Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead - John Michael Greer (2016)
Chapter 9. THE ROAD TO A RENAISSANCE
ALL THE POINTS COVERED IN THE FIRST EIGHT CHAPTERS OF this book point to a single hard conclusion: as industrial civilization heads out through history’s exit turnstile, most of the world we know is going with it. It doesn’t require any particular genius or prescience to grasp this, merely the willingness to recognize that if something is unsustainable, sooner or later it won’t be sustained. Of course, that’s the sticking point, because what can’t be sustained at this point is the collection of wildly extravagant energy- and resource-intensive habits that used to pass for a normal lifestyle in the world’s industrial nations and has recently become just a little less normal than it used to be.
Those lifestyles, and nearly all of what goes with them, existed in the first place only because a handful of the world’s nations burned through half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a few short centuries, and stripped the planet of most of its other concentrated resource stocks into the bargain. That’s the unpalatable reality of the industrial era. Despite the rhetoric of universal betterment that was brandished about so enthusiastically by the propagandists of the industrial order, there were never enough of any of the necessary resources to make that possible for more than a small fraction of the world’s population or for more than a handful of generations.
Nearly all the members of our species who lived outside the industrial nations, and a tolerably large number who resided within them, were expected to carry most of the costs of reckless resource extraction and ecosystem disruption while receiving few if any of the benefits. They’ll have plenty of company shortly. Industrial civilization is winding down, but its consequences are not, and people around the world for centuries and millennia to come will have to deal with the depleted and damaged planet our actions have left them. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, and the likely aftermath of the industrial age won’t do anything to improve the taste.
In this book, I’ve drawn on the downside trajectories of other failed civilizations to sketch out how that aftermath will probably play out here in North America. It’s an ugly picture, and the only excuse I have for that unwelcome fact is that falling civilizations look like that. The question that remains, though, is what we’re going to do about it all.
I should say up front that by “we” I don’t mean some suitably photogenic collection of Hollywood heroes and heroines who just happen to have limitless resources and a bag of improbable inventions at their disposal. I don’t mean a US government that has somehow shaken off the senility that affects all great powers in their last days and is prepared to fling everything it has into the quest for a sustainable future. Nor do I mean a coterie of gray-skinned aliens from Zeta Reticuli, square-jawed rapists out of Ayn Rand novels, or some other source of allegedly superior beings who can be counted upon to come swaggering onto the scene to bail us out of the consequences of our own stupidity. They aren’t part of this conversation; the only people who are, just now, are the writer and the readers of this book.
One of the things that gives the question just raised an ironic flavor is that quite a few people are making what amounts to the same claim in far more grandiose terms than mine. I’m thinking here of the various proposals for a Great Transition of one kind or another being hawked at various points along the social and political spectrum these days. I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more of those in the months and years immediately ahead, as the steady unraveling of the industrial age encourages people who want to maintain their current lifestyles to insist that they can have their planet and eat it too.
Part of the motivation behind the grand plans just mentioned is straightforwardly financial. One part of what drives the current unwillingness to deal with the future actually facing us is a panicked conviction on the part of a great many people that some way has to be found to keep living the same lifestyles they’re living today. Another part of it, though, is the recognition on the part of a somewhat smaller but more pragmatic group of people that the panicked conviction in question could be turned into a sales pitch. Plenty of things have been put to work in the time-honored process of proving Ben Franklin’s proverb about a fool and his money; hydro-fracturing (“fracking”) oil shales, tar sands, fuel ethanol, biodiesel, and large-scale wind power had their promoters and sucked up their share of government subsidies and private investment.
Now that most of these have fallen by the wayside, there’ll likely be a wild scramble to replace them in the public eye with some other ghost of energy future. The nuclear industry will doubtless be in there. Nuclear power is one of the most durable subsidy dumpsters in modern economic life, and the nuclear industry has had to become highly skilled at slurping from the government teat, since nuclear power isn’t economically viable otherwise; as already mentioned, no nation on Earth has been able to create or maintain a nuclear power program without massive ongoing government subsidies. No doubt we’ll get plenty of cheerleading for fusion, satellite-based solar power, and other bits of high-end vaporware, too.
Still, I suspect the next big energy bubble is probably going to come from the green end of things. Over the past few years, there’s been no shortage of claims that renewable resources can pick right up where fossil fuels leave off and keep the lifestyles of today’s privileged middle classes intact. Those claims tend to be long on enthusiasm and cooked numbers and short on meaningful assessment, but then that same habit hasn’t slowed up any of the previous bubbles. We can therefore expect to see a renewed flurry of claims that solar power must be sustainable because the sticker price has gone down, and similar logical non sequiturs. By the same logic, the internet must be sustainable if you can pay your monthly ISP bill by selling cute kitten photos on eBay. In both cases, the sprawling and almost entirely fossil-fueled infrastructure of mines, factories, supply chains, power grids, and the like has been left out of the equation, as though those don’t have to be accounted for: typical of the blindness to whole systems that pervades so much of contemporary culture.
It’s not enough for an energy technology to be green, in other words; it also has to work. It’s probably safe to assume that that point is going to be finessed over and over again, in a galaxy of inventive ways, in the years immediately ahead. The point that next to nobody wants to confront is simple enough: if something is unsustainable, sooner or later it won’t be sustained, and what’s unsustainable in this case isn’t simply fossil fuel production and consumption, it’s the lifestyles that were made possible by the immensely abundant and highly concentrated energy supply we got from fossil fuels.
