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When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse

photo of Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson
19th September 2013


My main problem with the Jared Diamond/John Michael Greer/William Kunstler theory of “catabolic collapse” is that ignores one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology:  ephemerality.

Thanks to technological change, over the past few decades the capital-intensiveness of emerging successor infrastructures has been collapsing faster than the existing infrastructure itself. The classic example, from Buckminster Fuller, is replacing a transoceanic cable system emdodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each.

It’s quite true that the mass-production industrial civilization that peaked in the 20th century is falling into ruin, failing to invest in upkeep at sustainable levels, and generally eating its seed corn — just as happened with Rome. The difference is, the Interstate Highway System, the civil aviation infrastructure, and the old electrical grid aren’t something to mourn. They’re something that would decay anyway, because they’re increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of production technology and economic organization the emerging successor society will be based on.

The old infrastructures, as I argued here, are extremely capital-intensive, high-overhead, barch-and-queue systems that devote 80% of their total capacity — idle most of the time — to handling 20% of the total load at peak hours. This grossly overbuilt, capital-intensive infrastructure, to pay for itself, requires organizing the rest of society to maximize utilization of the infrastructure’s capacity — even if it means doing everything in an extremely inefficient way.

A classic example is mass-production industry, which invests in enormously expensive, specialized, product specific machinery, and then runs it as close to capacity as possible to minimize unit costs. This, in turn, requires organizing the entire society in such a way as to guarantee consumption of the output, even if it means inefficient designs in which waste of resources is a virtue, building stuff to fall apart, and building other infrastructures that turn one’s output into a necessity (e.g. the horrible automobile-highway complex and sprawl, which drastically inflate the need for automobiles so as to keep the wheels turning at Detroit).

The very fact that supply-push distribution decouples production from immediate demand means enormous costs of warehousing inventory for which there is no immediate demand, shipping stuff thousands of miles, and high-pressure marketing. And if planned obsolescence and subsidized civilian waste isn’t enough to fully utilize all that overbuilt capacity, there’s always the military-industrial complex (including the occasional war to destroy hundreds of billions of dollars worth of hardware in a few days).

So what’s the emerging successor infrastructure look like?

At the opposite pole is distributed infrastructure, in which most of the infrastructural goods are distributed among the endpoints, relations are directly between endpoints without passing through a central hub, and volume is driven entirely by user demand at the endpoints. Since the capital goods possessed by the endpoints is a miniscule fraction of the cost of a centralized infrastructure, there is no incentive to subordinate end-users to the needs of the infrastructure.

In the case of utilities, this means things like replacing high-capacity, centralized electrical grids with the distributed generation of power at the endpoints, and replacing the last-mile fiber-optic infrastructure with local wireless meshworks in which the users themselves are the infrastructure.

Up to now, I’ve been addressing the question of whether insufficient investment in maintaining the old infrastructures is really that much of a tragedy, when new infrastructures two orders of magnitude cheaper are being built in their ruins.

But happens when the old infrastructures are allied with the state, and actively use state power to prevent investment funds from being shifted from themselves to the new ephemeral infrastructures?

Consider the way old-style public utilities use the regulatory state to suppress competition from distributed power generation infrastructure.

Ed Fenster writes:

In 2007, I co-founded Sunrun to tackle one such engrained industry: electric energy. We developed a way for families to get rooftop solar power without incurring upfront costs or having to understand solar technology. We choose the equipment, foot the installation cost, and charge monthly for the power these systems generate, as a utility might. In 11 states, the average Sunrun family typically pays us 15% less than they used to pay their monopoly utility.

Most utilities hold a monopoly on how people get electricity. Unlike normal companies, regulated utilities are allowed to set rates as high as is necessary to earn a guaranteed profit on the infrastructure they build (transmission lines, power plants, etc.), no matter the cost or reliability. Utilities have become so good at arguing for this profit that even in today’s low interest rate environment, their guaranteed return is typically 10% or more. The theory behind the guarantee is that utilities need to attract billions of dollars to maintain the grid. At the same time, banks today have access to nearly unlimited capital despite typically earning lower returns, which are notoriously not guaranteed. Why should public utilities have it better than Wall Street banks?

People who go solar are in effect privatizing investment that the utilities would otherwise make “on behalf of” their ratepayers, charging them the cost plus guaranteed profit. So utilities naturally want to stifle rooftop solar innovation to maximize profit growth.

One reason the framing of “catabolic collapse” is so misleading, in today’s technological environment, is that distributed technologies are reducing the need for the old legacy infrastructures. Because they’re an extremely high overhead business model that depends on cost-plus markup and guaranteed profit, any reduction in demand entails a vicious circle that will eventually result in their implosion. Even a 5% reduction in consumer demand for output will result in a drastic increase in unit costs from overhead, which in turn will mean an increase in the rates utility payers have to pay to guarantee a profit, which in turn will lead to further rate-payer flight to alternatives, which in turn will result in further idle capacity and overhead, and so on, and so on.

So in this scenario, progress looks an awful lot like catabolic collapse. And “maintaining/rebuilding our infrastructure,” that shibboleth of much of the greenwashed “Progressive” Left, requires strangling the successor society in its grave. Metaphorically speaking, we live in the early days of an emerging economy in which peasant villages — with a Star Trek molecular replicator in each cottage — lives in the shadows of the decaying aqueducts. The dead hand of Rome is trying its best to maintain the old system and its infrastructures, even at the expense of destroying a world without want. But I don’t think it can.

