For the past 300 years, all bets on the future were pretty safe.
Every one was fully backed by all the energy and resources anyone could ever need.
As time went on and technologies developed, the bets could be ever more outrageous and still look likely to come off. Holidays on Mars? Mining the moon? Why not?
And then, just about the time the people in charge convinced themselves that everything could keep growing exponentially for ever, it stopped.
All bets are off. The futures we imagine for ourselves will be made out of what energy and resources we can get, not whatever we want.
Which means that things are going to get rough.
It’s a bit of a loose analogy, but think of human civilisation as a train and the natural world of energy and physical resources as the track it runs on. (John Michael Greer explains it better as the primary, secondary and tertiary economies … but I need a train for this one).
Over the past three centuries, the train has grown from a push-along truck to a steam loco with open-top carriages to a massive, hurtling, high speed juggernaut that doubles in size every 15 years.
Meanwhile, the track, being natural, was always going to follow a growth-maturity-degrowth curve. Guess where we are now?
About 50 years ago, one or two voices started warning that the ‘track’ wouldn’t provide the power or carry the weight for ever. They were ignored.
About 30 years ago, other people worked out that the track would start losing its integrity in about another 30 years’ time. They were derided.
Six years ago, Empire Central asked a well-qualified expert what was over the next rise. He said it was a flaky trestle bridge with ties dropping off.
He recommended taking urgent steps to reduce the mass and velocity of the train. This time some people listened but the train company lobbied strenuously and effectively for momentum to be maintained.
Now we’re starting to feel the first jolts as the track begins to degrade. We may make it across that first trestle bridge but there will be more, flakier ones to follow. Meanwhile the engineers are pressing the throttle hard while the track gradually thins down from steel rails and teak ties to bamboo rods and pea sticks.
And we can’t get off the train so we’re all going along for the ride.
The primary economy … is the natural world itself, which produces something like three-quarters of the goods and services on which human beings rely for survival. The secondary economy, which depends on the primary one, is the collocation of labor, capital plant, and resources extracted from the primary economy that produces the other quarter or so of the goods and services human beings use. The tertiary economy, finally, is the system of social processes by which the products of the first two economies are allocated to people.