Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Peak Meaninglessness

Last week’s discussion of externalities—costs of doing business that get dumped onto the economy, the community, or the environment, so that those doing the dumping can make a bigger profit—is, I’m glad to say, not the first time this issue has been raised recently.  The long silence that closed around such things three decades ago is finally cracking; they’re being mentioned again, and not just by archdruids.  One of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Joe McInerney—noted an article in Grist a while back that pointed out the awkward fact that none of the twenty biggest industries in today’s world could break even, much less make a profit, if they had to pay for the damage they do to the environment.

Now of course the conventional wisdom these days interprets that statement to mean that it’s unfair to make those industries pay for the costs they impose on the rest of us—after all, they have a God-given right to profit at everyone else’s expense, right?  That’s certainly the attitude of fracking firms in North Dakota, who recently proposed that  they ought to be exempted from the state’s rules on dumping radioactive waste, because following the rules would cost them too much money. That the costs externalized by the fracking industry will sooner or later be paid by others, as radionuclides in fracking waste work their way up the food chain and start producing cancer clusters, is of course not something anyone in the industry or the media is interested in discussing.

Watch this sort of thing, and you can see the chasm opening up under the foundations of industrial society. Externalized costs don’t just go away; one way or another, they’re going to be paid, and costs that don’t appear on a company’s balance sheet still affect the economy. That’s the argument of The Limits to Growth, still the most accurate (and thus inevitably the most reviled) of the studies that tried unavailingly to turn industrial society away from its suicidal path: on a finite planet, once an inflection point is passed, the costs of economic growth rise faster than growth does, and sooner or later force the global economy to its knees.

The tricks of accounting that let corporations pretend that their externalized costs vanish into thin air don’t change that bleak prognosis. Quite the contrary, the pretense that externalities don’t matter just makes it harder for a society in crisis to recognize the actual source of its troubles. I’ve come to think that that’s the unmentioned context behind a dispute currently roiling those unhallowed regions where economists lurk in the shrubbery: the debate over secular stagnation.

Secular stagnation? That’s the concept, unmentionable until recently, that the global economy could stumble into a rut of slow, no, or negative growth, and stay there for years. There are still plenty of economists who insist that this can’t happen, which is rather funny, really, when you consider that this has basically been the state of the global economy since 2009. (My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest, in fact, that if you subtract the hallucinatory paper wealth manufactured by derivatives and similar forms of financial gamesmanship from the world’s GDP, the production of nonfinancial goods and services worldwide has actually been declining since before the 2008 housing crash.)

Even among those who admit that what’s happening can indeed happen, there’s no consensus as to how or why such a thing could occur.  On the off chance that any mainstream economists are lurking in the shrubbery in the even more unhallowed regions where archdruids utter unspeakable heresies, and green wizards clink mugs of homebrewed beer together and bay at the moon, I have a suggestion to offer: the most important cause of secular stagnation is the increasing impact of externalities on the economy. The dishonest macroeconomic bookkeeping that leads economists to think that externalized costs go away because they’re not entered into anyone’s ledger books doesn’t actually make them disappear; instead, they become an unrecognized burden on the economy as a whole, an unfelt headwind blowing with hurricane force in the face of economic growth.

Thus there’s a profound irony in the insistence by North Dakota fracking firms that they ought to be allowed to externalize even more of their costs in order to maintain their profit margin. If I’m right, the buildup of externalized costs is what’s causing the ongoing slowdown in economic activity worldwide that’s driving down commodity prices, forcing interest rates in many countries to zero or below, and resurrecting the specter of deflationary depression. The fracking firms in question thus want to respond to the collapse in oil prices—a result of secular stagnation—by doing even more of what’s causing secular stagnation. To say that this isn’t likely to end well is to understate the case considerably.

In the real world, of course, mainstream economists don’t listen to suggestions from archdruids, and fracking firms, like every other business concern these days, can be expected to put their short-term cash flow ahead of the survival of their industry, or for that matter of industrial civilization as a whole. Thus I propose to step aside from the subject of economic externalities for a moment—though I’ll be returning to it at intervals as we proceed with this sequence of posts—in order to discuss a subtler and less crassly financial form of the same phenomenon.

That form came in for discussion in the same post two weeks ago that brought the issue of externalities into this blog’s ongoing conversation. Quite a few readers commented about the many ways in which things labeled “more advanced,” “more progressive,” and the like were actually less satisfactory and less effective at meeting human needs than the allegedly more primitive technologies they replaced. Some of those comments focused, and quite sensibly, on the concrete examples, but others pondered the ways that today’s technology fails systematically at meeting certain human needs, and reflected on the underlying causes for that failure. One of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat here to Ruben—gave an elegant frame for that discussion by suggesting that the peak of technological complexity in our time may also be described as peak meaninglessness.

I’d like to take the time to unpack that phrase. In the most general sense, technologies can be divided into two broad classes, which we can respectively call tools and prosthetics. The difference is a matter of function. A tool expands human potential, giving people the ability to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A prosthetic, on the other hand, replaces human potential, doing something that under normal circumstances, people can do just as well for themselves.  Most discussions of technology these days focus on tools, but the vast majority of technologies that shape the lives of people in a modern industrial society are not tools but prosthetics.

Prosthetics have a definite value, to be sure. Consider an artificial limb, the sort of thing on which the concept of technology-as-prosthetic is modeled. If you’ve lost a leg in an accident, say, an artificial leg is well worth having; it replaces a part of ordinary human potential that you don’t happen to have any more, and enables you to do things that other people can do with their own leg. Imagine, though, that some clever marketer were to convince people to have their legs cut off so that they could be fitted for artificial legs. Imagine, furthermore, that the advertising for artificial legs became so pervasive, and so successful, that nearly everybody became convinced that human legs were hopelessly old-fashioned and ugly, and rushed out to get their legs amputated so they could walk around on artificial legs.

Then, of course, the manufacturers of artificial arms got into the same sort of marketing, followed by the makers of sex toys. Before long you’d have a society in which most people were gelded quadruple amputees fitted with artificial limbs and rubber genitals, who spent all their time talking about the wonderful things they could do with their prostheses. Only in the darkest hours of the night, when the TV was turned off, might some of them wonder why it was that a certain hard-to-define numbness had crept into all their interactions with other people and the rest of the world.

In a very real sense, that’s the way modern industrial society has reshaped and deformed human life for its more privileged inmates. Take any human activity, however humble or profound, and some clever marketer has found a way to insert a piece of technology in between the person and the activity. You can’t simply bake bread—a simple, homely, pleasant activity that people have done themselves for thousands of years using their hands and a few simple handmade tools; no, you have to have a bread machine, into which you dump a prepackaged mix and some liquid, push a button, and stand there being bored while it does the work for you, if you don’t farm out the task entirely to a bakery and get the half-stale industrially extruded product that passes for bread these days.

Now of course the bread machine manufacturers and the bakeries pitch their products to the clueless masses by insisting that nobody has time to bake their own bread any more. Ivan Illich pointed out in Energy and Equity a long time ago the logical fallacy here, which is that using a bread machine or buying from a bakery is only faster if you don’t count the time you have to spend earning the money needed to pay for it, power it, provide it with overpriced prepackaged mixes, repair it, clean it, etc., etc., etc. Illich’s discussion focused on automobiles; he pointed out that if you take the distance traveled by the average American auto in a year, and divide that by the total amount of time spent earning the money to pay for the auto, fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc., plus all the other time eaten up by tending to the auto in various ways, the average American car goes about 3.5 miles an hour: about the same pace, that is, that an ordinary human being can walk.

If this seems somehow reminiscent of last week’s discussion of externalities, dear reader, it should. The claim that technology saves time and labor only seems to make sense if you ignore a whole series of externalities—in this case, the time you have to put into earning the money to pay for the technology and into coping with whatever requirements, maintenance needs, and side effects the technology has. Have you ever noticed that the more “time-saving technologies” you bring into your life, the less free time you have? This is why—and it’s also why the average medieval peasant worked shorter hours, had more days off, and kept a larger fraction of the value of his labor than you do.

Something else is being externalized by prosthetic technology, though, and it’s that additional factor that gives Ruben’s phrase “peak meaninglessness” its punch. What are you doing, really, when you use a bread machine? You’re not baking bread; the machine is doing that. You’re dumping a prepackaged mix and some water into a machine, closing the lid, pushing a button, and going away to do something else. Fair enough—but what is this “something else” that you’re doing? In today’s industrial societies, odds are you’re going to go use another piece of prosthetic technology, which means that once again, you’re not actually doing anything. A machine is doing something for you. You can push that button and walk away, but again, what are you going to do with your time? Use another machine?

The machines that industrial society uses to give this infinite regress somewhere to stop—televisions, video games, and computers hooked up to the internet—simply take the same process to its ultimate extreme. Whatever you think you’re doing when you’re sitting in front of one of these things, what you’re actually doing is staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen and pushing some buttons. All things considered, this is a profoundly boring activity, which is why the little colored pictures jump around all the time; that’s to keep your nervous system so far off balance that you don’t notice just how tedious it is to spend hours at a time staring at little colored pictures on a screen.

