The Long Descent — Decline and Fall of Industrial Society
The title of this piece is borrowed from John Michael Greer’s 2008 book The Long Descent, the central thesis of which is threefold. Firstly, the industrial civilisation we take for granted is unsustainable and is in decline. The evidence for this is all around us but many choose to downplay or ignore the evidence. Secondly, “The roots of the crisis lie in the cultural stories that shape the way we understand the world.” Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we simply told ourselves a story, created a modern myth, weaved the narrative that endless progress and increasing prosperity were inevitable. Despite a few little bumps on the road, the only way was up. Lastly, it is too late for industrialisation and technology to solve the problems that industrialisation and technology have created. And when we say ‘problems’, we should more correctly say ‘predicament’. Problems have solutions, predicaments have outcomes. We can respond to a predicament, but it cannot be ‘solved’, and our predicament is this: There is simply not enough easily accessible, affordable energy remaining to maintain industrial civilisation as we know it. In general, we are referring here to fossil fuels; the coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil shales, bitumens, tar sands etc. on which industrial civilisation depends. Equally, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be impossible to replace these energy sources with either so-called renewables, or nuclear. Although fossil fuels continue to form within the Earth, only the most trivial use of them could ever have been deemed ‘sustainable’. As things stand, most of the high grade, easily accessible deposits have been extracted, so even using fossil fuels as a way to transition to an enduring and genuinely renewable energy base is no longer possible. The oil shocks of the 1970s were perhaps the last chance to change course and begin rapid development of renewables alongside significant changes in how industrial societies operate. Instead, as the boom years of the 1980s began, we doubled-down on fossil fuel consumption, abandoning many emerging renewable technologies in the process.
Whether or not one believes the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief model, our species response to our predicament certainly involves a combination of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and maybe just a little acceptance. The enormity of the changes that lie ahead of us is such that many will find them simply unimaginable. For generations we have been sold the promise of endless progress and endless growth; bigger and better everything, with the benefits eventually reaching even the poorest parts of the world. But we may have to come to terms with a very different vision of the future, a world of limits, a life with less, and tough times ahead, as we grope and fumble our way to a new mode of being not so hopelessly out of balance with the Earth (for the record, I see pollution as more of a threat than climate change). The road to the future may not lead to a techno-utopian paradise in the stars, but neither need it lead to Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic collapse. These narratives, at the extremes of possibility and which paralyse us into inaction, pale in the shadow of the much more likely outcome: centuries of gradual decline and decay in the world as we know it as it is slowly superseded by ways of living we left behind centuries before combined with new hybrid technologies. We’ll still have electricity, just a lot less of it. The degree to which we either embrace or resist change will in large part determine how difficult the transition will be.
Shackled as they are by short-term thinking and slaves to domestic election cycles, politicians cannot articulate let alone address the situation. Increasingly, we find the divisive, destructive politics of race, gender, and identity occupying collective mental bandwidth which would be better employed figuring out ways forward. It seems that we will stop at nothing to distract ourselves from more pressing problems at hand. We also saw during the 2007/08 crisis just how fragile the global financial system has become. The COVID-19 recession is already proving even more damaging, and the worst is yet to come. The bottom line is that ‘money’ alone cannot solve our energy woes. No amount of numbers on a screen can conjure up fossil fuels where there are none, and the eventual unwinding of the funny-money pyramid scheme we call the global financial system will make tackling de-industrial decline more difficult.
Although global supply chains have been widely disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, from raw materials to finished consumer products, delays and shortages were increasingly becoming the norm prior to 2020. The current shortage in semiconductors — vital in the fabrication of electronic devices — is one of the most ominous trends. From mobile phones to microwaves and from coffee machines to cars, the list of items affected by longer waiting periods, rising prices, widespread shortages, and less variety will come as a shock to those who take the current cornucopia of consumer goods as a given. Even goods not directly affected by a shortage of semiconductors or other key raw materials such as metals and plastics are experiencing their own problems. Most of us will recall the panic buying during the early days of the pandemic which resulted in fist fights, hoarding, and empty shelves. The upshot has been less choice and higher prices across a vast swathe of everyday items. The trillions in excess money printing by governments around the world will only exacerbate these trends as businesses and consumers stockpile what they can to hedge against future inflation. A pantry full of storable food is a much better bet than money in the bank with its purchasing power declining year on year. A trend related to diminishing variety and supply shortages is that of declining quality. From foodstuffs to household appliances, we are increasingly paying more for less. Expect this downward drift to continue as raw materials become scarcer and more expensive and energy costs rise.
