Reposted from COUNTERCURRENTS
ABSTRACT: Despite four decades of detailed warnings, industrial civilization has failed to turn aside from self-destructive policies of exponential growth and dependence on nonrenewable resources. At this point, stark limits of time and resources as well as a failure of political will make attempts to prevent the fall of industrial society an exercise in futility. Individuals, small groups, and communities can still prepare for the approaching crises by mastering low-tech survival skills now to lay foundations for a sustainable society in the future.
I. The Closed Window of Opportunity
In 1972, the Club of Rome’s path-breaking study The Limits to Growth(1) sent shockwaves around the world. At a time when politicians and pundits across the political spectrum argued that infinite economic growth was not only possible but desirable, The Limits to Growth showed that infinite growth on a finite planet was a recipe for disaster. They predicted that depletion of vital resources and increasing impacts from pollution would break the back of the global economy, leading to industrial collapse and massive die-off in the first half of the twenty-first century. Further studies(2) over the next few decades confirmed and expanded the warning, while economists and energy scientists showed that a sustainable steady-state economy was in reach if the process started at once.(3)
After half-hearted efforts sparked by the oil shortages of the 1970s, the industrial nations returned to business as usual. Alternative energy sources and proposals for a transition to sustainability withered on the vine. Meanwhile global population, rates of energy use, and pollution soared while resources dwindled. In 1992, twenty years after the original Club of Rome study, the same team ran their computer models again with newer and more complete data.(4) What they found confirmed the worst fears of ecologists and resource economists: the industrial world was in overshoot.
Among ecologists, “overshoot” describes a situation where a population of living things has outgrown its environment and is damaging the resource base that supports it.(5) As a population in overshoot expands further and increases its demands on its resource base, the resource base shrinks, cutting into its ability to support the population. Sooner or later rising demand collides with declining resources. The inevitable result is die-off.
The Club of Rome team twisted their computer models nearly to the breaking point to find a plan of action that would avert catastrophe if it was adopted immediately. The resulting plan was politically impossible – it would have required the citizens of the United States to accept Third World living standards – and it never reached the stage of public discussion. Even such feeble measures as the Kyoto greenhouse gas accords failed to win global support, and the dubious Republican “victory” in the 2000 presidential election made any attempt to face the looming future a dead issue until 2005 at the very earliest.
The implications of this delay have rarely been understood or accepted, even by those aware of the approaching crisis. Environmental activists still present schemes for making the transition to a steady state economy as though the industrial world had time to implement them. Yet in 1992, the “Limits to Growth” team warned that if the industrialized world did not launch a massive program to achieve sustainability within a few years, the chance to prevent industrial collapse and dieoff would have been missed.(6) Twelve years have passed since that final warning, and once again nothing has been done.
The hard reality of our situation is that the window of opportunity for a controlled transition to sustainability is past. Depletion of global oil reserves (the so-called “Peak Oil” problem) and global warming are only two aspects of a sprawling crisis that already affects every corner of the globe. The limits to growth are no longer a problem for the future. We are facing them now.
II. The Future Mirrored in the Past
The original “Limits to Growth” study provides a model for our future that bears careful study. Its most crucial and least appreciated prediction is that industrial collapse is an extended process, not an overnight catastrophe of the sort beloved by Hollywood scriptwriters. In simple terms, industrial society has to supply soaring needs from a shrinking resource base. As population rises, more people have to be fed, clothed, and housed; as production increases, more factories and infrastructure have to be built, maintained, and replaced; as the global environment suffers, droughts, crop failures, emerging infectious diseases, and rising sea levels all have economic impacts to be countered.
All these require ever-increasing resource use, but as resources are depleted, the cost of finding and extracting them becomes another burden on the economy. Worse, geological and/or environmental factors set inescapable upper limits on many resources. There is only so much oil in the ground, for example, and the faster you pump, the sooner you run dry. Forced to produce goods and services for immediate needs, forced to maintain and replace factories and infrastructure, to deal with impacts from environmental degradation, and subsidize a dwindling resource base all at once, industrial society is caught in a trap it can’t escape. It can’t do all of these things at once, and yet it can’t stop doing any of them without going under.
The result is a rolling collapse extended over decades. As the economy falters, the shrinking pie of industrial production has to be cut into ever narrower wedges, divided between keeping the work force fed, clothed, and housed; maintaining and replacing economic capital and infrastructure; dealing with the immediate economic impact of environmental degradation; and struggling to keep oil and other resources flowing. Any shortfall in any of these imposes bottlenecks on the whole economy and makes the pie shrink further. Industrial production slumps and the core systems of the industrial economy start coming unglued: energy distribution networks fail, financial systems disintegrate, transport falters, national governments come apart. Finally population dieoff begins as the wrecked industrial system no longer produces enough to meet even the most basic human needs. The process ends with impoverished survivors a century from now scratching out a meager living amid the crumbling ruins of a once-great civilization.