I can’t help but laugh when people insist that the internet is an information-rich environment. It’s quite the opposite, actually: all you get from it is the very narrow trickle of verbal, visual, and auditory information that can squeeze through the digital bottleneck and turn into little colored pictures on a glass screen. The best way to experience this is to engage in a media fast—a period in which you deliberately cut yourself off from all electronic media for a week or more, preferably in a quiet natural environment. If you do that, you’ll find that it can take two or three days, or even more, before your numbed and dazzled nervous system recovers far enough that you can begin to tap in to the ocean of sensory information and sensual delight that surrounds you at every moment. It’s only then, furthermore, that you can start to think your own thoughts and dream your own dreams, instead of just rehashing whatever the little colored pictures tell you.

A movement of radical French philosophers back in the 1960s, the Situationists, argued that modern industrial society is basically a scheme to convince people to hand over their own human capabilities to the industrial machine, so that imitations of those capabilities can be sold back to them at premium prices. It was a useful analysis then, and it’s even more useful now, when the gap between realities and representations has become even more drastic than it was back then. These days, as often as not, what gets sold to people isn’t even an imitation of some human capability, but an abstract representation of it, an arbitrary marker with only the most symbolic connection to what it represents.

This is one of the reasons why I think it’s deeply mistaken to claim that Americans are materialistic. Americans are arguably the least materialistic people in the world; no actual materialist—no one who had the least appreciation for actual physical matter and its sensory and sensuous qualities—could stand the vile plastic tackiness of America’s built environment and consumer economy for a fraction of a second.  Americans don’t care in the least about matter; they’re happy to buy even the most ugly, uncomfortable, shoddily made and absurdly overpriced consumer products you care to imagine, so long as they’ve been convinced that having those products symbolizes some abstract quality they want, such as happiness, freedom, sexual pleasure, or what have you.

Then they wonder, in the darkest hours of the night, why all the things that are supposed to make them happy and satisfied somehow never manage to do anything of the kind. Of course there’s a reason for that, too, which is that happy and satisfied people don’t keep on frantically buying products in a quest for happiness and satisfaction. Still, the little colored pictures keep showing them images of people who are happy and satisfied because they guzzle the right brand of tasteless fizzy sugar water, and pay for the right brand of shoddily made half-disposable clothing, and keep watching the little colored pictures: that last above all else. “Tune in tomorrow” is the most important product that every media outlet sells, and they push it every minute of every day on every stop and key.

That is to say, between my fantasy of voluntary amputees eagerly handing over the cash for the latest models of prosthetic limbs, and the reality of life in a modern industrial society, the difference is simply in the less permanent nature of the alterations imposed on people here and now.  It’s easier to talk people into amputating their imaginations than it is to convince them to amputate their limbs, but it’s also a good deal easier to reverse the surgery.

What gives this even more importance than it would otherwise have, in turn, is that all this is happening in a society that’s hopelessly out of touch with the realities that support its existence, and that relies on bookkeeping tricks of the sort discussed toward the beginning of this essay to maintain the fantasy that it’s headed somewhere other than history’s well-used compost bin. The externalization of the mind and the imagination plays just as important a role in maintaining that fantasy as the externalization of costs—and the cold mechanical heart of the externalization of the mind and imagination is mediation, the insertion of technological prosthetics into the space between the individual and the world. We’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.

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In other news, I’m delighted to report the publication of a new book of mine that may be of particular interest to readers of this blog: Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush: The Best of the Archdruid Report, which is just out from Founders House Publishing. As the title suggests, it’s an anthology of twenty-five of the most popular weekly posts from this blog, including such favorites as "Knowing Only One Story," "An Elegy for the Age of Space," "The Next Ten Billion Years," and "The Time of the Seedbearers," as well as the title essay and many more. These are the one-of-a-kind essays that haven’t appeared in my books; if you’re looking for something to hand to the spouse or friend or twelve-year-old kid who wants to know why you keep visiting this sight every Wednesday night, or simply want this blog’s best essays in a more permanent form, this is the book. It’s available in print and e-book formats and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Externality Trap, or, How Progress Commits Suicide

I've commented more than once in these essays about the cooperative dimension of writing:  the way that even the most solitary of writers inevitably takes part in what Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the flow of ideas and insights across the centuries that’s responsible for most of what we call culture. Sometimes that conversation takes place second- or third-hand—for example, when ideas from two old books collide in an author’s mind and give rise to a third book, which will eventually carry the fusion to someone else further down the stream of time—but sometimes it’s far more direct.

Last week’s post here brought an example of the latter kind. My attempt to cut through the ambiguities surrounding that slippery word “progress” sparked a lively discussion on the comments page of my blog about just exactly what counted as progress, what factors made one change “progressive” while another was denied that label. In the midst of it all, one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Jonathan—proposed an unexpected definition:  what makes a change qualify as progress, he suggested, is that it increases the externalization of costs. 

I’ve been thinking about that definition since Jonathan proposed it, and it seems to me that it points up a crucial and mostly unrecognized dimension of the crisis of our time. To make sense of it, though, it’s going to be necessary to delve briefly into economic jargon.

Economists use the term “externalities” to refer to the costs of an economic activity that aren’t paid by either party in an exchange, but are pushed off onto somebody else. You won’t hear a lot of talk about externalities these days; it many circles, it’s considered impolite to mention them, but they’re a pervasive presence in contemporary life, and play a very large role in some of the most intractable problems of our age. Some of those problems were discussed by Garret Hardin in his famous essay on the tragedy of the commons, and more recently by Elinor Ostrom in her studies of how that tragedy can be avoided; still, I’m not sure how often it’s recognized that the phenomena they discussed applies not just to commons systems, but to societies as a whole—especially to societies like ours.

An example may be useful here. Let’s imagine a blivet factory, which turns out three-prong, two-slot blivets in pallet loads for customers. The blivet-making process, like manufacturing of every other kind, produces waste as well as blivets, and we’ll assume for the sake of the example that blivet waste is moderately toxic and causes health problems in people who ingest it. The blivet factory produces one barrel of blivet waste for every pallet load of blivets it ships. The cheapest option for dealing with the waste, and thus the option that economists favor, is to dump it into the river that flows past the factory.

Notice what happens as a result of this choice. The blivet manufacturer has maximized his own benefit from the manufacturing process, by avoiding the expense of finding some other way to deal with all those barrels of blivet waste. His customers also benefit, because blivets cost less than they would if the cost of waste disposal was factored into the price. On the other hand, the costs of dealing with the blivet waste don’t vanish like so much twinkle dust; they are imposed on the people downstream who get their drinking water from the river, or from aquifers that receive water from the river, and who suffer from health problems because there’s blivet waste in their water. The blivet manufacturer is externalizing the cost of waste disposal; his increased profits are being paid for at a remove by the increased health care costs of everyone downstream.

That’s how externalities work. Back in the days when people actually talked about the downsides of economic growth, there was a lot of discussion of how to handle externalities, and not just on the leftward end of the spectrum.  I recall a thoughtful book titled TANSTAAFL—that’s an acronym, for those who don’t know their Heinlein, for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”—which argued, on solid libertarian-conservative grounds, that the environment could best be preserved by making sure that everyone paid full sticker price for the externalities they generated. Today’s crop of pseudoconservatives, of course, turned their back on all this a long time ago, and insist at the top of their lungs on their allegedly God-given right to externalize as many costs as they possibly can.  This is all the more ironic in that most pseudoconservatives claim to worship a God who said some very specific things about “what ye do to the least of these,” but that’s a subject for a different post.

Economic life in the industrial world these days can be described, without too much inaccuracy, as an arrangement set up to allow a privileged minority to externalize nearly all their costs onto the rest of society while pocketing as much as possible the benefits themselves. That’s come in for a certain amount of discussion in recent years, but I’m not sure how many of the people who’ve participated in those discussions have given any thought to the role that technological progress plays in facilitating the internalization of benefits and the externalization of costs that drive today’s increasingly inegalitarian societies. Here again, an example will be helpful.

Before the invention of blivet-making machinery, let’s say, blivets were made by old-fashioned blivet makers, who hammered them out on iron blivet anvils in shops that were to be found in every town and village. Like other handicrafts, blivet-making was a living rather than a ticket to wealth; blivet makers invested their own time and muscular effort in their craft, and turned out enough in the way of blivets to meet the demand. Notice also the effect on the production of blivet waste. Since blivets were being made one at a time rather than in pallet loads, the total amount of waste was smaller; the conditions of handicraft production also meant that blivet makers and their families were more likely to be exposed to the blivet waste than anyone else, and so had an incentive to invest the extra effort and expense to dispose of it properly. Since blivet makers were ordinary craftspeople rather than millionaires, furthermore, they weren’t as likely to be able to buy exemption from local health laws.