‘RENEWABLE’ ENERGY AND NUCLEAR
Perhaps the biggest false hope of the current age is that so-called ‘renewable’ energy will allow us to maintain industrial civilisation at its current level. Aside from the fact that no combination of solar, wind, hydro, geo-thermal or any other ‘green’ energy source can meet current requirements, all of them are dependent on fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance. Solar panels cannot be constructed using solar energy any more than wind turbines can be built using wind power. A modern wind turbine requires tons of steel, copper, concrete, and fibreglass, among other materials, all of which involves mining, blast furnaces, a plethora of chemicals, various modes of transportation and, of course, a great deal of pollution. In any event, renewables simply do not have the energy density to replace fossil fuels. Neither can they be used solely to manufacture cars, trains, planes, ships, smartphones, laptops, televisions, tumble dryers, fridges, freezers, microwaves, or any of the other mass-produced consumer items which are so central to modern life. As for running the Internet on renewables, forget it. A century or two from now, the worldwide web may be little more than a distant memory.
Nuclear power is often held up as the answer to our energy woes, but after over half a century of development, it seems unlikely that it will ever live up to its original promise. Besides being not economically viable, it generates extremely hazardous waste that will remain hazardous for anything between hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years. The profusion of sites around the world currently storing nuclear waste is vulnerable to many threats including terrorism, systems failure, natural disaster (Fukushima Daiichi), and human error (Chernobyl). Nuclear power stations are also slow to build, incredibly expensive, and dependent in one form or another on government subsidies. And like so many aspects of industrial civilisation, the global nuclear energy programme is, above all else, storing up enormous problems for future generations. Decommissioning nuclear plants is extremely costly but, if left unattended or abandoned as future societies may be forced to do, they present a potentially calamitous threat to the planet. The catastrophic failure of the 400+ nuclear power facilities would spread fallout across vast areas of the globe. None of this is to say that nuclear power won’t be a significant part of our energy supply for some time to come, but it’s simply not the silver bullet so many believe. There are other ideas regarding potential future energy sources, but from biomass to ethanol, hydrogen to methane hydrates, and from thorium reactors to cold fusion, all have thus far proven not economically viable, dependant on subsidies, damaging to the environment, unable to meet current energy needs, to yield less energy than it takes to produce them, or some combination thereof.
THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORT
As the renewable / green / sustainability juggernaut has gathered momentum in recent years, the future of transport has increasingly moved towards centre stage. From the air and sea transport which moves goods around the world to the trucks which stock our supermarkets and the cars which take us to and from work, all are now subject to a greening process once again intended to allow industrial civilisation to continue developing at breakneck pace minus any serious environmental impact.
Although a vanishingly small number compared to total sales, millions of people have purchased hybrid electric vehicles since their introduction in 1997. However, as with ‘renewable’ energy, these vehicles rely on fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance, as does the road infrastructure on which they also depend. A conventional road can’t be constructed without fossil fuels. The well-publicised problems with range, battery charging times, and scant availability of charging stations present further challenges to wildly optimistic targets aiming to remove fossil fuel vehicles from our roads in the coming years. The UK recently announced plans to bring forward a ban on fossil fuel vehicles to 2030, while in Norway — one of the world’s largest exporters of oil — the government has set a target date of 2025. Of course, the main problem with electric cars is that they are still cars, just one more example of the dogged insistence that, despite widespread fossil fuel depletion, business as usual must continue. Ironically, mechanically-simple, fossil fuel vehicles — typically from the ’70s and ’80s — may turn out to be among the last on the road. Easy to fix, with plentiful spare parts available, and jury-rigged repairs possible with basic tools and materials, this may be one aspect of the Mad Max vision of the future that actually comes to pass.
The same basic concerns apply to the future of air and sea transport, neither of which will go all-electric any time soon, if ever, and to those anxious about the continued availability of toilet paper and pasta at your local supermarket I recommend When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation by Alice Friedemann. Fragile, over-extended supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing and delivery — although always risky — have had their vulnerability truly exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if the viral threat recedes, the inherent weaknesses in global manufacturing and supply networks will only increase in the years to come, as will decentralised production and stockpiling in response.
TOURISM AND THE INTERNET
Another major global industry dependent on transport is tourism, and if present trends continue over the long term, tourism as we know it will likely become a thing of the past. Modern tourism — including commercial aviation — really only got off the ground from the 1950s onward, and is entirely dependent on cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Prior to this boom in international travel, most people holidayed close to home, relying on radio and television for experiences of far off lands.