You can’t be part of the solution if your lifestyle is part of the problem. I know that those words are guaranteed to make the environmental equivalent of limousine liberals gasp and clutch their pearls or their Gucci ties, take your pick, but there it is; it really is as simple as that. There are at least two reasons why that maxim needs to be taken seriously. On the one hand, if you’re clinging to an unsustainable lifestyle in the teeth of increasingly strong economic and environmental headwinds, you’re not likely to be able to spare the money, the free time, or any of the other resources you would need to contribute to a solution; on the other, if you’re emotionally and financially invested in keeping an unsustainable lifestyle, you’re likely to put preserving that lifestyle ahead of things that arguably matter more, like leaving a livable planet for future generations.
Is letting go of unsustainable lifestyles the only thing that needs to be done? Of course not. I’d like to suggest, though, that it’s the touchstone or, if you will, the boundary that divides those choices that might actually do some good from those that are pretty much guaranteed to do no good at all. That’s useful when considering the choices before us as individuals; it’s at least as useful, if not more so, when considering the collective options we’ll be facing in the months and years ahead, among them the flurry of campaigns, movements, and organizations that are already gearing up to exploit the crisis of our time in one way or another—and with one agenda or another.
An acronym that might well be worth using here is LESS, which stands for “Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.” That’s a convenient summary of the changes that have to be made to move from today’s unsustainable lifestyles to ways of living that will be viable when today’s habits of absurd extravagance are fading memories. It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the acronym a little further, and see what it implies.
“Less energy” might seem self-evident, but there’s more involved here than just turning off unneeded lights and weatherstripping your windows and doors—though those are admittedly good places to start. A huge fraction of the energy consumed by a modern industrial society is used indirectly to produce, supply, and transport goods and services; an allegedly “green” technological device that’s made from petroleum-based plastics and exotic metals taken from an open-pit mine in a Third World country, then shipped halfway around the planet to the air-conditioned shopping mall where you bought it, can easily have a carbon footprint substantially bigger than some simpler item that does the same thing in a less immediately efficient way. The blindness to whole systems mentioned earlier has to be overcome in order to make any kind of meaningful sense of energy issues.
“Less stuff” is equally straightforward on the surface, equally subtle in its ramifications. Now, of course, it’s hardly irrelevant that ours is the first civilization in the history of the planet to have to create an entire industry of storage facilities to store the personal possessions that won’t fit into homes that are also bigger than any other in history. That said, “stuff” includes a great deal more than the contents of your closets and storage lockers. It also includes infrastructure—the almost unimaginably vast assortment of technological systems on which the privileged classes of the industrial world rely for most of the activities of their daily lives. That infrastructure was made possible only by the deluge of cheap abundant energy our species briefly accessed from fossil fuels. As what’s left of the world’s fossil fuel supply moves deeper into depletion, the infrastructure that it created has been caught in an accelerating spiral of deferred maintenance and malign neglect; the less dependent you are on what remains, the less vulnerable you are to further systems degradation, and the more of what’s left can go to those who actually need it.
“Less stimulation” may seem like the least important part of the acronym, but in many ways it’s the most crucial point of all. These days most people in the industrial world flood their nervous systems with a torrent of electronic noise. As already noted, much of this is quite openly intended to manipulate their thoughts and feelings by economic and political interests. A great deal more has that effect, if only by drowning out any channel of communication that doesn’t conform to the increasingly narrow intellectual tunnel vision of late industrial society. If you’ve ever noticed how much of what passes for thinking these days amounts to the mindless regurgitation of sound bites from the media, dear reader, that’s why. What comes through the media—any media—is inevitably pre-chewed and predigested according to someone else’s agenda. Those who are interested in thinking their own thoughts and making their own decisions, rather than bleating in perfect unison with the rest of the herd, might want to keep this in mind.
It probably needs to be said that very few of us are in a position to go whole hog with LESS all at once, though it’s also relevant that all of us will end up there willy-nilly in due time, and depending on the rate at which the economic unraveling proceeds, that time may come a good deal sooner for some of us than for others. Outside of that grim possibility, “less” doesn’t have to mean “none at all”—certainly not at first; for those who aren’t caught in the crash, at least, there may yet be time to make a gradual transition toward a future of scarce energy and scarce resources. Still, I’d like to suggest that any proposed response to the crisis of our time that doesn’t start with LESS simply isn’t serious.
As already noted, I expect to see a great many nonserious proposals in the months and years ahead. Those who put maintaining their comfortable lifestyles ahead of other goals will doubtless have no trouble coming up with enthusiastic rhetoric and canned numbers to support their case. Not too far in the future, something or other will have been anointed as the shiny new technological wonder that will save us all, or more precisely, that will give the privileged classes of the industrial world a new set of excuses for clinging to some semblance of their current lifestyles for a little while longer. Mention the growing list of things that have previously occupied that hallowed but inevitably temporary status, and you can count on either busy silence or a flustered explanation why it really is different this time.