The invention of the mechanical blivet press changed that picture completely.  Since one blivet press could do as much work as fifty blivet makers, the income that would have gone to those fifty blivet makers and their families went instead to one factory owner and his stockholders, with as small a share as possible set aside for the wage laborers who operate the blivet press. The factory owner and stockholders had no incentive to pay for the proper disposal of the blivet waste, either—quite the contrary, since having to meet the disposal costs cut into their profit, buying off local governments was much cheaper, and if the harmful effects of blivet waste were known, you can bet that the owner and shareholders all lived well upstream from the factory. 

Notice also that a blivet manufacturer who paid a living wage to his workers and covered the costs of proper waste disposal would have to charge a higher price for blivets than one who did neither, and thus would be driven out of business by his more ruthless competitor. Externalities aren’t simply made possible by technological progress, in other words; they’re the inevitable result of technological progress in a market economy, because externalizing the costs of production is in most cases the most effective way to outcompete rival firms, and the firm that succeeds in externalizing the largest share of its costs is the most likely to prosper and survive.

Each further step in the progress of blivet manufacturing, in turn, tightened the same screw another turn. Today, to finish up the metaphor, the entire global supply of blivets is made in a dozen factories in  distant Slobbovia, where sweatshop labor under ghastly working conditions and the utter absence of environmental regulations make the business of blivet fabrication more profitable than anywhere else. The blivets are as shoddily made as possible; the entire blivet supply chain from the open-pit mines worked by slave labor that provide the raw materials to the big box stores with part-time, poorly paid staff selling blivetronic technology to the masses is a human and environmental disaster.  Every possible cost has been externalized, so that the two multinational corporations that dominate the global blivet industry can maintain their profit margins and pay absurdly high salaries to their CEOs.

That in itself is bad enough, but let’s broaden the focus to include the whole systems in which blivet fabrication takes place: the economy as a whole, society as a whole, and the biosphere as a whole. The impact of technology on blivet fabrication in a market economy has predictable and well understood consequences for each of these whole systems, which can be summed up precisely in the language we’ve already used. In order to maximize its own profitability and return on shareholder investment, the blivet industry externalizes costs in every available direction. Since nobody else wants to bear those costs, either, most of them end up being passed onto the whole systems just named, because the economy, society, and the biosphere have no voice in today’s economic decisions.

Like the costs of dealing with blivet waste, though, the other externalized costs of blivet manufacture don’t go away just because they’re externalized. As externalities increase, they tend to degrade the whole systems onto which they’re dumped—the economy, society, and the biosphere. This is where the trap closes tight, because blivet manufacturing exists within those whole systems, and can’t be carried out unless all three systems are sufficiently intact to function in their usual way. As those systems degrade, their ability to function degrades also, and eventually one or more of them breaks down—the economy plunges into a depression, the society disintegrates into anarchy or totalitarianism, the biosphere shifts abruptly into a new mode that lacks adequate rainfall for crops—and the manufacture of blivets stops because the whole system that once supported it has stopped doing so.

Notice how this works out from the perspective of someone who’s benefiting from the externalization of costs by the blivet industry—the executives and stockholders in a blivet corporation, let’s say. As far as they’re concerned, until very late in the process, everything is fine and dandy: each new round of technological improvements in blivet fabrication increases their profits, and if each such step in the onward march of progress also means that working class jobs are eliminated or offshored, democratic institutions implode, toxic waste builds up in the food chain, or what have you, hey, that’s not their problem—and after all, that’s just the normal creative destruction of capitalism, right?

That sort of insouciance is easy for at least three reasons. First, the impacts of externalities on whole systems can pop up a very long way from the blivet factories.  Second, in a market economy, everyone else is externalizing their costs as enthusiastically as the blivet industry, and so it’s easy for blivet manufacturers (and everyone else) to insist that whatever’s going wrong is not their fault.  Third, and most crucially, whole systems as stable and enduring as economies, societies, and biospheres can absorb a lot of damage before they tip over into instability. The process of externalization of costs can thus run for a very long time, and become entrenched as a basic economic habit, long before it becomes clear to anyone that continuing along the same route is a recipe for disaster.

Even when externalized costs have begun to take a visible toll on the economy, society, and the biosphere, furthermore, any attempt to reverse course faces nearly insurmountable obstacles. Those who profit from the existing order of things can be counted on to fight tooth and nail for the right to keep externalizing their costs: after all, they have to pay the full price for any reduction in their ability to externalize costs, while the benefits created by not imposing those costs on whole systems are shared among all participants in the economy, society, and the biosphere respectively. Nor is it necessarily easy to trace back the causes of any given whole-system disruption to specific externalities benefiting specific people or industries. It’s rather like loading hanging weights onto a chain; sooner or later, as the amount of weight hung on the chain goes up, the chain is going to break, but the link that breaks may be far from the last weight that pushed things over the edge, and every other weight on  the chain made its own contribution to the end result

A society that’s approaching collapse because too many externalized costs have been loaded onto on the whole systems that support it thus shows certain highly distinctive symptoms. Things are going wrong with the economy, society, and the biosphere, but nobody seems to be able to figure out why; the measurements economists use to determine prosperity show contradictory results, with those that measure the profitability of individual corporations and industries giving much better readings those that measure the performance of whole systems; the rich are convinced that everything is fine, while outside the narrowing circles of wealth and privilege, people talk in low voices about the rising spiral of problems that beset them from every side. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you probably need to get out more.

At this point it may be helpful to sum up the argument I’ve developed here:

a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity;

b) Market forces make the externalization of costs mandatory rather than optional, since economic actors that fail to externalize costs will tend to be outcompeted by those that do;

c) In a market economy, as all economic actors attempt to externalize as many costs as possible, externalized costs will tend to be passed on preferentially and progressively to whole systems such as the economy, society, and the biosphere, which provide necessary support for economic activity but have no voice in economic decisions;

d) Given unlimited increases in technological complexity, there is no necessary limit to the loading of externalized costs onto whole systems short of systemic collapse;

e) Unlimited increases in technological complexity in a market economy thus necessarily lead to the progressive degradation of the whole systems that support economic activity;

f) Technological progress in a market economy  is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse.

Now of course there are plenty of arguments that could be deployed against this modest proposal. For example, it could be argued that progress doesn’t have to generate a rising tide of externalities. The difficulty with this argument is that externalization of costs isn’t an accidental side effect of technology but an essential aspect—it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Every technology is a means of externalizing some cost that would otherwise be borne by a human body. Even something as simple as a hammer takes the wear and tear that would otherwise affect the heel of your hand, let’s say, and transfers it to something else: directly, to the hammer; indirectly, to the biosphere, by way of the trees that had to be cut down to make the charcoal to smelt the iron, the plants that were shoveled aside to get the ore, and so on.

For reasons that are ultimately thermodynamic in nature, the more complex a technology becomes, the more costs it generates. In order to outcompete a simpler technology, each more complex technology has to externalize a significant proportion of its additional costs, in order to compete against the simpler technology. In the case of such contemporary hypercomplex technosystems as the internet, the process of externalizing costs has gone so far, through so many tangled interrelationships, that it’s remarkably difficult to figure out exactly who’s paying for how much of the gargantuan inputs needed to keep the thing running. This lack of transparency feeds the illusion that large systems are cheaper than small ones, by making externalities of scale look like economies of scale.

It might be argued instead that a sufficiently stringent regulatory environment, forcing economic actors to absorb all the costs of their activities instead of externalizing them onto others, would be able to stop the degradation of whole systems while still allowing technological progress to continue. The difficulty here is that increased externalization of costs is what makes progress profitable. As just noted, all other things being equal, a complex technology will on average be more expensive in real terms than a simpler technology, for the simple fact that each additional increment of complexity has to be paid for by an investment of energy and other forms of real capital.

Strip complex technologies of the subsidies that transfer some of their costs to the government, the perverse regulations that transfer some of their costs to the rest of the economy, the bad habits of environmental abuse and neglect that transfer some of their costs to the biosphere, and so on, and pretty soon you’re looking at hard economic limits to technological complexity, as people forced to pay the full sticker price for complex technologies maximize their benefits by choosing simpler, more affordable options instead. A regulatory environment sufficiently strict to keep technology from accelerating to collapse would thus bring technological progress to a halt by making it unprofitable.

Notice, however, the flipside of the same argument: a society that chose to stop progressing technologically could maintain itself indefinitely, so long as its technologies weren’t dependent on nonrenewable resources or the like. The costs imposed by a stable technology on the economy, society, and the biosphere would be more or less stable, rather than increasing over time, and it would therefore be much easier to figure out how to balance out the negative effects of those externalities and maintain the whole system in a steady state.  Societies that treated technological progress as an option rather than a requirement, and recognized the downsides to increasing complexity, could also choose to reduce complexity in one area in order to increase it in another, and so on—or they could just raise a monument to the age of progress, and go do something else instead.