If the crisis of industrial civilization plays out in anything like the way envisioned here, one of the defining moments of decline is likely to be the failure of the Internet. Estimates of the total energy consumed by the Internet vary widely, usually depending on what they do or do not take into account. For example, do we simply measure the energy used to move each gigabyte of data through the network, or do we also include the energy required to build data centres, manufacture servers, construct network infrastructure, and produce all the user devices? In the end, it’s not so much energy consumption that will be the real problem but rather the point at which resource depletion and supply problems more generally begin to trigger cascading failures.
The difficulties in manufacturing even the simplest appliances and gadgets absent the infrastructure of industrial civilisation are perfectly encapsulated in Thomas Thwaites’ 2011 book The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch. The book reveals the unseen materials and processes which go into making objects which most consumers see as mundane and functional, and which for decades have been getting cheaper and, often as not, more complex. For the simplest, cheapest toaster available at your local supermarket for less than the price of a couple of toasted sandwiches, you will need: Copper, to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires. Iron to make the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast. Nickel to make the heating element. Mica, around which the heating element is wound, and plastic for the plug and cord insulation, and for the outer casing. The processes involved include mining, refining and smelting, none of which make any sense or are even really possible on anything other than an industrial scale. In the end, Thwaites did construct a toaster, but it took nine months and cost 250 times more than the supermarket toaster. Try applying his methods to, for example, even the most basic mobile phone and the scale of potential future problems looms very large indeed. Of course, in a future society weaning itself off dependence on large-scale, mechanized manufacturing, salvage will have a huge part to play. Vast reserves of already mined and manufactured materials will be available for recycling and re-purposing, but much would depend on the scale and sophistication of the reprocessing facilities available at the time.
Depending on who you ask, the global population is projected to peak at around nine billion in the coming years, following which it will enter a gradual decline. Fertility rates and even lifespans are already falling, and as the resources needed to support unproductive millions who consume without contributing anything useful dry up, these trends can only increase. People growing up in sterile, sanitised environments, increasingly cut-off from nature, become less fit for survival under the natural conditions in which human beings evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. If once again forced to live closer to nature and absent modern healthcare, millions of people that we currently keep alive artificially will simply die. One need only look to Japan to see some of the negative consequences of a falling population.
If there’s an upside to any of this, it may lie in the re-wilding of our spirits and imagination, in tandem with de-industrial trends. Materialism, either as a world view or as a way of life (i.e. consumerism), is increasingly proving empty and unfulfilling to more and more people. This is occurring just as the scientific and physical support for both is collapsing. Mass production requires mass consumption which requires mass advertising, all of which merely burns through the Earth’s resources whilst simultaneously failing to meet our primary needs, which are best met through our relationship with nature and each other. As the artificial architecture of separation continues to crumble, we will, one way or another, be forced to re-engage with the world around us on a much more intimate and meaningful level.
LONG DESCENT WILL TRUMP THE GREAT RESET
Whatever one believes regarding the origin and nature of COVID-19, the global response to it can certainly be seen as serving various agendas relating to the converging crises described above. Lockdowns, so-called ‘social’ distancing, and mass medication and tracking facilitate reduced demand for non-essential goods, reduced capacity in public spaces thus reduced demand, limited travel which not only reduces consumption but also our ability to see what’s really happening in the world outside of television, and limited assembly which hampers public protest. This will become increasingly problematic as jobs continue to disappear. The few freedoms and rights temporarily handed back to us simply serve to reduce expectations and make us content with less. In addition, the general breakdown of social bonds and institutions undermine mutual support and militate against any form of collective action. Those in control wish to remain in control, and if they are to do so during an era of decline, draconian measures will be required. Some see this agenda encapsulated in the World Economic Forum’s doctrine The Great Reset. In reality, this is nothing more than the globalist elite attempting to soothe their own conscience while maintaining their positions, and it will ultimately fail. The Long Descent is a great leveller and it will trump the technocratic fantasies of The Great Reset.
The Long Descent will witness periods of relative stability punctuated by sudden shocks. COVID-19 is a perfect example of such a disruption after which things never quite return to the way they were before. We then adjust to the new reality as best we can until the next upheaval occurs. There are plenty of intelligent, rational people who don’t accept this apparently pessimistic view of the future, but absent some truly transformative technology, it’s impossible to imagine how the breakneck pace of human expansion and consumption can continue. But none of this should be taken as cause for despair. Civilisations rise and fall, and there has never been any real reason to think that ours will be different. Regular readers of New Dawn will already be aware of many strategies — whether practical, psychological, or spiritual — which can be of help in facing the tumultuous times to come. Ultimately, the biggest shift required is mental; coming to terms with the fact that the modern world was built during a cheap energy bonanza which is slowly drawing to a close.
Originally published in New Dawn magazine Special Issue Vol. 15, №4