Fall of the technological world
by Jan Lundberg
Culture Change Letter #204
The technological world is going to fall and disintegrate, much like the
financial house of cards appears to be doing. We need to embrace this
reality and start living in a reasonable, responsible fashion, because we
cannot escape it even if we can try to prepare. Hoping that the government
will solve the problem of greed is like hoping the fox no longer hungers
for fresh raw chicken. Similarly, hoping for a graceful exit from the
entropic inferno of techno tyranny is to imagine we can be teleported to a
better planet. So we must draw upon the do-it-yourself principle, as
rebels and free people have always done in all aspects of human existence.
This essay examines the why and how of technology's fall, and also the
post-technological future. My own biases aside -- I have a love-hate
relationship with technology -- I believe we can think outside the box
(and abandon the box), and gain perspective even in our world of addiction
to material, manufactured and disposable things. Why is this important?
The reasons are ecological -- we cannot avoid the scientific facts -- and
there are moral reasons as well.
Mother Nature does not give second chances. "We are not exempt from
extinction", says paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. Extinction is part
of evolution of all life, so we must face that humans are nothing special.
In fact, their cleverness in manipulating the environment was helpful only
up to a certain point in our "pre-history"; it has resulted today in our
going over the ecological precipice. As we continue today's mass
extinction we are pretending it's not important, perhaps so we can cling
to our convenient and alluring technology, and put off rebelling until the
floor is caving in.
Weighing all I know and feel, I believe we are looking at the
technological world starting to crash to the ground. We will experience it
falling around us and upon us. We have not seen much of this yet. For
those who are not sure, let's consider what happened when humanity left
behind the simplicity of relying almost solely on hunter-gathering and
burning downed logs for fire for cooking, light and warmth.
- We began soil-depleting cultivation agriculture, whose high food
production allowed population growth.
- We engaged in coal-burning -- a result of clearing Western Europe's
forests for more agriculture -- with the various machines and processes
for maximizing the use of this polluting, non-renewable "resource."
- We developed nuclear power which is inseparable from nuclear weapons
- We became dependent on petroleum in all its forms and the net-energy
bonus that allowed for exponential population growth.
- We developed plastics from petroleum which are wonderfully convenient
and apparently cheap, but are killing much life in the oceans and are
taking an invisible but deadly toll on us as well. Some of the problems:
endocrine disrupters, poisons from manufacturing, from burning, etc.
The post-technological world
If technology and the cultivation-agriculture that made it possible is
perhaps our worst mistake, and is going to be mostly phased out as
"growth" implodes, what will our future without massive technology look
like? I'm not the only one wondering. I'm also not the only one willing to
see the historic crash sooner rather than later, because we see it as
inevitable and made worse by buying a little time for more climatic
destruction via unfettered industrial and agricultural activity. It would
be a mistake to label an "anti-technologist" as lacking compassion for
dependent populations, when the anti-technologist or "Luddite" may believe
in a better possible future through simpler, equitable living.
Because the reasons for petrocollapse and world-wide famine have been well
explored in Culture Change and elsewhere, suffice to say that the end of
abundant petroleum will trigger collapse. It is already happening, no
matter what name is put on it (e.g., meltdown). The
economic/industrial/agricultural infrastructure is entirely based on
petroleum, and now that it has clearly begun its final dwindling through
depletion we find there are no substitutes for petroleum -- neither in
sufficient scale nor point of readiness.
So we are on the cusp of our entire system's collapsing and eating itself
alive. The process will be quick, as the "run on the energy bank" is set
to happen momentarily, according to this petroleum-industry analyst as
well as Matt Simmons, energy investment banker. In his presentation at the
annual Association for The Study of Peak Oil and Gas (USA chapter) last
month, he referred to food-supply disappearance within one week of our
fuel tanks topped off due to oil market concerns. The 400 attendees gave
Simmons a standing ovation, even though most of them entertain less
extreme scenarios for peak oil's impact.
Therefore, within days, modern society finds itself with a staggering
number of technological products whose days are numbered. They always were
numbered, as the landfill was the ultimate destination. But without cheap
energy for modern populations, we will start to see (1) an immediate
cessation of much activity we take for granted today, whether it be
transportation or operating the disgusting number of questionable,
redundant appliances in our homes, and (2) the final usage of items that
require power from batteries, for example. We will soon run out of "good"
batteries, as the trucks will at some point soon fail to bring more. As
soon as this historic process starts (call it peak oil), people will
scramble for survival based on what they have hoarded (food, water,
materials such as batteries, etc.) and can seize in desperation.
This column has already explored why and how petrocollapse's bloody and
however long or short phase of deprivation and die-off will take place.
How will the survivors live? Some of you readers cannot bear to think
about petrocollapse, and some deny it's possible, so the aftermath is
pretty much unexplored today. But let us stipulate that in some parts of
the world some communities survive petrocollapse with no disaster or
Humans are the technology species, and always will be. But life and
history go in cycles, such that the agricultural and industrial
revolutions will pass. They are being quickly ushered out by the plug
being pulled on petroleum supply. The consequence of petro-gluttony and
individualistic consuming will result in a crash of all petro-fed
populations. The technology that remains will fit into a non-petroleum
lifestyle. Much petroleum will remain in the ground, but will no longer be
accessible when the oil industry is crippled by collapse. Humpty Dumpty
will not be reassembled. So our technology will be low-tech almost
exclusively, or at least decentralized completely.