There may not be that many of us who get past the nonserious proposals, ask the necessary but unwelcome questions about the technosavior du jour, and embrace LESS while there’s still time to do so a step at a time. I’m convinced, though, that those who manage these things are going to be the ones who make a difference in the shape the future will have on the far side of the crisis years ahead. Let go of the futile struggle to sustain the unsustainable, take the time and money and other resources that might be wasted in that cause and do something less foredoomed with them, and there’s a lot that can still be done, even in the confused and calamitous time that’s breaking over us right now.
Beyond LESS, the available paths diverge rapidly, and once again there are many serious options and many more nonserious ones. A great many people, for example, are interested only in answers that will allow them to keep on enjoying the absurd extravagance that passed, not too long ago, for an ordinary lifestyle among the industrial world’s privileged classes. To such people I have nothing to say. Those lifestyles were possible only because the world’s industrial nations burned through half a billion years of stored sunlight in a few short centuries and gave most of the benefits of that orgy of consumption to a relatively small fraction of their populations; now that easily accessible reserves of fossil fuels are running short, the party’s over.
Yes, I’m quite aware that that’s a controversial statement. Anyone who says that in public can count on fielding heated denunciations on a regular basis insisting that it just ain’t so, that solar energy or fission or perpetual motion or something will allow the industrial world’s privileged classes to keep on living the high life they’re used to. Printer’s ink being unfashionable these days, a great many electrons have been inconvenienced on the internet to proclaim that this or that technology must surely allow the comfortable to remain comfortable, no matter what the laws of physics, geology, or economics have to say. Of course, the only alternative energy sources that have been able to stay in business even in a time of sky-high oil prices are those that can count on gargantuan government subsidies to pay their operating expenses. Equally, the alternatives receive an even more gigantic “energy subsidy” from fossil fuels, which make them look much more economical than they otherwise would. Such reflections carry no weight with those whose sense of entitlement makes living with less unthinkable.
I’m glad to say that there’s a fair number of people who’ve gotten past that unproductive attitude, who have grasped the severity of the crisis of our time and are ready to accept unwelcome change in order to secure a livable future for our descendants. They want to know how we can pull modern civilization out of its current power dive and perpetuate it into the centuries ahead. I have no answers for them, either, because that’s not an option at this stage of the game. We’re long past the point at which decline and fall can be avoided, or even ameliorated on any large scale.
A decade ago, a team headed by Robert Hirsch and funded by the Department of Energy released a study outlining what would have to be done in order to transition away from fossil fuels before they transitioned away from us.1What they found, to sketch out too briefly the findings of a long and carefully worded study, is that in order to avoid massive disruption, the transition would have to begin twenty years before conventional petroleum production peaked and plateaued. There’s a certain irony in the fact that 2005, the year this study was published, was also the year when conventional petroleum production reached its current plateau; the transition would thus have had to begin in 1985—right about the time, that is, that the Reagan administration in the US and its clones overseas were scrapping the promising steps toward just such a transition.
A transition that got under way in 2005, in other words, would have been too late, and given the political climate, it probably would have been too little as well. Even so, it would have been a much better outcome than the one we got, in which politicians have spent the last eleven years insisting that we don’t have to worry about depleting oilfields because fracking or tar sands or some other petroleum source is going to save us all. At this point, thirty years after the point at which we would have had to get started, it’s all very well to talk about some sort of grand transition to sustainability, but the time when such a thing would have been possible came and went decades ago. We could have chosen that path, but we didn’t, and insisting thirty-one years after the fact that we’ve changed our minds and want a different future than the one we chose isn’t likely to make any kind of difference that matters.
So what options does that leave? In the minds of a great many people in North America, the option that comes reflexively to mind involves buying farmland in some isolated rural area and setting up a homestead in the traditional style. Many of the people who talk enthusiastically about this option, to be sure, have never grown anything more demanding than a potted petunia, know nothing about the complex and demanding arts of farming and livestock raising, and aren’t in the sort of robust physical condition needed to handle the unremitting hard work of raising food without benefit of fossil fuels. Thus it’s a safe guess that in most of these cases, heading out to the country is simply a comforting daydream that serves to distract attention from the increasingly bleak prospects so many people are facing in the age of unraveling upon us.
There’s a long history behind such daydreams. Since colonial times, the lure of the frontier has played a huge role in the North American imagination, providing any number of colorful inkblots onto which fantasies of a better life could be projected. Those of my readers who are old enough to remember the aftermath of the Sixties counterculture, when a great many young people followed that dream to an assortment of hastily created rural communes, will also recall the head-on collision between middle-class fantasies of entitlement and the hard realities of rural subsistence farming that generally resulted. Some of the communes survived, though many more did not. That I know of, none of the surviving ones made it without a long and difficult period of readjustment in which romantic notions of easy living in the lap of nature got chucked in favor of a more realistic awareness of just how little in the way of goods and services a bunch of untrained ex-suburbanites can actually produce by their own labor.
In theory, that process of reassessment is still open. In practice, given the rising spiral of converging crises bearing down on industrial society right now, I’m far from sure it’s an option for anyone who’s not already out there on their own parcel of rural farmland. If you’re already there, there’s good reason to pursue the strategy that put you there. If your plans to get the necessary property, equipment, and skills are well advanced at this point, you may still be able to make it, but you’d probably better hustle. On the other hand, dear reader, if your rural retreat is still off there in the realm of daydreams and good intentions, it’s almost certainly too late to do much about it, and where you are right now is probably where you’ll be when the onrushing waves of crisis come surging up and break over your head.
