The Retro Future

SUBHEAD: Those of us who adopt the technologies and habits of earlier eras may actually be on the cutting edge.

By John Michael Greer on 15 April 2015 for the Archdruid Report -

Image above: A vision (or nightmare) of a future in petro-transportation. "Are we there yet!" From (

Is it just me, or has the United States taken yet another great leap forward into the surreal over the last few days? Glancing through the news, I find another round of articles babbling about how fracking has guaranteed America a gaudy future as a petroleum and natural gas exporter.

Somehow none of these articles get around to mentioning that the United States is a major net importer of both commodities, that most of the big-name firms in the fracking industry have been losing money at a rate of billions a year since the boom began, and that the pileup of bad loans to fracking firms is pushing the US banking industry into a significant credit crunch, but that’s just par for the course nowadays.

Then there’s the current tempest in the media’s teapot, Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. I’ve come to think of Clinton as the Khloe Kardashian of American politics, since she owed her original fame to the mere fact that she’s related to someone else who once caught the public eye. Since then she’s cycled through various roles because, basically, that’s what Famous People do, and the US presidency is just the next reality-TV gig on her bucket list.

I grant that there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from watching this child of privilege, with the help of her multimillionaire friends, posturing as a champion of the downtrodden, but I trust that none of my readers are under the illusion that this rhetoric will amount to anything more than all that chatter about hope and change eight years ago.

Let us please be real: whoever mumbles the oath of office up there on the podium in 2017, whether it’s Clinton or the interchangeably Bozoesque figures currently piling one by one out of the GOP’s clown car to contend with her, we can count on more of the same: more futile wars, more giveaways to the rich at everyone else’s expense, more erosion of civil liberties, more of all the other things Obama’s cheerleaders insisted back in 2008 he would stop as soon as he got into office.

As Arnold Toynbee pointed out a good many years ago, one of the hallmarks of a nation in decline is that the dominant elite sinks into senility, becoming so heavily invested in failed policies and so insulated from the results of its own actions that nothing short of total disaster will break its deathgrip on the body politic.

While we wait for the disaster in question, though, those of us who aren’t part of the dominant elite and aren’t bamboozled by the spectacle du jour might reasonably consider what we might do about it all.

By that, of course, I don’t mean that it’s still possible to save industrial civilization in general, and the United States in particular, from the consequences of their history. That possibility went whistling down the wind a long time ago.

Back in 2005, the Hirsch Report showed that any attempt to deal with the impending collision with the hard ecological limits of a finite planet had to get under way at least twenty years before the peak of global conventional petroleum reserves, if there was to be any chance of avoiding massive disruptions.

As it happens, 2005 also marked the peak of conventional petroleum production worldwide, which may give you some sense of the scale of the current mess.

Consider, though, what happened in the wake of that announcement. Instead of dealing with the hard realities of our predicament, the industrial world panicked and ran the other way, with the United States well in the lead. 

Strident claims that ethanol—er, solar—um, biodiesel—okay, wind—well, fracking, then—would provide a cornucopia of cheap energy to replace the world’s rapidly depleting reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas took the place of a serious energy policy, while conservation, the one thing that might have made a difference, was as welcome as garlic aioli at a convention of vampires.

That stunningly self-defeating response had a straightforward cause, which was that everyone except a few of us on the fringes treated the whole matter as though the issue was how the privileged classes of the industrial world could maintain their current lifestyles on some other resource base.

Since that question has no meaningful answer, questions that could have been answered—for example, how do we get through the impending mess with at least some of the achievements of the last three centuries intact?—never got asked at all.

At this point, as a result, ten more years have been wasted trying to come up with answers to the wrong question, and most of the doors that were still open in 2005 have been slammed shut by events since that time.

Fortunately, there are still a few possibilities for constructive action open even this late in the game. More fortunate still, the ones that will likely matter most don’t require Hillary Clinton, or any other member of America’s serenely clueless ruling elite, to do something useful for a change.

They depend, rather, on personal action, beginning with individuals, families, and local communities and spiraling outward from there to shape the future on wider and wider scales.

I’ve talked about two of these possibilities at some length in posts here. The first can be summed up simply enough in a cheery sentence:

“Collapse now and avoid the rush!”

In an age of economic contraction—and behind the current facade of hallucinatory paper wealth, we’re already in such an age—nothing is quite so deadly as the attempt to prop up extravagant lifestyles that the real economy of goods and services will no longer support.

Those who thrive in such times are those who downshift ahead of the economy, take the resources that would otherwise be wasted on attempts to sustain the unsustainable, and apply them to the costs of transition to less absurd ways of living. The acronym L.E.S.S.—“Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation”—provides a good first approximation of the direction in which such efforts at controlled collapse might usefully move.

The point of this project isn’t limited to its advantages on the personal scale, though these are fairly substantial. It’s been demonstrated over and over again that personal example is far more effective than verbal rhetoric at laying the groundwork for collective change. A great deal of what keeps so many people pinned in the increasingly unsatisfying and unproductive lifestyles sold to them by the media is simply that they can’t imagine a better alternative.

