Sunday, July 27, 2008

Could we start industrial society from scratch today?

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.


Jim Holm said...

Energy is the master resource. Always has been, always will be.

The first task for the first steam engine was to pump water from coal mines.

The first task for railroad steam engines was to haul coal the the docks.

With sufficient energy, mankind can, over time, pull himself up by his bootstraps over and over again, if need be.

Doug said...

I believe we could probably restart industrialized society only after the mass dieoff. It will be on a mucdh smaller scale and not be so much based on fossil fuels.

Anonymous said...

No, we will not be able to restart industrialized society after the mass dieoff, not only because of the ressources exhaustion and lack of "cheap" boostrapping opportunities as clearly explained by Kurt but also because there is no such thing as a "small scale" industrialized society (as we know it), the whole web of dependencies and scale economies which makes it work as of today is grossly underestimated.

Jerry said...

The current Master Planners do not want a resilient society. Their power comes from a perpetually fragile society which has the appearance of resilience due to complexity.

However, nature itself is a model of both complexity and resilience thereof. No matter the damage we of the current human civilizations cause, in all but the most extremely catastrophic outcomes, nature is likely to redevelop future complex ecosystems such as we see today. Given the collapse of the current global society, the only remnants of our industrial society are likely to be plastics and radioactive isotopes. Our marvelous structures would just be so much dust, one thousand years after such a total collapse.

There may be real hope in the work of those devoted to studying nature's complexities and just what makes nature so resilient. Janine Benyus' presentation at, "12 sustainable design ideas from nature", discusses the potential of biomimicry to help us overcome some of these dependencies on waning resources.

Anonymous said...

The current Master Planners do not want a resilient society. Their power comes from a perpetually fragile society which has the appearance of resilience due to complexity.

A pretty paranoid take, the "current Master Planners" are just as hapless as anybody else, not that they wouldn't want (or may be imagine) that they be "in control", but the global complexity of the biosphere is orders of magnitude above our poor modelling capabilities.

Jerry said...

I am not so paranoid as to believe that some tiny group of individuals exercises absolute control over anything so complicated at the biosphere OR the global economic/industrial systems. Is it paranoid simply to recognize the existence of individuals (and groups of these individuals) who strive nearly continually to achieve greater power and accumulate more wealth?

Oh right,these individuals are just products of the system, they don't manage it in the slightest...I had forgotten.

Anonymous said...

these individuals are just products of the system, they don't manage it in the slightest...

An egg and chicken problem, without "the system" they would be powerless (Bill Gates with a stone axe?), without them there would be no system.
Supposing that the individuals are the most "pliable" part of the feedback loop seem dubious to me, some think differently (closer to your stance) but I am not interested in debating this.

Jerry said...

Just in case anyone else is following the conversation, I must disagree that without the profiteer/powerbrokers there would be no "system". However, if the argument is that without them the system would look different than it does now, then I agree completely. I think it would look a hell of a lot cleaner.

But, back to the question posed by this post itself...I don't think this is an answerable question as posed. How did we reach the point of starting from scratch? What is the state of the biosphere? Is knowledge gone too, or just the infrastructure? What is the population base and where is it located? What level of industrial society is being discussed?

Depending on these variables, I would say the answer could be yes or no.

kersting13 said...

There would be a resource shortage, but I’m not sure why there would be a resource shortage to the extent that would prevent our re-establishment of the industrial age.

The author claims the lack of easily attainable resources that our ancestors had such as copper laying on the ground. But, it’s not as if all of the currently existing metals would somehow disappear. Even if every piece of industrial equipment in existence was destroyed by a cataclysm, those basic materials they were made from would be available to us.

If all the automobiles, ships, oil rigs, excavating equipment, skyscrapers, etc, etc, etc were destroyed, at least the raw materials they were made from would be available to us – just laying there on the surface of the Earth. It’s not as if the resources of the planet have been stripped and sent out into space or to other planets. Those resources are still here and available to us. If we assume fossil fuels will be unattainable, alternative energy sources would have to be developed. Biodiesel, wind, solar, etc, or a newer energy resource would be developed.

The technology of today would allow us to use these recycled resources in a more sustainable manner than our predecessors did.

russell1200 said...

If you are going to get all worked up over Tainter, you might want to check some other sources:

They are not necessarily going to make you more optimistic, but they have a much more sophisticated approach to the problem.