Monday, December 29, 2014

The End of a Dark Age

The Peak Oil blogosphere is rife with fear (or hope, depending on your reading) that industrial civilization is headed into a Dark Age, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the fall of Rome. Many of us believe that knowledge accumulated by our society could be lost as the technologies used to preserve it no longer have enough energy to sustain them. While I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but think that we may be coming to the end of a different kind of Dark Age.

According to the civil religion of Progress, as defined by John Michael Greer, every previous historical period was a Dark Age compared to the present day. We often look back on our forebears and scoff at their beliefs. To cite an oft-used example, in the Middle Ages Europeans believed the Sun, Moon and Stars revolved around the Earth. (In this case, one out of three was pretty bad.) But, nowadays, people believe economic growth is always both possible and desirable. Considering our vast store of scientific data, which belief is more embarrassing? More to the point, which belief is more destructive and, potentially, ecocidal?

People who lived over 500 years ago can be forgiven their ignorance of the orbits traveled by celestial bodies. They didn’t enjoy the luxury of radio telescopes or mass spectrometers. Our ecological oversight is less pardonable by several orders of magnitude. All that is required to disprove the economic thesis is, one, the knowledge that the earth is finite and, two, the knowledge that economic growth requires increasing the rate of natural resource consumption. The first fact is well within the grasp of any sane member of our civilization. The second is obscured by propaganda and the manipulation of statistics, but should be nearly as obvious as the first.

At the risk of insulting your intelligence, I’ll try to explain this principle. Economic activity is generated by the provision of goods and/or services. In order to grow the economy, more goods and services must be provided. Whether these goods and services are physical or digital, they require energy and other resources to be produced and delivered to the consumer. All energy and resources are supplied by Nature. Therefore, the consumption of natural resources must be increased to grow the economy, and, since the earth is finite, economic growth is ultimately limited.

A few mainstream pundits have conceded that economic growth is limited, but assure us that we are nowhere near that limit. However, the behavior of the global economy since the turn of the millennium would suggest otherwise. Record prices for fundamental commodities, especially oil, have done little to expand supplies of those resources or substitutes. We’ve been in a state of stagflation since the financial meltdown of 2008. Now that commodity prices have dropped through the floor, we’ll see if there’s a glut in the market or if the high prices of the past decade have forced a significant part of the world to tighten their belts.

And even if we’re capable of significantly growing the economy by expanding our exploitation of the environment, why would we? The economy is destroying our habitat and condemning future generations to lives of desperate struggle in a poisoned world drained of resources with an increasingly inhospitable atmosphere.  Green economic growth is a red herring. Converting to renewable energy sources would still require a substantial downscaling of our economy and the First World lifestyle. There’s no silver bullet that will both save the planet and keep the economy growing. Denial of this reality is a case of willful blindness. We don’t lack the means to understand this truth, only the will to change our economic model.

The belief in infinite economic growth has achieved the status of dogma due to its usefulness to the elite and the ability of Capitalism to provide a comfortable life to most members of society. If the economy can grow forever, there’s no need for the rich to share their wealth with the rest of us. With this ideological cover, they needn’t answer for their greed. And if that doesn’t work, they can justify their avarice with the Capitalist maxim that self-interest drives economic development. We’ve all gone along with this arrangement because most of us enjoy the fruits of Capitalism. But now that the fruit is getting smaller, we’re forced to question the assumptions on which this system is built.

Just as our wealth grew astronomically in the 20th Century, so did our power over Nature. Unfortunately, at the same time our respect for Nature has virtually disappeared. We exploit and abuse Nature in service of the economy, thinking the economy is what sustains us. We forget our essential dependence on and vulnerability to the environment. The power of the natural world to enable or destroy all human projects, as well as humanity itself, has been denied in the process of deifying Science and Technology. We’ve come to think of ourselves as Masters of Nature rather than what we really are, which is Children of Nature.

We’ve launched ourselves into Outer Space, trying to escape our home and prove our independence from Mother Nature. We’ve made scientific discoveries that earlier civilizations couldn’t even have imagined. But, in striving for greater freedom from natural limits, we’ve lost touch with the understanding of Nature that has sustained our species since time immemorial. We’re ignorant of basic laws of ecology that formed the foundation of even the most primitive societies. That’s why our technologies have become increasingly dehumanizing and destructive of our own habitat. They’re no longer grounded in the ground, i.e. ecology. Thus has our moral compass lost its bearings.

This disconnect from Nature also has more practical consequences. We’re far more ignorant of basic survival skills than any previous civilization. How many among us could survive a week alone in the woods without the trappings of modern life? Our comforts and conveniences have robbed us of self-reliance. Not only have we lost touch with the natural world; we’ve also lost touch with each other. Our social skills leave much to be desired, and our reluctance to build community has left us isolated and vulnerable to the influence of authoritarian institutions. Rather than organize networks of mutual support with our neighbors, we’ve relied on Big Brother and Big Business to provide for our every desire with fossil-fueled technologies. Even agriculture has become the province of a tiny minority. There’s no previous civilization that could boast that level of potential helplessness in the face of collapse.

Perhaps our forebears would’ve wrought just as much environmental and social destruction as we have given our technological capabilities, but we’re the only civilization in the historical record that has brought the planet to the brink of catastrophe. By that shameful measure, we stand alone. While we needn’t accept the title of Most Evil Civilization Ever (yet), we certainly can’t claim to be the Most Benevolent Civilization Ever, as we often do.

We’ll almost certainly lose much of our knowledge in the descent from this industrial peak, but what we can regain is far more valuable. This is our chance to replace the capitalist values of greed and competition with the human values of generosity and cooperation. This is our chance to become reacquainted with each other, with our needs and wants and how to tell them apart. This is our chance to reconnect with the natural cycles that guide all life. Instead of fighting Mother Nature, we should follow the example of our wiser ancestors and accept her gifts and lessons with gratitude.

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