Sunday, November 09, 2008

The (Not So) Invincible Society

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "The (Not So) Invincible Society" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Policymakers and the public think of modern industrial society as being resilient and durable. Are they right?
.....Read more


Henry Warwick said...

Hi Kurt.

You wrote:

Many people believe that industrial society is a one-time historical event. We humans are using up fossil fuel resources which are irreplaceable on any human time scale, and we are scattering essential metals in such a way as to make any start-up of a future industrial society from scratch all but impossible. Of course, it may be possible to start up a future industrial society from scratch on some other basis than metallurgy and fossil fuels, but that basis is not obvious to me.

And I disagree with this assessment. Why? Because prior to capitalist industrialism, there were large scale examples of pre-capitalist industrialism. For example, we can look at the bread factories of Rome.

Rome had a cooptive policy of "bread and circuses" in order to maintain social hegemony over the non-ruling classes. This policy required a not-insubstantial free bread ration for every Roman citizen (slaves and furriners not included, thank you very much). To make THAT much bread on a consistent and continuous basis for a city of over a million people (and a substantial percentage of that getting theirs for free) a very real system of bread factories were developed on the periphery. They were powered by water wheels (grinding grain, mixing batter) and wood burning ovens. It worked. For centuries.

Industrialism is a way of working - a hyper-organised system of work organisation. Instantly pulling fossil fuels out of the picture would, of course, spell near instant doom for billions. But doing so over a period of decades and then removing massive metal extraction/processing over a period of a century or so, will engender enormous difficulty, but not collapse. The history of factory work is recent enough that people can organise themselves quickly into appropriately arranged factories - viz Roman Bread Factories, only without the trial and error as fordism is also a recent memory with substantial weight.

I hope this illuminates part of what the basis for a post petroleum industrial system might look like.

Also: think of the British Mills of the 18th and 17th century - grinding bread and then weaving cloth. All done with water wheels. New England is dotted with 18th and 19th century relics of that kind of industry.

Kurt Cobb said...


Nice to hear from you. I don't doubt that mass production is possible without fossil fuels. If you don't like working yourself, all you need is a bunch of slaves such as the Romans had to do the work for you. Not a particularly attractive alternative to the modern sensibility, but feasible. But surely the Romans could not have organized such a successful society without metallurgy. And primitive metallurgy requires rich ores, almost all of which have now been mined. Without the complex and energy-intensive processes which we now employ, it's hard to see how human society could get much metal from the remaining very, very lean ores. In fact, they would regard what we call ore as mere worthless rock.

Of course, we could recycle every piece of metal. But that implies that much of modern industrial society would essentially turn into a salvage yard for metal and other essential materials as buildings which require modern industrial upkeep fail. I'm not sure how successful this kind of salvage operation would be. But it might keep a society at the level of consumption of classical Rome going for some time.

My assumption would be that such a society would have far fewer people in it. And, that implies a collapse which might mean the loss of considerable knowledge about how to salvage such buildings.

I certainly don't see us harvesting metals from so-called country rock or from seawater without unlikely breakthroughs in energy technology that give us cheap, abundant energy for the long run.

The vulnerabilities are so various and so acute that the path to a sustainable industrial society seems very narrow indeed. And a gradual contraction to a small-scale craft industry society seems problematic although certainly preferable to rapid collapse.

Henry Warwick said...


The Roman bread factories were mostly wooden. Romans had metal, but not nearly in the abundance we have.

A society consuming at a Roman level would be vastly more possible than our own. Much of the third world today operates at a level of technology far ahead of the Romans. Permacultural techniques would have helped the Romans avoid much of their irregular harvests - the real value is in ideas...

I agree, metallurgy is a thorny problem, and requires intense amounts of energy - even to recycle metal is a significant effort not to be underestimated. To metallurgy I would add glass production. Windows are hard. You have to melt sand, and sand doesn't like to do that. Very energy intensive.

There are significant challenges involved with this transition.

I would agree that we will see a population decline, but it need not be a collapse. It's all in how we manage the transition.

At the same time we need to balance our discussion of "Crash" with "victory conditions". I wrote about that here.

To that I would also add: if we don't know what "victory" looks like, then we can't really escape a crash, as anything other than what presently obtains would be seen as a failure. Since what obtains is not sustainable, then ANY future becomes a failure - even if it is what we would define as pragmatically optimal victory conditions.

To me, this is an essential part of the debate that has gone missing. It need not be politicised, even though discussion of future conditions is inherently tied to an eschatology and thusly an arrangement of political economy. I think the important first step is a clear notion of where we are going, and then a set of milestones as to how to get there.

Example: we could take Duncan / Jensen at face value and decide that the neolithic is the only possible eventuality. Fine.

Then we can say: When?

Jensen would argue TOMORROW. I don't think Duncan would be so enthusiastic. So, let's look at it all from a Hubbertian perspective:

We have been pulling metals out of the ground now for 5000 years. If we are at peak now, then we will continue to do so for another 5000 years.

However, like oil, there are intercedents that will tend to accellerate the process down - in oil we have ERoEI and the Export Land Model. I am sure similar issues would pop up with metals.

So, assuming we are no longer using oil for fuel in 40 years, then the petroleum age lasted about 200 years, peaking after 150 and disappearing a few decades later.

We can do the math: 40 years left of oil times 5000 years (so far) of metals divided by 150 years (so far) of oil = 1,333 years until the New Stone Age.

Now, the radical in this is the increase in consumption of metals due to the increase in population. With a decrease in population, to a sustainable level, say, 500 million, even a gradual one over 500 years would still have massive benefits to the extending of the age of metal.

Now, Bayesian math with fairly conservative risk assessments puts an end to the human project somewhere between 2250 and 2500 AD (J.Leslie, The End of the World). So, the numbers are not good.

But they merely describe the range, they do not predict actual outcome.

I think the most important thing that needs to be done is for the global war machine to be dismantled and to take the materials and resources presently devoted to that murderous nonsense and put it directly into the development of transitional energy systems and sustainable infrastructure and education.

It's late - Off to bed.

More soon.