My favourite story of the year so far is Douglas Rushkoff’s Medium article, Survival of the Richest, in which Rushkoff flies to a luxury resort expecting to deliver a keynote speech to a bankers’ convention but instead finds himself ensconced in a room with five ultra-rich hedge fund managers who want his advice on surviving the imminent meltdown of civilisation.
I like the article for several reasons. Firstly, it shows that recognition of our energy predicament is as strong among sections of the system management as it is down here among fringe elements like me.
Maybe the nervous Hedgies who hired Rushkoff don’t regard the roots of the problem as primarily thermodynamic. But they can see that civilisation can’t carry on on its current trajectory – and therefore it won’t.
Another reason I like it is because they asked Rushkoff. He is the author of 20 books discussing how technological environments change our relationship to narrative, money, power and one another. Choosing him as their advisor implies that they understand the systemic nature of the predicament — one assumes they’d already worked through plenty of advice from hands-on preppers and bunker-builders.
Who knows, though: they might have read Norman Pagett’s book The End of More. To my mind, it is the most succinct summary available of why and how our civilisation is entering the ‘Seneca Cliff‘ phase of resource overshoot.
If so, it would explain why the five Hedgies of the Apocalypse were amused by Rushkoff’s optimism. I like Rushkoff’s work but it amuses me, too. He believes that if we improve our understanding of the technological civilisation game, we will work out how to play our cards differently and make everything right. What the Hedgies seem to have a better grasp of is that the cards themselves are starting to disappear.
Think of packs of playing cards as representing useful energy. For most of human history, we played with a couple of decks: sunlight for growing crops and recently-stored sunlight (wood) for heat and basic thermal industrial processes – metal, glass, pottery.
We refined the two-deck system pretty well: look at Renaissance Europe. Even then, though, the rich, creamy top of the pyramid rested on a hard-scrabble base of serfdom and full-on slavery. They are time-honoured ways to maximise useful energy by devoting an absolute minimum of sunlight to keeping the civilisational resource (slave) working in field, foundry, quarry or mine.
Civilisations start out by venerating the source of their primary energy:
Once they’ve learned a few tricks for making primary energy go further, they venerate themselves: telling themselves they owe their relative wealth of resources to being smarter, nobler, braver, more-chosen by the gods, etc, than other peoples and especially other species.
Then they overshoot the rate at which “current account” sunlight and plunder can replenish their resources. And collapse.
The stored sunshine get-out
All except for the post-Renaissance civilisation, which came up with a one-off wrinkle in the form of fossil sunlight.
By the 17th century, European civilisation was running into trouble. Europeans had outdone the Romans by miles when it came to creating a solar-energy-centralising system. While the Romans’ stretched around the Mediterranean, the Europeans’ circled the globe. Even so, distance imposes limits on the pulling-power of a system powered by sun and wind. Meanwhile at home, the Europeans were rapidly depleting the stored energy in their forests, which had regrown somewhat since the Roman depletion.
Everything was set for a civilisational reset: regions, countries and cities starting to fight ever harder over access to fertile soil, fuel and trade. But then miraculously, the Europeans became ‘energy independent’.
Today we tell ourselves that what happened was The Enlightenment. We prefer to say we entered a great Age of Reason somewhere around 1685. Rationalism replaced superstition. Technology and science replaced human slavery and folkloric ideas. We saved ourselves from the fate of the Romans, the Greeks and the you-name-them civilisations of earlier history.
As a consequence of the Enlightenment, so the narrative goes, we smarter, nobler and definitely more-deserving Europeans went on to invent the Industrial Revolution. After that, we were on our way to the stars, via George Stephenson, the Wright brothers and Elon Musk.
But when you look at the dates, the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution were pretty much coeval. They gained momentum together. Smelting iron with coal – the original basis of fossil fuelled industrial civilisation – got underway in earnest in Britain around 1680 just as Isaac Newton finished piecing together what that apple had been trying to tell him.
