You won’t like downsizing
We are about to enter a period of permanent decline, be sure you know what that will mean.
‘Downsizing’ isn’t going to be a gradual shift into a state of bucolic peasantry where life carries on as it always has, with a few minor changes.
The slightest slowdown of our current economy by just a few percentage points brings an immediate chaos of unemployment and global destabilisation.
In the face of imminent global chaos, whether through climate change, overpopulation or energy depletion, vast amounts of money 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.
The basic reality is ignored, that no road vehicle in the context of modern usage can function without an infrastructure that is itself a construct of hydrocarbon. But the electric car adds to the socio-economic complexity of our over-stressed life support system, it does not simplify it.
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.
No industrialised nation can maintain its road transport system without the constant input of oil.
And there are no alternatives.
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 cheap 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 comfortable as possible.
While ‘downsizing’ — a somewhat bizarre concept in itself — might affect other aspects of our lives, it is not supposed to 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 unlikely to be able to offer you any more help than a tribal witch doctor.
Like our forebears, we also will not have the means to make it otherwise.
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 capacity that is far in advance of ours.
The Top Predator
(It’s not us)
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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 it will come, and within this century.
Without oil our food sources will end.
And with it the sustenance of six billion people, and the hopes of billions yet unborn.
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. Modern healthcare systems cannot downsize, they are either there or they are not.
The greatest loss in a downsized economy will 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.
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.
Our time differs only through the surplus energy of fossil fuel that has allowed us to enjoy the luxury of democracy.
Democracy is a fragile concept and we cannot claim this as a fundamental human right.
When our coal, oil and gas has finally been used up, our comfortable environment will vanish with it, together with our democratic niceties 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 the outline of our future: 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.
It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see that happening right now.
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