Because of a dear friend, I now have a copy of the Long Descent by John Michael Greer. I have finished up my first read through, but I want to spend some more time with this book and really chew my way through it. Nom nom nom.
Overall, I want to say that is a very good book. It is obvious that plenty of research and thought went into the shaping of this book. While I have found plenty that I agree with, I also found plenty that I want to quibble with. Or at very least, record a few thoughts on the matter before I dig deeper.
Premise 1 Peak Oil; There is so much to say here, so really in so many ways I am only going to scratch the surface here. Basically, due to the fact’s of the Hubbert Curve, and the work of many subsequent scholars, it is a fact that sooner or later we will run into peak oil. Peak oil, being the point at which the overall production of oil ceases to continue to grow. After that, there will be an ever diminishing amount of oil that we can pump from the ground. Estimates, both within the book and without, put this peak somewhere between the 1990’s and early 2000’s. It is not clear whether or not we have hit this peak or not yet. Estimates vary widely, mostly because estimating how much oil is left in the ground is not an exact science. These days, most estimate are between the year 2000 and the year 2030, give or take.
As such, while whether or not we have hit peak oil is up for some debate, the fact is that sooner or later we will be up against that reality. And, as our civilization is based on the premise of cheap and abundant fossils fuels, and decline in one is a decline in the other.
Premise 2 The Decline of Civilization; The fact is that no civilization can grow infinitely. As I have written on this blog before, there are limits to growth. The Long Descent reaffirms this fact, primarily in the area that our production and dependence on oil and fossil fuels cannot continue indefinitely. Plain and simply, you cannot have infinite growth when faced with finite resources. This is both the problem with an oil dependent civilization, and a general problem of capitalism in general. Once peak oil begins to set in, and oil production starts to stagnate and eventually decrease, an oil dependent civilization will have to diminish and start to contract as well.
I think this much is pretty on the mark, as premise one follows pretty neatly from two. The way I see things, we are at the end of an age. We cannot base our current model of civilization on petroleum, or any fossils fuels, going into the future. Such a model is unsustainable. If we have already passed peak oil, the future of our civilization will be one of non-existence. However, as Greer points out, it will not be a sudden apocalypse, but a long, slow, decline.
It is no secret that I studied archaeology and anthropology in school, and this has given me a solid foundation to understand these things. Let’s be honest, the whole field of archaeology is based upon the idea that peoples and civilizations of the past are not around any more, and that we can understand them by what they left behind. There is a great deal of precedent for the rise and fall of civilizations, and I do not have the space to talk about it all here. I have heard from many people that we are already in a state of decline. I cannot say I agree with them wholesale, but there are signs to be sure. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and its seems like the maintenance on many things are going by the wayside. Now, I cannot say whether this is a normal oscillation, or some harbinger of things to come. It is hard for me as a single person to say. Greer points out several civilizations that have fell in the past. However, it needs to be said that even a healthy civilization will have periods of growth and contraction. The history of a civilization is not a bell curve, even a stepped one of slight recovery and further decline as Greer details in the book.
This is not a denial however, and nor should it be taken as such. Sooner or later we will have to deal with some measure of decline, and such a decline would be spanned over human lifetimes. Most of us really wouldn’t notice.
Premise 3 Replacing Oil is more costly than viable; Greer throughout the book provide a good general overview of many of the so called “alternative” energies. Many of which fail the net energy test, that is they take more energy to produce than they create. He first takes on other fossil fuels, natural gas, coal, and other finite resources such as uranium. I am generally in agreement here, that these cannot solve the problems caused by the decline in oil production. At best they are temporary bandaids, even though coal is by far the most abundant of the fossil fuels, as Greer rightly points out, it is limited and very dirty. In addition, none of these are as efficient as oil in terms of energy output.
Naturally, his discussion moves towards other alternatives, such as solar, wind and biofuels. This is the part where I start to quibble a little bit. In my opinion Greer spends far too little space in the book weighing the merits of these alternatives. In addition, this is also where the book starts to show a little bit of its age. While it is generally true that ever the most “efficient” alternatives do not have the same energy yield as oil, I think Greer misses the mark a little when it comes to dismisses these options as not enough.
