The underlying assumption of this book is that fossil fuels cannot be effectively replaced, neither cost-effectively nor in the gross amount of available energy. And once the fossil fuels are gone, they are gone forever, meaning that industrial civilization as we know it will collapse--or more to be hoped, industrial society will experience a slow decline into what Greer calls "The Ecotechnic Future." Along the way there will be "scarcity industrialism" and a "salvage society." Some bad times will be had by almost everybody, and for some it will be horrific.
The idea that renewable energy sources won't measure up to what we are wantonly consuming today is not new, but it is sobering. (And we do need to sober up.) Robert U. Ayres and Edward H. Ayres make a more modest point in their book, Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future (2010). They argue persuasively that regardless of how much money the government and private enterprise put into the development of green alternatives, those sources of energy will not be developed fast enough. Their prescription is more efficient use of fossils fuels until the green revolution catches up.
Greer doesn't see any catching up. He writes that the world's annual energy consumption equals about one-fourth of the total solar energy absorbed by green plants annually with 86% of that coming from fossil fuels. (p. 247) Instead of energy conservation helping us to a sustainable future, he sees four "sweeping impacts on human life" to come. They are
(1) Depopulation. Quite simply, "the population bubble of the last few centuries is just as much a product of the exploitation of fossil fuels as the industrial age itself." And without fossil fuels to help grow and cheaply move food around the globe, "food surpluses that support toady's population levels will be impossible to maintain." (p. 39)
(2) Migration. People will move as they have done in the past from areas of relative poverty to areas of relative wealth, and the "wealth" will mainly be in food stuffs. Much of the world is already experiencing these migrations, Latin Americans into the US for example, Muslims into Europe; but in the future the migration directions may change and people from further away may land on more distant shores.
(3) Political and cultural disintegration. Greer does not dwell or make vividly scary what this can mean--but it would not be surprising to see that when things get scarce those with power will use that power to get what they want by any means necessary.
(4) Ecological change. Greer speaks of ecology a lot in this book, comparing the rise and fall of civilizations with the successions of natural ecologies from grasslands to climax forests.
What I think is most sobering (an apt usage worth repeating since we have been guzzling oil and are addicted to it) is Greer's point that "by the time actual shortages began, all existing resources would already be committed to meet existing needs." (p. 13) One of the consequences of this is that the transformation of our economies from fossil-based energy to renewal-based energy will be impossible to implement because the energy required for the transformation will be unavailable. It takes oil energy to build a nuclear power plant for example, and oil energy to build wind turbines and transport them.
Greer laments: "the fossil fuels that might have powered the transition to a sustainable future were wasted on a quarter century of extravagant living." (p. 13)
Some bon mots and sharp insights:
"...[G]overnment and business leaders in the world's industrial nations, which have even more to lose from the twilight of cheap abundant energy than their poorer neighbors, are still treating the twilight of the age of oil as a public relations problem." (p. 19)
"As it exists today, industrial society can best be described as a scheme for turning resources into pollution as fast as possible." (p. 28)
"...[F]rom the tumbrils of the French Revolution to the killing fields of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, it has always been those radical movements that promised heaven on earth that yield the closest approximation to hell." (p. 187)
"It's vanishingly rare for a society to collapse at the peak of its wealth and power, for the simple reason that wealth and power are two of the most effective means of staving off collapse." (p. 192) This suggests that the US is not yet in its dotage--although things might get a little rough for our grandchildren.
Central to Greer's argument is the idea that we will pass through successions such as a landscape passes from R-stage invasive plants like weeds to shrubs and bushes to K-stage plants like oaks and pines in ecological sequence, which typically ends in what ecologists call a climax forest. Greer emphasizes that "succession moves toward stability, not toward Utopia." (p. 240)
He sees history (and I would say that Greer is primarily a historian working here as a futurist) as an ecological phenomenon with "processes that appear across the range of ecosystems in the nonhuman world." The equivalents that in sees in history are (1) a rhythm in the rise and fall of civilizations; (2) the succession mentioned above "ending in the social equivalent of a climax community that remains stable until changes in the environment disrupt it; and (3) cultural evolution. (pp. 241-242)
As much as I admire Greer's erudition and insight I think the main strength of this book is in Greer's eminently readable prose. As Yogi Berra might have said, "prophecy is hard, especially about the future"; but Greer 's vision is one that I think is well worth paying attention to.
on 23 February 2010
Excellent book, with some useful ideas for his preferred scenario of long slow decline. But he frequently derides alternative possibility of rapid collapse. Although Roman city of London went from thriving 60,000 in AD 410 to around 60 in AD 480, whilst Roman Britain went from perhaps 6 million to less than 1 million during same period. And Roman Britain is far from unique example. If anything, our modern world is much more fragile with greater role specialisation and far longer supply chains for food, energy, manufactured goods & spare parts. However, it is difficult to see how one could make realistic plans for similar circumstances. And his suggestions regarding skills and resources would still have great deal of value for those few "lucky" people who survive time of transition.
on 29 January 2013
"The Ecotechnic Future" is a book by John Michael Greer, an independent scholar, organic farmer and Druid (sic) who has become something of a household word within the so-called peak oil community. Greer's book is part of a de facto trilogy, and should be read together with "The Long Descent" and "The Wealth of Nature". Of course, these books do overlap to a great extent. "The Long Descent" is probably the most well-known of the author's peak oil books.
