The First – And the Only?

When I was in Tesco’s today, for no apparent reason, half the lights suddenly went out. It was a bit startling, albeit otherwise inconsequential. But it did get me to thinking about energy crises.

Energy crises have been a major factor in technological development. The Industrial Revolution was arguably first foreshadowed when late-Elizabethan England began to run out of wood. Trees burn far faster then they grow – by the end of the 17th Century, London had eaten all the woodland for miles around. People had to move to burning coal for heating and industry. Only there was a problem – the easy-to-get-at coal quickly ran out. Mines had to start digging deeper – except they had this awkward habit of flooding. Obviously it’s a bit hard to run a profit when all your miners keep drowning!

Enter the pump. Only, the problem was, horse-drawn pumps didn’t really run well enough. They were inefficient and required a lot of horses – and horses are expensive. They need feed, they need stables, they need rest. So when the first steam boilers arrived, in the early 18th Century, it was a godsend for the mines. Steam pumps don’t need hay or stables. So the mines could go deeper and deeper.

But this has led me to an odd thought. Suppose we haven’t quite got it right. Suppose there’s just something basically wrong in the way we’ve organised our economy or our society. It wouldn’t be the first time – a professional civil service is obvious in hindsight, but Rome’s republic never thought of it. Tax farming is a very bad idea, but the French monarchy carried on with it until the bitter end. Organising all your neighbours into a vast series of heavily-armed alliances is grist to the mill for security dilemmas – but that didn’t stop the continental alliance system breaking horrifically in World War One.

Suppose, then, that we go down, for whatever reason. Maybe the seas rise and flood all our ports, disrupting trade. Maybe a bacterium figures out how to eat plastic. Maybe the markets set the world up the bomb so badly that no amount of bail-outs can reverse a catastrophic decline in economic activity, leading to truly mass unemployment, hunger, riots, instability, civil wars and worldwide collapse. (In which case, in respect of moron bankers, there will be at least a shred of poetic justice. To quote what Jared Diamond had to say about the Norse Greenlandic elite, ‘..the only privilege they earned themselves was to be the last to starve.’)

Anyway, in this cheery scenario, what happens in 500-5,000 years’ time? Will we be the Atlantis or the fallen Rome to some successor-civilisation? Will English be preserved for centuries as the language of scholarship and the arts, much as Latin was in the West? Will distant-future tourists gape at the ruins of half-sunken skyscrapers and artists make charcoal sketches from the shade afforded by fallen concrete slabs?

Simple answer: no.

Why do I say no? Because I don’t think anyone will follow us. It comes back to the energy crises I mentioned above. You see, we’ve chopped down all the forests and dug up all the easily-accessible coal. Yes, trees will grow back eventually, climate allowing, but once coal or oil are burnt, they’re gone. There is very little left near the Earth’s surface that any putative successor-civilisation could use to advance itself. And it’s not just coal or oil – copper, iron, lots of other valuable metals all fall under the same category. (Smelting down all the Roadmakers’ abandoned cars is a non-starter, too – you need coal to get the kind of heat required to do that properly.)

Any successors to us are probably limited to windmills and water-driven wood-frame devices. It’s hard to see an industrial technological path that doesn’t involve petrochemicals. (And there’s a SETI thought – oil beds don’t form that easily, and accessible ones are even rarer. And how many other planets have had a Carboniferous-analogue?) Our successors will have wood, wind and water. And that is all they will ever have.

If I have a point with all of this, it’s this. We have an advanced, industrial civilisation. Yes, it’s a mess and yes, it has problems – but it’s a lot better then any of the alternatives. Back to nature *sounds* great, but I have hayfever, so I prefer my outdoors in moderate doses only. And anyway, to make it work, you’d somehow have to make more than 6,500 million people vanish. I can’t imagine they’d like that much.

You see, as we developed, we lifted the ladder up with us. We can’t climb down to the lower floors, but we can fall – and if we do, we’re staying down there. For a while as we lie injured on the floor, we’ll still be able to see the ladder, up above us, but it will remain forever out of reach. Basically, folks, our choice is simple.

We have to find some way to make this society work. Or it won’t.

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One Response to “The First – And the Only?”

  1. […] before on how I believe that our current society is entirely exceptional, and that there really are no truly-useful historical models for our problems. We have difficulties arguably greater in scale than any previous civilisation, but we also have […]

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