Thursday, March 10, 2011

Descent, pt. 6

This is the sixth and final entry of a multi-part post. The previous parts are Descent, pt. 1, Descent, pt. 2, Descent, pt. 3, Descent, pt. 4, and Descent, pt. 5.

Down scope!

Previously, I wrote about my skepticism that peak oil's effects, as envisioned within The Long Descent, can be timed accurately enough to base specific preparations on. While it makes sense to learn practical skills and live on fewer resources if that is what you want to do anyway, I think peak oil by itself serves as insufficient reason to make such changes. For those of us who have invested substantial time and money in our current careers, there is considerable risk in walking away from that foundation right now when it may be decades before we must change. For us, for now, it may make the most sense to make what preparations we can while firmly entrenched within our urban, non-productive lifestyles, even those preparations amount to not much. This leads into the issue of scoping.

By scoping I refer to the difference between what is good for everyone and what is good for anyone. I get the impression that Greer is more concerned about the good of all humanity than the good of any one reader, and consequently his advice about what we should be doing about peak oil right now may better target the well being of the collective than it does the individual. I have little doubt that future, yet born humans will benefit greatly by many old, obsolete technologies we rediscover and put back into practice, and the more people invest in old technologies today, the more future humans may benefit. But the individuals who do the rediscovering and the putting back into practice may themselves not fare so well.

This makes for a kind of prisoner's dilemma scenario, but one where the prisoners are playing a game of musical chairs. Greer believes that the winners will be among the ones who bow out early and make their adaptations sooner rather than later. But there are costs associated with being an early adopter, even if it's the adoption of antiquated technologies. Early adopters make mistakes and generally fail to benefit from collective learning. Rather, the winners during the long descent may be among the people who fight as bitterly and doggedly as possible to hang on to dwindling resources, and, once forced to bow out, pick up on key discoveries made by early adopters. Future humans might not benefit from such hanging on, but that is besides the point when looking at Greer's advice from perspective of determining what is in our own, individual interest. What should I be doing?


So far in this multi-part post, I've tried to refrain from challenging Greer's assumptions. But before one is to take another's advice seriously, one should test assumptions. What do I think of Greer's?

I assign a high probability that Greer's predictions of very long term trends are generally accurate: industrial civilization's fate will likely be little different on the whole than the slow rise and fall of every other past, great civilization. However, his view of the future seems too inspired by what's in the rear view mirror. I think it will be unlikely that the future will be an unwinding of the past, like a history book read backwards.

My historical perspective suggests to me that humans rarely move backwards. Though older, obsolete technologies do come back into fashion and replace newer ones every once in a while, each generation seems to discover its own solutions to old and new problems. Industrial civilization has changed the world too much, caused too many disruptions, to make a future of regression a solid bet anytime soon. With the last few hundred years' mass migrations of peoples, plants, and animals; its new entanglements of inter-civilization communication; and all the new hard-won scientific information that's been discovered, the future is wide open, technologically. We are prudent to say that future technologies will generally be thriftier with energy than current ones, and this suggests that many 1700s and 1800s technologies may be put back into common practice. However, many wholly new ones will be invented—ideas we can't imagine today. The winners during the long descent may well be among the forward-looking, not the backward-looking.

On the other hand...

Despite my skepticism of Greer's advice in The Long Descent, I'll credit the author and book this much: I can't think of anything better to do than to broaden one's skill set and get into the habit of living on less—at least within the safety of one's current career and lifestyle. What else is one going to do with one's free time?

Despite the skepticism of Greer's advice I've outlined, I have been making small efforts to follow it. I'm buying more bulk ingredients and cooking instead of buying packaged foods. I've taken up darning my wool socks. I've gained a general distrust of outsourcing services to others. I'm planning on building a bike rack for my apartment rather than buying one of many cheaply available ones online, though I'll have to spend less time riding my bikes if I am to ever get around to working on this project… In the end, The Long Descent may be less about industrial civilization and our long-term future and more about what we should all be doing anyway to enrich our lives, today. This makes for sage advice indeed.

Above all, I recommend The Long Descent to anyone looking for an introduction to peak oil. This isn't a book that can be unread; afterwards, readers invariably find themselves challenging their own assumptions and forever viewing the world a little differently than they did before. That is high praise for any book.


Laura said...

"This isn't a book can be unread"

cmbrandenburg said...

Laura— Thanks.