The (Not So) Invincible Society
3 Nov, 2008 03:11 pm
Policymakers and the public think of modern industrial society as being resilient and durable. Are they right?
Popular culture adds to the illusion. The enduring fantasy embedded in the many iterations of the original Star Trek television series is that humans will soon be a space-faring species. The hidden and never-discussed prerequisite, however, is limitless, cheap energy. This also turns out to be the assumption behind contemporary projections of ever-increasing prosperity.
Our failure to wean ourselves off finite fossil fuels is a major vulnerability. But our vulnerabilities go beyond energy. The complex networks that allow are society to function may not be as resilient as people generally believe. Harrison Browne in his 1954 book, "The Challenge of Man's Future," painstakingly lays out a path to a sustainable industrial society and then concludes that the most likely trajectory for industrial society is a reversion back to agrarian society. He reasons that if a significant portion of the complex, interdependent systems that make up our society fail, society will collapse. And, if that happens, it would be all but impossible to restart industrial society. He argues that industrial society relies on the continuous operation of these systems to obtain essential minerals from very lean ores using copious amounts of energy, energy procured using these same complex systems.
A major disruption could come in the form of a nuclear war which damages enough infrastructure to make recovery impossible. But it might also come from a precipitous decline in the availability of fossil fuel energy if no substitutes of comparable magnitude can be found and deployed in time. It could come as well from multiple ecosystem failures that might make it difficult to grow enough food or purify enough water within the limits of our technology.
Technology has so far been winning its race with the depletion of minerals, soil and fresh water. But there is no guarantee that it always will. In fact, our technology has a tendency to degrade the eco-services which we rely on, for example, fertile soil. So far, technology has allowed us to grow more and more food. But will there be a point of diminishing or even declining returns? It is likely that per-capita grain production has already stalled, though total production continues to increase. Keep in mind that about 80 percent of the world's food calories comes either directly or indirectly from grains.
Perhaps the biggest known side-effect of our technology is climate change. Climate modelers say that climate change could present anything from mild challenges requiring adaptation to catastrophic warming that would turn the world's grain growing areas into deserts and destroy modern economies in the bargain.
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.
The best path for industrial society would be to reduce its footprint radically and move to the sustainable use of renewable resources. That would require careful planning and execution of a transition strategy. But such a transition might also result in regimentation beyond anything we in modern democratic states have ever experienced. I am not advocating such regimentation. I am only pointing out that its opposite, a freebooting attitude toward the exploitation and use of resources and toward the expansion of world population, does not offer a plausible path to sustainability.
It turns out that the invincible society isn't so invincible after all. Unless and until we are willing to accept that, the possibilities for a successful transition to a sustainable industrial society are severely diminished. Those who would say otherwise have yet to offer a warranty that would give us our society back if they turn out to be wrong.