Last week’s post on the vacuous catchphrases that so often substitute for thought in today’s America referenced only a few examples of the species under discussion. It might someday be educational, or at least entertaining, to write a sequel to H.L. Mencken’s The American Credo, bringing his choice collection of thoughtstoppers up to date with the latest fashionable examples; still, that enticing prospect will have to wait for some later opportunity.In the meantime, those who liked my suggestion of Peak Oil Denial Bingo will doubtless want to know that cards can now be downloaded for free.
What I’d like to do this week is talk about another popular credo, one that plays a very large role in blinding people nowadays to the shape of the future looming up ahead of us all just now. In an interesting display of synchronicity, it came up in a conversation I had while last week’s essay was still being written. A friend and I were talking about the myth of progress, the facile and popular conviction that all human history follows an ever-ascending arc from the caves to the stars; my friend noted how disappointed he’d been with a book about the future that backed away from tomorrow’s challenges into the shelter of a comforting thoughtstopper: “Technology will always be with us.”
Let’s take a moment to follow the advice I gave in last week’s post and think about what, if anything, that actually means. Taken in the most literal sense, it’s true but trivial. Toolmaking is one of our species’ core evolutionary strategies, and so it’s a safe bet that human beings will have some variety of technology or other as long as our species survives. That requirement could just as easily be satisfied, though, by a flint hand axe as by a laptop computer—and a flint hand axe is presumably not what people who use that particular thoughtstopper have in mind.
Perhaps we might rephrase the credo, then, as “modern technology will always be with us.” That’s also true in a trivial sense, and false in another, equally trivial sense. In the first sense, every generation has its own modern technology; the latest up-to-date flint hand axes were, if you’ll pardon the pun, cutting-edge technology in the time of the Neanderthals. In the second sense, much of every generation’s modern technology goes away promptly with that generation; whichever way the future goes, much of what counts as modern technology today will soon be no more modern and cutting-edge than eight-track tape players or Victorian magic-lantern projectors. That’s as true if we get a future of continued progress as it is if we get a future of regression and decline.
Perhaps our author means something like “some technology at least as complex as what we have now, and fulfilling most of the same functions, will always be with us.” This is less trivial but it’s quite simply false, as historical parallels show clearly enough. Much of the technology of the Roman era, from wheel-thrown pottery to central heating, was lost in most of the western Empire and had to be brought in from elsewhere centuries later. In the dark ages that followed the fall of Mycenean Greece, even so simple a trick as the art of writing was lost, while the history of Chinese technology before the modern era is a cycle in which many discoveries made during the heyday of each great dynasty were lost in the dark age that followed its decline and fall, and had to be rediscovered when stability and prosperity returned. For people living in each of these dark ages, technology comparable to what had been in use before the dark age started was emphatically not always with them.
For that matter, who is the “us” that we’re discussing here? Many people right now have no access to the technologies that middle-class Americans take for granted. For all the good that modern technology does them, today’s rural subsistence farmers, laborers in sweatshop factories, and the like might as well be living in some earlier era. I suspect our author is not thinking about such people, though, and the credo thus might be phrased as “some technology at least as complex as what middle-class people in the industrial world have now, providing the same services they have come to expect, will always be available to people of that same class.” Depending on how you define social classes, that’s either true but trivial—if “being middle class” equals “having access to the technology todays middle classes have,” no middle class people will ever be deprived of such a technology because, by definition, there will be no middle class people once the technology stops being available—or nontrivial but clearly false—plenty of people who think of themselves as middle class Americans right now are losing access to a great deal of technology as economic contraction deprives them of their jobs and incomes and launches them on new careers of downward mobility and radical impoverishment.
