Energy descent and the Transition Town strategy

I think that there are at least two approaches to social change, in terms of the ‘size’ of the object.

One is a global approach, to think about how to change the world for everybody. The other focuses on saving a particular community or vanguard from the globalized dislocation.

But even if we choose the latter road, we can still frame it in such a way that the necessary focus on the smaller community, is not seen as opposing the necessary global change, it might simply be a realistic assessment that if the mass of the people do not yet see the urgent need for change, those that do understand that necessity cannot wait.

But that position, which retains a love and solidarity with the whole, has to be distinguished from any approach which aims at a pure escape. Frankly, I think extreme pessimists like Dave Pollard fall into that trap, and I wanted to say this before reproducing his provocative critique of the Transition Town movement.

So, in my view, this movement, which seeks to create a low energy local economy, is a crucial supplement to the more globally oriented open design and peer production movement. I see the Transition Town not as an escapist movement, but rather as a social experiment in discovering which patters of local economic life can sustain themselves in the coming period of energy descent, and that they should crucially adopt open design practices, so that social innovation can flow globally, which is what I think they are doing.

Without further ado, here’s the assessment of Dave Pollard, followed by a excerpt from Thomas Homer-Dixon on the failed energy-descent strategy of ancient Rome.

It seems to me that the proposed counter-strategy of Dave Pollard, that we all should go ‘cold turkey’ on all what exists today, in other words expect that the whole of humanity is ready to live like subscribed in the Acts of the Apostles, has zero chance to be adopted, and that the alternative is not to accept global dislocation or collapse, but to seek, like the Transition Town movement, how we can go realistically from here to there.

Dave Pollard:

“Many of the new conservation and steady-state economy models prescribe something called a ‘energy descent’ strategy. The idea is to toggle the ‘overconsumption’ box in yellow in the lower chart above to the ‘sustainable consumption’ box in the upper chart above, in such a way as it causally flips the entire lower chart to the upper chart, and, voila — we’re saved. Or, if we’re too late to do so, at least the collapse is made much more bearable.

The energy descent strategy is described by the Transition movement as:

A scenario in which humanity has successfully adapted to the declining net energy availability [and perhaps climate change impacts] and has become more localised and self-reliant. It is a term favoured by people looking towards energy peak as an opportunity for positive change rather than an inevitable disaster.

Well, maybe. This suggests an adaptive strategy rather than a proactive one, that we can’t change human behaviour (excessive consumption) globally, so instead we can adapt to the consequences of our global excess locally, so when the global civilization collapses, the pockets of Transition Towns will survive. It’s an interesting approach, and one that appeals to idealism (and perhaps selfish survivalism) sufficiently to have spurned hundreds of such Transition movements, vaguely coordinated. These Transition Towns aren’t willing to give up property ownership, trade, imported technology or any of the other trappings of the Industrial Growth Economy that they don’t see any need to jettison. But, like the toxic financial assets that are bringing down the global financial system (and perhaps with it, the Obama administration), these trappings of the economy and civilization that have produced the lower chart above, will, if retained, sooner or later lead to its re-establishment. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

The only way to rid ourselves of our toxic addiction to overpopulation and overpopulation is to go ‘cold turkey’ — to give up on our civilization entirely and create a new society, self-managed, self-sufficient, independent in all respects (including belief systems) from civilization culture. If you know any addicts, you know how hard this is to do, the low probability of success, the high rate of relapse, and the terrible damage the transition to a healthier, unaddicted way of life can inflict on everyone connected to the addict. Transition Towns will have to go ‘cold turkey’ on their addiction not only to oil, but to imported goods, many modern technologies (including medicines) that rely on the unsustainable Industrial Growth Economy, the concept of ‘property’, and lots more. Breaking the cycle of a hundred addictions all at once. Not easy.

As civilization collapses, we’re going to see horrific scarcities, creating massive personal and collective stresses that will break both individuals (to the point of suicide, terrorism and murder) and nations (to the point of insurrection, civil war, and anarchy — a hundred Afghanistans). We’re going to see dreadful pandemic diseases and poverty and famine that will be utterly shattering, like the abject horror the world witnessed during the Irish potato famine where millions simply sat around, hopeless and increasingly gaunt, until they died an agonizing death alongside those they loved and couldn’t save. We’re going to see the kind of spiritual vacuum and decay that is eating Russia and the former Soviet republics alive today, with population and life expectancy plummeting, drug addiction at epidemic levels, and crime and gang violence out of control. It is nature’s last and most reluctant way of restoring to sustainable populations species whose numbers and voraciousness have run amok.

This is not doomsaying or fear-mongering — this has all happened before, often. The latest of many cycles of desperate human cannibalism is barely a century past. How well will these Transition communities fare when all this is going on all around them?

