Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Human Machinations

The myth of the machine has implications, which go well beyond the usual terms of discussion in the peak oil scene. One of those implications unfolds from the way that so many people, who are concerned about peak oil, fixate obsessively on the hope that some kind of machine will solve the problem.

There are at least three ways, in which this fixation gets in the way of any meaningful response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. The first, of course, is that peak oil isn't a problem; because by definition a problem, at least potentially, has a solution. Peak oil has no solution. That's true in the narrow sense of the term - no possible turn of events will allow industrial civilization to extract a limitless supply of crude oil from a finite planet.

Peak oil is, thus, a predicament rather than a problem; since nothing we or anyone else can do will make it go away. Instead, we and our descendants down through the millennia to come, will have to live with the reality of a world much less lavishly stocked with concentrated energy sources; than the one our ancestors inherited a few short centuries ago. The task awaiting us, and our descendants, is that of finding creative and humane responses to that implacable reality.

The second sense, in which the obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil, is that it pushes responsibility for doing something onto someone else. The downside of depending on someone else to do that or any other job, of course, is that dependence always has a political cost. Frank Herbert explains this with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines, in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines. Its doubtful whether ordinary people have any influence worth noting over the decisions involved in building giant wind turbines say, or developing thorium reactors, or turning arable land into giant biodiesel farms. This makes it easy to insist that, steps like these, are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil.

No doubt, the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity; but there's another factor involved. An enormous amount of rhetoric about the future these days starts from the assumption that, the lifestyles of the middle classes in today's industrial societies are normal and ought to be available indefinitely - at least to those same middle classes. There's nothing normal at all about strawberries in midwinter or vacations in the tropics, only a civilization surfing a tsunami of cheap energy could convince itself that such habits are.

It's hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively, than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by itself is capable of meeting essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment.

Computers by contrast need electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing. To make a laptop computer more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system; which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy. And, of course, to produce the laptop; the electrical grid and the internet in the first place. Counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world.

The myth of industrial progress is coming to pieces around us; the myth of the machine will follow it in due time. In the interval before they dissolve and are replaced by narratives better suited to the needs and possibilities of the deindustrial age, there is a great deal that can be done to begin the rediscovery of the human, to preserve those teachings from the past that can fill critical needs in the future, and to sketch out the first rough drafts of new disciplines that will apply the creative and productive possibilities of the individual to the challenges ahead.

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