It was almost 50 years ago we first heard the notion of there being “Limits to Growth” and the idea of oil supply – the basic source of modern civilisation – reaching a peak was developed by a geophysicist a decade earlier.
It was, however, Dmitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse – the soviet experience and American prospects and J Michael Greer’s The Long Descent – a user’s guide to the end of the industrial age” (both 2008) which first made me aware of the dramatic changes we would need to make in our life styles - if these predictions proved true. These, of course, were the days when the reality of global warming had not really struck home – although there had been no shortage of warning voices in earlier years eg Bill McKibben whose “The End of Nature” was published in 1989.
The rise and fall of civilisations had, of course, been a popular theme at both the beginning and the middle of the 20th Century in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee but, by the 1960s, we had become so enthralled with the notion of technical progress that such writing was seen as “old wives’ tales”. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987) may have been a warning shot but, coming a mere 2 years before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, served only to boost the celebrationism of the time. And Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) was too narrowly conceived – with this critical review lambasting it,
Jared Diamond tried to jolt us back to our senses with his “Collapse – how societies choose to fail or succeed” (2005) - but it took the global financial crash of 2008 to make us begin to question our direction with any seriousness.
Right-wing historian Niall Fergusson’s 2010 article in “Foreign Affairs” reflects that new mood of sober realism.
And it was that same global financial crash that brought oil prices down and made investment in renewable energy once again a “yessable” proposition – as Greer anticipates in “The Long Descent”. Covid19 is having the same effect…
I read Orlov’s book some years ago and followed Greer’s blog until it ended a couple of years ago. But I have just been able to download “The Long Descent” from Zlibrary (https://1lib.eu/) and found this recent post by Michael Greer a useful summary of his position -
Since some of my current readers weren’t yet reading me when I last discussed these issues – in “The Long Descent” (2008), I’ll start with some general points and go from there.
One of the great mental blind spots of our society is the notion that there are only two possible futures: on the one hand, business as usual stretching endlessly into the future, with a side order of technological progress dished up at intervals; on the other, sudden apocalyptic mass death, with or without a small band of plucky survivors sitting around a campfire as the final credits roll. An astonishing number of people these days literally won’t let themselves think about any other possible future, and will either change the subject or get furiously angry at you if you should be so bold as to suggest one.
The evasion and the anger come from the same source, which is that those imaginary futures are the ways most of us distract ourselves from the future we’re actually getting: a future of decline.
· We all know this. If you’re old enough to be out of elementary school, you’ve already seen ongoing declines in standards of living, public health, public order, the quality of education, the condition of our infrastructure, and much more.
· Those trends define our future. They also defined the future of every past civilization, because that’s how civilizations end, and it’s how ours will end, 100 to 300 years from now.
· Again, at some level, all of us know this, but it’s taboo to discuss the matter or even think about it, which is why so many people bury their heads in shopworn fantasies of perpetual progress or overnight cataclysm.
One other thing. Technology will not save us from the Long Descent, because technology is the main factor driving the Long Descent. The more technology you have, the more energy and resources of every kind you need to build, maintain, repair, replace, and dispose of it, and the mismatch between endlessly rising resource costs and the hard limits of a finite planet is one of the main factors bringing about the declines I’ve just described. Nor does technology allow one energy resource to be replaced with another, except in small and irrelevant ways.
The world now burns more coal than it did at the peak of the Coal Age, for example, and more wood than it did when firewood was the main source of heating fuel worldwide. As renewable power sources got added to the mix, furthermore, the amount of fossil fuels being burnt didn’t go down -- it went up. (That’s caused by a widely recognized law of energy economics, by the way; look up Jevons’ Paradox sometime.) If progress is the problem, more progress is not the solution -- but here again, that’s utterly unthinkable these days. Faith in progress is the most popular idolatry of our time, and a vast number of people who claim to belong to other religions or to no religion at all are devout worshipers at the shrine of the golden calf named Progress.
So where are we headed? That hasn’t changed one iota since the last time I discussed these issues. “The Limits to Growth”, the most thoughtful (and thus inevitably the most savagely denounced) of the Seventies-era books that explored the landscape ahead of us, traced the arc of our future in a convenient graph. Between 1972 and the present, its predictions have proven much more accurate than those of the book’s critics -- another reason why it’s been assailed in such shrill language for all these years. Here’s the graph: (sorry it doesn't show in this text - please consult Greer's post)
I’d encourage my readers to pay attention to two things about the graph. The first, which should be obvious at a glance but has been ignored astonishingly often, is that it doesn’t show any kind of sudden apocalyptic event. What it shows is a long and relatively smooth transition from a world of abundant resources and sustained economic growth to a world of scarce resources and sustained economic contraction. Population doesn’t fall off a cliff, it rises, crests, and declines. Pollution doesn’t up and kill everybody; it rises, helps drive declines in food and population, and then declines in turn as industrial output falls off.
The second thing about the graph I’d like readers to notice is subtler, and you may need to read the book to grasp it: the limits to growth are economic limits, not technical ones. What happens, in brief, is that the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits, until finally they overwhelm growth itself and force the global economy to its knees. What this means, in turn, is that proposed solutions have to be economically viable, not just technically feasible.
As you can see, Greer writes very well. And he’s not just good on theory but on practice. Chapter 4 of his book has 4 bits of advice –
- reduce your energy use (by half id possible – restrict use of the car;praxtice coping with blackout)
- DIY health
- community networking
- choose a
viable profession (market gardening; clothes repair)
A Peak Oil resource
- Some of Greer’s writings can still be found in the Counter Currents website eg https://www.countercurrents.org/greer290511A.htm; and https://www.countercurrents.org/greer241111.htm. Just type J Michael Greer in the search engine
- The Five Stages of Collapse – survivor’s toolkit; Dmitry Orlov (2013) I’ve just been able to download this more recent book by Orlov. The guy has a great sense of humour.