That being the case, are there any options left other than hiding under the bed and hoping that the end will be relatively painless? As it happens, there are.
The point that has to be understood to make sense of those options is that in the real world, as distinct from Hollywood-style disaster fantasies, the impacts of decline and fall aren’t uniform. They vary in intensity over space and time, and they impact particular systems of a falling civilization at different times and in different ways. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and depend on the wrong systems to support you, your chances aren’t good, but the places, times, and systems that take the brunt of the collapse aren’t random. To some extent, those can be anticipated, and some of them can also be avoided.
Here’s an obvious example. Right now, if your livelihood depends on the fracking industry, the tar sands industry, or any of the subsidiary industries that feed into those, your chances of getting through the next few years with your income intact are pretty minimal. As I write this, the layoffs and bankruptcies have already started, and can be expected to accelerate in the years ahead.2 People in those industries who got to witness earlier booms and busts know this, and a good many of them are paying off their debts, settling any unfinished business they might have, and making sure they can cover a tank of gas or a plane ticket to get back home when the bottom falls out. People in those industries who don’t have that experience to guide them and are convinced that nothing bad can actually happen to them are not doing these things and are likely to end up in a world of hurt when their turn comes.
They’re not the only ones who would benefit right now from taking such steps. Most of North America’s banking and finance industry has been flying high on bloated profits from an assortment of dubious fracking-related speculations, ranging from junk bonds through derivatives to exotic financial fauna such as volumetric production payments. Now that the goose that laid the golden eggs is bobbing feet upwards in a pond of used fracking fluid, the good times are coming to a sudden stop, and that means sharply reduced income for those junior bankers, brokers, and salespeople who can keep their jobs, and even more sharply reduced prospects for those who don’t.
They’ve got plenty of company on the chopping block. The entire retail sector in the United States is already in trouble, with big-box stores struggling for survival and shopping malls being abandoned, and the future ahead promises more of the same, varying in intensity by region and a galaxy of other factors. Those who brace themselves for a hard landing now are a good deal more likely to make it than those who don’t, and those who have the chance to jump to something more stable now would be well advised to make the leap.
For another example, the climate changes covered in Chapter Two are highly relevant to the shape of the immediate future. One thing that’s been learned from the past few years of climate vagaries is that North America, at least, is shifting in exactly the way paleoclimatic data would suggest—that is to say, more or less the same way it did during warm periods over the past ten or twenty million years. The short form is that the Southwest and mountain West are getting baked to a crackly crunch under savage droughts; the eastern Great Plains, Midwest, and most of the South are being hit by a wildly unstable climate, with bone-dry dry years alternating with soggy wet ones; while the Appalachians and points eastward have been getting unsteady temperatures but reliable rainfall. Line up your subsistence strategy next to those climate shifts, and if you have the time and resources to relocate, you have some idea where to go.
All this presumes, of course, that what we’re facing has much more in common with the crises faced by other civilizations on their way to history’s compost heap than it does with the apocalyptic fantasies so often retailed these days as visions of the immediate future. There’s no shortage of claims that it just ain’t so, that everything I’ve just said is wasted breath because some vast and terrible whatsit will shortly descend on the whole world and squash us like bugs. There never has been a shortage of such claims. Meanwhile, all the dates by which the world was surely going to end have rolled past without incident, and the inevitable cataclysms have pulled one no-show after another, but the shrill insistence that something of the sort really will happen this time around has shown no sign of letting up. Nor will it, since the unacceptable alternative consists of taking responsibility for doing something about the future.
Now, of course, I’ve already pointed out that there’s not much that can be done about the future on the largest scale. As the various factors traced out in this book head toward the red zone on the gauge, it’s far too late in the day for much more than crisis management on a local and individual level. Even so, crisis management is a considerably more useful response than sitting on the sofa daydreaming about the grandiose project that’s certain to save us or the grandiose cataclysm that’s certain to annihilate us—though these latter options are admittedly much more comfortable in the short term.
What’s more, there’s no shortage of examples in relatively recent history to guide the sort of crisis management I have in mind. The tsunami of discontinuities that’s rolling toward us out of the deep waters of the future may be larger than the waves that hit the Western world with the coming of the First World War in 1914, the Great Depression in 1929, or the Second World War in 1939, but from the perspective of the individual, the difference isn’t as vast as it might seem. I’d encourage my readers to visit their local public libraries and pick up books about the lived experience of those earlier traumas. I’d also encourage those with elderly relatives who still remember the Second World War to sit down with them over a couple of cups of whatever beverage seems appropriate, and ask about what it was like on a day-to-day basis to watch their ordinary peacetime world unravel into chaos.
I’ve taken part in such conversations, and I’ve also done a great deal of reading about historical crises that have passed below the horizon of living memory. There are plenty of lessons to be gained from such sources, and one of the most important also used to be standard aboard sailing ships in the days before steam power. Sailors in those days had to go scrambling up the rigging at all hours and in all weathers to set, reef, or furl sails; it was not an easy job—imagine yourself up in the rigging of a tall ship in the middle of a howling storm at night, clinging to tarred ropes and slick wood and trying to get a mass of wet, heavy, wind-whipped canvas to behave, while below you the ship rolls from side to side and swings you out over a raging ocean and back again. If you slip and you’re lucky, you land on deck, with a pretty good chance of breaking bones or worse; if you slip and you’re not lucky, you plunge straight down into churning black water and are never seen again.
