Archdruid John Michael Greer has a theory about the collapse of civilizations, a theory he calls “catabolic collapse”. The gist is that civilizations don’t drop from a great height immediately to the bottom of a chasm. Instead, they tend to tumble in stages, like a drunk falling down a stairway. They fall a little bit, catch themselves, then fall some more, and so forth. The fall, he says, is interrupted because civilizations are able to redirect their dwindling resources to slow their decline.
Consider the classic case of the Truffula trees in “The Lorax”, Dr. Seuss’s case study of dwindling resources. In “The Lorax”, Truffula trees are a resource used to create “thneeds”, a pretty useless commodity which everyone, everyone thinks they need. However, Truffula trees are the food and habitat of the brown Bar-Ba-Loots (fauna apparently related to the teddy bear) and other cute species that live in the area. The production of thneeds despoils the environment and uses up the vital Truffula trees, leading to the end of local civilization and a vast reduction in thneed profits.
But, says Greer, it isn’t that simple in real life. The producers of thneeds might, for example, switch over to some other raw material — not as good as Truffula trees, surely, but good enough to meet the demand. Or they may branch out into other products that are not as good as thneeds, but which help maintain some semblance of the standard of living to which thneed-users have become accustomed. Using alternate (but not as optimal) resources or shifting production to alternate (but not as good) products can halt the fall of civilization for a time. Ultimately, of course, any reliance on an unsustainable resource means that the collapse of the civilization is only postponed. Eventually the drunk will reach the bottom of the stairs.
Greer sees this fate in store for our civilization. We are, he says, past the point of saving. In the 1970’s, our leaders knew that our fossil-fuel-based culture was headed for a dead end, and we had the know-how and the resources to start moving toward other sources of energy. But instead of taking the long view, our leaders focused on reducing the price of oil. They succeeded, and throughout the 80’s and 90’s we grew faster than ever before, and used oil at an astonishing rate.
Now the crunch is coming back, but it’s too late. Greer argues that we no longer have the resources to move to alternate fuels fast enough to maintain our way of life. *Peak oil* will be here soon, and after that the price of oil will rise rapidly. As oil prices rise, so will the cost of everything else. How much will those California grapes cost when diesel — used by the trucks to bring them to your grocery store — hits $20 a gallon? And we’re not just talking produce. Fossil fuels are an enabling technology — we use them for just about everything, and they are the foundation for more complex technologies. Petroleum is used to farm the vast cornfields of the midwest, to build hydroelectric dams, to remove snow, to construct homes and businesses and roads, to make plastic toys and toothbrushes and polyester and appliances and shoes and on and on. The price of everything will go up. Yes, we can start switching to other technologies. But Greer maintains that the cost of doing so will be astronomical, and it will prove to be impossible to BOTH maintain our standard of living AND move to new technologies.
The result? A partial collapse. People will buy more local, seasonal foods, and produce more of it themselves. They will stop commuting long distances, and be forced to take jobs in their bedroom communities, or move into the center of the crowded cities. These cities will suffer food shortages and outbreaks of disease as the medical system strains… You know the drill.
Eventually the conversion to new energy sources will be made, and we will start to rebuild. But if the new energy sources are not renewable, and we do not use them in a sustainable way, then eventually another, harder collapse will come.
So Greer argues. He is persuasive. But I learned something in Chicago last week that makes me wonder.
Over the next few years, Illinois and a number of other midwestern states will be requiring all automobiles be able to handle fuel that is 85% ethanol. Ethanol, of course, is a fuel made from corn, something that the midwest has a fair bit of. It still makes greenhouses gases when it burns, unfortunately, but it is renewable, very much so.
Now, everyone will admit that there is no way that the farmers of America could grow enough corn to supply fuel for all the cars in the country — not if every square foot of the midwest was devoted to growing corn. Still, I was impressed to see that 85% of the fuel of the midwest was slated to be ethanol very soon. That’s a lot of fuel. And the change is going to happen fast — in just a few years. It’s true that they’ve been building up to this a long time, with a lot of government support, and a lot of the infrastructure is already in place. But now they’re doing it, and they’re doing it fast. 85%.
Here’s the bottom line: they’re quickly switching to a renewable resource. And what have midwesterners sacrificed to make this change? Not much! Some slightly higher taxes, probably. Cars a little pricier. Nothing they really noticed.
Another thing. We drove through Illinois and Minnesota, and we saw a lot of corn. But we also saw something we didn’t expect: windmills. We saw dozens of them. At one windmill farm near Paw Paw, Illinois, my wife counted 66 towering white windmills on one patch of land. Windmills alone won’t power our civilization — but, again, the change to renewable resources is being made, without horrible sacrifices.
Here’s the rub: Americans are rich. Impossibly, unbelievably rich. So rich, we don’t have a real understanding of it. It’s possible that we might be able to move to responsible, renewable energy — spending billions in the process — without giving up much of our standard of living.
Consider our defense budget. Nearly half of our government’s money goes towards it. Think of that! Half of the government’s money goes to interstate highways, welfare, corporate welfare, social security, libraries, national parks, environmental protection, farm subsidies, lobbyists… and the rest goes to the military. We have nearly as much military might as the whole rest of the world put together. If everyone in the world attacked us at once, we’d have a fighting chance of winning.
What sacrifices are the American people making to sustain this incredible military might? Frankly, not much. Most people in this country don’t even pay taxes, because they’re too poor to. (I make in the upper five figures, but because I have four children, I don’t pay taxes.) Even for the very rich, the income tax rates are a pittance compared to most nations. And yet, because of our unbelievable wealth, we can waste untold resources on “deterrent”.
How much would it really cost to switch to a rational energy policy? A lot, sure. A lot more than it’s costing midwesterners to switch to ethanol. But I think we can probably afford it, if we decide to. The drunkard will stumble, maybe, but not fall.
If we decide to. That’s the real bottom line, isn’t it?