The logic suggested here requires a comprehensive rethinking of most of the contemporary world’s notions about technology, progress, and the good society. We’ll begin that discussion in future posts—after, that is, we discuss a second dimension of progress that came out of last week’s discussion.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Progress Means

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report appears to have hit a nerve. That didn’t come as any sort of a surprise, admittedly.  It’s one thing to point out that going back to the simpler and less energy-intensive technologies of earlier eras could help extract us from the corner into which industrial society has been busily painting itself in recent decades; it’s quite another to point out that doing this can also be great fun, more so than anything that comes out of today’s fashionable technologies, and in a good many cases the results include an objectively better quality of life as well

That’s not one of the canned speeches that opponents of progress are supposed to make. According to the folk mythology of modern industrial culture, since progress always makes things better, the foes of whatever gets labeled as progress are supposed to put on hair shirts and insist that everyone has to suffer virtuously from a lack of progress, for some reason based on sentimental superstition. The Pygmalion effect being what it is, it’s not hard to find opponents of progress who say what they’re expected to say, and thus fulfill their assigned role in contemporary culture, which is to stand there in their hair shirts bravely protesting until the steamroller of progress rolls right over them.

The grip of that particular bit of folk mythology on the collective imagination of our time is tight enough that when somebody brings up some other reason to oppose “progress”—we’ll get into the ambiguities behind that familiar label in a moment—a great many people quite literally can’t absorb what’s actually being said, and respond instead to the canned speeches they expect to hear. Thus I had several people attempt to dispute the comments on last week’s post, castigating my readers with varying degrees of wrath and profanity for thinking that they had to sacrifice the delights of today’s technology and go creeping mournfully back to the unsatisfying lifestyles of an earlier day.

That was all the more ironic in that none of the readers who were commenting on the post were saying anything of the kind. Most of them were enthusiastically talking about how much more durable, practical, repairable, enjoyable, affordable, and user-friendly older technologies are compared to the disposable plastic trash that fills the stores these days. They were discussing how much more fun it is to embrace the delights of outdated technologies than it would be to go creeping mournfully back—or forward, if you prefer—to the unsatisfying lifestyles of the present time. That heresy is far more than the alleged openmindness and intellectual diversity of our age is willing to tolerate, so it’s not surprising that some people tried to pretend that nothing of the sort had been said at all. What was surprising to me, and pleasantly so, was the number of readers who were ready to don the party clothes of some earlier time and join in the Butlerian carnival.

There are subtleties to the project of deliberate technological regress that may not be obvious at first glance, though, and it seems sensible to discuss those here before we proceed.  It’s important, to begin with, to remember that when talking heads these days babble about technology in the singular, as a uniform, monolithic thing that progresses according to some relentless internal logic of its own, they’re spouting balderdash.  In the real world, there’s no such monolith; instead, there are technologies in the plural, a great many of them, clustered more or less loosely in technological suites which may or may not have any direct relation to one another.

An example might be useful here. Consider the technologies necessary to build a steel-framed bicycle. The metal parts require the particular suite of technologies we use to smelt ores, combine the resulting metals into useful alloys, and machine and weld those into shapes that fit together to make a bicycle. The tires, inner tubes, brake pads, seat cushion, handlebar grips, and paint require a different suite of technologies drawing on various branches of applied organic chemistry, and a few other suites also have a place:  for example, the one that’s needed to make and apply lubricants  The suites that make a bicycle have other uses; if you can build a bicycle, as Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated, you can also build an aircraft, and a variety of other interesting machines as well; that said, there are other technologies—say, the ones needed to manufacture medicines, or precision optics, or electronics—that require very different technological suites. You can have everything you need to build a bicycle and still be unable to make a telescope or a radio receiver, and vice versa.

Strictly speaking, therefore, nothing requires the project of deliberate technological regress to move in lockstep to the technologies of a specific past date and stay there. It would be wholly possible to dump certain items of modern technology while keeping others. It would be just as possible to replace one modern technological suite with an older equivalent from one decade, another with an equivalent from a different decade and so on. Imagine, for example, a future America in which solar water heaters (worked out by 1920) and passive solar architecture (mostly developed in the 1960s and 1970s) were standard household features, canal boats (dating from before 1800) and tall ships (ditto) were the primary means of bulk transport, shortwave radio (developed in the early 20th century) was the standard long-range communications medium, ultralight aircraft (largely developed in the 1980s) were still in use, and engineers crunched numbers using slide rules (perfected around 1880).

There’s no reason why such a pastiche of technologies from different eras couldn’t work. We know this because what passes for modern technology is a pastiche of the same kind, in which (for example) cars whose basic design dates from the 1890s are gussied up with onboard computers invented a century later. Much of modern technology, in fact, is old technology with a new coat of paint and a few electronic gimmicks tacked on, and it’s old technology that originated in many different eras, too. Part of what differentiates modern technology from older equivalents, in other words, is mere fashion. Another part, though, moves into more explosive territory.

In the conversation that followed last week’s post, one of my readers—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Cathy—recounted the story of the one and only class on advertising she took at college. The teacher invited a well-known advertising executive to come in and talk about the business, and one of the points he brought up was the marketing of disposable razors. The old-fashioned steel safety razor, the guy admitted cheerfully, was a much better product: it was more durable, less expensive, and gave a better shave than disposable razors. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the kind of profits for the razor industry that the latter wanted, and so the job of the advertising company was to convince shavers that they really wanted to spend more money on a worse product instead.

I know it may startle some people to hear a luxuriantly bearded archdruid talk about shaving, but I do have a certain amount of experience with the process—though admittedly it’s been a while. The executive was quite correct: an old-fashioned safety razor gives better shaves than a disposable. What’s more, an old-fashioned safety razor combined with a shaving brush, a cake of shaving soap, a mug and a bit of hot water from the teakettle produces a shaving experience that’s vastly better, in every sense, than what you’ll get from squirting cold chemical-laced foam out of a disposable can and then scraping your face with a disposable razor; the older method, furthermore, takes no more time, costs much less on a per-shave basis, and has a drastically smaller ecological footprint to boot.

Notice also the difference in the scale and complexity of the technological suites needed to maintain these two ways of shaving. To shave with a safety razor and shaving soap, you need the metallurgical suite that produces razors and razor blades, the very simple household-chemistry suite that produces soap, the ability to make pottery and brushes, and some way to heat water. To shave with a disposable razor and a can of squirt-on shaving foam, you need fossil fuels for plastic feedstocks, chemical plants to manufacture the plastic and the foam, the whole range of technologies needed to manufacture and fill the pressurized can, and so on—all so that you can count on getting an inferior shave at a higher price, and the razor industry can boost its quarterly profits.

That’s a small and arguably silly example of a vast and far from silly issue. These days, when you see the words “new and improved” on a product, rather more often than not, the only thing that’s been improved is the bottom line of the company that’s trying to sell it to you. When you hear equivalent claims about some technology that’s being marketed to society as a whole, rather than sold to you personally, the same rule applies at least as often. That’s one of the things that drove the enthusiastic conversations on this blog’s comment page last week, as readers came out of hiding to confess that they, too, had stopped using this or that piece of cutting-edge, up-to-date, hypermodern trash, and replaced it with some sturdy, elegant, user-friendly device from an earlier decade which works better and lacks the downsides of the newer item.

What, after all, defines a change as “progress”? There’s a wilderness of ambiguities hidden in that apparently simple word. The popular notion of progress presupposes that there’s an inherent dynamic to history, that things change, or tend to change, or at the very least ought to change, from worse to better over time.  That presupposition then gets flipped around into the even more dubious claim that just because something’s new, it must be better than whatever it replaced. Move from there to specific examples, and all of a sudden it’s necessary to deal with competing claims—if there are two hot new technologies on the market, is option A more progressive than option B, or vice versa? The answer, of course, is that whichever of them manages to elbow the other aside will be retroactively awarded the coveted title of the next step in the march of progress.

That was exactly the process by which the appropriate tech of the 1970s was shoved aside and buried in the memory hole of our culture. In its heyday, appropriate tech was as cutting-edge and progressive as anything you care to name, a rapidly advancing field pushed forward by brilliant young engineers and innovative startups, and it saw itself (and presented itself to the world) as the wave of the future. In the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution of the 1980s, though, it was retroactively stripped of its erstwhile status as an icon of progress and consigned to the dustbin of the past. Technologies that had been lauded in the media as brilliantly innovative in 1978 were thus being condemned in the same media as Luddite throwbacks by 1988. If that abrupt act of redefinition reminds any of my readers of the way history got rewritten in George Orwell’s 1984—“Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia” and the like—well, let’s just say the parallel was noticed at the time, too.