The Long Descent was published in 2008, and the alternative fuel industries have made huge innovations in regards to efficiency. PV cells and solar plants produce quite a bit more energy now than they did even a year ago. Wind turbines have followed the same course. And, one area where I think Greer really falls short is his focus on ethanol production from corn alone. Even wood waste has a higher yield of ethanol than corn, and in fact corn is one of the least efficient ways of producing ethanol. While I agree it is true that ethanol does not have as high energy yield as oil or gasoline, it is one of the few viable options to keep our current modern combustion engines running, without having to convert our entire transportation sectors over to electricity, which is a better long term solution.
This is not to say that ethanol is the end all be all. There are certainly land use issues, and all kinds of problems of infrastructures. What I am really talking about here is what Greer mentions many time throughout the book, the ability to “cushion” any kind of decline.
Another criticism that Greer levels at renewable is the fact that they cost so much to mine, create and process. Whereas he says about oil, “…today the world gets most of its energy supply almost free of charge by drilling a hole in the ground and piping the results somewhere.” Pg 18. This is very incorrect, as there are huge invests in mining the metal to build wells and derricks, building the pipelines, as well as the refineries. “Light sweet crude” as Greer often calls it is hardly usable in its base form, and has to be piped, shipped, trained and trucked to refineries. Refineries for any one who has not seen one are typically MASSIVE in scale, scope, and resources intensive. In addition, the process of refining crude into say gasoline, is insanely energy intensive. Oil is hardly any less resource intensive than any process needed to create renewables. The difference of course is what Greer rightly points out, that oil yields more energy per unit, and secondly that it is much more profitable in our current economy.
Premise 4; The end of the oil age is a Predicament, not a Problem.
“Plenty of pundits and ordinary people alike insist that there must still be some constructive way out of the current situation. First in line are those that insist that replacing the rascals in power with some other set more to their liking would solve the problems facing industrial civilization. Next come those who argue that if the right technological fix gets put in place, business as usual can continue….” Pg 20. Greer goes on to highlight other manners of thinking such as more radical versions of “burn it all and build something better” and building some form of sustainable lifeboat communities to weather the coming storm.
The problem with all these lines of thought, Greer points out, is that they handle Peak Oil as a problem to be solved, not a predicament which has no solution. In other words, the realities of peak oil are inevitable, and something we will have to face and that there are no solutions. I am inclined to only partially agree. Not that I disagree with most of the points he has made so far. There are limits to the growth of any civilization. Our current civilization is built on the foundation of cheap, usable oil, and sooner or later that will run out. That is a severe limit to our growth, and nothing can grow indefinitely with a finite amount of resources available. However, I disagree that there is nothing we can really do about it. Climate Change is a predicament, but I don’t think peak oil is. It is more than a problem with a single solution to be sure, in fact it is a whole mess of complex intertwined problems. I agree generally with the ideological camps that Greer has laid out, but I think any solutions lie in some form of “all of the above”, and not in any individually posited solution.
A change in politics, a change in society, and a change in technology.
While it is true that none of the alternatives have quite the same net energy yield as oil, I do think there are viable alternatives and viable means to weather or “cushion” the effects of peak oil. Entire countries are on track to be mostly free of fossil fuels within a decade or two;
In addition, just this year many nations of the world signed on to the Paris Climate Agreements. While I have plenty of quibbles with the agreements, the fact is that they are historic and unprecedented in range and scope. And while they are primarily targeted towards limiting climate change, a big part of that is cutting emissions. I.E, reducing our use and dependence on fossil fuels.
Add to this that huge renewable projects are coming online, or pledging to do so;
And this is just a taste…
Now let’s be realistic for a moment. None of these solutions individually will be enough. It will take a concentrated, holistic effort at every conceivable level, from the individual up through global. That is why I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris Agreements, because it implies that world leaders as well as individuals and local communities are aware of realities ahead, and have made the pledge to do something about it. That is huge in my opinion.
Premise 5; History and archaeology show how civilizations collapse;
I have plenty of quibbles here, and I am not going to detail them all here. Some of my points were made above, but one of my biggest problems with this section is two fold. First, Greer is pretty selective about the ancient civilizations he uses to make his case. While it is generally true that all civilizations from the past had vanished, the devil is really in the details. His book points to the Maya, the Roman Empire, Mycenae and Minoan Greece, as well as others to make his case for both the nature as well as the time frame for collapse. But this might be a case of making the evidence fit the theory. Once again, it is generally true that civilizations take human lifetimes to collapse. Centuries. However, it should be noted that no one civilization follows the exact course of another. For instance, the Egyptians did not collapse per se, but were absorbed into other conquering empires. Same too with the Aztecs, and many others that had the unfortunate fate of meeting with conquering powers. The point being that change is a constant when it comes to civilizations. They are constantly rising, falling, growing and contracting. They are also changing form, from empire to a diverse collections of smaller “civilizations”.
