A Consideration of the Benefits of a Lower Energy Civilization
By Karl North and Bethany Schroeder
The seventies counterculture generation embraced voluntary simplicity and its low levels of resource use because it enabled not only a lighter ecological footprint but also the chance to escape the stifling straitjacket of bourgeois institutions. Decades later the whole world faces a future of involuntary simplicity, or décroissance (degrowth), as its advocates call it in Europe. Invevitable degrowth? Really? How did that happen?
Markets are the outward manifestation of the energy that motivates them. Especially during the past two centuries, the quest for greater and greater amounts of energy has driven the development of populations and their economies all over the world. Three important effects of this dynamic include environments degraded in an effort to access cheaply and quickly the sources of energy; the growth of populations out of proportion to the land’s ability to sustain them; and a focus on increased profits, regardless of the associated environmental, social, and spiritual costs.
An accounting of progress reveals that the effort to increase material wealth necessitates concomitant technologies of increasing complexity. In general, the more complex the solutions, the more energy they consume. Our global economy is one example of a complex solution. In an effort to keep up with the desire to realize increased material wealth from products, we have created complicated supply chains that span the globe; complicated enterprises to provide access to raw materials and the methods of transportation needed to support the supply chains; and many complicated interdependencies among people, information, and supplies to achieve the goals. The infrastructure required to ensure systems of production, whether manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, education—you name it—have become sufficiently complex as to defy easy review. The manufacture of products requiring more energy to build also creates more waste and pollution, both of which require resources, and therefore more energy, to ameliorate.
History tells us that societies have generally moved toward increasing levels of complexity, doing so at their peril. In the past, the emphasis on material progress has collided with limits on raw materials, resulting in social instability and even societal collapse. Complicated, expensive, and wasteful as material production has become, many of us wonder whether our only choice is to continue in this direction until we can go no further.
As Joseph Tainter has explained, building more complexity with more technology and energy yields diminishing returns to point C2, beyond which it starts destroying quality of life.
Most readers can imagine the 1800s, prior to the pervasive use of fossil fuels. If we were to assess the availability of energy from the vantage point of the Western world in the 1880s, what would we find? Could we re-organize our social frame of reference in ways to improve our chances of living within the limits of our natural resources? How much of the knowledge acquired since the 1800s would help to improve quality of life over what we were able to achieve prior to the beginning of that period?
In recognizing that access to knowledge may not mean, at the same time, access to today’s technologies developed from that knowledge, we can begin to come to terms with the energy costs of every technology, every act of production. We can ask ourselves whether the exertion is worth the price, and we can make this assessment from informed and sensitive perspectives. Worth noting is that like energy itself, every technology has life-cycle energy costs. When we evaluate the energy required to create a product, also known as a product’s embedded energy, we make better decisions about whether we can afford the product in question.
One of the benefits of assessing the potential for future energy consumption today is that we are able to use the tools presently available to us. Such tools include the internet and associated information technologies; products that capture energy, such as wind and solar technologies; and technologies related to advances in medicine, the production and distribution of food, and the use of materials ranging from metals to silken mesh, just to name a few. In these and other similar examples, our use of relevant technologies has capitalized on fossil fuels. We can use the investment in knowledge as we learn to live with less energy. According to environmental scholars Odum and Odum, “Precedents from ecological systems suggest that the global society can turn down and descend prosperously, reducing assets, population, and unessential baggage while staying in balance with its environmental life support system. By retaining the information that is most important, a leaner society can reorganize itself and continue making progress.”
Material Benefits of Energy Descent
Before the broad availability of fossil fuels, the ecological burden that human populations imposed on the environment, as measured in depletion of raw materials and rates of damage to ecosystems, was much lower than it is today. Although the environmental movement has tried to influence the use and protection of resources, diminishing access to cheap energy will offer solutions to many problems that we experience today, including overshoot, or over-population, and breaches of carrying capacity, otherwise defined as the inability of resources to sustain populations without degrading the environment. Simply by shrinking the industrial economy, which slows the rate of damage, we can expect the following effects on some main problem areas:
Slower depletion of non-renewable resources and slower depletion of things that are either slowly renewable or renewable at a high cost. Recycling will become a necessity, a “growth industry.”
Less chemical pollution of soil, air, and water, including greenhouse gas production.
Serious reductions in the human invasion of the ecological niches of other species, as well as reductions in the resulting mass extinction of species. When we cease to use resources at the increasingly higher levels of the last 200 years, and the earth returns to a carrying capacity that ecosystems had developed in the preceding millions of years of natural history, we can expect greater environmental and ecological balance.
Diminishing capacity for modern warfare, with its impersonal, long-distance carnage, and diminishing capacity for the long-distance institutional violence of modern economic empires. For example, many have argued that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been resource wars, undertaken in response to U.S. concerns about dwindling access to liquid fuels. Whatever the cause, the results have been devastating for all social groups involved, in part because of the high-tech capabilities on every side of the disagreement.