The same process on a much smaller scale can be traced with equal clarity in the replacement of the safety razor and shaving soap with the disposable razor and squirt-can shaving foam. In what sense is the latter, which wastes more resources and generates more trash in the process of giving users a worse shave at a higher price, more progressive than the former? Merely the fact that it’s been awarded that title by advertising and the media. If razor companies could make more money by reintroducing the Roman habit of scraping beard hairs off the face with a chunk of pumice, no doubt that would quickly be proclaimed as the last word in cutting-edge, up-to-date hypermodernity, too.

Behind the mythological image of the relentless and inevitable forward march of technology-in-the-singular in the grand cause of progress, in other words, lies a murky underworld of crass commercial motives and no-holds-barred struggles over which of the available technologies will get the funding and marketing that will define it as the next great step in progress. That’s as true of major technological programs as it is of shaving supplies. Some of my readers are old enough, as I am, to remember when supersonic airliners and undersea habitats were the next great steps in progress, until all of a sudden they weren’t.  We may not be all that far from the point at which space travel and nuclear power will go the way of Sealab and the Concorde.

In today’s industrial societies, we don’t talk about that. It’s practically taboo these days to mention the long, long list of waves of the future that abruptly stalled and rolled back out to sea without delivering on their promoters’ overblown promises. Remind people that the same rhetoric currently being used to prop up faith in space travel, nuclear power, or any of today’s other venerated icons of the religion of progress was lavished just as thickly on these earlier failures, and you can pretty much expect to have that comment shouted down as an irrelevancy if the other people in the conversation don’t simply turn their backs and pretend that they never heard you say anything at all.

They have to do something of the sort, because the alternative is to admit that what we call “progress” isn’t the impersonal, unstoppable force of nature that industrial culture’s ideology insists it must be. Pay attention to the grand technological projects that failed, compare them with those that are failing now, and it’s impossible to keep ignoring certain crucial if hugely unpopular points. To begin with technological progress is a function of collective choices—do we fund Sealab or the Apollo program? Supersonic transports or urban light rail? Energy conservation and appropriate tech or an endless series of wars in the Middle East? No impersonal force makes those decisions; individuals and institutions make them, and then use the rhetoric of impersonal progress to cloak the political and financial agendas that guide the decision-making process.

What’s more, even if the industrial world chooses to invest its resources in a project, the laws of physics and economics determine whether the project is going to work. The Concorde is the poster child here, a technological successbut an economic flop that never even managed to cover its operating costs. Like nuclear power, it was only viable given huge and continuing government subsidies, and since the strategic benefits Britain and France got from having Concordes in the air were nothing like so great as those they got from having an independent source of raw material for nuclear weapons, it’s not hard to see why the subsidies went where they did.

That is to say, when something is being lauded as the next great step forward in the glorious march of progress leading humanity to a better world, those who haven’t drunk themselves tipsy on folk mythology need to keep four things in mind. The first is that the next great step forward  in the glorious march of progres (etc.) might not actually work when it’s brought down out of the billowing clouds of overheated rhetoric into the cold hard world of everyday life. The second is that even if it works, the next great step forward (etc.) may be a white elephant in economic terms, and survive only so long as it gets propped up by subsidies. The third is that even if it does make economic sense, the next great step (etc.) may be an inferior product, and do a less effective job of meeting human needs than whatever it’s supposed to replace. The fourth is that when it comes right down to it, to label something as the next great (etc.) is just a sales pitch, an overblown and increasingly trite way of saying “Buy this product!”

Those necessary critiques, in turn, are all implicit in the project of deliberate technological regress. Get past the thoughtstopping rhetoric that insists “you can’t turn back the clock”—to rephrase a comment of G.K. Chesterton’s, most people turn back the clock every fall, so that’s hardly a valid objection—and it becomes hard not to notice that “progress” is just a label for whatever choices happen to have been made by governments and corporations, with or without input from the rest of us. If we don’t like the choices that have been made for us in the name of progress, in turn, we can choose something else.

Now of course it’s possible to stuff that sort of thinking back into the straitjacket of progress, and claim that progress is chugging along just fine, and all we have to do is get it back on the proper track, or what have you. This is a very common sort of argument, and one that’s been used over and over again by critics of this or that candidate for the next (etc.). The problem with that argument, as I see it, is that it may occasionally win battles but it pretty consistently loses the war; by failing to challenge the folk mythology of progress and the agendas that are enshrined by that mythology, it guarantees that no matter what technology or policy or program gets put into place, it’ll end up leading the same place as all the others before it, because it questions the means but forgets to question the goals.

That’s the trap hardwired into the contemporary faith in progress. Once you buy into the notion that the specific choices made by industrial societies over the last three centuries or so are something more than the projects that happened to win out in the struggle for wealth and power, once you let yourself believe that there’s a teleology to it all—that there’s some objectively definable goal called “progress” that all these choices did a better or worse job of furthering—you’ve just made it much harder to ask where this thing called “progress” is going. The word “progress,” remember, means going further in the same direction, and it’s precisely questions about the direction that industrial society is going that most need to be asked.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that going further in the direction we’ve been going isn’t a particularly bright idea just now.  It isn’t even necessary to point to the more obviously self-destructive dimensions of business as usual. Look at any trend that affects your life right now, however global or local that trend may be, and extrapolate it out in a straight line indefinitely; that’s what going further in the same direction means. If that appeals to you, dear reader, then you’re certainly welcome to it.  I have to say it doesn’t do much for me.

It’s only from within the folk mythology of progress that we have no choice but to accept the endless prolongation of current trends. Right now, as individuals, we can choose to shrug and walk away from the latest hypermodern trash, and do something else instead. Later on, on the far side of the crisis of our time, it may be possible to take the same logic further, and make deliberate technological regress a recognized policy option for organizations, communities, and whole nations—but that will depend on whether individuals do the thing first, and demonstrate to everyone else that it’s a workable option. In next week’s post, we’ll talk more about where that strategy might lead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Butlerian Carnival

Over the last week or so, I’ve heard from a remarkable number of people who feel that a major crisis is in the offing. The people in question don’t know each other, many of them have even less contact with the mass media than I do, and the sense they’ve tried to express to me is inchoate enough that they’ve been left fumbling for words, but they all end up reaching for the same metaphors: that something in the air just now seems reminiscent of the American colonies in 1775, France in 1789, America in 1860, Europe in 1914, or the world in 1939: a sense of being poised on the brink of convulsive change, with the sound of gunfire and marching boots coming ever more clearly from the dimly seen abyss ahead.

It’s not an unreasonable feeling, all things considered. In Washington DC, Obama’s flunkies are beating the war drums over Ukraine, threatening to send shipments of allegedly “defensive” weapons to join the mercenaries and military advisors we’ve already not-so-covertly got over there. Russian officials have responded to American saber-rattling by stating flatly that a US decision to arm Kiev will be the signal for all-out war. The current Ukrainian regime, installed by a US-sponsored coup and backed by NATO, means to Russia precisely what a hostile Canadian government installed by a Chinese-sponsored coup and backed by the People’s Liberation Army would mean to the United States; if Obama’s trademark cluelessness leads him to ignore that far from minor point and decide that the Russians are bluffing, we could be facing a European war within weeks.

Head south and west from the fighting around Donetsk, and another flashpoint is heating up toward an explosion of its own just now. Yes, that would be Greece, where the new Syriza government has refused to back down from the promises that got it into office: promises that center on the rejection of the so-called “austerity” policies that have all but destroyed the Greek economy since they were imposed in 2009.  This shouldn’t be news to anyone; those same policies, though they’ve been praised to the skies by neoliberal economists for decades now as a guaranteed ticket to prosperity, have had precisely the opposite effect in every single country where they’ve been put in place.

Despite that track record of unbroken failure, the EU—in particular, Germany, which has benefited handsomely from the gutting of southern European economies—continues to insist that Greece must accept what amounts to a perpetual state of debt peonage. The Greek defense minister noted in response in a recent speech that if Europe isn’t willing to cut a deal, other nations might well do so. He’s quite correct; it’s probably a safe bet that cold-eyed men in Moscow and Beijing are busy right now figuring out how best to step through the window of opportunity the EU is flinging open for them. If they do so—well, I’ll leave it to my readers to consider how the US is likely to respond to the threat of Russian air and naval bases in Greece, which would be capable of projecting power anywhere in the eastern and central Mediterranean basin. Here again, war is a likely outcome; I hope that the Greek government is braced for an attempt at regime change.

That is to say, the decline and fall of industrial civilization is proceeding in the normal way, at pretty much the normal pace. The thermodynamic foundations tipped over into decline first, as stocks of cheap abundant fossil fuels depleted steadily and the gap had to be filled by costly and much less abundant replacements, driving down net energy; the economy went next, as more and more real wealth had to be pulled out of all other economic activities to keep the energy supply more or less steady, until demand destruction cut in and made that increasingly frantic effort moot; now a global political and military superstructure dependent on cheap abundant fossil fuels, and on the economic arrangement that all of that surplus energy made possible, is cracking at the seams.