Those people who collapse ahead of the rush and demonstrate that it’s entirely possible to have a humane and decent life on a small fraction of the usual American resource footprint are already functioning as early adopters; with every month that passes, I hear from more people—especially young people in their teens and twenties—who are joining them, and helping to build a bridgehead to a world on the far side of the impending crisis.

The second possibility is considerably more complex, and resists summing up so neatly. In a series of posts here  in 2010 and 2011, and then in my book Green Wizardry, I sketched out the toolkit of concepts and approaches that were central to the appropriate technology movement back in the 1970s, where I had my original education in the subjects central to this blog.

I argued then, and still believe now, that by whatever combination of genius and sheer dumb luck, the pioneers of that movement managed to stumble across a set of approaches to the work of sustainability that are better suited to the needs of our time than anything that’s been proposed since then.

Among the most important features of what I’ve called the “green wizardry” of appropriate tech is the fact that those who want to put it to work don’t have to wait for the Hillary Clintons of the world to lift a finger. Millions of dollars in government grants and investment funds aren’t necessary, or even particularly useful.

From its roots in the Sixties counterculture, the appropriate tech scene inherited a focus on do-it-yourself projects that could be done with hand tools, hard work, and not much money. In an age of economic contraction, that makes even more sense than it did back in the day, and the ability to keep yourself and others warm, dry, fed, and provided with many of the other needs of life without potentially lethal dependencies on today’s baroque technostructures has much to recommend it.

Nor, it has to be said, is appropriate tech limited to those who can afford a farm in the country; many of the most ingenious and useful appropriate tech projects were developed by and for people living in ordinary homes and apartments, with a small backyard or no soil at all available for gardening.

The most important feature of appropriate tech, though, is that the core elements of its toolkit—intensive organic gardening and small-scale animal husbandry, homescale solar thermal technologies, energy conservation, and the like—are all things that will still make sense long after the current age of fossil fuel extraction has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Getting these techniques into as many hands as possible now is thus not just a matter of cushioning the impacts of the impending era of crisis; it’s also a way to start building the sustainable world of the future right now.

Those two strategies, collapsing ahead of the rush and exploring the green wizardry of appropriate technology, have been core themes of this blog for quite a while now.

There’s a third project, though, that I’ve been exploring in a more abstract context here for a while now, and it’s time to talk about how it can be applied to some of the most critical needs of our time.

In the early days of this blog, I pointed out that technological progress has a feature that’s not always grasped by its critics, much less by those who’ve turned faith in progress into the established religion of our time. Very few new technologies actually meet human needs that weren’t already being met, and so the arrival of a new technology generally leads to the abandonment of an older technology that did the same thing.

The difficulty here is that new technologies nowadays are inevitably more dependent on global technostructures, and the increasingly brittle and destructive economic systems that support them, than the technologies they replace. New technologies look more efficient than old ones because more of the work is being done somewhere else, and can therefore be ignored—for now.

This is the basis for what I’ve called the externality trap. As technologies get more complex, that complexity allows more of their costs to be externalized—that is to say, pushed onto someone other than the makers or users of the technology. The pressures of a market economy guarantee that those economic actors who externalize more of their costs will prosper at the expense of those who externalize less.

The costs thus externalized, though, don’t go away; they get passed from hand to hand like hot potatoes and finally pile up in the whole systems—the economy, the society, the biosphere itself—that have no voice in economic decisions, but are essential to the prosperity and survival of every economic actor, and sooner or later those whole systems will break down under the burden.

Unlimited technological progress in a market economy thus guarantees the economic, social, and/or environmental destruction of the society that fosters it.

The externality trap isn’t just a theoretical possibility. It’s an everyday reality, especially but not only in the United States and other industrial societies. There are plenty of forces driving the rising spiral of economic, social, and environmental disruption that’s shaking the industrial world right down to its foundations, but among the most important is precisely the unacknowledged impact of externalized costs on the whole systems that support the industrial economy.

It’s fashionable these days to insist that increasing technological complexity and integration will somehow tame that rising spiral of crisis, but the externality trap suggests that exactly the opposite is the case—that the more complex and integrated technologies become, the more externalities they will generate. It’s precisely because technological complexity makes it easy to ignore externalized costs that progress becomes its own nemesis.

Yes, I know, suggesting that progress isn’t infallibly beneficent is heresy, and suggesting that progress will necessarily terminate itself with extreme prejudice is heresy twice over. I can’t help that; it so happens that in most declining civilizations, ours included, the things that most need to be said are the things that, by and large, nobody wants to hear.

That being the case, I might as well make it three for three and point out that the externality trap is a problem rather than a predicament.

The difference, as longtime readers know, is that problems can be solved, while predicaments can only be faced.