The rule that sailors learned and followed in those days was simple: “One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.” Every chore that had to be done up there in the rigging could be done by a gang of sailors who each lent one hand to the effort, so the other could cling for dear life to the nearest rope or ratline. Those tasks that couldn’t be done that way, such as hauling on ropes, took place down on the deck—the rigging was designed with that in mind. There were emergencies where that rule didn’t apply, and even with the rule in place, there were sailors who fell from the rigging to their deaths, but as a general principle, it worked tolerably well.
I’d like to propose that the same rule might be worth pursuing in the crisis of our age. In the years to come, many of us will face the same kind of scramble for survival that so many people faced in the catastrophes of the twentieth century’s first half. Some of us won’t make it, and some will have to face the ghastly choice between sheer survival and everything else they value in life. Not everyone, though, will land in one or the other of those categories, and many those who manage to stay out of them will have the chance to direct time and energy toward the broader picture.
Exactly what projects might fall into that latter category will differ from one person to another, for reasons that are irreducibly personal. I’m sure there are plenty of things that would motivate you to action in desperate times, dear reader, that would leave me cold, and of course, the reverse is also true. In times of crisis, of the kind we’re discussing, it’s personal factors of that sort that make the difference, not abstract considerations of the sort we might debate here. I’d also encourage readers to reflect on the question themselves: in the wreck of industrial civilization, what are you willing to make an effort to accomplish, to defend, or to preserve?
In thinking about that, I’d encourage my readers to consider the traumatic years of the early twentieth century as a model for what’s approaching us. Those who were alive when the first great wave of dissolution hit in 1914 weren’t facing forty years of continuous cataclysm but a sequence of crises of various kinds separated by intervals of relative calm in which some level of recovery is possible. More likely than not, the first round of trouble here in North America will be a major economic crisis; at some point not too far down the road, the yawning gap between our senile political class and the impoverished and disaffected masses promises the collapse of politics as usual and a descent into domestic insurgency, or one of the other standard ways by which former democracies destroy themselves. As already noted, there are plenty of other things bearing down on us—but after an interval, things will stabilize again.
Then it’ll be time to sort through the wreckage, see what’s been saved and what can be recovered, and go on from there. First, though, we have a troubled time to get through, and that can be a very challenging thing for those who have been taught to assume that history has some kind of obligation to give them the future they want. It’s by stepping beyond that overdeveloped sense of entitlement that it becomes possible to plan for a future worth having.
Nothing will be easier, as the descent into the deindustrial dark age begins to pick up speed around us, than giving in to despair—and nothing will be more pointless. Those of us who are alive today are faced with the hugely demanding task of coping with the consequences of industrial civilization’s decline and fall and saving as many as possible of the best achievements of the past few centuries so that they can cushion the descent and enrich the human societies of the far future. That won’t be easy. So? The same challenge has been faced many times before, and quite often it’s been faced with relative success.
The circumstances of the present case are in some ways more difficult than past equivalents, to be sure, but the tools and the knowledge base available to cope with them are almost incomparably greater. All in all, factoring in the greater challenges and the greater resources, it’s probably fair to suggest that the challenge of our time is about on a par with other eras of decline and fall. The only question that still remains to be settled is how many of the people who are awake to the imminence of crisis will rise to the challenge and how many will fail to do so.
Some of the ones who will be taking that latter option are going out of their way to announce that fact to the world in advance. I’m thinking here of the very large number of people whose sole response to the approach of an unwelcome future is the hope that they’ll die before it arrives. Some of them are quite forthright about it, which at least has the virtue of honesty. Rather more of them conceal the starkness of that choice behind a variety of convenient evasions, the insistence that we’re all going to die soon anyway from some global catastrophe or other being the most popular of these just now.
I admit to a certain macabre curiosity about how that will play out in the years ahead. I’ve suspected for a while now, for example, that the baby boomers will manage one final mediagenic fad on the way out, and the generation that marked its childhood with coonskin caps and hula hoops and its puberty with love beads and Beatlemania will finish with a fad for suicide parties, in which attendees reminisce to the sound of the tunes they loved in high school, then wash down pills with vodka and help each other tie plastic bags over their heads. Still, I wonder how many people will have second thoughts once every other option has gone whistling down the wind, and will fling themselves into an assortment of futile attempts to have their cake when they’ve already eaten it right down to the bare plate. We may see some truly bizarre religious movements, and some truly destructive political ones, before those who go around today insisting that they don’t want to live in a deindustrial world finally get their wish.
There are, of course, plenty of other options. One of the most promising is a strategy I’ve described wryly as “collapse first and avoid the rush”: getting ahead of the curve of decline, in other words, and downshifting to a much less extravagant lifestyle while there’s still time to pick up the skills and tools needed to do it competently. Despite the strident insistence from defenders of the status quo that anything less than business as usual amounts to heading straight back to the caves, it’s entirely possible to have a decent and tolerably comfortable life on a tiny fraction of the energy and resource base that middle-class Americans think they can’t possibly do without. Mind you, you have to know how to do it, and that’s not the sort of knowledge you can pick up from a manual, which is why it’s crucial to start now and get through the learning curve while you still have the income and the resources to cushion the impact of the inevitable mistakes.
