The uncontrolled simplification of a complex system is rarely a welcome event for those people whose lives depend on the system in question. That’s one way to summarize the impact of the waves of trouble rolling up against the sand castles we are pleased to call the world’s modern industrial nations. Exactly how the interaction between sand and tide will work out is anyone’s guess at this point; the forces that undergird that collision have filled the pages of this blog for a year and a half now; here, and for the next few posts, I want to talk a bit about what can be done to deal with the consequences.
That requires, first of all, recognizing what can’t be done. Plenty of people have argued that the only valid response to the rising spiral of crisis faced by industrial civilization is to build a completely new civilization from the ground up on more idealistic lines. Even if that latter phrase wasn’t a guarantee of disaster – if there’s one lesson history teaches, it’s that human societies are organic growths, and trying to invent one to fit some abstract idea of goodness is as foredoomed as trying to make an ecosystem do what human beings want – we no longer have time for grand schemes of that sort. To shift metaphors, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water’s coming in, it’s a bit too late to suggest that it should be rebuilt from the keel up according to some new scheme of naval engineering.
An even larger number of people have argued with equal zeal that the only valid response to the predicament of our time is to save the existing order of things, with whatever modest improvements the person in question happens to fancy, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. They might be right, too, if saving the existing order of things was possible, but it’s not. A global civilization that is utterly dependent for its survival on ever-expanding supplies of cheap abundant energy and a stable planetary biosphere is simply not going to make it in a world of ever-contracting supplies of scarce and expensive energy and a planetary biosphere that the civilization’s own activities are pushing into radical instability. Again, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water’s coming in, it’s not helpful to insist that the only option is to keep steaming toward a distant port.