Well before the analysis got this far, of course, anyone who’s likely to mutter the credo “Technology will always be with us” will have jumped up and yelled, “Oh for heaven’s sake, you know perfectly well what I mean when I use that word! You know, technology!”—or words to that effect. Now of course I do know exactly what the word means in that context: it’s a vague abstraction with no real conceptual meaning at all, but an ample supply of raw emotional force. Like other thoughtstoppers of the same kind, it serves as a verbal bludgeon to prevent people from talking or even thinking about the brittle, fractious, ambivalent realities that shape our lives these days. Still, let’s go a little further with the process of analysis, because it leads somewhere that’s far from trivial.
Keep asking a believer in the credo we’re discussing the sort of annoying questions I’ve suggested above, and sooner or later you’re likely to get a redefinition that goes something like this: “The coming of the industrial revolution was a major watershed in human history, and no future society of any importance will ever again be deprived of the possibilities opened up by that revolution.” Whether or not that turns out to be true is a question nobody today can answer, but it’s a claim worth considering, because history shows that enduring shifts of this kind do happen from time to time. The agricultural revolution of c. 9000 BCE and the urban revolution of c. 3500 BCE were both decisive changes in human history. Even though there were plenty of nonagricultural societies after the first, and plenty of nonurban societies after the second, the possibilities opened up by each revolution were always options thereafter, when and where ecological and social circumstances permitted.
Some 5500 years passed between the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution, and since it’s been right around 5500 years since the urban revolution began, a case could probably be made that we were due for another. Still, let’s take a closer look at the putative third revolution. What exactly was the industrial revolution? What changed, and what future awaits those changes?
That’s a far more subtle question than it might seem at first glance, because the cascade of changes that fit under the very broad label “the industrial revolution” weren’t all of a piece. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that there was not one industrial revolution, but four of them—or, more precisely, three and a half. Lewis Mumford’s important 1934 study Technics and Civilization identified three of those revolutions, though the labels he used for them—the eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic phases—shoved them into a linear scheme of progress that distorts many of their key features. Instead, I propose to borrow the same habit people use when they talk about the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, and name the revolutions after individuals who played crucial roles in making them happen.
First of all, then—corresponding to Mumford’s eotechnic phase—is the Baconian revolution, which got under way around 1600. It takes its name from Francis Bacon, who was the first significant European thinker to propose that what he called natural philosophy and we call science ought to be reoriented away from the abstract contemplation of the cosmos, and toward making practical improvements in the technologies of the time. Such improvements were already under way, carried out by a new class of “mechanicks” who had begun to learn by experience that building a faster ship, a sturdier plow, a better spinning wheel, or the like could be a quick route to prosperity, and encouraged by governments eager to cash in new inventions for the more valued coinage of national wealth and military victory.
The Baconian revolution, like those that followed it, brought with it a specific suite of technologies. Square-rigged ships capable of long deepwater voyages revolutionized international trade and naval warfare; canals and canal boats had a similar impact on domestic transport systems. New information and communication media—newspapers, magazines, and public libraries—were crucial elements of the Baconian technological suite, which also encompassed major improvements in agriculture and in metal and glass manufacture, and significant developments in the use of wind and water power, as well as the first factories using division of labor to allow mass production.
The second revolution—corresponding to Mumford’s paleotechnic phase—was the Wattean revolution, which got started around 1780. This takes its name, of course, from James Watt, whose redesign of the steam engine turned it from a convenience for the mining industry to the throbbing heart of a wholly new technological regime, replacing renewable energy sources with concentrated fossil fuel energy and putting that latter to work in every economically viable setting. The steamship was the new vehicle of international trade, the railroad the corresponding domestic transport system; electricity came in with steam, and so did the telegraph, the major new communications technology of the era, while mass production of steel via the Bessemer process had a massive impact across the economic sphere.
