That we are entering a period of decline is not in any real doubt, at least not among those with the inclination to think about it. ‘Downsizing’ seems to be the commonly used term, but few really understand what it will really mean. No one will willingly accept downsizing if it means a meaningful drop in their standard of living. So it remains a vague notion that it might be somebody else’s problem, and nothing too drastic on a personal level. There is a misplaced concept that we will drift into it gradually as oil decline eases us into another mode of living that will not be too far removed from the one that we enjoy now. We want the creature comforts that we have known for less than a century to remain a permanent feature of our imagined future.
Our most recent history shows that the slightest slowdown of our current economy by just a few percentage points brings an immediate chaos of unemployment and global destabilisation. Yet somehow that won’t apply to a permanent ‘downsizing’; that seems to follow a different set of social rules, as if we can do it and still retain a civilised existence. And of course without downsizing wages too much. We will still expect to eat, buy ‘stuff’ and carry on in employment and even retain our wheels, with the strange certainty that as long as we have wheels, we will have prosperity by involving ourselves in the exchanges of trade that will not differ much to what we have now.
In the face of imminent global chaos, from climate change, overpopulation and energy depletion, billions are being poured into development of alternative methods of transportation. Elon Musk, though producing a first class electric car, proposes it to be a vehicle for the ‘post oil’ age, which will inevitably mean a downsized environment. He ignores the basic reality that no road vehicle in the context of modern usage can function without an infrastructure that is itself a construct of hydrocarbon. The notion is that we can all get into electric cars and continue to drive from home to work and back, and our comfortable lifestyle can carry on much as before. In other words, it is the vehicle itself that creates and supports our prosperity. If we use an electric car, we can still somehow move a lump of metal and plastic around as an integral part of our employment and leisure.
But the electric car adds to the socio-economic complexity of our over-stressed life support system, it does not simplify it. In addition to the factory itself, an electric car needs sophisticated power hungry production systems, a living environment for its workers, housing, roads, schools and so on, as well as the Bolivian lithium mines and the socio-economic-industrial complexity needed in that country, all solely dependent on a vehicle concept that is ultimately a consumer of the hydrocarbon fuel it is promising to replace. All these systems are (hydrocarbon) energy intensive and expensive to produce. In a downsized society, that complexity will not exist, yet our focus on such dead ends as the electric car shows that humankind does not have the means to rid itself of dependence on the wheel. While the electric car might appear to be a bright shiny symbol of continuing wealth and prosperity, it is in fact a block of embodied energy, as subject to the laws of thermodynamics as any other construction. It demands constant energy input to maintain its viability, and serves no useful purpose in a downsized environment because the means to sustain will not be there. No industrialised nation can maintain its road transport system without the constant input of oil. Fossil fuelled vehicles, whether used on land, air or sea produce our food, sustain our infrastructure and maintain the cohesion of nations. And there are no alternatives.
We must face the painful truth: that our fossil fuelled prosperity (temporarily) allowed us to have personal transport, but it was not personal transport that created our prosperity. A downsized lifestyle will mean that we will no longer be able to move around on a whim, for no better reason than we happen to want to drag a couple of tons of steel and plastic around to buy a newspaper or a carton of milk. The car has allowed us to live many miles from our energy sources, whether food or employment. That is going to end. When considering downsized transportation, remember that probably the most useful wheeled vehicles in the pre oil environment were haycarts and war chariots. The only forms of renewable energy were derived from the waterwheel and the windmill. They were manufactured from trees, and needed the energy input from animal and human muscle to give them functionality. We cannot have a future that is dependent on complex industry. It will not work.
When advocating downsizing, there is rarely, if ever, any mention of the healthcare we currently enjoy, which has given us a reasonably fit and healthy 80 year average lifespan.
A prime safeguard for the health of citizens throughout the developed world is the ability to remove and dispose of human waste and provide an inflow of fresh water. But to do it there must be constant availability of hydrocarbon energy. Electricity will enable you to pump water and sewage but it cannot provide the infrastructure needed to build or maintain a fresh water or waste treatment plant; for that you need oil, coal and gas. Modern domestic plumbing systems are now made largely of plastic, which is manufactured exclusively from oil feedstock, while concrete main sewer pipes are produced using processes that are equally energy intensive. In a downsized society fresh water will have to be carried from its source, and sewage will not be moved.
