Could we start industrial society from scratch today? The answer is probably not. While such a question seems merely hypothetical, its answer has important implications regarding the prospects for a sustainable industrial future.
The reason it would be so difficult to start an industrial society from scratch today is that most of the natural resources associated with advanced societies have been drawn down to a point where it would be difficult to extract what's left without an up-and-running industrial system. It is worth quoting at length Harrison Brown, author of "The Challenge of Man's Future," writing on this point in 1954:
Our ancestors had available large resources of high-grade ores and fuels that could be processed by the most primitive technology--crystals of copper and pieces of coal that lay on the surface of the earth, easily mined iron, and petroleum in generous pools reached by shallow drilling. Now we must dig huge caverns and follow seams ever further underground, drill oil wells thousands of feet deep, many of them under the bed of the ocean, and find ways of extracting the leanest ores--procedures that are possible only because of our highly complex modern techniques, and practical only to an intricately mechanized culture which could not have been developed without the high-grade resources that are so rapidly vanishing.
As our dependence shifts to such resources as low-grade ores, rock, seawater, and the sun, the conversion of energy into useful work will require ever more intricate technical activity, which would be impossible in the absence of a variety of complex machines and their products--all of which are the result of our intricate industrial civilization, and which would be impossible without it. Thus, if a machine civilization were to stop functioning as the result of some catastrophe, it is difficult to see how man would again be able to start along the path of industrialization with the resources that would then be available to him.
What Brown is really describing is a lack of resilience in modern industrial civilization. It lacks the redundancy built into agrarian cultures because the whole system has become so specialized and interdependent. For example, rare earth minerals are critical to the functioning of modern electronics, in the making of strong magnets useful in such things as hybrid cars and as catalysts in chemical processing. Some 90 percent of these elements currently come from China. Any cutoff could prove difficult for the rest of the world. There are other known deposits of rare earth elements, but it would take time to develop them and start up production.
Thomas Homer-Dixon gets at this issue of resilience in his recent book, "The Upside of Down." His number one recommendation is to build more resilience into every system we rely on including food production, transportation, education, manufacturing and governance. But the momentum in the global economy is toward further specialization at the behest of the world's policymaking elites which are dominated by neoclassical economists. Their solution to the problems of modern civilization is more complexity and more specialization.
That is what one expects from complex civilizations, according to Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies." Such societies have been successful precisely because they have adopted complex strategies for taming the natural world and repelling their human enemies. These societies are designed for complexity. More than that they believe in complexity because new layers of complexity have helped to solve problems again and again in the past.
And yet, Tainter notes, there comes a time when returns on complexity begin to diminish and then actually decline. This idea seems alien to us. But, our belief in technological progress is really a belief in the effectiveness of added layers of complexity in solving our problems. Yet, even those who trumpet a future sustainable industrial paradise rarely speak of the downside of increased complexity. Its primary downside is a lack of resilience. Severe shocks--war, plague, resource depletion, climate change--become ever more difficult to respond to effectively.
To see why this is so, let us imagine a world population of 100 million people who are hunter-gatherers living, of course, in small groups. Let's assume that rapid climate change is upon them via the agency of extremely high volcanic activity. They will gradually move in the direction of plentiful food supplies and if they must all huddle near the poles to survive after a few generations, they will probably be able to do it without any central coordination.
However, it is difficult to imagine 6.7 billion people dependent on our complex industrial system coping as well with such a situation. The hunter-gatherer is mobile, moves in small numbers and simply goes where the food is. We modern people believe we have unprecedented mobility. But, in reality, we are wholly dependent for our mobility on the complex industrial culture that sustains us. For most people of the world, a trip to the interior wilds of Alaska without food or the supports of civilization even in summer would spell death after a relatively short period. We moderns are mobile, yes. But only as far as the short tether of civilization will allow.
Harrison Brown holds out the possibility of some intermediate state between our highly interdependent global civilization and the complete relocalization of the world into agrarian societies. It is difficult to see how even that intermediate state--presumably with some manufacturing and access to exogenous energy sources such as wind or solar-generated electricity--could be sustained without the extractive and refining powers available from our current, highly complex technical culture.
So, the problem for those who would propose a long-term sustainable industrial society is that such a society, if it can be achieved, will not be able to afford many false steps. If the systems which comprise it have one too many breakdowns, the wherewithal to repair that society--using such things as easily obtained minerals and energy--may not be available.
That suggests that proposing to increase the complexity of society to solve our multiple predicaments involving climate change, resource depletion, and overpopulation may lead to our undoing. By creating a society that is less and less resilient and so more and more subject to catastrophic breakdown, we might be creating conditions that will prevent humans from ever again enjoying the benefits of industrial society--even a sustainable one--should that breakdown occur.