Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Welcome to 1650

The evidence is mounting that civilization is about to suffer a major heart attack. In June I mentioned peak oil, the idea that world oil production is reaching its all-time maximum and is about to decline, with potentially serious economic and social consequences. Well, I wasn’t alarmist enough. As Matt Savinar explains at length (and with many useful links), if you think that peak oil just means you’ll have to leave your car at home and take the bus more often, you’re living in fantasy land. Not just our motor vehicles, but modern civilization itself runs on oil; there’s almost no aspect of our lives that doesn’t – from food to medicine to computers. And the fact that the decline in overall oil production may be gradual doesn’t mean there won’t be a heart attack. Analogously, you only have to lose a small fraction of the total water in your body to die of dehydration. Long before all the oil is gone, society as we know it now will be gone.

Does that mean we’ll all be back in the equivalent of the 1950s, in some version of Grease? Hardly. The 1950s was built on oil, and used it even less efficiently than today. But it’s not just a matter of jet travel and so many other things becoming too expensive. Apart from energy considerations, many earlier technologies may be unavailable simply because they’ve disappeared in practice. Will there be – is there even now – the material and human infrastructure for manufacturing and repairing manual typewriters? Will there be the infrastructure, including a trained and skilled workforce, for operating steam locomotives? Once society advances to technology D from technology C, from B, from A, earlier technologies get lost. Even though the knowledge is likely to exist in libraries, the task of reconstituting the basis for its application may be beyond anyone’s capability. (On this score, I urge you to seek out the excellent 1949 novel Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart.) The point is that when the big crunch comes, society will not collapse back to 1950; 1750 or 1650 is a more likely date. We live in increasingly desperate times, though most people don’t realize it yet. If we’re going to avoid the heart attack, it will take a lot more than exercise and eating right.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home