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10 Responses to “When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse”

  1. Walter Haugen Says:

    Check out Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” or my book “The Laws of Physics Are On My Side.” Tainter introduces marginal returns as the basis of his argument and it is relevant to your own. If the marginal returns fall below 1:1, it doesn’t matter if you have a high throughput (American empire today) or a relatively low throughput (Rome circa 100 AD). It is still relative to your input/output.

    Per my book, what we are doing now is replacing cultural behavior with massive doses of fossil fuel energy. Once we run short of cheap oil energy (either by price or supply) we have to constrict our energy use. If we don’t we get dieoff.

    Your solar business is still dependent on cheap oil, whether in the embedded energy of the infrastructure or just getting the workers to the jobsite and factory. My farming is also slightly dependent on fossil fuel energy, as I use 10 gallons of gasoline and my labor to grow 10,000 pounds of food per year. However, in my case I am 25-35 times more efficient than industrial agriculture, measured by input/output analysis.

    I am no fan of Greer, as I find him arrogant and wordy. However, he did hit on a winner with catabolic collapse. As for Diamond, he is the only one I have heard who understands the role of the 1st and 2nd derivative in plotting the inflection point where marginal returns change sign. Tainter alludes to this but doesn’t even use the term “inflection point” in his analysis. As for Kunstler, he has looked at the problem in depth and his “World Made by Hand” books look at the sociological effects – and are a good read too.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    thanks for the recommendations!

  3. smc Says:

    Is the satelites vs undersea cables really the best example you could provide? It seems to lose immediately to the counter-argument “…but I bet the satelite launch infra-structure weighed a few thousand tonnes.” Fixed vs mobile telephony in the developing world might be a better way to go.

  4. Øyvind Holmstad Says:

    Greer comments on this article in his post The Flight to the Ephemeral: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.no/2013/10/the-flight-to-ephemeral.html

  5. The flight to the ephemeral | VantageWire Says:

    […] week’s detour. A few weeks ago, the P2P Foundation website hosted a piece by Kevin Carson titled When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell from Catabolic Collapse. Carson’s piece got some attention recently in the peak oil blogosphere, not to mention some […]

  6. Peter Kalmus Says:

    Star Trek molecular replicators? A world without want? What planet are you living on, exactly?

    And yeah, it’s not like it takes a whole SPACE PROGRAM to maintain those “few tons” of satellites, or anything.

    I’ll take good old organic gardening and a strong community solidly grounded in reality. You can keep your replicators.

  7. Rod Cloutier Says:

    A rebuttal of your argument by John Michael Greer:

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/2013/10/the-flight-to-ephemeral.html

  8. Øyvind Holmstad Says:

    The word Ephemeralization, coined by R. Buckminster Fuller, is described here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemeralization

  9. H Luce Says:

    Molecular replicators are just great, until they break down. Then what happens? Where do the spare parts come from? To make a complicated piece of high tech like this, it requires a vast infrastructure of high tech fabrication – making ultra-pure doped silicon, making ultra-pure dopants, getting the circuits onto the silicon – and on and on, and without this supporting infrastructure – the instant the molecular replicator breaks because a cosmic ray or radiation/EMP from a solar storm causes a chip to go bad, you’re out of business and back to Greer’s model.

    It’s true that high tech *can* last for a long time, up until last year I was able to use my HP-25 calculator from undergrad days in 1976, but now the “9″ on the keyboard no longer works – so I use my fancy HP calculator from 1986. How about 100 years from now – or even 50 years from now? Will either machine still function? I have a Mac Powerbook G3 from 2001 which can read (useless) 800K floppies or even, with a special drive, 120MB floppies. Try finding any of those at any price. OK, the SCSI bus. Out of luck here, too. Well, it turns out you can use a USB SD card reader/writer, and you can still use ethernet after a fashion, but no wifi. I suppose you could use dialup if you could find it. You won’t be looking at any youtube movies, it’ll be able to handle smaller jpeg pics – lots of limitations. And as time goes on it gets worse, so if USB goes away, then that’s it for upgrading.

    And just think of the high tech and all the infrastructure it takes to get those satellites up in orbit – and then keep track of all the space junk up there so the comsats don’t get smashed to bits on their first orbit. And satellites do wear out and have to be replaced. Telstar, launched 51 years ago, is still up, but ceased working after 1 year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telstar). It went up on a Delta rocket – and I could go on and on.

    I don’t think that comsats are going to be what does it for future comms, though. If anything, I’ll bet it’s more in the nature of fiber-optic cables replacing the copper cables laid starting nearly 150 years ago, but we could be back to horse and buggy days, too, with long distance travel going by trains and sailing ships (http://www.sailtransportnetwork.org/node/930)

  10. Mike Booth Says:

    Sorry to disabuse you, but we largely replaced satellite comms with undersea fiberoptic cables more than a decade ago. Comsats were the big thing of the 60′s. Early Bird, Telstar…..
    Remember the awful pause waiting for a response in a transatlantic phone conversation in the 90′s? The 2 way round-trip delay over a geo-stationary satellite link.
    Yes, satellite does have application in specialised areas (such as seagoing vessels – INMARSAT) where fiber is a no-go, or where a geographically remote temporary requirement means that the cost is irrelevant (military).
    Check out FLAG (fiber link around the globe) and the many proprietary intercontinental connections. The countries with poor fiber connections generally have extremely limited bandwidth available, and internet access is painffully slow.
    There is massive invisible infrastructure supporting every facet of Western civilisation with a phenomenal degree of interconnectedness and inter-reliance. But we are mostly unaware of it; taking all the benefits for granted. Thinking it is all so easy. That is the scary bit, that most of us are totally unaware of the ever-increasing complexity of the life-support system we have created. It may seem easy and simpler than it used to be, but it certainly isn’t!

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