We don’t have to keep loading an ever-increasing burden of externalized costs on the whole systems that support us—which is to say, we don’t have to keep increasing the complexity and integration of the technologies that we use in our daily lives.

We can stop adding to the burden; we can even go the other way.

Now of course suggesting that, even thinking it, is heresy on the grand scale. I’m reminded of a bit of technofluff in the Canadian media a week or so back that claimed to present a radically pessimistic view of the next ten years.

Of course it had as much in common with actual pessimism as lite beer has with a pint of good brown ale; the worst thing the author, one Douglas Coupland, is apparently able to imagine is that industrial society will keep on doing what it’s doing now—though the fact that more of what’s happening now apparently counts as radical pessimism these days is an interesting point, and one that deserves further discussion.

The detail of this particular Dystopia Lite that deserves attention here, though, is Coupland’s dogmatic insistence that “you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness.” That’s a common bit of rhetoric out of the mouths of tech geeks these days, to be sure, but it isn’t even remotely true.

I know quite a few people who used to be active on social media and have dropped the habit. I know others who used to have allegedly smart phones and went back to ordinary cell phones, or even to a plain land line, because they found that the costs of excess connectedness outweighed the benefits. Technological downshifting is already a rising trend, and there are very good reasons for that fact.

Most people find out at some point in adolescence that there really is such a thing as drinking too much beer. I think a lot of people are slowly realizing that the same thing is true of connectedness, and of the other prominent features of today’s fashionable technologies.

One of the data points that gives me confidence in that analysis is the way that people like Coupland angrily dismiss the possibility. Part of his display of soi-disant pessimism is the insistence that within a decade, people who don’t adopt the latest technologies will be dismissed as passive-aggressive control freaks.

Now of course that label could be turned the other way just as easily, but the point I want to make here is that nobody gets that bent out of shape about behaviors that are mere theoretical possibilities.

Clearly, Coupland and his geek friends are already contending with people who aren’t interested in conforming to the technosphere.

It’s not just geek technologies that are coming in for that kind of rejection, either. These days, in the town where I live, teenagers whose older siblings used to go hotdogging around in cars ten years ago are doing the same thing on bicycles today.

Granted, I live in a down-at-the-heels old mill town in the north central Appalachians, but there’s more to it than that.

For a lot of these kids, the costs of owning a car outweigh the benefits so drastically that cars aren’t cool any more.

One consequence of that shift in cultural fashion is that these same kids aren’t contributing anything like so much to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or to the other externalized costs generated by car ownership.

I’ve written here already about deliberate technological regression as a matter of public policy. Over the last few months, though, it’s become increasingly clear to me that deliberate technological regression as a matter of personal choice is also worth pursuing.

Partly this is because the deathgrip of failed policies on the political and economic order of the industrial world, as mentioned earlier, is tight enough that any significant change these days has to start down here at the grassroots level, with individuals, families, and communities, if it’s going to get anywhere at all; partly, it’s because technological regression, like anything else that flies in the face of the media stereotypes of our time, needs the support of personal example in order to get a foothold; partly, it’s because older technologies, being less vulnerable to the impacts of whole-system disruptions, will still be there meeting human needs when the grid goes down, the economy freezes up, or something really does break the internet, and many of them will still be viable when the fossil fuel age is a matter for the history books.

Still, there’s another aspect, and it’s one that the essay by Douglas Coupland mentioned above managed to hit squarely: the high-tech utopia ballyhooed by the first generation or so of internet junkies has turned out in practice to be a good deal less idyllic, and in fact a good deal more dystopian, than its promoters claimed.

All the wonderful things we were supposedly going to be able to do turned out in practice to consist of staring at little pictures on glass screens and pushing buttons, and these are not exactly the most interesting activities in the world, you know. The people who are dropping out of social media and ditching their allegedly smart phones for a less connected lifestyle have noticed this.

What’s more, a great many more people—the kids hotdogging on bikes here in Cumberland are among them—are weighing  the costs and benefits of complex technologies with cold eyes, and deciding that an older, simpler technology less dependent on global technosystems is not just more practical, but also, and importantly, more fun.

True believers in the transhumanist cyberfuture will doubtless object to that last point, but the deathgrip of failed ideas on societies in decline isn’t limited to the senile elites mentioned toward the beginning of this post; it can also afflict the fashionable intellectuals of the day, and make them proclaim the imminent arrival of the future’s rising waters when the tide’s already turned and is flowing back out to sea.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that it’s entirely possible that we could be heading toward a future in which people will roll their eyes when they think of Twitter, texting, 24/7 connectivity, and the rest of today’s overblown technofetishism—like, dude, all that stuff is so twenty-teens!

Meanwhile, those of us who adopt the technologies and habits of earlier eras, whether that adoption is motivated by mere boredom with little glass screens or by some more serious set of motives, may actually be on the cutting edge: the early adopters of the Retro Future.

We’ll talk about that more in the weeks ahead.

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