There is a great book by Wenke and Olsewski called “Patterns in Prehistory” that covers the archaeological data from many past societies. I think at least one passages from the Wenke/Olsewski is worth quoting;
“It would be gratifying if we could extract from our review of world prehistory some important predictions about the future of humankind, but, as we have noted, archaeology should not be considered a predictive science. It is not that we cannot look at the past and extrapolate trends we see into the future. It is that there is no necessity to these trends. Evolutionary histories are what happened, not what had to happen or what has to happen, and they are unique.” Pg 606
Which is a good segway into my next problem with some of Greer’s conclusions. Modern industrial, especially Western, civilizations really have not historic or archaeological precedent. No civilization from the past had such scale and scope as our increasingly globalized world. Even the colonizers from the Age of Exploration did not have the same access to technology and transportation that have come into being in the last century. They did not have the same level of integration. This is not to say our civilization is immune of course, but only unique in another way.
Admittedly, these are mostly fossil fuel driven, but the fact that we face peak oil does not make these technologies and developments obsolete. Quite the contrary, it may serve a a drive to adapt not only our technologies, but our societies as well. Even Wenke/Olsewski have this to add on this line of thought;
“While major droughts were likely an important the demise of the Classic Maya should be seen as a period when people began to restructure their society and culture to meet various challenges, such as failures of rulership, increasing populations, and warfare, as well as major droughts.” pg 515.
So, while peak oil may be a major challenge that lies ahead, the collapse of a complex society and civilization in turn has to have a complex set of causes, and no one factor can be pointed to as the root cause. More than the fact of peak oil, or even our dependency on it, it will be a full set of complex factors that will determine the success or failure of our society. So unlike what is claimed in Greer’s book, agricultural collapse was not the central cause of the collapse of the Classic Maya, but one factor in a “perfect storm” of factor’s that led to the disintegration of their society.
Conclusions; The Long Descent.
Warfare, ineffective leadership, increasing populations, and ecological decay, combined with the reality of peak oil, may well prove to be the “perfect storm” of factors that leads to what Greer calls the Long Descent. And it is difficult to deal with that reality without a certain sense of trepidation and anxiety, even it it will be our descendants, not ourselves, that will live through that reality.
And yet, one can agree, more or less, with the premises, and still find the conclusion wanting, or downright inaccurate. It could be considered a version of the fallacy of the White Raven.
Premise 1: This bird is white.
Premise 2: This bird is a raven.
Conclusion: Therefore, all ravens must be white.
The logic of the premises can be sound, and yet the conclusion is not. Now, I am not saying that is the case here. In general principal, I think the premises are sound, and the conclusion is not necessarily faulty. Peak oil is coming, civilizations collapse, and the coming of peak oil may have bad results for our industrial civilizations.
And as Greer concludes; therefore we must prepare for the long gradual descent that follows, so that we can build the next civilization.
This is not a bad conclusion given the premises, and certainly a possible future. However, this is where I diverge a little bit, because I think the next civilization is already waiting for us to embrace it. While I do think we will face a contraction in the future, especially once peak oil sets in, for all the lower net energy outputs that Greer says make renewable energies undesirable, as I pointed out earlier there are in fact entire nations within the Western sphere are near to achieving a nearly fossil fuel free status. Industrial nations. These are the kinds of models we need to be following, and we need to take steps, as Greer puts it, to “cushion” the fall, and minimize the chance of catabolic collapse.
Some of these, as is the case with the Maya, might be things like ending warfare and supporting effective leadership. Greer’s catabolic collapse is predicated on inadequate resources, especially for maintenance. Endless wars in the Middle East (some over oil) could certainly reroute necessary resources, as well as having leaders that can actually balance a budget. Living within our means, and all that.
As Greer says, in his chapter on the Myth of Progress and the Myth of Utopia (neither of which do I subscribe to. They are among the first to go studying anthropology, because so many of the field’s early thinkers were plagued and blinded by such narratives), that there are serious flaws with only having one (or a small selection) cultural narrative. So I ask, why should the Long Descent be the only cultural narrative we put our faith it? While it is founded on a good model and reasonable premises, it is not inevitable, nor is it the only option.
