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LQD: The Age of Scarcity Industrialism and other essays

by DeAnander Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 01:00:43 AM EST

It’s been suggested several times, on this blog and elsewhere, that the process of coming to terms with the reality of peak oil has more than a little in common with the process of dealing with the imminence of death. The five stages of getting ready to die outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in a series of bestselling books back in the 1970s – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – show up tolerably often in today’s peak oil controversies. [...]

Hmmm, so I'm not the only person who thinks so... [hat tip to L Tolar for pointing me to the author's blog]

[...] When the diagnosis arrived at the beginning of the 1970s, for example, the immediate response was the one Kübler-Ross could have predicted: denial. By the end of that decade that response became an overwhelming political force. [...] The next stage on Kübler-Ross’s list, anger, arrived on schedule as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties. By the decade’s end that stage, too, became a political force that put its poster boy in office, with a little help from hanging chads and the Supreme Court. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq filled the same role in the new phase that the junking of the White House’s solar panels filled in the old, a definitive sign that the new attitude held center stage in our national soap opera.

[...] One way or another, though, the stage of anger is fading out. Even oil company executives are starting to mention peak oil and global warming, and politicians are starting to tone down their rhetoric and climb aboard various bandwagons – ethanol, biodiesel, or what have you. This marks the arrival of bargaining. This stage has certain advantages; where denial refuses to deal with death, and anger looks for someone to blame for it, bargaining looks for things that can be done to make the Reaper change his mind. I’ve argued before that we’re well past the window of opportunity in which the decline and fall of industrial society might have been prevented. Still, that doesn’t foreclose the chance to cushion the decline and get things of value through the approaching mess, and these should be at the top of the industrial world’s agenda right now. [...]

The Age of Scarcity Industrialism

The author, J M Greer, is -- somewhat eccentrically by US standards -- an Archdruid.  For someone deeply enmeshed in alternative spirituality he seems to have both feet pretty firmly planted on the ground :-) and his blog (a recent discovery) makes good reading as he tackles the Peak Oil scenario with relatively calm, compassionate, pragmatic suggestions.  One of the best bits I have found on his blog so far is from another essay, "The Theology of Compost," and since we have been discussing "waste" disposal on another thread, I thought it might be worth chewing over his five points on which an ecotechnical approach differs from an industrial/fossil-based approach to problem solving.

What makes composting such a useful template for an ecotechnic society is precisely that it highlights the ways such a society would have to differ from the way things are done in today’s industrial civilization. Some of the crucial points of difference that come to mind are these:

First, where industrial civilization converts resources into waste, composting converts waste into resources. The core dynamic of today’s industrial economies is a one-way process in which fossil fuels, other energy sources, mineral deposits, soil, water, air, and human beings, among many other things, are transformed into waste products – directly, in the form of pollution, or indirectly, in the form of goods and services that go into the waste stream after the briefest possible useful life. This same dynamic drives the emerging crisis of industrial civilization; no matter how much lipstick you put on this particular pig, a society that burns through its supply of necessary resources while heaping up progressively larger volumes of toxic wastes is going to run into trouble sooner or later. Composting reverses the equation by turning waste into a resource and meeting crucial needs – and there are few needs more crucial to a human society than food production – using wastes that would otherwise be part of the problem.

Second, where industrial civilization works against natural processes, composting works with them. At the center of contemporary Western ideology is the vision of progress as the conquest of nature, and this way of thinking has backed industrial societies into an approach to natural processes that sees them as obstacles to be overcome – or even enemies to be crushed. The result is the sort of massive misuse of resources visible in, say, modern agriculture, where conventional farming methods convert soil into something approaching a sterile mineral medium, and farmers then have to buy and apply an ever-increasing volume of fertilizers and soil additives to make up for the fertility that natural cycles in healthy soil provide all by themselves. Composting, by contrast, works because it fosters the natural processes that break down organic matter into healthy humus. There’s no need to add anything extra, or to go shopping for the lively mix of bacteria, fungi, and soil fauna that makes the miracle of compost happen. To borrow a Hollywood slogan, if you build it, they will come.

Third, where industrial civilization requires complex, delicate, and expensive technologies to function at all, composting – because it relies on natural processes that have evolved over countless millions of years – thrives on a much simpler and sturdier technological basis. Once again, industrial agriculture is the poster child for this comparison. Set the factory complexes, energy inputs, and resource flows needed to manufacture NPK fertilizer using conventional methods with the simple bin and shovel needed to produce compost from kitchen and garden waste, and the difference is hard to miss. Imagine that your small town or urban neighborhood had to build and provide energy and raw materials for one or the other from scratch, using the resources available locally right now, and the difference becomes even more noticeable.