That’s not to say I am opposed to the Transition movement. I think it will provide a valuable model for the disintegrated society that is left behind after civilization collapses, to study and consider in starting again. I think its self-sufficiency and moderation and collaboration will be perceived very positively by those who bear the scars of a civilization that crashed because of fragility and dependence and excess and greed and disconnection. But it will be the idea, not the movement, that survives.

My hope is that that idea will include the belief that we belong to the land, and not it to us. And that by living light and responsibly on the land, we can live, as humans did before ‘civilizations’, for a million years, in balance, in joy, in connection with all life on Earth. We can live, essentially, as the ancient myths of pre-civilization cultures tell us, forever.”

For comparison purposes, Thomas Homer-Dixon on the failed energy descent strategies of the Western Roman Empire:

“For over a millennium in Western culture, Rome’s collapse has been an emblem of social catastrophe, one often used as a cudgel in political debate. When people don’t approve of a particular social, political, or economic trend, they’ll often assert that it caused Rome’s demise. So explanations have proliferated. In 1984 the German historian Alexander Demandt listed more than 200 different explanations for Rome’s fall that he found in the historical literature since 1600-from epidemics, plutocracy, and the absence of character to vainglory.

Perhaps it’s rash, then, to add another one to the list. Still, recent work by archaeologists, economic historians, and complexity theorists gives fresh insight into what happened. And their story, which has immense relevance to our situation today, comes down to this.

Because energy is a society’s master resource, when Rome exhausted its energy subsidies from its conquests-when it had to move, in other words, from high energy-return-on-investment (EROI) sources of energy to low-EROI sources-it faced a critical transition. And, at least in the Western part of the empire, it didn’t make this transition successfully. It couldn’t sustain the cost and complexity of its far-flung army, ballooning civil service, hungry and restless cities, elaborate information flows, and intricate irrigation systems. Not that it didn’t try. Rome’s prodigious effort to save itself by putting in place a system to aggressively manage its energy problem was simultaneously one of history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies. It was a triumph because, for a while at least, the effort reversed what seemed like the empire’s inexorable decline; but it was ultimately a tragedy because it didn’t address the empire’s underlying problem-complexity too great for a food-based energy system-and was thus bound to fail.

The western Roman empire couldn’t make the transition from high-EROI to low-EROI sources of energy. Today, our societies are headed toward a similar transition as oil becomes harder to find. Sometime in the 1960s the United States crossed a critical threshold when its EROI for domestic petroleum extraction started to fall, and it’s likely that since then just about every other oil-producing region in the world has crossed the same threshold (often it takes a while for data to show clearly that the threshold has been crossed). Very few people-certainly not our society’s leaders-grasp the significance of this change, yet it’s of epochal importance. It marks the beginning of a shift from our modern industrial civilization to some other kind of civilization.

We can’t yet say what form this new civilization will take, but we can be fairly certain that compared with our experience over the century and a half since the industrial revolution, energy will become far more costly as nonconventional and renewable sources replace cheap oil. The price rise won’t be steady and linear: we’ll see sharp spikes and dips as the global economy tries to adjust. Even an average increase in real energy costs of just 2.5 percent each year-a rate we’ve consistently exceeded in recent years-will compound into a tenfold increase in a century.

Can we get through this transition wisely and safely? Not if we refuse to understand its implications and simply continue what we’re doing now. In Buzz Holling’s terms, we’re busily extending the growth phase of the adaptive cycle of our planetary economic, ecological, and social system. In the process, this planetary system is becoming steadily more complex, connected, efficient, and regulated. Eventually it will become less resilient; it may, in fact, have already started to lose resilience.

A number of factors drive these changes. First, the desperate need of companies, economies, and societies to maximize performance and productivity forces them to steadily boost their organizational and technological complexity, their internal efficiency and regulation, and their speed of production and transport of materials, energy, and information. Also, as the world economy expands relative to the size of Earth’s resource base and biosphere, we have to use resources and energy far more efficiently and manage our interactions with nature with ever greater care-and this means progressively more elaborate technologies, procedures, regulations, and institutions. Based on current trends, global output of goods and services will quadruple from US$60 to $240 trillion (in 2005 dollars) by 2050. If we’re going to keep such a gargantuan economy humming-and if we’re going to avoid simultaneously wrecking the planet’s environment-we’ll need everything from high-tech energy and water conservation programs to huge bureaucracies that find and punish the people and companies that emit too much carbon dioxide. And finally, as our EROI declines in coming decades, we’ll need far more sophisticated technologies and organizations to scavenge small pockets of oil from all over the world and to pull together lower-quality energy from a myriad of solar, wind, and geothermal generating plants.

In short, in coming decades our resource and environmental problems will become progressively harder to solve; our companies, organizations, and societies will therefore have to become steadily more complex to produce good solutions; and the solutions they produce-whether technological or institutional-will have to be more complex too.

