Descending Forward

27 06 2012

If we take the dangers of peak oil (and gas, and coal, and water) seriously, we face a difficult challenge of imagining life through it. While we have an easy time imagining worlds that are like out own or fantastic expressions of our own, it is much more difficult to imagine worlds unlike it. A world without the easy energy of petrochemicals, though, cannot look much like our own. The easiest way to imagine it, then, is to look backward toward the past when such fuels were unavailable. This past often has the advantage of being more familiar, rooted at least in part in our shared history, but it can be misleading.

Obviously, this train of thought owes a fair amount to reading John Michael Greer’s work over on The Archdruid Report. This is supplemental to that, a reading exercise of sorts. He focuses a lot about the ways in which we can prepare for the long descent by looking back to earlier generations for techniques and technologies that are less dependent on petrochemical energy. Here, I am working through some of the ways that might be problematic, trying to see around the edges of it. I’m not dismissing his strategy (it has much to recommend it and much that I see accepting as fundamental to living forward), but exploring the terrain to figure out if there are other strategies to consider.

A caveat is necessary right up front. Even here, being critical of our capacity to imagine, I’m speculating, imagining, in little ways what that future might look like; readers should keep that in mind.  There are real limits to what we can imagine and while we will want to stretch those for the sake of making plans into the descent, it is also very important that we keep in mind that the future doesn’t just happen. It is made, the labor of many hands and many struggles that aren’t easy to foresee.

While the life we now have is unsustainable, and the accompanying decline from it rough, there is little to guarantee that the technical and social outlines of it will closely resemble anything prior to it. I don’t doubt our capacity to predict broad outlines since those draw on well-established historical and behavioral patterns, but the actual manifestations of them are specific. Culture isn’t incidental, and the cultural forms influence what it is like to live out those broader patterns. Berbers and Vikings, if you will.

Okay, with those caveats in place, let me talk about a few elements of the present situation that I suspect will play a role in defining the future.

Thinking about peak energy, there are a number of alternative energy systems available to us which could provide us with enough energy to sustain some of the technical innovations of our time. While drastic industrial interventions will become ever more rare, diminished forms might be preserved, e.g., the disappearance of personal cars and access to the internet, but limited access to motor and computer networks through intermediaries. Satellites might still go up into space even as fewer people have the resources to make use of them.

Alongside this, we have to consider that while travel will become more difficult and costly, we are likely to retain some connectivity, even if it is just of the radio and book selling variety. The pace of innovation may slow, but that’s no reason to think it will cease to be a national and perhaps global phenomenon. As luxury innovation becomes more unfeasible, we may see those intellectual resources directed toward more meaningful projects.

Through these sorts of networks we may be able to maintain and innovate one some structural interventions, those that rely less on material products and more on knowledge and behavior. Take, for one example, the innovations of public health. While much is made of the latest and greatest and most expensive medical treatments, some of the greatest innovations in health have emerged by making people aware of how to minimize their exposure to pathogens. With some communication technologies intact, public health-style innovations may even continue well into the descent, shifting to meet the needs of new resource-poor people.

Socially, we have reason to think that collapse of the present forms of social organization won’t necessarily mean a retreat to the social forms of an earlier generation. Present communities are larger and more diverse and collapse is uneven, both locally and globally.

Communities will be broken, yes, but new ones will surely form. Their members will be more disparate, drawn together by mutual needs rather than mutual ideology. The cultural forms of those new communities will be defined by the compromises between inherited cultural forms, the limits and opportunities of their specific place(s), and the insight of community members actively struggling to make sense of this.

Some communities will likely be defined by the way they cling to old forms, but I suspect that most descent communities will remake old forms, akin to the way cultural forms have always been remade when people are forced together by necessity. Similarly, as older forms fail, we are likely to see increasing socialization as people actively seek to engage others for aid. The stress of collapse will surely mean that those new bonds will be more fraught with all the negotiations that come with interdependence, but nonetheless I think it more likely that people will face collapse as communities rather than individuals.

My mind goes to the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery constituted a collapse for those caught up within it. In spite of that, new communal ties were quickly formed, sometimes with quite radical and long-term results. The diversity of communities, the degree of interconnections between them even given their stark limitations, should be considered when we think about the sorts of opportunities the future may hold.

All this is to say that we should be careful of trying too hard to plan on the future based on how we imagine to be and pay a great deal of attention to the future as it is taking place around us presently–the sorts of people with whom we find ourselves, the sort of values they have, the skills they possess, the sort of places in which we live.

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