One feature of times like these is that the number of people who can have an influence on the immediate outcome declines steadily as crisis approaches. In the years leading up to 1914, for example, a vast number of people contributed to the rising spiral of conflict between the aging British Empire and its German rival, but the closer war came, the narrower the circle of decision-makers became, until a handful of politicians in Germany, France, and Britain had the fate of Europe in their hands. A few more bad decisions, and the situation was no longer under anybody’s control; thereafter, the only option left was to let the juggernaut of the First World War roll mindlessly onward to its conclusion.

In the same way, as recently as the 1980s, many people in the United States and elsewhere had some influence on how the industrial age would end; unfortunately most of them backed politicians who cashed in the resources that could have built a better future on one last round of absurd extravagance, and a whole landscape of possibilities went by the boards. Step by step, as the United States backed itself further and further into a morass of short-term gimmicks with ghastly long-term consequences, the number of people who have had any influence on the trajectory we’re on has narrowed steadily, and as we approach what may turn out to be the defining crisis of our time, a handful of politicians in a handful of capitals are left to make the last decisions that can shape the situation in any way at all, before the tanks begin to roll and the fighter-bombers rise up from their runways.

Out here on the fringes of the collective conversation of our time, where archdruids lurk and heresies get uttered, the opportunity to shape events as they happen is a very rare thing. Our role, rather, is to set agendas for the future, to take ideas that are unthinkable in the mainstream today and prepare them for their future role as the conventional wisdom of eras that haven’t dawned yet. Every phrase on the lips of today’s practical men of affairs, after all, was once a crazy notion taken seriously only by the lunatic fringe—yes, that includes democracy, free-market capitalism, and all the other shibboleths of our age. 

With that in mind, while we wait to see whether today’s practical men of affairs stumble into war the way they did in 1914, I propose to shift gears and talk about something else—something that may seem whimsical, even pointless, in the light of the grim martial realities just discussed. It’s neither whimsical nor pointless, as it happens, but the implications may take a little while to dawn even on those of my readers who’ve been following the last few years of discussions most closely. Let’s begin with a handful of data points.

Item: Britain’s largest bookseller recently noted that sales of the Kindle e-book reader have dropped like a rock in recent months, while sales of old-fashioned printed books are up. Here in the more gizmocentric USA, e-books retain more of their erstwhile popularity, but the bloom is off the rose; among the young and hip, it’s not hard at all to find people who got rid of their book collections in a rush of enthusiasm when e-books came out, regretted the action after it was too late, and now are slowly restocking their bookshelves while their e-book readers collect cobwebs or, at best, find use as a convenience for travel and the like.

Item: more generally, a good many of the hottest new trends in popular culture aren’t new trends at all—they’re old trends revived, in many cases, by people who weren’t even alive to see them the first time around. Kurt B. Reighley’s lively guide The United States of Americana was the first, and remains the best, introduction to the phenomenon, one that embraces everything from burlesque shows and homebrewed bitters to backyard chickens and the revival of Victorian martial arts. One pervasive thread that runs through the wild diversity of this emerging subculture is the simple recognition that many of these older things are better, in straightforwardly measurable senses, than their shiny modern mass-marketed not-quite-equivalents.

Item: within that subculture, a small but steadily growing number of people have taken the principle to its logical extreme and adopted the lifestyles and furnishings of an earlier decade wholesale in their personal lives. The 1950s are a common target, and so far as I know, adopters of 1950s culture are the furthest along the process of turning into a community, but other decades are increasingly finding the same kind of welcome among those less than impressed by what today’s society has on offer. Meanwhile, the reenactment scene has expanded spectacularly in recent years from the standard hearty fare of Civil War regiments and the neo-medievalism of the Society for Creative Anachronism to embrace almost any historical period you care to name. These aren’t merely dress-up games; go to a buckskinner’s rendezvous or an outdoor SCA event, for example, and you’re as likely as not to see handspinners turning wool into yarn with drop spindles, a blacksmith or two laboring over a portable forge, and the like.

Other examples of the same broad phenomenon could be added to the list, but these will do for now. I’m well aware, of course, that most people—even most of my readers—will have dismissed the things just listed as bizarre personal eccentricities, right up there with the goldfish-swallowing and flagpole-sitting of an earlier era. I’d encourage those of my readers who had that reaction to stop, take a second look, and tease out the mental automatisms that make that dismissal so automatic a part of today’s conventional wisdom. Once that’s done, a third look might well be in order, because the phenomenon sketched out here marks a shift of immense importance for our future.

For well over two centuries now, since it first emerged as the crackpot belief system of a handful of intellectuals on the outer fringes of their culture, the modern ideology of progress has taken it as given that new things were by definition better than whatever they replaced.  That assumption stands at the heart of contemporary industrial civilization’s childlike trust in the irreversible cumulative march of progress toward a future among the stars. Finding ways to defend that belief even when it obviously wasn’t true—when the latest, shiniest products of progress turned out to be worse in every meaningful sense than the older products they elbowed out of the way—was among the great growth industries of the 20th century; even so, there were plenty of cases where progress really did seem to measure up to its billing. Given the steady increases of energy per capita in the world’s industrial nations over the last century or so, that was a predictable outcome.

The difficulty, of course, is that the number of cases where new things really are better than what they replace has been shrinking steadily in recent decades, while the number of cases where old products are quite simply better than their current equivalents—easier to use, more effective, more comfortable, less prone to break, less burdened with unwanted side effects and awkward features, and so on—has been steadily rising. Back behind the myth of progress, like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, stand two unpalatable and usually unmentioned realities. The first is that profits, not progress, determines which products get marketed and which get roundfiled; the second is that making a cheaper, shoddier product and using advertising gimmicks to sell it anyway has been the standard marketing strategy across a vast range of American businesses for years now.

More generally, believers in progress used to take it for granted that progress would sooner or later bring about a world where everyone would live exciting, fulfilling lives brimfull of miracle products and marvelous experiences. You still hear that sort of talk from the faithful now and then these days, but it’s coming to sound a lot like all that talk about the glorious worker’s paradise of the future did right around the time the Iron Curtain came down for good. In both cases, the future that was promised didn’t have much in common with the one that actually showed up. The one we got doesn’t have some of the nastier features of the one the former Soviet Union and its satellites produced—well, not yet, at least—but the glorious consumer’s paradise described in such lavish terms a few decades back got lost on the way to the spaceport, and what we got instead was a bleak landscape of decaying infrastructure, abandoned factories, prostituted media, and steadily declining standards of living for everyone outside the narrowing circle of the privileged, with the remnants of our once-vital democratic institutions hanging above it all like rotting scarecrows silhouetted against a darkening sky.

In place of those exciting, fulfilling lives mentioned above, furthermore, we got the monotony and stress of long commutes, cubicle farms, and would-you-like-fries-with that for the slowly shrinking fraction of our population who can find a job at all. The Onion, with its usual flair for packaging unpalatable realities in the form of deadpan humor, nailed it a few days ago with a faux health-news article announcing that the best thing office workers could do for their health is stand up at their desk, leave the office, and never go back. Joke or not, it’s not bad advice; if you have a full-time job in today’s America, the average medieval peasant had a less stressful job environment and more days off than you do; he also kept a larger fraction of the product of his labor than you’ll ever see.

Then, of course, if you’re like most Americans, you’ll numb yourself once you get home by flopping down on the sofa and spending most of your remaining waking hours staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen. It’s remarkable how many people get confused about what this action really entails. They insist that they’re experiencing distant places, traveling in worlds of pure imagination, and so on through the whole litany of self-glorifying drivel the mass media likes to employ in its own praise. Let us please be real: when you watch a program about the Amazon rain forest, you’re not experiencing the Amazon rain forest; you’re experiencing colored pictures on a screen, and you’re only getting as much of the experience as fits through the narrow lens of a video camera and the even narrower filter of the production process. The difference between experiencing something and watching it on TV or the internet, that is to say, is precisely the same as the difference between making love and watching pornography; in each case, the latter is a very poor substitute for the real thing.

For most people in today’s America, in other words, the closest approach to the glorious consumer’s paradise of the future they can expect to get is eight hours a day, five days a week of mindless, monotonous work under the constant pressure of management efficiency experts, if they’re lucky enough to get a job at all, with anything up to a couple of additional hours commuting and any off-book hours the employer happens to choose to demand from them into the deal, in order to get a paycheck that buys a little less each month—inflation is under control, the government insists, but prices somehow keep going up—of products that get more cheaply made, more likely to be riddled with defects, and more likely to pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of their users, with every passing year. Then they can go home and numb their nervous systems with those little colored pictures on the screen, showing them bland little snippets of experiences they will never have, wedged in there between the advertising.