This scenario makes a shocking contrast to the cozy fantasies of perpetual progress most people cherish. Those who study history, on the other hand, will find it much more familiar. The same process has happened dozens of times before, and our present predicament can best be understood by paying attention to the past.
The most crucial of these lessons is that all civilizations fall. As Joseph Tainter points out in his essential book “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” this is one of the most predictable things about them.(7) Our civilization is larger and better equipped with gadgets, but it still faces the same fate as Nineveh and Tyre. Like the inhabitants of Rome at the beginning of the fifth century, or the people of the Mayan city of Tikal at the dawn of the tenth, we happen to be living in the early stages of this terrible but natural process. The crisis we face is no supernatural event, nor an instant catastrophe of the Hollywood sort. As the saying has it, it’s not the end of the world – just the end of one more human civilization that failed to notice environmental limits, and crashed as a result.
Another crucial lesson is that the common notion of holing up in a cabin in the hills with stockpiled food and enough firearms to outfit a Panzer division is a Hollywood fantasy, not a realistic response. It takes time for a civilization to come apart, and the process is like rolling down a slope, not like falling off a cliff. We face a future of shortages, economic crises, disintegrating infrastructure, and collapsing public health, stretched out over a period of decades. A few years of stored food and an assortment of high-tech paramilitary gear are hopelessly inadequate preparations in the face of this reality.
Stockpiles of precious metals, another common hedge against collapse, are even more useless. All the gold in the world means nothing unless people value it enough to trade scarce resources for it, and if they value it that much in the postindustrial future, your chances of surviving long enough to enjoy it are not good. Archeologists in Britain every few years turn up hoards of gold and silver hidden away by wealthy Romans as the empire fell around them. The fact that the hoards are undisturbed suggests that their owners did not survive long enough to enjoy them.
A useful way to think of the approaching crisis is to imagine that someday soon you will be put on a boat, taken to some primitive corner of the world far from industrial society, and left there for the rest of your life. You can take anything you want with you, but the place you are going is inhabited, and if your only value consists of the things you have stockpiled, plenty of people will be interested in removing you and enjoying your stockpile themselves. In the postindustrial dark age, where all of us who survive the next decade or so will be spending the rest of our lives, the same rules apply.
III. The Problem with Progress
Many people come out of school thinking of civilization as some vague assemblage of art, literature, buildings, and government. At its core, though, a civilization is a system for producing and distributing goods and services. Roman civilization included not only temples and emperors but also grain markets, aqueducts, roads, and soldiers. When Rome fell, the population crash that followed was not caused by a shortage of temples. It happened because grain no longer reached the markets, goods no longer traveled over the roads, and legionaries no longer kept barbarians on the other side of the frontier.
The present situation is even more extreme. Most people in the developed world have never had to feed, clothe, house, or protect themselves with their own hands, and have only the vaguest notions about how to do so. They rely for every necessity of life on the industrial economy. Even the most basic requirements of life are tied to the industrial system; how many people nowadays can light a fire without matches or a butane lighter from some distant factory? The skills necessary to get by in a non-industrial society, skills that were still common knowledge a century ago, have been all but lost throughout the developed world.
This disastrous situation results from the modern obsession with progress. When a new technology is introduced, the older technology it replaces ends up in the trash heap. Since new technologies almost always demand more resources, use more energy, and include more complexity than their older equivalents, each step on the path of progress has made people more dependent on the industrial system and more vulnerable to its collapse. Compare a slide rule with a pocket calculator. People in the resource-poor world of the future will have a much easier time fabricating slide rules than pocket calculators. Unfortunately only a few retirees today still know how to use slide rules, and books on how to make and use them have long since been purged from library shelves. Even basic math skills are being lost as schoolchildren punch buttons instead of learning multiplication tables. Will our descendants have to rediscover mathematics all over again, reinventing addition by experimenting with pebbles in the dust? The possibility can’t be completely dismissed.
For “slide rules” and “calculators” in the example just given, insert almost any piece of older technology and its more recent replacement. As we’ve climbed the ladder of progress, we’ve kicked each rung to pieces as we reached the next. Now we’ve run out of rungs, and the one holding us up is cracking beneath our weight. If it gives way, there’s nothing to break our fall this side of the ground.