But we are even more deluded when it comes to the medical profession and all the advanced treatments and technologies it has provided to keep us in good health and make our lives as pain free as possible. There seems to be a strange expectation that we will remain as healthy as we are now, or become even healthier through a less stressful lifestyle, where we tend our vegetable gardens and chicken coops in a state of bucolic bliss irrespective of any other problems we face. And while ‘downsizing’ – a somewhat bizarre concept in itself – might affect other aspects of our lives, it will not apply to doctors, medical staff, hospitals and the vast power-hungry pharmaceutical factories and supply chains that give them round the clock backup. Without that backup, your medical practitioner might know what ails you, but more often than not won’t be able to offer you any more help than a tribal witch doctor.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that hospitals use twice as much energy per square foot as a comparable office block, to keep the lights, heating, ventilation and air conditioning on 24/7 and run an array of equipment from refrigerators to MRI scanners. We have a blind faith that we can continue to benefit from this highly complex, energy-intensive healthcare system, irrespective of any decline in our energy supplies. We know of the conditions endured by our not-so-distant forebears, and recoil in horror at the prevalence of the dirt and diseases they had to accept as part of their lives. We should perhaps stop to consider that they did not have the means to make it otherwise. Like our forebears, we also will not have the means to make it otherwise. A downsized society will no longer be able to build outwards and live in a spreading suburbia, so must be forced back into crowded environments, inevitably reverting to a more medieval lifestyle which will make the spread of diseases inevitable.
Nor does downsizing appear to apply to the other emergency services we might want to call on if our home is on fire or those of criminal intent wish to relieve us of what is rightfully ours. We might put solar panels on the roof, and banks of batteries to supply power, but a downsized society will not have the engineering complexity available to manufacture a single lightbulb, heating element or the basic components of an electric motor. Without those, any electricity production system is useless. You may be able to recondition an electric motor up to a point, but you cannot repair a lightbulb. A downsized lifestyle means a dark lifestyle, or put more bluntly a naked flame society. Alternative lifestylers seem to have blanked out the detail that fire engines, ambulances and police cars need fuel, and the people who man them need to get paid, fed and moved around quickly. They will not have time to indulge in the fantasy of self sufficiency. In other words ‘we’ might reduce our imprint on the environment, as long as those who support our way of life do not. Humanity, at least our ‘western’ developed segment of it, is enjoying a phase of good health and longevity that is an anomaly in historical terms. There is a refusal to recognize that our health and wellbeing will only last as long as we have cheap hydrocarbon energy available to support it. While there are those who profess to welcome a return to the freedom of a frontier society with minimal or non-existent law enforcement, the ravages of the diseases that were an everyday part of frontier life will not be accepted as part of it, particularly when accompanied by the knowledge that such diseases are curable but the means to do it are no longer available.
Since the introduction of modern drugs and the availability of products that can kill bacteria, we have set out to do just that. Bacteria have had a bad press, but they keep us alive, if only to serve their own ends. In our haste to kill off or control almost every microscopic form of life, as well as larger species, we have forgotten that bacteria have been around in one form or another for about 2 billion years and possess a collective survival strength that is far in advance of ours. We have only been here for about 2 million years, and have held our delusion of controlling them for less than a century. If humankind ceased to exist, bacteria wouldn’t be aware of our demise; without them, we couldn’t last a week. On that basis, which is the dominant species? Our attempts at eradication have merely caused them to retreat for a while and given them the means to mutate into new and more deadly forms. When our hydrocarbon energy shield is no longer there to protect us, they will return to wreak their vengeance, and reassert their position as top predator.
That we are subject to laws not of our own making will be hard to accept, because humankind has elevated itself to the position of biological supremacy, and created gods and written holy books to offer proof of that. A growing awareness that something is wrong will foster denial of it, in the same way that we see the reality of climate change denied. That is part of human nature. We can look around and see the proof of what we are, but the actual sum total of human endeavour has been to overpopulate our planet far in excess of its carrying capacity. Before we learned how to use the destructive forces of hydrocarbons to control bacteria and microbial life ‘for the good of humanity’, they kept our planet as a safe living environment for all species by controlling any excesses. Without our hydrocarbon weaponry, microbial life will reassert dominance.