…and from Holland

Today’s Holland gives us a hint of what this future might be like. One of the world’s most crowded countries, Holland has a heavily industrialized, energy-intensive, high-consumption economy, and its people must constantly fight back the sea to survive on their small patch of territory-much of it indeed reclaimed from the sea. Over the centuries, the Dutch have responded by putting in place astonishingly complex systems of technology and social regulation. These have included block-by-block urban residential committees to prevent flooding, detailed laws to maximize efficient use of land, and of course an intricate system of dikes, canals, and pumping stations. As Holland has become progressively wealthier, more crowded, and more hemmed in by resource and environmental pressures, the regulations and technologies have become steadily more intricate and costly.

But if we end up with a global society and economy like Holland’s, would that really be so bad? After all, the Dutch live very well. Sadly, even the enormous complexity of today’s Holland won’t be remotely adequate for the host of planetary challenges we’re going to have to address soon, like climate change and worsening shortages of high-quality energy. We’ll have to create a global society that I’ve come to call “Holland times 10,” with vastly more sophisticated, pervasive, and expensive rules and regulatory institutions than anything the Dutch live with today. Do we really want such a future for ourselves and our children?

And even if we do, can we really create it? First of all, Holland is in some ways an inadequate example. It’s a small, ethnically homogeneous society with relatively low economic inequality, a deeply rooted culture of collaboration, and a citizenry that’s receptive to social policies intended to change people’s behaviors. These are hardly features of our world as a whole. Also, today’s Holland maintains its comfortable lifestyle by importing energy, food, and natural resources from far beyond its boundaries, and by expelling much of its wastes, such as its carbon dioxide, outside its boundaries too-Holland’s carbon dioxide ends up traveling in the atmosphere around the planet. Humanity as a whole, though, can’t get its resources or expel its pollution beyond Earth’s boundaries.

More important, as our global social-ecological system moves through the growth phase of its adaptive cycle-toward a Holland-times-10 future-it’s losing resilience. Capitalism’s constant pressure on companies to maximize efficiency tightens links between producers and suppliers; reduces slack, buffering, and redundancy; and so makes cascading failures more likely and damaging. As well, capitalism’s pressure on people to be more productive and efficient drives them to acquire hyperspecialized skills and knowledge, which means they become less autonomous, more dependent on other specialized people and technologies, and ultimately more vulnerable to shocks (remember how most Americans were so ill equipped to deal with the 2003 blackout). Meanwhile, worsening damage to the local and regional natural environment in many poor countries is fraying ecological networks and undermining economies and political stability. And finally pressure is increasing within both rich and poor societies too-from tectonic stresses like demographic imbalance, growth of megacities, and widening income gaps.

All these factors are creating an overload condition just at the moment when we’re entering an epochal shift from high-EROI to low-EROI sources of energy. Because it takes energy to create and maintain complexity and order, and because energy will become steadily more expensive, we’ll find it steadily harder to implement complex solutions to our complex problems.

Indeed, in a world of far higher energy costs, a Holland-times-10 global system is likely impossible. Even today’s globalized economy won’t be viable, because it takes too much energy to keep it running. As energy prices rise, we’ll first see cutbacks on long-distance travel and trade. Instead of becoming increasingly “flat” as barriers to commerce and economic integration disappear-as some commentators, such as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, suggest-the world will become more regionalized and even hierarchical because manufacturing, commerce, and political power will shift to countries with relatively good access to energy. Eventually those of us in rich countries will have to change many things in our societies and daily lives-not just the machines we use to produce and consume energy but also the work we do, our entertainment and leisure activities, how much we travel in cars and airplanes, our financial systems, the design of our cities, and the ways we produce our food (because our current agricultural practices consume a huge amount of energy).

The growth phase we’re in may seem like a natural and permanent state of affairs-and our world’s rising complexity, connectedness, efficiency, and regulation may seem relentless and unstoppable-but ultimately it isn’t sustainable. Still, we find it impossible to get off this upward escalator because our chronic state of denial about the seriousness of our situation-aided and abetted by powerful special interests that benefit from the status quo-keeps us from really seeing what’s happening or really considering other paths our world might follow. Radically different futures are beyond imagining. So we stay trapped on a path that takes us toward major breakdown.

The longer a system is “locked in” to its growth phase, says Buzz Holling, “the greater its vulnerability and the bigger and more dramatic its collapse will be.” If the growth phase goes on for too long, “deep collapse”-something like synchronous failure-eventually occurs. Collapse in this case is so catastrophic and cascades across so many physical and social boundaries that the system’s ability to regenerate itself is lost. [A] forest-fire shows how this happens: if too much tinder-dry debris has accumulated, the fire becomes too hot, which destroys the seeds that could be the source of the forest’s rebirth.

Holling thinks the world is reaching “a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation.” Humankind has experienced only three or four such pulses during its entire evolution, including the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution, and the recent global communications revolution. Today another pulse is about to begin. “The immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative,” he writes. “The only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.”

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