The third revolution—corresponding to Mumford’s neotechnic phase—was the Ottonian revolution, which took off around 1890. I’ve named this revolution after Nikolaus Otto, who invented the four-cycle internal combustion engine in 1876 and kickstarted the process that turned petroleum from a source of lamp fuel to the resource that brought the industrial age to its zenith. In the Ottonian era, international trade shifted to diesel-powered ships, supplemented later on by air travel; the domestic transport system was the automobile; the rise of vacuum-state electronics made radio (including television, which is simply an application of radio technology) the major new communications technology; and the industrial use of organic chemistry, turning petroleum and other fossil fuels into feedstocks for plastics, gave the Ottonian era its most distinctive materials.
The fourth, partial revolution, which hadn’t yet begun when Mumford wrote his book, was the Fermian revolution, which can be dated quite precisely to 1942 and is named after Enrico Fermi, the designer and builder of the first successful nuclear reactor. The keynote of the Fermian era was the application of subatomic physics, not only in nuclear power but also in solid-state electronic devices such as the transistor and the photovoltaic cell. In the middle years of the 20th century, a great many people took it for granted that the Fermian revolution would follow the same trajectory as its Wattean and Ottonian predecessors: nuclear power would replace diesel power in freighters, electricity would elbow aside gasoline as the power source for domestic transport, and nucleonics would become as important as electronics as a core element in new technologies yet unimagined.
Unfortunately for those expectations, nuclear power turned out to be a technical triumph but an economic flop. Claims that nuclear power would make electricity too cheap to meter ran face first into the hard fact that no nation anywhere has been able to have a nuclear power industry without huge and ongoing government subsidies, while nuclear-powered ships were relegated to the navies of very rich nations, which didn’t have to turn a profit and so could afford to ignore the higher construction and operating costs. Nucleonics turned out to have certain applications, but nothing like as many or as lucrative as the giddy forecasts of 1950 suggested. Solid state electronics, on the other hand, turned out to be economically viable, at least in a world with ample fossil fuel supplies, and made the computer and the era’s distinctive communications medium, the internet, economically viable propositions.
The Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian revolutions thus had a core theme in common. Each of them relied on a previously untapped energy resource—coal, petroleum, and uranium, respectively—and set out to build a suite of technologies to exploit that resource and the forms of energy it made available. The scientific and engineering know-how that was required to manage each power source then became the key toolkit for the technological suite that unfolded from it; from the coal furnace, the Bessemer process for making steel was a logical extension, just as the knowledge of hydrocarbon chemistry needed for petroleum refining became the basis for plastics and the chemical industry, and the same revolution in physics that made nuclear fission reactors possible also launched solid state electronics—it’s not often remembered, for example, that Albert Einstein got his Nobel prize for understanding the process that makes PV cells work, not for the theory of relativity.
Regular readers of this blog will probably already have grasped the core implication of this common theme. The core technologies of the Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian eras all depend on access to large amounts of specific nonrenewable resources. Fermian technology, for example, demands fissible material for its reactors and rare earth elements for its electronics, among many other things; Ottonian technology demands petroleum and natural gas, and some other resources; Wattean technology demands coal and iron ore. It’s sometimes possible to substitute one set of materials for another—say, to process coal into liquid fuel—but there’s always a major economic cost involved, even if there’s an ample and inexpensive supply of the other resource that isn’t needed for some other purpose.
In today’s world, by contrast, the resources needed for all three technological suites are being used at breakneck rates and thus are either already facing depletion or will do so in the near future. When coal has already been mined so heavily that sulfurous, low-energy brown coal—the kind that miners in the 19th century used to discard as waste—has become the standard fuel for coal-fired power plants, for example, it’s a bit late to talk about a coal-to-liquids program to replace any serious fraction of the world’s petroleum consumption: the attempt to do so would send coal prices soaring to economy-wrecking heights. Richard Heinberg has pointed out in his useful book Peak Everything, for that matter, that a great deal of the coal still remaining in the ground will take more energy to extract than it will produce when burnt, making it an energy sink rather than an energy source.