That’s the world that progress has made. That’s the shining future that resulted from all those centuries of scientific research and technological tinkering, all the genius and hard work and sacrifice that have gone into the project of progress. Of course there’s more to the consequences of progress than that; progress has saved quite a few children from infectious diseases, and laced the environment with so many toxic wastes that childhood cancer, all but unheard of in 1850, is a routine event today; it’s made impressive contributions to human welfare, while flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that will soon make far more impressive contributions to human suffering and death—well, I could go on along these lines for quite a while. True believers in the ideology of perpetual progress like to insist that all the good things ought to be credited to progress while all the bad things ought to be blamed on something else, but that’s not so plausible an article of faith as it once was, and it bids fair to become a great deal less common as the downsides of progress become more and more difficult to ignore.

The data points I noted earlier in this week’s post, I’ve come to believe, are symptoms of that change, the first stirrings of wind that tell of the storm to come. People searching for a better way of living than the one our society offers these days are turning to the actual past, rather than to some imaginary future, in that quest. That’s the immense shift I mentioned earlier. What makes it even more momentous is that by and large, it’s not being done in the sort of grim Puritanical spirit of humorless renunciation that today’s popular culture expects from those who want something other than what the consumer economy has on offer. It’s being done, rather, in a spirit of celebration.

One of my readers responded to my post  two weeks ago on deliberate technological regress by suggesting that I was proposing a Butlerian jihad of sorts. (Those of my readers who don’t get the reference should pick up a copy of Frank Herbert’s iconic SF novel Dune and read it.) I demurred, for two reasons. First, the Butlerian jihad in Herbert’s novel was a revolt against computer technology, and I see no need for that; once the falling cost of human labor intersects the rising cost of energy and technology, and it becomes cheaper to hire file clerks and accountants than to maintain the gargantuan industrial machine that keeps computer technology available, computers will go away, or linger as a legacy technology for a narrowing range of special purposes until the hardware finally burns out.

The second reason, though, is the more important. I’m not a fan of jihads, or of holy wars of any flavor; history shows all too well that when you mix politics and violence with religion, any actual religious content vanishes away, leaving its castoff garments to cover the naked rule of force and fraud. If you want people to embrace a new way of looking at things, furthermore, violence, threats, and abusive language don’t work, and it’s even less effective to offer that new way as a ticket to virtuous misery, along the lines of the Puritanical spirit noted above. That’s why so much of the green-lifestyle propaganda of the last thirty years has done so little good—so much of it has been pitched as a way to suffer self-righteously for the good of Gaia, and while that approach appeals to a certain number of wannabe martyrs, that’s not a large enough fraction of the population to matter.

The people who are ditching their Kindles and savoring books as physical objects, brewing their own beer and resurrecting other old arts and crafts, reformatting their lives in the modes of a past decade, or spending their spare time reconnecting with the customs and technologies of an earlier time—these people aren’t doing any of those things out of some passion for self-denial. They’re doing them because these things bring them delights that the shoddy mass-produced lifestyles of the consumer economy can’t match. What these first stirrings suggest to me is that the way forward isn’t a Butlerian jihad, but a Butlerian carnival—a sensuous celebration of the living world outside the cubicle farms and the glass screens, which will inevitably draw most of its raw materials from eras, technologies, and customs of the past, which don’t require the extravagant energy and resource inputs that the modern consumer economy demands, and so will be better suited to a future defined by scarce energy and resources.

The Butlerian carnival isn’t the only way to approach the deliberate technological regression we need to carry out in the decades ahead, but it’s an important one. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about how this and other avenues to the same goal might be used to get through the mess immediately ahead, and start laying foundations for a future on the far side of the crises of our time.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

As Night Closes In

I was saddened to learn a few days ago, via a phone call from a fellow author, that William R. Catton Jr. died early last month, just short of his 89th birthday. Some of my readers will have no idea who he was; others may dimly recall that I’ve mentioned him and his most important book, Overshoot, repeatedly in these essays. Those who’ve taken the time to read the book just named may be wondering why none of the sites in the peak oil blogosphere has put up an obituary, or even noted the man’s passing. I don’t happen to know the answer to that last question, though I have my suspicions.

I encountered Overshoot for the first time in a college bookstore in Bellingham, Washington in 1983. Red letters on a stark yellow spine spelled out the title, a word I already knew from my classes in ecology and systems theory; I pulled it off the shelf, and found the future staring me in the face. This is what’s on the front cover below the title:

carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load.

cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resources.

drawdown: stealing resources from the future.

cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us from

overshoot: growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, leading to

crash: die-off.

If you want to know where I got the core ideas I’ve been exploring in these essays for the last eight-going-on-nine years, in other words, now you know. I still have that copy of Overshoot; it’s sitting on the desk in front of me right now, reminding me yet again just how many chances we had to turn away from the bleak future that’s closing in around us now, like the night at the end of a long day.

Plenty of books in the 1970s and early 1980s applied the lessons of ecology to the future of industrial civilization and picked up at least part of the bad news that results. Overshoot was arguably the best of the lot, but it was pretty much guaranteed to land even deeper in the memory hole than the others. The difficulty was that Catton’s book didn’t pander to the standard mythologies that still beset any attempt to make sense of the predicament we’ve made for ourselves; it provided no encouragement to what he called cargoism, the claim that technological progress will inevitably allow us to have our planet and eat it too, without falling off the other side of the balance into the sort of apocalyptic daydreams that Hollywood loves to make into bad movies. Instead, in calm, crisp, thoughtful prose, he explained how industrial civilization was cutting its own throat, how far past the point of no return we’d already gone, and what had to be done in order to salvage anything from the approaching wreck.

As I noted in a post here in 2011, I had the chance to meet Catton at an ASPO conference, and tried to give him some idea of how much his book had meant to me. I did my best not to act like a fourteen-year-old fan meeting a rock star, but I’m by no means sure that I succeeded. We talked for fifteen minutes over dinner; he was very gracious; then things moved on, each of us left the conference to carry on with our lives, and now he’s gone. As the old song says, that’s the way it goes.

There’s much more that could be said about William Catton, but that task should probably be left for someone who knew the man as a teacher, a scholar, and a human being. I didn’t; except for that one fifteen-minute conversation, I knew him solely as the mind behind one of the books that helped me make sense of the world, and then kept me going on the long desert journey through the Reagan era, when most of those who claimed to be environmentalists over the previous decade cashed in their ideals and waved around the cornucopian myth as their excuse for that act. Thus I’m simply going to urge all of my readers who haven’t yet read Overshoot to do so as soon as possible, even if they have to crawl on their bare hands and knees over abandoned fracking equipment to get a copy. Having said that, I’d like to go on to the sort of tribute I think he would have appreciated most: an attempt to take certain of his ideas a little further than he did.

The core of Overshoot, which is also the core of the entire world of appropriate technology and green alternatives that got shot through the head and shoved into an unmarked grave in the Reagan years, is the recognition that the principles of ecology apply to industrial society just as much as they do to other communities of living things. It’s odd, all things considered, that this is such a controversial proposal. Most of us have no trouble grasping the fact that the law of gravity affects human beings the same way it affects rocks; most of us understand that other laws of nature really do apply to us; but quite a few of us seem to be incapable of extending that same sensible reasoning to one particular set of laws, the ones that govern how communities of living things relate to their environments.

If people treated gravity the way they treat ecology, you could visit a news website any day of the week and read someone insisting with a straight face that while it’s true that rocks fall down when dropped, human beings don’t—no, no, they fall straight up into the sky, and anyone who thinks otherwise is so obviously wrong that there’s no point even discussing the matter. That degree of absurdity appears every single day in the American media, and in ordinary conversations as well, whenever ecological issues come up. Suggest that a finite planet must by definition contain a finite amount of fossil fuels, that dumping billions of tons of gaseous trash into the air every single year for centuries might change the way that the atmosphere retains heat, or that the law of diminishing returns might apply to technology the way it applies to everything else, and you can pretty much count on being shouted down by those who, for all practical purposes, might as well believe that the world is flat.

Still, as part of the ongoing voyage into the unspeakable in which this blog is currently engaged, I’d like to propose that, in fact, human societies are as subject to the laws of ecology as they are to every other dimension of natural law. That act of intellectual heresy implies certain conclusions that are acutely unwelcome in most circles just now; still, as my regular readers will have noticed long since, that’s just one of the services this blog offers.

Let’s start with the basics. Every ecosystem, in thermodynamic terms, is a process by which relatively concentrated energy is dispersed into diffuse background heat. Here on Earth, at least, the concentrated energy mostly comes from the Sun, in the form of solar radiation—there are a few ecosystems, in deep oceans and underground, that get their energy from chemical reactions driven by the Earth’s internal heat instead. Ilya Prigogine showed some decades back that the flow of energy through a system of this sort tends to increase the complexity of the system; Jeremy England, a MIT physicist, has recently shown that the same process accounts neatly for the origin of life itself. The steady flow of energy from source to sink is the foundation on which everything else rests.

The complexity of the system, in turn, is limited by the rate at which energy flows through the system, and this in turn depends on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters the system, on the one hand, and the background into which waste heat diffuses when it leaves the system, on the other. That shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. Not only is it basic thermodynamics, it’s basic physics—it’s precisely equivalent, in fact, to pointing out that the rate at which water flows through any section of a stream depends on the difference in height between the place where the water flows into that section and the place where it flows out.