The difficulty with this plan is that a growing number of North Americans are running out of time. I don’t think it’s escaped the notice of many people that despite all the cheerleading from government officials, despite all the reassurances from dignified and clueless economists, despite all those reams of doctored statistics gobbled down whole by the watchdogs-turned-lapdogs of the media and spewed forth undigested onto the evening news, the economy is not getting better. Outside a few privileged sectors, times are hard and getting harder; here in the US, more and more people are slipping into the bleak category of the long-term unemployed, and a great many of those who can still find employment work at part-time positions for sweatshop wages with no benefits at all.
Despite all the same cheerleading, reassurances, and doctored statistics, furthermore, the economy is not going to get better: not for more than brief intervals by any measure, and not at all if “better” means returning to some equivalent of North America’s late-twentieth-century boom time. Those days are over, and they will not return. That harsh reality is having an immediate impact on some of my readers already, and that impact will only spread as time goes on. For those who have already been caught by the economic downdrafts, it’s arguably too late to collapse first and avoid the rush; willy-nilly, they’re already collapsing as fast as they can, and the rush is picking up speed around them as we speak.
For those who aren’t yet in that situation, the need to make changes while there’s still time to do so is paramount, and one of the most important changes involves the way people in today’s industrial societies make a living. A great many people, to judge by the requests for advice I receive online, want to know what jobs might be likely to provide steady employment as the industrial economy comes apart. That’s a point that needs careful assessment, since its implications intersect the whole tangled web in which our economy and society is snared just now. In particular, it assumes that the current way of bringing work together with workers, and turning the potentials of human mind and muscle toward the production of goods and services, is likely to remain in place for the time being, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this won’t be the case.
It’s important to be clear on exactly what’s being discussed here. Human beings have always had to produce goods and services to stay alive and keep their families and communities going; that’s not going to change. In nonindustrial societies, though, most work is performed by individuals who consume the product of their own labor, and most of the rest is sold or bartered directly by the people who produce it to the people who consume it. What sets the industrial world apart is that a third party, the employer, inserts himself into this process, hiring people to produce goods and services and then selling those goods and services to buyers.
That’s employment, in the modern sense of the word. Most people think of getting hired by an employer, for a fixed salary or wage, to produce goods and services that the employer then sells to someone else, as the normal and natural state of affairs. It’s a state of affairs that is already beginning to break down around us, however, because the surpluses that make that kind of employment economically viable are going away.
What makes this even more challenging is that very few people in the modern industrial world actually produce goods and services for consumers, much less for themselves, by applying energy to raw materials. The vast majority of today’s employees, and in particular all those who have the wealth and influence that come with high social status, don’t do this. Executives, brokers, bankers, consultants, analysts, salespeople—well, I could go on for pages—the whole range of what used to be called white-collar jobs is supported by the production of goods and services by the working Joes and Janes managing all the energy-intensive machinery down there on the shop floor. So is the entire vast maze of the financial industry, and so are the legions of government bureaucrats—local, state, and federal—who manage, regulate, or oversee one or another aspect of economic activity.
As noted in an earlier chapter, all these intermediaries are understandably just as interested in keeping their jobs as the working Joes and Janes down there on the shop floor, and yet the energy surpluses that made it viable to perch such an immensely complex infrastructure on top of the production of goods and services for consumers are going away. The result is a frantic struggle on everyone’s part to make sure that the other guy loses his job first. It’s a struggle that all of them will ultimately lose—as the energy surplus needed to support so drastic a degree of intermediation dwindles away, so will the entire system that’s perched on that high but precarious support—and so, as long as that system remains in place, getting hired by an employer, paid a regular wage or salary, and given work and a workplace to produce goods and services that the employer then sells to someone else is going to become increasingly rare and increasingly unrewarding.
That transformation is already well under way. Outside of a handful of industries, very few people who work for an employer in the sense I’ve just outlined are prospering in today’s North American economies. Most employees are having their benefits slashed, their working conditions worsened, their hours cut, and their pay reduced by one maneuver or another, and the threat of being laid off is constantly hovering over their heads. None of this is accidental, and none of it is merely the result of greed on the part of the very rich, though admittedly the culture of executive kleptocracy at the upper end of the North American social pyramid is making things a good deal worse than they might otherwise be.
The people I know who are prospering right now are those who produce goods and services for their own use, and provide goods and services directly to other people, without having an employer to provide them with work, a workplace, and a regular wage or salary. Some of these people have to stay under the radar screen of the current legal and regulatory system, since the people who work in that system are trying to preserve their own jobs by making life difficult for those who try to do without their intermediation. Others can do things more openly. All of them have sidestepped as many as possible of the infrastructure services that are supposed to be part of an employee’s working life—for example, most of them aren’t getting trained at universities, since the academic industry in the United States these days is just another predatory business sector trying to keep itself afloat by running others into the ground, and they aren’t going to banks for working capital for much the same reason. They’re using their own labor, their own wits, and their own personal connections with potential customers, to find a niche in which they can earn the money (or barter for the goods) they need or want.