Once the problem is put in these terms, the core strategy of response is obvious. If industrial civilization faces inevitable collapse, the crucial step that must be taken now is the rediscovery and deployment of non-industrial means of survival. A few critical skills have already been preserved or rediscovered and passed on in this way; consider the case of the organic agriculture movement, which has evolved efficient, sustainable methods of growing food without petrochemicals using human muscle as the only energy source, producing yields exceeding those of modern industrial farming. Using such methods, a spare but nutritionally complete diet for one person for one year can be raised on less than 1000 square feet of soil.(8) Unfortunately only a small minority of farmers and a somewhat larger fraction of home gardeners practice these essential skills.
The same is true of many other non-industrial skills. One expert estimated recently that fewer than 500 people in North America can reliably start a fire with a hand drill, the simplest and most readily available of “primitive” fire-starting methods.(9) Black powder flintlocks, the only firearms that will still work when the high-tech ammunition runs out and today’s assault rifles become tomorrow’s awkwardly shaped clubs, are the province of a small network of hobbyists and historical reenactment fans. If these and other effective technologies are to be passed on to the future, this has to change.
IV. Building the Future from the Grassroots Up
Most proposals for dealing with the approaching crisis of industrial civilization take a top-down approach, offering grandiose plans for huge programs to retool the entire industrial world at once. As shown above, it is too late for that approach, even if the political will to accomplish it existed — which it clearly does not. But an alternative grassroots approach remains possible.
What would a grassroots approach to the coming crisis look like? It would begin with individuals learning the skills needed to build a sustainable society within the shell of the collapsing industrial system. These people would revive the basic skills of postindustrial survival, learning how to light a fire, grow a garden, treat an illness, and fight off an assault without any help from the industrial system, using simple hand tools and the capacities of their own bodies and minds. These skills would be practiced and mastered, not merely learned intellectually, so they could be used and taught to others at a moment’s notice.
Each person would then learn some specialized non-industrial skill. The list of potential skills is limited only by the needs, wants, and resources of the postindustrial world. Blacksmiths and beer makers, herbalists and horse breeders, weavers and woodworkers, all fill critical economic niches once the factories shut down forever. Those who have learned such skills and can meet people’s needs will survive and prosper even in difficult times, for unlike stockpiles, which benefit only the people who have them, skills benefit everyone. History shows that even in the most lawless and brutal societies — the pirate havens of the seventeenth-century Caribbean are a classic example – people with necessary skills such as physicians, navigators, and shipwrights were protected from violence because it was in everyone’s best interests to keep them unharmed.
What gives this strategy power is that it can be done by one person acting alone and still have a positive impact. Anyone who learns the basic skills of postindustrial survival and some useful craft can survive, teach others to survive, and pass on crucial legacies to the future. As more people start learning and practicing the skills of a postindustrial economy, though, potentials expand swiftly. Once there are enough blacksmiths to keep the future supplied with iron tools, one or more of them can learn gunsmithing and prepare to arm a future community with Kentucky long rifles or the like. Once enough people know how to grow grain, brewing beer becomes a logical next step.
Many people assume that the collapse of industrial society would be followed by a reversion to the Stone Age, if not to a Mad Max fantasy of roaming raiders who somehow manage to keep eating food and firing bullets long after farms and factories are gone. It’s clear that whatever the future holds, it holds many fewer people than today’s world, and the road there won’t be easy or pleasant. Still, plenty of societies in the past achieved a high level of civilization without the benefit of industrial technology. Widespread literacy, democratic government, and a decent standard of living can be achieved without factories and fossil fuels — witness the American Republic two hundred years ago. If people prepare now, there’s no reason why the technology and lifestyles of 1800 should be out of reach for our grandchildren, and good reason to hope for a less catastrophic passage through the crises of the near future to the new dawn beyond.
1. Meadows, D. H. et al., The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe, 1972).
2. See especially Catton, W. R., Overshoot (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982), and Gever, J. et al., Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1986).
3. See, for example, Daly, H., Toward a Steady State Economy (San Francisco: William Freeman, 1973), and Lovins, A., Soft Energy Paths (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1977).
4. Meadows, D. L. et al., Beyond the Limits (Post Hills, VT: Chelsea Green,
5. The concept of overshoot is explored in detail in Catton, op. cit.
6. Meadows, D. L. et al., op. cit.
7. Tainter, J., The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
8. See Duhon, D., One Circle (Willits, CA: Ecology Action, 1985), and Freeman, J. A., Survival Gardening (Rock Hill, SC: John’s Press, 1983).
9. Baugh, D., “The miracle of fire by friction,” in Wescott, D., ed., Primitive Technology (Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs-Smith, 1999), pp. 32-33.
John Michael Greer is the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World, and the forthcoming The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered. He lives in Cumberland, MD, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara