By Karl North | December 12, 2011
The universe ultimately runs on an energy economy, not a market economy as the dominant economic ideology claims. Ecological damage is tied to energy use of any kind in our peculiar type of economy where the operating rules of the system require maximization of profits at any cost. Unrestrained profit maximization in turn impels the conversion of energy and raw materials into garbage as fast as possible.
Moreover, increasing material progress requires technological solutions of increasing complexity, and the more complex the solutions, the more energy they consume. The global economy is an example of a complex solution. Also, more complex solutions need a society to maintain a more costly infrastructure. Hence infrastructure maintenance alone draws increasing energy and raw materials. Finally, increasing friction in the form of various “pollutions” draws off more resources. Ultimately therefore, societies devoted to material progress are faced with diminishing marginal returns.
Persistence of these trends violates laws of nature, causes increasing social instability, and leads inevitably to collapse.
These notes therefore assume the inevitability of a lower energy civilization. How low will it go? What will civilization look like? While accurate prediction is impossible, there are ways to look at the question that provide insights, and can even dispel some visions of ‘gloom and doom’. We know a lot about the way the world looked before the advent of fossil fuels, so we can look at how societies used the available energy late in that period, say 1800 in European civilization and its extensions as a point of departure, and ask, how will the post-petroleum age differ?
First, we can ask: at that level of available energy, how much development of alternative energy is possible? That’s a different question from the way many look at the alternative energy potential today, when relatively rapid development of alternatives like wind and solar still benefit from cheap fossil energy in many ways, including essential industrial, commercial, and communications infrastructures built with cheap oil.
Then we can ask: how much of the new knowledge acquired in the last century or more will make possible a better quality of life than was achieved at the beginning of that period? Access to knowledge will not necessarily mean access to today’s technologies developed from that knowledge. Like energy itself, every technology has life-cycle energy costs, an energy tail if you like, that may no longer be affordable, and includes essential infrastructures that may no longer be possible either. It will be as if every product had an embedded energy content label that will decide its survival potential in the energy descent.
However, this perspective on the energy future augurs a whole new potential growth industry of invention that uses today’s knowledge within the energy constraints of earlier times. Research and development will be about how to use the knowledge behind everything from medicines to metallurgy, but in ways that conform to the new energy and other resource constraints.
One of the immediate benefits of awareness of the energy future is that the aware can use the amazing lingering tools of industrial civilization to prepare for that future. We can use the internet and other tools of the information age, and we can use the concentrated energy of fossil fuels while they are still affordable. And we can use organized power of the industrial economy while it lasts.
In view of the magnitude of the challenge – facing the end of industrial civilization as we know it as well as the difficulties of transition to a post-petroleum future – this essay attempts an inventory of the compensatory benefits of that future, notions that woven into a narrative might make that future more acceptable, and help people accept it and get on with it.
Before the fossil fuel era, the ecological load that human populations imposed, as measured in raw materials depletion and rates of damage to essential ecosystem functions, were much lower than they are today. Where the environmental movement has achieved little, diminishing access to cheap energy will inevitably begin to offer better solutions to present overshoot of carrying capacity in many problem areas, simply by shrinking the industrial economy, which slows the rate of damage. Effects on some main problem areas are:
- Slower depletion of both nonrenewables and things that are renewable only slowly or at high cost. Recycling will become a necessity, a ‘growth industry’.
- Less chemical pollution of soil, air and water, including greenhouse gas production.
- Serious reduction in human invasion of other species’ niches and the resultant mass extinction of species, as human resource use drops from abnormal levels of the last 200 years, and returns to a carrying capacity that ecosystems developed over millions of years of natural history.
- Diminishing capacity for modern warfare, with its impersonal, long-distance carnage, and for the long-distance institutional violence of modern economic empires.
A. For most of us, the wealth and income that we earn in this economy offer little real security because receiving them confers little direct power over them and their source. As the dominant organization of economic life becomes more brittle and unreliable, its ability to provide economic security declines, and a subsistence perspective will become more attractive to individuals and communities because it offers economic security through more resilient structures. A subsistence perspective is not necessarily a return to a particular historic model of a subsistence economy but something deeper: a view that seeks to regain the economic security and other benefits – mutualism, reciprocity and production for use value not market value – that characterized historic subsistence economies.
B.Besides offering economic security, a subsistence perspective is a view of empowerment that gives priority to the ability to produce or obtain the necessities of life through control over the necessary resource base (land, plant and animal seed stock and their genetic heritage, income from household work, etc.). Hence the adoption of a subsistence perspective has empowerment value. Economic relocalization has the potential to increase economic security by achieving food sovereignty, for example. In the present global economy, growing mangoes empowers few in Nicaragua if the control over the mango plantations and markets lies in the hands of transnational corporations in New York. In fact, Nicaragua suffers distinct disadvantages: the industrial agricultural practices of the TNC destroy soil fertility and pollute the environment, the mangoes do not enter the local food economy because they bring a better price in New York, and the mango plantations displace local food production, weakening food security for Nicaraguans. This is a global pattern in the present system. Hence the advantage to local communities of producing milk in the favorable conditions of New York State’s dairy country is largely lost because milk markets are under corporate monopoly control.
C. When it becomes clear that long-term inflation or its equivalent has been baked into the US financial cake, and that time spent making money that has shrinking value is a treadmill, people will discover the relative advantages of time spent producing the inflation-free goods of subsistence.
2. Social Relations.
A. Societies will need to replace technological solutions with ones based more on human relations. This will stimulate the rebuilding of local community, including the revival of the collectively managed commons.
B. As economies return to more local production, gender relations may improve. Compared to modern society, peasant societies often demonstrate more balanced gender relations, since women are often in control of markets despite distinct gender roles in the division of labor.[7
C. In human-scale economies, communities are more aware that economic health increases with equality and its broadened purchasing power. Evidence of this from peasant communities is that merchants vary prices according to a buyer’s ability to pay. The increasing strength of the informal economy at a human scale, including to a degree the gift economy, carries its own potential benefits to community social health.
A. Much that is harmful in the present economy will become too costly to prolong, at least at present levels – the constant advertizing blitzkrieg; the “happy” motoring transportation economy with its traffic, road rage, commuting, and massive inefficiencies; the distance, “colonial” economy that enables centers of wealth and power based on exploitation of hinterlands.
B. As happened in the collapse of the Soviet system, an informal food economy (theoretically illegal in the former USSR) can put a floor under economic collapse. In much of the world it already does; three quarters of the world’s economic activity is informal economy labor. The informal economy expanded rapidly in the US during the Great Depression.
A. As the cost of governing at state and national levels becomes unaffordable, social control capacity at those levels may weaken, creating a power vacuum and opening political space for more decentralized power structures, which in turn may allow people more participation in the decisions that affect their lives.
B. As in all periods of instability, the coming one presents an opportunity to break with a long historical period characterized by hierarchical structures of dominance, and experiment with more horizontal structures of decision making. European colonization of the New World offered such a break, and was the site of much social experimentation.
5. Culture and Lifestyles.
A. The more labor intensive agriculture that industrial societies will be forced to adopt will put people into a healthier relation to the rest of nature, and give them a physically and mentally healthier lifestyle, geared to more natural rhythms than the hyperactive ones typical of urban life.
B. The rising relative cost of discretionary consumption may force society toward more satisfying behaviors. Cross-cultural studies provide evidence that happiness and material prosperity are in an inverse relationship. As the market price of frenzied consumerism rises, so that the manufacture of desire is no longer enough to maintain the addiction, other values will have a chance to surface and prevail. And when the energy available can support today’s commercialized spectator culture no longer, people will return to more satisfying, participant forms of cultural activity.
C. Local diversity of all sorts – physical, biological, economic, cultural,etc. – will return to replace the boring monotony that global capitalism has imposed, as localities again become free to display their distinctive characters. This diversity represents appropriate adaptations to local physical realities, and is healthier than the tendency of the current system to fit everything on the planet into the same marketable industrial mold.
Benefits of the energy descent are not instantaneous; they appear gradually as we learn to use the opportunities of localization. A view from the Transition Movement:
“All the research I’ve seen, all the thinking I’ve done, and all the people I’ve talked to suggests to me that localisation will do a better job of meeting people’s needs – people will be happier and will live in a more socially cohesive way and more sustainably. Or at least it will encourage all those things… If my intuition about what a resilient community is correct, then what you would hopefully find is that as time goes on, people will be experiencing more and more satisfaction of their needs. They’ll find that their community is providing them with more opportunities to enact those needs and those intrinsic values. They’ll find that they’re experiencing fewer barriers to enacting the intrinsic values and satisfying their needs.”
If Greer is right about his eco-successional theory of collapse, there will be breathing room for the transition to take place. In a first era of “scarcity industrialism”, as the limits to growth kick in, the industrial system will work, but less and less reliably, and will provide both time and incentives to evolve adaptive habits and structures of cooperation, localization, self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. He argues that the accumulated wealth and power of a century of superpower status will give the US the clout to provide temporary fixes as things fall apart. Even in his subsequent age of “salvage societies”, the immense accumulated built environment of the age of abundance in heavily industrialized nations will serve as a store of useful raw materials, a bonanza unknown to earlier low energy civilizations.
 Bardi, Ugo, “Peak Civilization”: The Fall of the Roman Empire.
 Ostrom, Elinor, ed., Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action
 Mies, Maria, ibid.
 Graeber, David, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Dreams.
 Berry, Wendell, The Unsettling of America.
 Goldberg, Carey, “Materialism is bad for you, studies say”, www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/health/08iht-snmat.html