The deniers will vent their frustration and anger, and apportion blame and demand that diseases be cured. But there are just too many humans to allow the possibility of a human solution. We are genetically programmed to fight for survival, just as bacteria are. But with no hydrocarbon armoury, it will be a battle we cannot win, any more than the plague victims of the middle ages could win their fight against disease. Their great die off resulted in a third of their population being wiped out, with no knowledge of the cause other than a certainty of divine intention. On a planet with 7 billion people, which has a carrying capacity of around 1 billion, we may not want to admit to an impending die off, but we know it has to come, and within this century. The difference between ourselves and our medieval forebears is that we will know why but will be equally powerless. When the die off begins, violent reaction is certain, and that will help bacteria in their task of rebalancing our numbers.
The infrastructure of modern healthcare hasn’t given us immortality, but it has provided the next best thing: long, safe and comfortable lives. But it relies entirely on hydrocarbon energy, and in the future a range of problems will make it progressively more difficult for us to exert control over disease as that energy source goes into irreversible decline. Disease will become more prevalent, not only in localized outbreaks, but at epidemic and even pandemic levels. Healthcare systems cannot downsize, they are either there or they are not.
And yet the greatest loss in a downsized economy is likely to be our democracy.
You don’t think much about the democratic state you live in. A few gripes about it sometimes, but other than that, things coast along reasonably well. You vote one lot of useless politicos in, and another lot out. Or maybe don’t vote at all. They never change anything, being swept along by the tide of circumstance just like everybody else.
But your democratic state is an unnatural state.
Through almost all of recorded history mankind has lived under autocratic rule to a greater or lesser degree, always enforced by the threat of violence, either on a personal or collective level.
In the sense that we know it democracy has been selectively planted only during the last 2 centuries, with universal suffrage appearing in different places at different times. But it has not in any sense taken root. It is a fragile concept that we are going to lose as our environment alters and degrades with climate change and energy depletion. Before the industrial revolution, the concept of democracy and human rights did not exist. It may not seem immediately obvious that our democratic state is dependent on surplus energy, but it is.
We look to Ancient Greece, or more specifically Athens itself for the origins of our democracy, but while Athens in the 4th century BCE had a population of 100,000, living in what we think of as democratic harmony, they also had an underclass of about 150,000 slaves who supported their economy. Slaves had no part in the Athenian democratic process, but they allowed the free time for their owners (men only, women were not part of it) to go about their leisurely democratic business.
Had it not been for slave-energy, Athens would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the sophisticated business of democracy. Providing the means to stay alive doesn’t allow much leisure for political thinking. In England, Magna Carta might be seen as part of the democratic process, but it only applied to the nobility who forced it on the King. The underclass who provided the energy sources from the land had no part in it. They had much the same status as the slaves who belonged to the Athenians.
We differ in our time only through the surplus energy of fossil fuel that has allowed us to enjoy the luxury of democracy.
We have had access to that surplus energy for only 250 years, and fully exploited it for less than 100 years. In every developed nation in the world, that period of time has seen the growth of universal suffrage and allowed it to become normality.
But it is a fragile concept and we cannot claim this as a fundamental human right, despite the endless assurances of politicians.
When our coal, oil and gas has finally been used up, our comfortable environment will vanish with it. The unpleasant reality of the world outside the comfort zone of our cars, warm or cool homes, healthcare on demand and reliable food and water supplies will reassert itself and our democratic niceties will vanish as we strive to survive.
An energy depleted economy will mean a downsized state and a breakup of established law, because no government can exist outside the boundaries of its own energy range. In that situation you can have no control over your position within your future state or nation, and the way in which you will be governed. The individual details might be open to question, but millennia of past history supplies a broad outline: weakened states submit to whichever despot can hold power. We will not only have a downsized economy, we will have autocratic rule by someone who has seized the opportunity of weakness and used it for his own ends.