It is only if you willfully ignore what we know about human civilizations that have come and gone over a number of millennia that you could believe that our current civilization is here to stay. Whether Mayan, Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, or any other great societies of the last 10,000 or so years of human existence on this planet, they have all grown, peaked, and, eventually, disappeared.
Perhaps in this period of unrelenting reversals for democratic norms and institutions in the US and around the world, it is reassuring to know that things will change. But perhaps not. The change that is upon us, i.e. the end of industrial society, is not going to be easy on the human race, or most other living creatures, for that matter.
“The end of what?” you might ask.
The techno-industrial society that we inhabit is underpinned by the availability of what seemed, until fairly recently, “limitless” cheap energy in the form of highly potent fossil fuels. We burn an enormous amount of energy per-person to drive our world, whether literally the cars we drive, or to power “the grid” that delivers energy to billions of people with billions more connected machines and devices, or the planes that clog the skies, or, well, you name just about any area of human activity.
Close your eyes and picture the earth as captured from space: blue and white, impassive, beautiful, but definitely finite. There is only so much of it. There are now nearly 8 billion humans milling around (up from about 2.5 billion in 1950), all expecting to continue to use energy at the rate we have become accustomed to. Something’s got to give, right?
Or maybe you don’t believe that. Maybe you are like most people who are steeped in the deeply ingrained positivism of our era. It’s like a voice in the back of your head saying, “aw, we’ll solve that!” Where “we” is some whiz inventor funded by venture capital that squeezes more juice out of every battery, gets fusion finally working, or maybe a room-temperature superconductor. As fossil fuel stocks deplete it may happen, right?
Well, probably not. Not, at least, in a way that will replace the fantastic efficiency of fossil fuels, where traditionally 1 unit of energy spent on extraction returned 200 units of usable energy. But, rather more obviously, since we can’t guess what wonderful “breakthroughs” may be made in the race to replace cheap, highly efficient fossil fuels, we have to keep in mind that we still live on a finite planet. Lithium, the miracle component of the batteries that power the smartphone revolution, is limited. Uranium for fission or fusion, limited. Phosphate for fertilizers, limited. Even water, particularly clean water, is limited. And the stocks of all are falling… quickly, under the pressure of exploding populations.
We have long since started to bump into the these resource limits, each time side stepping in some way. Eventually, will end up stepping on ourselves, or more explicitly, the richer countries and richer people in the richer countries, will step on the poorer. No amount of recycling or “alternative energy strategies” (that depend on enormous energy inputs to create) will alter the fundamental equation: it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet.
Once the limits are reached, that’s it. There’s no going back. The history of the next 500 years is likely to be very bumpy indeed for human society. Unfortunately, rather than acting as “intelligent beings” and moderating our excesses, we literally fiddle away as the Amazon burns, hastening the reckoning.
It may take 500 years for industrial society to disappear, but the clock has already started ticking. Not only are humans recklessly burning millions of years of stored energy, we are devastating the surface of the planet while we do it. It certainly seems likely that in less than 100 years human society will undergo tremendous upheavals as the faith in limitless grows runs into hard physical limits of a finite planet. The opportunists of today who torment us will be long gone, but they may well be replaced by worse…