Fire and machines, slaves and sugar
Arguably, one reason coal-fired iron mastery grew into full-flowered industrial might when it did was because the ground had been prepared for it by two centuries of rampant colonisation by Europeans. They learned a lot about exploiting fire and machinery to build complexity by using cannons and musketry to extract solar energy from people in other lands in the form of slaves, gold, sugar cane and cotton.
The complexity achieved by the 16th and 17th century Europeans created the conditions for the flood of ideas unleashed by the Enlightenment. it wasn’t the ideas themselves that saved them from going into an eloquently-documented overshoot at that point; it was the tsunami of net energy released into society by burning stored fossil sunlight.
Since then, it’s been ideas all the way, powered by all the energy you can eat thanks to coal, then oil and gas.
Except, at some stage the flow of energy from finite fossil resources will diminish. It’s decades since we discovered more oil in a year than we used up. We’re currently burning it five times faster than we’re finding replacement reservoirs.
Every year, it takes more energy to extract energy. Fracking is a fraction as efficient as the big conventional fields of the early 20th century. Deep sea and polar oil and gas similarly offer society much less to work with once the energy used in extraction is subtracted.
You won’t see this happening directly. You won’t see the UK telling its citizens they are expected to use less petrol and diesel in future. What you will see is the UK proposing to double the proportion of biofuels in road fuels ‘to reduce CO2 emissions’. Sure that is part of the reason. But it is also because oil flows are showing signs of going into decline so they need to be padded out with other types of liquefied energy.
Bioethanol and biodiesel in many ways represent a return to the bad old days before the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The UK doesn’t have enough land or sunshine to feed itself and grow biofuel crops so we’re going back to forms of colonisation and slavery: forcing people in other countries off their fields so agroenergy businesses can plant massive plantations jatropha, palm oil and other fuel crops to feed our ‘advanced’ way of life.
Of course, we don’t do the dirty directly. States like the UK let the other nations do it to their own lands and people; tutting out of the side of our mouths while signing lucrative trade deals.
The sleights of hand we indulge in to disguise our retreat from fossil-fuelled abundance are many. We invade countries for their oil and also to wreck their economies so their demand doesn’t compete with ours. We watch the US set off regime change and colour revolutions in countries from South America to North Africa: ditto. We watched Greece being deliberately destroyed by reckless lending by the top dogs of the EU: ditto. We hope it’ll be Italy or Hungary or Turkey who’s next on the demand-reduction block, not us.
When the likes of BP or the International Energy Agency confidently predict that peak oil will result from falling demand, not restricted supply, you have to wonder they are getting their info from geology or the neocons.
Either way, the result is the same: less energy and less modern ‘Enlightenment’ (if that’s how you want to characterise 21st consumerist culture).
Our incredible-looking civilisation is a one-off, built not on human cleverness or destiny but on a few hundred million years of fossilised sunlight that we found and burned-through in three brilliantly-lit centuries.
We can look around to see where that has taken us. Our extended version of civilisation arose with Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and the ironmasters of Coalbrookdale. It’s now attained the dizzy heights of climate change, neo-liberal economics and the whoremasters of Silicon Valley.
It has perfected an economic process that dies if it cannot grow but which now has precious little left to grow with and almost no space to grow into.
The surprise isn’t that Douglas Rushkoff’s hedge fund managers are looking for somewhere to hide: it’s that they openly invited a well-known author and blogger to advise them how to do so.
These guys are part of the managing elite, which is stridently pushing the narrative that everything is fine and dandy; your life will more and more resemble a mobile phone/car advert, and above all the future is bright. Inviting Rushkoff was tantamount to admitting that we’ve already reached the point where humanity starts fighting itself all the way back to whatever twilight dark age awaits our descendants in centuries to come.
Oh well, forewarned is forearmed for what good that will do when there’s nothing to arm oneself with except awareness of what’s going on.