Fourth, where industrial civilization is inherently centralized, and thus can only function on a geographic and political scale large enough to make its infrastructure economically viable, composting is inherently decentralized and can function on any scale from a backyard to a continent. Among the many reasons why a small town or an urban neighborhood would be stark staring nuts to try to build a factory to produce NPK fertilizer is that the investment demanded by the factory equipment, energy supply, and raw materials would be far greater than the return. A backyard fertilizer factory for every home would be even more absurd, but a backyard compost bin for every home is arguably the most efficient way to put composting technology to use.

Fifth, where industrial civilization degrades exactly those factors in its environment that support its existence, composting increases the factors in its environment that support its existence. In a finite environment, the more of a nonrenewable resource you extract, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to extract the remaining resource, and the more of a persistent pollutant you dump into the environment, the more energy and raw materials you have to invest in order to keep the pollutant from interfering with economic activities. Thus industrial civilization, in the course of its history, has to climb a steepening slope of its own making, until it finally falls off and crashes back to earth. By contrast, the closed loop that runs from composting bin to garden plot to kitchen and back around to composting bin again becomes more effective, not less, as the cycle turns: rising nutrient levels and soil biota in the garden plot lead to increased harvest, and thus to increased input to the compost bin.

Finally, all these factors mean that where industrial civilization is brittle, composting – and future ecotechnic societies modeled on the composting process – are resilient. One of the lessons of deep time opened up by geologists and paleontologists over the last decade or two is that the Earth is not a safe place. One of the lessons that historians have been pointing out for centuries, usually in vain, is that history is not particularly safe, either. It’s a common lesson taught by all these fields of study, and more, that the intricate arrangements made possible by periods of stability tend to shred like cobwebs in a gale once stability breaks down and the environment (natural, social, or both) lurches its way unsteadily to a new equilibrium. In a time of turbulence, systems that are dependent on uninterrupted access to concentrated resources, unimpeded maintenance of intricate technologies, and undisturbed control over geographical areas of the necessary scale to make them economical face a much higher risk of collapse than systems that have none of these vulnerabilities.

The Theology of Compost

Of course, I like this guy's essays because he's saying the same things I've been saying for the last 10 years or more... and saying them rather elegantly too.  One thing I like about Greer's commentary is that he is not an unrelieved Doomster.

Adaptation is always possible, but it’s going to come with a price tag, and the results will likely not be as convenient, abundant, or welcome as the equivalents were in the days when every American had the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day for his or her comfort. That can’t be helped. Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.
 Agriculture:  The Price of Transition

Throughout Greer's essays runs the theme that adaptation is human, adaptation is what we do best;  we can -- and must -- adapt somehow to the decline of the fossil fuel resources that enabled the industrial binge-drinking phase of human history.  His essays suggest that adaptation is possible -- not cost-free, not necessarily welcomed by all, and almost certainly involving errors, false starts, and delusions -- but possible.  He attempts to come to grips with Peak Oil and its associated implications without taking either of the easy outs -- the first being denial, the second being passive despair.  Some will write him off as a crank due to his religious affiliation;  personally, I think the guy sounds pretty darned sane.  If he dresses up in robes and does rituals in the woods on the solstices and equinoxes, that doesn't bother me too much given the intelligence and commonsense he applies to the great crisis of industrialism... certainly he seems less of a "religious loonie" than, say, the Texas oil exec who firmly believes that God will put more oil into the ground because Americans are his chosen people and they need it :-)

Recommended reading for Peak Oil watchers...

excellent diary, Greer has the rare quality of calm, coupled with a complete lack of rancour. all his mental horsepower is harnessed towards designing an intelligent set of solutions to the problems he takes head on.

the parallel with kubler-ross was also thought provoking. roll on acceptance!

thanks for the heads-up, new favourite site to explore, it already sucked up three good reading hours. the comments are high quality too.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 10:28:50 AM EST
I should perhaps point out that ideas complementary to Greer's 5-point list here are explored in more technogeeky terms by various writers under the topic of biomimicry -- i.e. where the use of wholly biotic small-scale processes is difficult, say when building locomotives for a national rail system, we can still look hard for ways to retool industrial processes to mimic biotic ones by closing the waste loop, intensifying recycling, etc.

nothing can close the fundamental entropic decline involved in industrial methods.  the transition from ore to metal is irreversible in human-scale time and the energy poured into the process is irrecoverable.  but the amount of waste involved (and Greer writes compellingly and cogently on the "waste economy" as well) could be reduced tenfold, maybe a hundredfold for some processes, thus slowing the entropic leakage...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 11:18:21 AM EST
From the technogeek side of the scarcity industrialism house comes this cool and almost-practical solar car.


by asdf on Mon Feb 25th, 2008 at 11:53:58 PM EST

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