Social Benefits of Energy Descent
Arguably the most important benefits of lower energy use (which means functioning at a lower level of complexity) are its social implications for increased security, better social relations, economic restructuring, political decentralization, and healthier lifestyles.
For most of us, the wealth and income that we achieve in our present economy offer little real security, because receiving them fails to confer direct power over them or their sources. As the dominant organization of economic life becomes more brittle and unreliable, its ability to provide economic security will decline, and a subsistence perspective will become more attractive to individuals and communities, because it will offer economic security through more resilient structures. Rather than a return to a particular historic model of a subsistence economy, a subsistence perspective may in fact offer something deeper: a view that seeks to regain the economic security and other benefits—mutualism, reciprocity, and production for use-value rather than market value—that characterized historic subsistence economies.
Besides offering economic security, a subsistence perspective is a view of empowerment that gives priority to the ability to produce or obtain the necessities of life through control over the necessary resource base (land, plant, and animal seed stock and their genetic heritage, income from household work, etc.). Hence, a subsistence perspective has the potential to empower people who can see, hold, and refer to the means of their production. For example, economic relocalization can increase economic security by achieving food sovereignty. On the other hand, in the present global economy, growing mangoes empowers few in Nicaragua if the control over the mango plantations and markets lies in the hands of transnational corporations in New York. In fact, Nicaragua suffers distinct disadvantages: the industrial agricultural practices of Transnational Corporations, also referred to as TNCs, destroy soil fertility and pollute the environment, the mangoes do not enter the local food economy because they bring a better price in New York, and the mango plantations displace local food production, weakening food security for Nicaraguans. This example describes a global pattern in the present system. Similarly, the advantage to local communities of producing milk in the favorable conditions of New York State’s dairy country is largely lost because corporate monopolies control milk markets, and much of the milk is shipped elsewhere.
When it becomes clear that long-term inflation or its equivalent has been baked into the U.S. financial cake, and that time spent making money that only shrinks in value is a veritable treadmill experience, people will discover the relative advantages of time spent producing the essentially inflation-free goods of subsistence, goods such as food, shelter, and clothing. Such items must be produced and maintained, but they have a salutary affect on one’s well-being and sense of achievement.
Societies will need to replace technological solutions with ones based more on human relations, which will in turn stimulate the rebuilding of the local community, including the revival of the collectively managed commons. We can see an example of the good that accrues with this approach in the social and commercial successes of the Ithaca Farmers’ Market, as well as in similar enterprises in villages across Tompkins County.
As economies return to more local production, gender relations may improve. Compared to modern society, peasant societies demonstrate more balanced gender relations, since women are often in control of markets despite distinct gender roles in the division of labor.
In human-scale economies, communities are more aware that economic health increases with equality and its broadened purchasing power. In some peasant communities, merchants vary prices according to a buyer’s ability to pay. For example, even in Bavarian villages of several decades ago, villagers could recall a time when general stores practiced a sliding price scale as well as indefinite credit accounts that acted as a kind of debt jubilee. These customs have been contrasted with the practice of maximizing profits, a practice that has come to dominate modern capitalist economies.
The increasing strength of the informal economy at a human scale, including to some degree the gift economy, carries its own potential benefits to the social health of the community. An example of the potential, at least, of the latter, might be time banking, which has been under consideration at intervals in Tompkins County. Time banking is just one way to jump-start a gift economy, and it has the advantage of avoiding a currency, along with the capacity to advance interest-free credit.
Much that is harmful in the present economy will become too costly to prolong, at least at present levels—the constant advertizing blitzkrieg; the “happy motoring” transportation economy with its traffic, road rage, commuting, and massive inefficiencies; the long-distance, “colonial” economy that enables centers of wealth and power based on exploitation of hinterlands. In the U.S., we have cannibalized much of our environment, and we have now experienced more than half a century of developing strong interests in the lands of others. As the past ten years have demonstrated, the colonialization of distant places creates many problems, no matter the benefits. Simply put, the enterprise is costly.
As happened in the collapse of the Soviet system, an informal food economy (theoretically illegal in the former USSR) can put a floor under economic collapse. In much of the world it already does; three quarters of the world’s economic activity operates as an informal labor economy. The informal economy expanded rapidly in the U.S. during the Great Depression, as was the case when farmers worked on others’ farms, in exchange for similar labor on their own farms.
As the cost of governing at state and national levels becomes unaffordable, the capacity for social control at those levels may weaken, creating a power vacuum and opening political space for more decentralized power structures, which in turn may allow people more participation in the decisions that affect their lives. In Tompkins County, our local system of government is such that residents frequently have the opportunity to participate on committees and boards during short- or long-term proceedings. The local approach to the recent development of Agricultural Plans in several Tompkins County towns is one such example.