"The Ecotechnic Future" was a joy to read, but is very difficult to review. It covers a *lot* of ground: comparisons between the fate of human civilizations and ecological succession, speculations about the shape of our post-affluent future, practical tips on organic farming and composting, comments on Spengler and Toynbee, criticism of apocalyptic religion and rare glimpses into the author's personal life. His religious faith (Revival Druidry) is mentioned mostly in passing. It seems Greer is at pains to sound as "rational" as possible in his books on our more secular predicaments...
While Greer doesn't believe our civilization is sustainable, he lacks the fiercely apocalyptic perspective of the contemporary doomer scene. In Greer's scenario, the modern world will decline and fall gradually. It won't be pretty, but it won't spell the end of humanity or Nature either. He calls the three stages of the long descent "scarcity industrialism", "salvage economy" and "ecotechnic future". The first phase is marked by the breakdown of neo-liberal globalism and the resurgence of strong, centralized nation-states commandeering the rapidly shrinking resources, but still within a context which is largely industrial. The salvage economy is the next stage: fossil fuels have been depleted, forcing people to scavenge the abandoned cities and high-tech gadgets for useful parts. In this phase, the nation-states will presumably crumble. The ecotechnic future is the last stage. It's more nebulous, and I frankly never understood exactly what it might entail. The entire process of decline will be marked by famines, mass migrations, wars and the loss of much technological knowledge and cultural capital. The United States won't fear well, and might loose most of the West to Mexico or sheer desert, with the mega-cities in the East and Midwest being abandoned in favour of medium-sized and small towns. However, somehow at least part of humanity will muddle through and (hopefully) create some kind of sustainable, local communities in the distant future.
The book doesn't contain any "solutions", and sometimes feel rather deterministic. However, it offers adaptations, all of which are geared towards creating strong local communities or make it possible for the individual to become (relatively) self-reliant. Organic farming, backyard gardens, a gradual shift from heavy industry to agriculture and artisans, more spirituality and (controversially) a stricter division of labour between the sexes are some of the adaptations that might ease the transition. Greer rejects more traditional survivalism, however, since isolated farms in the countryside will be easy targets for roaming bands of marauders - and tempting targets, too, if they really do stash a lot of high-quality food. Small or medium-sized towns surrounded by agricultural land are more viable, and easier to defend by local military units.
A central theme of "The Ecotechnic Future" is the notion that neither evolution nor history has any higher or intrinsic meaning. There are patterns in evolution and history, to be sure, but no "meaning". Evolution simply takes advantage of whatever possibilities exist at any given time, radiating like a bush into all suitable habitats, with no telos in sight. Cultural evolution is a similar process, with no "higher" or "lower", just better or worse adaptations to the ecological conditions at hand. It's somewhat surprising to read this vintage Neo-Darwinism in a book by an author who is spiritual, and who therefore presumably believes that some forms created by evolution *are* higher than others. Are the gods of druidry really on the same level as humans, boars or common hop? Greer spends some time analyzing Spengler's monumental work "The Decline of the West", and expresses support for the cyclical view of history expressed therein. He also supports Spengler's relativism, claiming that meaning isn't a hard fact of the universe but something created by human cultures. Another problematic statement, surely...
As already mentioned, Greer is highly critical of both the modern, Western idea of progress and its seeming opposite, the notion that history is evil and should be transcended in apocalyptic fashion. To Greer, these two ideas are really counterpoints. He points to Joachim of Flora (or Joachim of Fiore) who combined a progressive view of history with a final apocalypse. He also bemoans the fact that virtually all contemporary protest movements somehow assume that *their* pet utopia will be ushered in, if only the system could collapse fast enough. Greer's perspective is more pragmatic, almost to the point of occasionally sounding conservative. Piecemeal reforms, representative democracy with checks and balances, and an aversion to utopias and sudden revolutions are characteristic of his thinking.
Personally, I have an uneasy feeling that Greer might be too optimistic about the descent being gradual, and way too optimistic about human societies and the biosphere being marked by "homeostasis" and hence a kind of fundamental stability. Greer is probably also wrong to suggest that democracy will work better than authoritarian regimes during the long descent. It's easy to imagine the very opposite scenario, in which an authoritarian (or semi-authoritarian) regime is more efficient and "gets things done" faster. Just compare China's response to the finance crisis with that of the United States (the Chinese found it hilarious). Or compare the situation in Russia during Putin with the situation under Yeltsin. Greer himself believes that "scarcity industrialism" will entail *more* state control, not less, over the economy. Besides, many people are willing to support authoritarian regimes - it's a common liberal (and perhaps even neo-con) fallacy to imagine that everyone in the world wants to live under a U.S.-style constitution. Perhaps the average organic farmer in Greer's current home state of Maryland is a natural Jeffersonian (or even Anti-Federalist), but that might very well become the exception to the rule during the long descent...
With that being said, I nevertheless award "The Ecotechnic Future" five stars. While the book perhaps isn't the first Greer book you should read, it's a good complement to his already mentioned main work "The Long Descent".