The thing that has often struck me as a science fiction writer, and practiced speculator, is that we are often if not always wrong with our predictions of the future. Even founded on good logic and modeling, the Long Descent may well turn out to be wrong. Dead, flat, and wrong in every way.
So while some of the prescriptions for enduring the Long Descent are solid, we should be building local communities, and practicing old crafts. We should be developing organic and local food productions, and sustainable communities as a whole. Those are all a good start, but not a final destination. Things like climate change are nothing short of global problems, and will need global solutions as well. Local solutions to global problems will not be enough. While our individual spheres of influence may be limited to the local, we need more than that. We need integrated communities, allied communities, as regional as well as global networks of interconnection. We need holistic solutions top-down and bottom-up. No one community, state, nation will be enough. We are all in this together, for better or worse.
Which is where I diverge. I do not see industrial society as a chief social ill, but it is still imperfect as all things thus far created by human hands. It may be dependent on oil, but that is something that we need to change. Our current technology makes ethanol a viable (however imperfect) transitional fuel, that we can use in flex fuel and hybrid vehicles to lower our demand of oil. As many countries are doing, we need to convert our energy production to renewables, and continue the decline of fossil fuel demand. During the same process, we can continue to convert our vehicles to full electric, making a clean energy and transportation infrastructure. This is not merely a technological solution, but one that requires a rework in social, cultural and political spheres as well. It should be said of course that there is no silver bullet, one single “one size fits all” solution. Some areas may have ethanol, others abundant solor and/or wind resources. A diversity of approaches, but a collective result.
The question is one of time.
Because let’s be frank, there may well be a period of decline ahead of us. Just like the British Empire before us, the time of the America Empire may be waning. That means we do face a period of contraction, but how far is an open question. If we follow Greer’s model, the Hubbert curve takes us right back to the 18/19th century.
But I for one am not quite ready to resign myself to that just yet. There is too much at stake, too much to loose that we as a species have worked so hard for. Not just science and technology, but literature, learning and law as well. Letting our society decay means things like civil rights and our human rights go out the window too. Also basic protections such as fire and police. Lawlessness is not something I find attractive. While these are certainly not perfect, I am not quite ready to throw away lives because of things like gender, skin color, or whether or not one has access to medication or guns.
In my defense of the big machines, as an animist, I think they are people of a different sort. Our cars and industrial tech are not simply tools or technologies, but helpers and allies as well. And they have the same unhealthy relationships with fossil fuels that we do. They need our help to adapt, and we need their help as well.
I think we should take some of Greer’s suggestions, even if I do not accept his conclusions wholesale. If his abstract model of slow decline (with periods of crisis and recovery) shows the future of our current civilization, then an inverse model of slow growth (with periods of faltering and regression) represents the next civilization, which is already in the works. As Greer himself pointed out, the oil crisis of the 70’s was met with an equal response of calls for renewables and sustainability, which regressed as oil supplies stabilized. When oil prices (and electrical costs with it) spiked a few years back, so did the number of people investing in household renewables or buying smaller cars.
It is logical to prepare for multiple options, so let’s take Greer’s suggestions and do what we can to prepare for the worst. But in the mean time, let’s keep pushing towards electric vehicles and industry, and putting up solar panels on our houses and connecting to the grid, and pushing for legislation that let’s us build a more sustainable society. Let’s keep building the large solar plants and wind farms, but we can build these things on a household level as well and contribute our part, and the lights don’t have to go out when the oil stops.
A common metaphor for these times, found in Greer’s and Beckett’s writing, is that we are on a train headed towards the Long Descent. Those in charge keep calling for more speed, and we can see the tracks ahead leading down a long slope of decline. Following that track may be desirable for those in charge, or those that think a 19th century or medieval lifestyle might be fun.
But I would add to this metaphor that there is another track, parallel to ours, that leads off in another direction, over the river and through the woods. Those of us who look out the window can see there is a train on this track, though it is well behind us. It is the train to the next civilization, powered by more renewable energy and more sustainable communities. It is gaining speed and starting to close the gap, all the while those in charge of the current train throw more coal in the engine and oil on the tracks.
And I pray that the green train gets up to speed fast enough so I don’t have to go off the rails of this crazy train.
Wenke/Olsewski “Patterns in Prehistory”
Greer, John Michael “The Long Descent”