I’d like to suggest that this is the wave of the future—not least because this is how economic life normally operates in nonindustrial societies, where the vast majority of people in the workforce are directly engaged in the production of goods and services for themselves and their own customers. The surplus that supports all those people in management, finance, and so on is a luxury that nonindustrial societies don’t have. In the most pragmatic of economic senses, collapsing now and avoiding the rush involves getting out of a dying model of economics before it drags you down, and finding your footing in the emerging informal economy while there’s still time to get past the worst of the learning curve.
Playing by the rules of a dying economy is not a strategy with a high success rate or a long shelf life. Those of my readers who are still employed in the usual sense of the term may choose to hold onto that increasingly rare status, but it’s not wise for them to assume that such arrangements will last indefinitely; using the available money and other resources to get training, tools, and skills for some other way of getting by would probably be a wise strategy. Those of my readers who have already fallen through the widening cracks of the employment economy will have a harder row to hoe in many cases; for them, the crucial requirement is getting access to food, shelter, and other necessities while figuring out what to do next and getting through any learning curve that might be required.
Another crucial aspect of our predicament just now, though it’s not often recognized as such, is that most of our modern technologies are very poorly adapted to the long term. Most of the technologies used by today’s industrial societies depend directly or indirectly on nonrenewable resources that, in the broad scheme of things, simply won’t be around all that much longer. Those technologies that can’t be reworked to use entirely renewable inputs, or that stop being economical once the costs of renewables have to be factored in, will go away in the decades and centuries to come, with profound impacts on human life.
In that light, it’s comforting to realize that our species has managed to come up with a certain number of extremely durable technologies. Agriculture, despite the assertions of its modern neoprimitivist critics, is capable of being one of those. The rice paddies of eastern Asia, the wheat fields of Syria, and the olive orchards and vineyards of Greece and Italy, to name only a few examples, have proven sustainable over many millennia, and will likely still be viable long after today’s idiotically unsustainable petrochemical agriculture has become a footnote in history books written in languages that haven’t evolved yet.
There are other examples. One in particular, though, plays an important role in my own hopes for the future, not least because I work with it every day: the technology of the book.
One volume on my bookshelf right now makes as good an example as any. It’s an English translation of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s first and greatest novels. It was written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, at the beginning of the eleventh century for a circle of friends, and it wove together her wry reflections on court life with a sense of the impermanence of all earthly things. Like so many novels of an earlier age, it demands more patience than most of today’s readers like to give to fiction; it unfolds at a leisurely pace, following the path of its decidedly unheroic hero, Prince Genji, through the social milieu of his time. Think of it as War and Peace without the war: the political struggles that frame Genji’s career, sending him from the capital into exile and then returning him to the upper reaches of power, all take place without a hint of violence.
This is all the more striking because the society in which Murasaki lived was well on its way to a violent decline and fall. Her lifetime marked the zenith of the age Japanese historians call the Heian period. Over the next century and a half, the Japanese economy came apart, public order disintegrated in a rising spiral of violence, and the government lost control of the provinces where the new samurai class was taking shape. The civil wars that began in 1156 shredded what was left of Heian society and plunged Japan into a dark age four and a half centuries long.
Countless cultural treasures vanished during those years, but The Tale of Genji was not among them. One of the advantages of books is that, properly made, they are extremely durable; another is that they have very little value as plunder, and so tend to get left behind when looters come through. Both these advantages worked in favor of Murasaki’s novel, and so did the patient efforts of generations of Buddhist monks and nuns who did for their culture what their equivalents in Dark Age Europe did a few centuries earlier.
It’s not the only volume on my bookshelves that came through the fall of a civilization intact. A good shelf and a half of Greek philosophy and mathematics hid out in Irish monasteries and Arab libraries while Rome crashed to ruin and nomads fought over the rubble, and so did literary works from Greece and Rome, including a couple—Homer comes to mind—that came out of the dark ages before Greece and Rome, and so get extra credit. The Chinese classics on another shelf went through more than that. Chinese civilization has immense staying power, but its political systems tend to be fragile, and such seasoned survivors as Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching have shrugged off half a dozen cycles of decline and fall.
Still, the granddaddy of them all is next to the Greek classics. The Epic of Gilgamesh was first composed well over five thousand years ago by some forgotten poet of Sumer, the oldest literate society anybody has yet been able to find. It’s not something most people read in school, which is ironic, because the epic of Gilgamesh is the kind of story we most need to read these days: a story about limits. When he first strides into the story, Gilgamesh is about as far from Prince Genji as a fictional character can get. Superhumanly strong, with an ego to match, he makes Conan the Barbarian look like Caspar Milquetoast, but his ego sends him on a long journey through love, loss, and a shattering confrontation with the human condition that leaves little of his arrogance intact. It’s a story well worth reading even, or especially, today.
The astonishing thing, at least to me, is that I can take that book from its place on the shelf today and take in a story that had readers enthralled five thousand years ago. Precious little else from Sumer survives at all. Five thousand years is a long time, especially in a corner of the world where more civilizations have risen and fallen than just about anywhere else. That’s what I mean about the durability of books as a technology of information storage and transfer. Even though individual books break down over time, it costs little to manufacture them and little except time to copy them, and they weather copying mistakes remarkably well. Unlike today’s data storage methods, where a very small number of mistakes can render data hopelessly corrupt, a book can still pass on its meaning even when the copy is riddled with scribal errors.
All this bears directly on the shape of the deindustrial dark age ahead of us. Our age will certainly leave its share of legacies to the far future, but as already noted, most of those are the opposite of helpful. Of our positive achievements, on the other hand, the ones most likely to reach our descendants five thousand years from now are the ones written in books.
Thus I’d like to suggest that books, and the technologies that produce and preserve them, might well deserve a place well up on the list of useful things that need to be preserved through the long decline ahead of us. I wish it made sense to count on public libraries, but those venerable institutions have gotten the short end of the stick now for decades, and the dire fiscal straits faced by most state and local governments in the US now do not bode well for their survival. Like so many other things of value, book technology may have to be saved by individuals and local voluntary groups, using their own time and limited resources.
It might come down to copying books with pen and ink onto handmade paper, but there may well be another viable option. Letterpress technology is simple enough to make and maintain—the presses that sparked a communications revolution in Europe in the fourteenth century were built entirely with hand tools—and brings with it the power to produce a thousand copies of a book in the time a good scribe would need to produce one. With printing presses, something like the book culture of colonial America, complete with local bookstores, libraries open to anyone willing to pay a modest subscription, and private book collections, comes within reach, at least in regions that maintain some level of stability and public order. This may not seem like much in an age of internet downloads, but it beats the stuffing out of Dark Age Europe, when most people could count on living out their lives without turning the pages of a book.
This principle isn’t limited to books, of course. The sort of local, decentralized approach to the survival of book technology suggested here is a template for the kind of strategy that could work for many other things as well. Five points that might help guide such projects come to mind.
First, it’s crucial to remember that our predicament is anything but unique. The fantasy that today’s industrial societies are destiny’s darlings, and therefore exempt from the common fate of civilizations, needs to be set aside. So does the equally misleading fantasy that today’s industrial societies are the worst of all possible worlds and are getting the cataclysmic fate they deserve. The societies of the industrial world are human cultures, no better or worse than most. For a variety of reasons, they happened to stumble onto the reserves of stored carbon hidden in the Earth and used most of them in three centuries of reckless exploitation; now, having overshot their resource base, like so many other societies, they’re following the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. Letting go of the delusion of our own uniqueness enables us to learn from the past and also makes it easier to set aside some of the unproductive cultural narratives that hamstring so many attempts to respond to our predicament.
Second, one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process. None of us are going to wake up one morning a few weeks, or months, or years from now and find ourselves living in the Dark Ages, much less the Stone Age. Thus trying to leap in a single bound to some imagined future is unlikely to work very well. Rather, the most effective strategies will be aimed at muddling through, trying to deal with each stage of the descent as it comes into sight, and being prepared to make plenty of midcourse corrections. Flexibility will be more useful than ideology, and making do will be an essential survival skill.
Third, another of the lessons offered by the past is that the long road down is not going to be easy. Like every human society in every age, the future ahead of us will have opportunities for happiness and achievement, of course, and there will doubtless be significant gains to set in the balance against the inevitable losses, especially for those who long for simpler lives at a slower pace. Still, the losses will be terrible; it’s crucial not to sugarcoat them, despite the very real temptation to do so, or to ignore the immense human tragedy that is an inevitable part of the slow death of any civilization.
Fourth, the harsh dimensions of the future can be mitigated, and the positive aspects fostered, by preparations and actions that are well within the reach of individuals, families, and communities. Not all declines and falls are created equal; in many failed civilizations of the past, a relatively small number of people willing to commit themselves to constructive action have made a huge difference in the outcome, and not only in the short term. The same option is wide open today; the one question is whether there will be those willing to take up the challenge.
Fifth, while this book has attempted to sketch out the most likely overall shape of the deindustrial dark age ahead, we can only guess at many of the details. Drawing up detailed plans and predictions may be a source of comfort in the face of a relentlessly unpredictable future, but that same unpredictability makes any plan, no matter how clever or popular, a dubious source of guidance at best. Nor is consensus a useful guide; one further lesson of history is that, in every age, the consensus view of the future is consistently wrong. Instead, the deliberate cultivation of diverse and even conflicting approaches by groups and individuals maximizes the likelihood that the broadest possible toolkit will reach the waiting hands of the future.
All this implies that we are much less helpless in the face of the future than it’s become fashionable to assume. While it’s inevitable that much will be lost in the descent into the coming deindustrial dark age, the evidence of the past shows that the efforts that are needed to preserve scientific, intellectual, and cultural legacies through a dark age and out the other side are well within the reach of individuals—and to judge from history, the selection of legacies from the past that reach the far side of the dark age will play a crucial role in determining the shape of the renaissance that follows.
And there will be a renaissance. That’s the final secret history has to teach us about dark ages: like civilizations, they are temporary phenomena. Like civilizations, they transform their environments until the conditions that allowed them to come into being no longer permit them to continue. The fall of Rome thus eventually led to the rise of Renaissance Europe, the fall of Mycenean Greece led to the rise of Classical Greece, the fall of Heian Japan led to the rise of Tokugawa Japan, and so on through history’s long litany of civilizational rise and fall.
In exactly the same way, the fall of modern industrial society—in North America and elsewhere—will eventually lead to the rise of the successor societies of the far future, the cultures and civilizations that will build on our ruins. What the people in those successor societies will bring with them on the road to a renaissance, the lessons they will have learned and the technologies and cultural creations that will be ready to hand—that will be determined, at least in part, by the choices we make now.