When we think of technology nowadays we typically think of the fancy
laptop computer I'm reluctantly typing on. But there's a whole range of
technological products and systems that fall into the category of short
term, and into the category of sustainable. Short term would include the
continental electrical grid, with its reliance on extreme computerization
and financial-sector vulnerability. Any small systems running on battery
power may fail unless there is pedal-power generating, solar photovoltaic
cells, wind generation, or the like. But these means, and the products
running on them, are subject to breakage and non-replacement of parts.
Therefore, the long-term or sustainable technologies are what can be
created and maintained from local resources. They must be renewable, such
as wood, leather, stone, bone, and cosmic magic. (We'll have to see about
the last one; I was joking.) Scrap metal and plastic will probably be
maximized for as long as possible. But they will suddenly no longer be
applicable on a massive scale with constant resupply via trucks using
"unlimited" petroleum. As for biofuels and other "solutions" that aren't
scalable for anything resembling today's economy, they will be on a
limited basis and constrained by the first priority of producing food.
Culture Change Letter #201's list of sustainable systems and organizing
Ecovillages, intentional communities, anarchist collectives, Community
Supported Agriculture, bicycle culture, animal husbandry, natural
building techniques, biochar, sail transport network, and the path of
the peaceful spiritual warrior. And more...
Moral argument for abandoning complex and destructive technology
When a house is rotten and falling down, it is past time to leave and
create something better. "Better" should mean the new shelter will be more
sustainable and therefore simple -- less technological.
Techno-dependence may be inseparably tied to acquisitiveness and greed. So
the tendency to get more technological products to help build one's little
castle or empire has to do with taking from others: the Earth and its
myriad species, and peoples whose lands are devastated by extractive
industries. Then there's the running of endless machines and gadgets that
depend on the grid and other support materials. This implies
greenhouse-gas emissions, that on a large scale spell pain and death for
others -- and ultimately the self. So the life-style of techno-dependency
and trashing the useless or semi-recyclable waste is selfish and short
In fact, generating dollars from reliance on technology and the sweat of
others' labor is just our old fashioned Babylon civilization's extension
to date. Somehow the "march of history" and the thousands of years of
wars, invention, "progress," and art serve to excuse or redefine the old
Babylon syndrome, so as to let it continue -- and see what tomorrow's
television news and other diversions might bring.
Passively witnessing techno-destruction can be argued to be as
unacceptable as watching a heinous crime against a defenseless old lady
and doing nothing, or perhaps running one's SUV a couple of blocks to buy
some unnecessary, self-gratifying, processed goodie.
Techno fears, frustrations, and the ethical dilemma
On Oct. 4th I took a bus to Arcata to catch a ride going to an Earth
First! reunion of activists celebrating the departure of Maxxam Corp. from
Humboldt County. The company, owned by Charles Hurwitz, a Texas-based
corporate raider, had liquidated most of the last ancient redwood trees in
private hands in two decades. The Oct. 4 event was billed as Hurwitz Out
of Humboldt. I was to pass the word and come play some songs and lend my
presence. But after waiting two hours for a ride at the designated spot
with three other carless activists, I changed my mind when a car
materialized. I decided to stay local and not be in a car hurtling down
the highway, two hours each way, with off and on rain, in order to get my
jollies and see friends.
In retrospect, missing out on seeing Dana Lyons, Julia Butterfly, Darryl
Cherney, and many other friends and characters, I regret not going. I also
should have honored the work of many unsung heroes and heroines who over
the years braved cops, loggers, bad weather in forest conditions with
minimum supplies and equipment, fierce animals, tree-sit dangers, and
more. I could only tell myself I didn't want to get into some car and
subject myself to the long ride and come all the way back that evening.
Car-pooling was apparently not arranged, and I would have liked a more
accessible venue. In waiting around I began to feel the event might not be
worth my while. The next day when I heard about the big party and the
music, and that a girl had yelled out for one of my songs, I realized I
had made an error: if I'm a serious musician, I have to travel to gigs,
and I was expected (although not really needed). Upon further reflection
-- considering this article's focus on technological dominance crashing to
the ground -- I'm left with my realization that I let my fear and hatred
of techno-dependence and dangerous roads make my decision. As a career
activist (against cars and roads mostly) I may have erred, and I blew it
socially and musically. But I have long thought there's no real lasting
community when people are driving great distances -- especially in our
imminent future without plentiful liquid fuels with which to burn up the
planet (no matter if for a good cause).
Can we modern humans graduate, from accepting we have financial collapse,
to contemplating energy collapse and worse, in time to salvage a little of
our dwindling capability to steer the ecological ship? Such questions are
weeded out from public media with a vengeance, even as the ship hits the
iceberg of societal and ecological collapse. Therefore we must as
do-it-yourselfers raise the real issues of the day primarily by word of
mouth. Our task is to reach out to all sectors for all who might be
finally open to a radical critique and getting off our butts: to walk away
from a failed experiment, on to a sustainable future that relies on
community and nature's health. - JL
Further reading: [go to website and scroll down]