be admitted under the tyranny of humanism is that we are inseparable parts of an infinitely complex self-adapting system voted into power by none and led by nothing but natural laws — not people with degrees. This Earth-Human system constantly evolves to use all the energy and resources it can — until it slowly runs out of the them. Then it would inevitably shift to another phase in an uneven, flickering way — switching back and forth between high energy use and low- to no-tech until the later sets in. Not unlike any other complex adaptive system: the climate and biosphere we all inhabit behaves just the same.
Those of us who dared to imagine a future where such backwards shifts are not only possible but quite probable — and perfectly normal — will be much better prepared to make the change, and reject the false notions of going back to past which is now long gone in a puff of planet heating smoke.
So, instead of investing even more mental energy in perpetuating myths, false hopes and denying reality I empower you, Dear Reader, to accept that this civilization and most of its technology is beyond salvation. Relieve yourself from the pressure of trying to save what cannot be saved and stop punishing yourself for not being able to do so.
Should you throw up your hands and start drinking like there is no tomorrow then? Far from it.
I urge you to imagine a different civilization, one that is in line with ecological geological and physical limits. One that can make do with whatever it has. One that can use its remaining resources wisely and knows that even these won’t last forever.
Until next time,