As in all periods of instability, the coming one presents an opportunity to break with a long historical period characterized by hierarchical structures of dominance and experiment with more horizontal structures of decision making. European colonization of the New World offered such a break, occasioning much social experimentation.
Culture and Lifestyles
The more labor-intensive form of agriculture that industrial societies will be forced to adopt as available energy declines will put people into a healthier relation to the rest of nature, giving them a physically and mentally healthier lifestyle, geared to natural rhythms rather than the hyperactive patterns typical of urban life. We can also expect that increased exercise associated with less reliance on present modes of mechanical transportation and the ubiquitous use of labor- and energy-saving devices ranging from snow blowers to elevators will lead to improved health outcomes.
The increasing costs of discretionary consumption may force society toward more satisfying behaviors. Cross-cultural studies provide evidence of an inverse relationship between happiness and material prosperity. As the market price of frenzied consumerism rises, so that the manufacture of desire via ads that pander to commercial wants is no longer enough to maintain the addiction, other values will have a chance to surface and eventually prevail. When the energy available can no longer support today’s commercialized spectator culture, people will return to more satisfying, participant forms of cultural activity. We can imagine relational activities, in which people share work and meals and stories in a community of effort toward shared goals.
Local diversity of all sorts—physical, biological, economic, cultural, etc.—will return to replace the uniformity imposed by global capitalism once localities again become free to display their distinctive characteristics. Such diversity represents the natural adaptations to local physical realities and is healthier than the tendency of the current system to fit everything on the planet into the same marketable industrial mold.
In Summary: Localization and Salvage
Benefits of the energy descent are not instantaneous; they appear gradually as we learn to use the opportunities of localization. A view from the Transition Movement may be apt:
All the research I’ve seen, all the thinking I’ve done, and all the people I’ve talked to suggests to me that localisation will do a better job of meeting people’s needs—people will be happier and will live in a more socially cohesive way and more sustainably.… They’ll find that their community is providing them with more opportunities to enact those needs and those intrinsic values. They’ll find that they’re experiencing fewer barriers to enacting the intrinsic values and satisfying their needs.
If John Michael Greer, long-time energy observer and commentator, is right about his eco-successional theory of collapse, breathing room will be available during the transition. As he sees it, in a first era of “scarcity industrialism,” as the limits to growth kick in, the industrial system will work, but less and less reliably, and will provide both time and incentives to evolve adaptive habits and structures of cooperation, localization, self-reliance, and voluntary simplicity. Greer argues that the accumulated wealth and power of a century of superpower status will give the U.S. adequate clout to provide temporary fixes while things fall apart. Even in the subsequent age Greer envisions of “salvage societies,” the immense accumulated built environment of the age of abundance in which the heavily industrialized nations have been living will serve as a store of useful raw materials, a bonanza unknown to earlier low-energy civilizations.
 Bardi, Ugo. “Peak Civilization: The Fall of the Roman Empire.” http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/5528
 Bardi, op. cit.
 Tainter, Joseph. 1996. “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.” http://dieoff.org/page134.htm
 Odum, Howard T., and Odum, Elisabeth C. A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies. University of Colorado Press, 2001.
 Klare, Michael T. “The Pentagon vs. Peak Oil.” http://www.energybulletin.net/node/31067
 Mies, Maria, and Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika. The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy. New York: Zed Books, 2000. Also a talk by Mies, http://republicart.net/disc/aeas/mies01_en.htm.
 Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, op. cit.
 Ostrom, ed. Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, 1990. http://www.cooperationcommons.com/node/361
 Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, op. cit.
 Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, op. cit.
 Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Dreams. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
 Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Books; Revised edition, 1996.
 Orlov, Dmitry. Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. New Society Publishers, 2008. Also “Closing the Collapse Gap.” http://www.energybulletin.net/node/23259
 Astyk, S. “Elephants: Involuntary Simplicity.” http://www.energybulletin.net/node/47405
 Astyk, op. cit.
 See the TCLocal article “As Local As It Gets: The Town of Ithaca Agricultural Protection Plan.” http://tclocal.org/2012/01/as_local_as_it_gets_ag_plan.html
 Korten, David C. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Kumarian Press, 2006. Also the interview “A Defining Moment in History.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6n7prGOvyGU&feature=related
 Goldberg, Carey. “Materialism is bad for you, studies say.” www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/health/08iht-snmat.html
 Hopkins, Rob. “Does Transition Build Happiness?” http://transitionculture.org/2011/10/21/does-transition-build-happiness-an-article-from-the-latest-resurgence-magazine/
 Greer, John Michael. The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. New Society Publishers, 2009. See also Greer’s blog entries “The Age of Scarcity Industrialism” (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/10/age-of-scarcity-industrialism.html) and “The Age of Salvage Societies” (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/10/age-of-salvage-societies.html).