Thus we can expect very large elements of Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian technologies to stop being economically viable in the years ahead, as depletion drives up resource costs and the knock-on effects of the resulting economic contraction force down demand. That doesn’t mean that every aspect of those technological suites will go away, to be sure. It’s not at all unusual, in the wake of a fallen civilization, to find “orphan technologies” that once functioned as parts of a coherent technological suite, still doing their jobs long after the rest of the suite has fallen out of use. Just as Roman aqueducts kept bringing water to cities in the post-Roman dark ages whose inhabitants had neither the resources nor the knowledge to build anything of the kind, it’s quite likely that (say) hydroelectric facilities in certain locations will stay in use for centuries to come, powering whatever electrical equipment can maintained or built from local resources, even if the people who tend the dams and use the electricity have long since lost the capacity to build turbines, generators, or dams at all.
Yet there’s another issue involved, because the first of the four industrial revolutions I’ve discussed in this essay—the Baconian revolution—was not dependent on nonrenewable resources. The suite of technologies that unfolded from Francis Bacon’s original project used the same energy sources that everyone in the world’s urban-agricultural societies had been using for more than three thousand years: human and animal muscle, wind, water, and heat from burning biomass. Unlike the revolutions that followed it, to put the same issue in a different but equally relevant way, the Baconian revolution worked within the limits of the energy budget the Earth receives each year from the Sun, instead of drawing down stored sunlight from the Earth’s store of fossil carbon or its much more limited store of fissible isotopes. The Baconian era simply used that annual solar budget in a more systematic way than previous societies managed, by directing the considerable intellectual skills of the natural philosophers of the day toward practical ends.
Because of their dependence on nonrenewable resources, the three later revolutions were guaranteed all along to be transitory phases. The Baconian revolution need not be, and I think that there’s a noticeable chance that it will not be. By that I mean, to begin with, that the core intellectual leap that made the Baconian revolution possible—the scientific method—is sufficiently widespread at this point that with a little help, it may well get through the decline and fall of our civilization and become part of the standard toolkit of future civilizations, in much the same way that classical logic survived the wreck of Rome to be taken up by successor civilizations across the breadth of the Old World.
Still, that’s not all I mean to imply here. The specific technological suite that developed in the wake of the Baconian revolution will still be viable in a post-fossil fuel world, wherever the ecological and social circumstances will permit it to exist at all. Deepwater maritime shipping, canal-borne transport across nations and subcontinents, mass production of goods using the division of labor as an organizing principle, extensive use of wind and water power, and widespread literacy and information exchange involving print media, libraries, postal services, and the like, are all options available to societies in the deindustrial world. So are certain other technologies that evolved in the post-Baconian era, but fit neatly within the Baconian model: solar thermal technologies, for example, and those forms of electronics that can be economically manufactured and powered with the limited supplies of concentrated energy a sustainable society will have on hand.
I’ve suggested in previous posts here, and in my book The Ecotechnic Future, that our current industrial society may turn out to be merely the first, most wasteful, and least durable of what might best be called “technic societies”—that is, human societies that get a large fraction of their total energy supply from sources other than human and animal muscle, and support complex technological suites on that basis. The technologies of the Baconian era, I propose, offer a glimpse of what an emerging ecotechnic society might look like in practice—and a sense of the foundations on which the more complex ecotechnic societies of the future will build.
When the book mentioned at the beginning of this essay claimed that “technology will always be with us,” it’s a safe bet that the author wasn’t thinking of tall ships, canal boats, solar greenhouses, and a low-power global radio net, much less the further advances along the same lines that might well be possible in a post-fossil fuel world. Still, it’s crucial to get outside the delusion that the future must either be a flashier version of the present or a smoldering wasteland full of bleached bones, and start to confront the wider and frankly more interesting possibilities that await our descendants.
Along these same lines, I’d like to remind readers that this blog’s second post-peak oil science fiction contest has less than a month left to run. Those of you who are still working on stories need to get them finished, posted online, and linked to a comment on this blog before May 1 to be eligible for inclusion in the second After Oil anthology. Get ‘em in!