Simple as it is, it’s a point that an astonishing number of people—including some who are scientifically literate—routinely miss. A while back on this blog, for example, I noted that one of the core reasons you can’t power a modern industrial civilization on solar energy is that sunlight is relatively diffuse as an energy source, compared to the extremely concentrated energy we get from fossil fuels. I still field rants from people insisting that this is utter hogwash, since photons have exactly the same amount of energy they did when they left the Sun, and so the energy they carry is just as concentrated as it was when it left the Sun. You’ll notice, though, that if this was the only variable that mattered, Neptune would be just as warm as Mercury, since each of the photons hitting the one planet pack on average the same energetic punch as those that hit the other.

It’s hard to think of a better example of the blindness to whole systems that’s pandemic in today’s geek culture. Obviously, the difference between the temperatures of Neptune and Mercury isn’t a function of the energy of individual photons hitting the two worlds; it’s a function of differing concentrations of photons—the number of them, let’s say, hitting a square meter of each planet’s surface. This is also one of the two figures that matter when we’re talking about solar energy here on Earth. The other? That’s the background heat into which waste energy disperses when the system, eco- or solar, is done with it. On the broadest scale, that’s deep space, but ecosystems don’t funnel their waste heat straight into orbit, you know. Rather, they diffuse it into the ambient temperature at whatever height above or below sea level, and whatever latitude closer or further from the equator, they happen to be—and since that’s heated by the Sun, too, the difference between input and output concentrations isn’t very substantial.

Nature has done astonishing things with that very modest difference in concentration. People who insist that photosynthesis is horribly inefficient, and of course we can improve its efficiency, are missing a crucial point: something like half the energy that reaches the leaves of a green plant from the Sun is put to work lifting water up from the roots by an ingenious form of evaporative pumping, in which water sucked out through the leaf pores as vapor draws up more water through a network of tiny tubes in the plant’s stems. Another few per cent goes into the manufacture of sugars by photosynthesis, and a variety of minor processes, such as the chemical reactions that ripen fruit, also depend to some extent on light or heat from the Sun; all told, a green plant is probably about as efficient in its total use of solar energy as the laws of thermodynamics will permit. 

What’s more, the Earth’s ecosystems take the energy that flows through the green engines of plant life and put it to work in an extraordinary diversity of ways. The water pumped into the sky by what botanists call evapotranspiration—that’s the evaporative pumping I mentioned a moment ago—plays critical roles in local, regional, and global water cycles. The production of sugars to store solar energy in chemical form kicks off an even more intricate set of changes, as the plant’s cells are eaten by something, which is eaten by something, and so on through the lively but precise dance of the food web. Eventually all the energy the original plant scooped up from the Sun turns into diffuse waste heat and permeates slowly up through the atmosphere to its ultimate destiny warming some corner of deep space a bit above absolute zero, but by the time it gets there, it’s usually had quite a ride.

That said, there are hard upper limits to the complexity of the ecosystem that these intricate processes can support. You can see that clearly enough by comparing a tropical rain forest to a polar tundra. The two environments may have approximately equal amounts of precipitation over the course of a year; they may have an equally rich or poor supply of nutrients in the soil; even so, the tropical rain forest can easily support fifteen or twenty thousand species of plants and animals, and the tundra will be lucky to support a few hundred. Why? The same reason Mercury is warmer than Neptune: the rate at which photons from the sun arrive in each place per square meter of surface.

Near the equator, the sun’s rays fall almost vertically.  Close to the poles, since the Earth is round, the Sun’s rays come in at a sharp angle, and thus are spread out over more surface area. The ambient temperature’s quite a bit warmer in the rain forest than it is on the tundra, but because the vast heat engine we call the atmosphere pumps heat from the equator to the poles, the difference in ambient temperature is not as great as the difference in solar input per cubic meter. Thus ecosystems near the equator have a greater difference in energy concentration between input and output than those near the poles, and the complexity of the two systems varies accordingly.

All this should be common knowledge. Of course it isn’t, because the industrial world’s notions of education consistently ignore what William Catton called “the processes that matter”—that is, the fundamental laws of ecology that frame our existence on this planet—and approach a great many of those subjects that do make it into the curriculum in ways that encourage the most embarrassing sort of ignorance about the natural processes that keep us all alive. Down the road a bit, we’ll be discussing that in much more detail. For now, though, I want to take the points just made and apply them systematically, in much the way Catton did, to the predicament of industrial civilization.

A human society is an ecosystem.  Like any other ecosystem, it depends for its existence on flows of energy, and as with any other ecosystem, the upper limit on its complexity depends ultimately on the difference in concentration between the energy that enters it and the background into which its waste heat disperses. (This last point is a corollary of White’s Law, one of the fundamental principles of human ecology, which holds that a society’s economic development is directly proportional to its consumption of energy per capita.)  Until the beginning of the industrial revolution, that upper limit was not much higher than the upper limit of complexity in other ecosystems, since human ecosystems drew most of their energy from the same source as nonhuman ones: sunlight falling on green plants.  As human societies figured out how to tap other flows of solar energy—windpower to drive windmills and send ships coursing over the seas, water power to turn mills, and so on—that upper limit crept higher, but not dramatically so.

The discoveries that made it possible to turn fossil fuels into mechanical energy transformed that equation completely. The geological processes that stockpiled half a billion years of sunlight into coal, oil, and natural gas boosted the concentration of the energy inputs available to industrial societies by an almost unimaginable factor, without warming the ambient temperature of the planet more than a few degrees, and the huge differentials in energy concentration that resulted drove an equally unimaginable increase in complexity. Choose any measure of complexity you wish—number of discrete occupational categories, average number of human beings involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of any given good or service, or what have you—and in the wake of the industrial revolution, it soared right off the charts. Thermodynamically, that’s exactly what you’d expect.

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

That belief only seemed to work, though, as long as the concentration differential between energy inputs and the background remained very high. Once easily accessible fossil fuels started to become scarce, and more and more energy and other resources had to be invested in the extraction of what remained, problems started to crop up. Tar sands and oil shales in their natural form are not as concentrated an energy source as light sweet crude—once they’re refined, sure, the differences are minimal, but a whole system analysis of energy concentration has to start at the moment each energy source enters the system. Take a cubic yard of tar sand fresh from the pit mine, with the sand still in it, or a cubic yard of oil shale with the oil still trapped in the rock, and you’ve simply got less energy per unit volume than you do if you’ve got a cubic yard of light sweet crude fresh from the well, or even a cubic yard of good permeable sandstone with light sweet crude oozing out of every pore.

It’s an article of faith in contemporary culture that such differences don’t matter, but that’s just another aspect of our cornucopian myth. The energy needed to get the sand out of the tar sands or the oil out of the shale oil has to come from somewhere, and that energy, in turn, is not available for other uses. The result, however you slice it conceptually, is that the upper limit of complexity begins moving down. That sounds abstract, but it adds up to a great deal of very concrete misery, because as already noted, the complexity of a society determines such things as the number of different occupational specialties it can support, the number of employees who are involved in the production and distribution of a given good or service, and so on. There’s a useful phrase for a sustained contraction in the usual measures of complexity in a human ecosystem: “economic depression.”

The economic troubles that are shaking the industrial world more and more often these days, in other words, are symptoms of a disastrous mismatch between the level of complexity that our remaining concentration differential can support, and the level of complexity that our preferred ideologies insist we ought to have. As those two things collide, there’s no question which of them is going to win. Adding to our total stock of knowledge won’t change that result, since knowledge is a necessary condition for economic expansion but not a sufficient one: if the upper limit of complexity set by the laws of thermodynamics drops below the level that your knowledge base would otherwise support, further additions to the knowledge base simply mean that there will be a growing number of things that people know how to do in theory, but that nobody has the resources to do in practice.

Knowledge, in other words, is not a magic wand, a surrogate messiah, or a source of miracles. It can open the way to exploiting energy more efficiently than otherwise, and it can figure out how to use energy resources that were not previously being used at all, but it can’t conjure energy out of thin air. Even if the energy resources are there, for that matter, if other factors prevent them from being used, the knowledge of how they might be used offers no consolation—quite the contrary.

That latter point, I think, sums up the tragedy of William Catton’s career. He knew, and could explain with great clarity, why industrialism would bring about its own downfall, and what could be done to salvage something from its wreck. That knowledge, however, was not enough to make things happen; only a few people ever listened, most of them promptly plugged their ears and started chanting “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” once Reagan made that fashionable, and the actions that might have spared all of us a vast amount of misery never happened. When I spoke to him in 2011, he was perfectly aware that his life’s work had done essentially nothing to turn industrial society aside from its rush toward the abyss. That’s got to be a bitter thing to contemplate in your final hours, and I hope his thoughts were on something else last month as the night closed in at last.