How We Got Here

At its current stage of development, humanity is like a troubled adolescent that has the physical powers of an adult but not the psychological maturity to be able to properly assess the risks inherent in its actions. With the energy of fossil fuels available to drive seemingly endless growth in both our numbers and in the impact of each individual upon the earth, we have outgrown the ability of that single earth to support us. At the same time, we actively destroy its ability to support us; with heavy metals found in animals as far away as the Arctic, and heat-trapping carbon dioxide emitted into the air. In order to survive humanity must move from adolescence into the adulthood which will allow it to live in sustainable ways. Otherwise humanity will become just another adolescent who pushed their luck too far for their own good, and never fully understood the danger until it was too late. How did the human race arrive at this point? During humanity’s lengthy and slow childhood it would have been inconceivable that it was capable of fundamentally damaging the ecological basis of its own existence. Then, in the seeming blink of an eye of archaeological time we rushed through adolescence at an accelerating pace to arrive at the current fork in the road. The road taken will define our future, with one path leading to the destruction of our current society and the reversion of humanity back deep into its early years of development, and the other leading through a painful reconciliation with reality to a simpler, sustainable, way of living.

Childhood

Palaeontology is the study of prehistoric life, through the study of fossils and other clues left from ancient times, together with comparisons to current living things. This science tells us that life on earth started about 3.8 billion years ago, and it was about 2 billion after that before multi-celled life appeared. Then another 1.5 billion years was needed for the development of what we would recognize as plants and animals. Primates, of whom humans are a part, appeared only around 50 million years ago. The human subset, referred to as the genus Homo, appeared about 2.4 million years ago. What we would recognize as modern human beings, Homo-Sapiens, came along only about 200,000 years ago. It took another 150,000 years to fully develop the traits, such as symbolic thought and standardized stone tools, which we consider specific to humans. For another 40,000 years we continued to live in small groups of hunter-gatherers, and spread across the globe. The hunter-gatherer life could be a relatively pleasant, but also relatively short, existence. With only a few hours a day required for the gathering and hunting of food much time could be spent on personal and social activities. These groups also tended to be egalitarian, with few possessions and relative equality of social rank for the adult members, both male and female. Such groups were also highly mobile, allowing at least some humans to survive when the climate went through its periodic movements from the cold of the ice ages to the warmth of the inter-glacial periods or earthquakes and volcanic eruptions threatened them.

Adolescence

Agriculture

Approximately 11,000 years ago, some human groups took up farming. The experts disagree on whether this was forced upon them by a combination of environmental change and population growth, or it was a natural next step given our species growing cleverness and tool making. Many hunter-gatherer groups do practice some control of the plants around them, for example by rooting out unwanted plants and clearing areas with fire to aid the growth of plants more beneficial to them. Thus the move to agriculture may have been more of an incremental, rather than a revolutionary, change. What is not open to question is that the effects of this change were revolutionary, forming the basis upon which complex human societies have developed. Humans no longer had to keep moving to find available plants and animals; instead they could control the growth of their food while staying in one place, and even create a surplus. Over the next few thousand years, agricultural societies became prevalent, pushing aside hunter-gatherers until in the present day, the latter exist as a tiny percentage of the human population. This was also the time that we started to deplete the accumulated natural capital that had been put in place over millions of years by the earth, in this case the topsoil into which we planted our harvests.

Surplus food production could support new specialist roles which were not directly involved in the production of food, such as tool makers and religious leaders. Such surpluses also allowed for the stratification of society, as leaders utilized force and cultural and religious beliefs to take control of those surpluses and claim them as their own. Those leaders could also use the surpluses to feed specialist fighting men to both control the members of their tribe, and to take over other tribes. More complex and less equal social groups were the result.

Such larger communities supported even greater role specialization, with the bureaucracies needed to control people and resources spread over larger and larger areas. As the increasing distances made face to face communication impossible the need for the written word arose. Settled lives also facilitated the birth of more children who could be supported by the larger amounts of food created by farming, and did not have to be carried around by their wandering parents. This would become a vicious cycle as more children required more food, and this lead to greater exploitation of the soils, which then allowed for the birth and feeding of more children. Technology accelerated as this cycle intensified, with the usage of irrigation, terracing, better food storage, and draught animals to plough the land.

Over time these factors lead to the highly complex societies that started to appear about 6,000 years ago. It is within this incredibly small period of time, relative to the history of even just our own species, that what we refer to as history has taken place. The Egyptians, Mayans, Greeks, Romans, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Industrial Society, all within this tiny period of human history. Tainter refers to such societies as an “anomaly in history”, as apart from this 6,000 year period, “throughout the several million years that recognizable humans are known to have lived, the common political unit was the small, autonomous community”1. These complex societies still relied upon the amount of food and other energy that could be provided by their surrounding ecosystem, and thus were at the mercy of local climate changes and their own overuse of the land. Another danger was that of other societies which could go to war to gain new territory and slaves. The tension between the poor masses that produced the surpluses utilized by the elites, and those elites, could also threaten to pull such a society apart. The sheer complexity of these societies also threatened their existence as they became more affected by small changes and greater and greater amounts of energy were required to support them. These factors could combine to greatly weaken a society, for instance a few years of bad harvests could weaken military strength and exacerbate internal tensions as farmers struggled between feeding themselves and meeting the demands of the rulers. The fragility of such complex collections of humanity has been shown by their repeated collapses. Such collapse awaited not only the relatively small and ecologically marginal societies, but also the highly developed ones at the peak of their power such as the Mayan, Sumerian, Greek, Roman and Khmer2. Civilizations could also be fractured into smaller parts, as with Egypt during a 150-year drought about 4,000 years ago that greatly reduced the Nile floods and stretched the society to breaking point3. Drought also seems to have played an important part in the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean about 3,200 years ago, with complex societies such as the Mycenaean and Hittite collapsing into a “dark age” with much lower levels of political centralization and complexity4, 5. With a diversity of civilizations across the globe the failure of any individual civilization could not endanger human civilization as a whole. As civilizations rose and fell, humanity continued to grow in numbers, from 5 million seven centuries ago, to 27 million only three centuries later, then doubling to 50 million during the next century, and quadrupling to 200 million during the following century.

As technology evolved further another element of ecological destruction was added; the destruction of forests. Forests had already been cleared to free the soils for new agricultural plots and to provide firewood for heat and light. The production of copper alloys, such as bronze, started about 5,300 years ago in the Near East, Eastern Mediterranean, India, and China, and required intense heat that could only be provided by vast amounts of timber. This was further exacerbated by iron production, which started about 3,200 years ago, and required higher temperatures that could only be provided by charcoal (wood heated in the absence of oxygen to produce a more pure carbon). The use of wood to build ships for both commerce and war added even more to deforestation. The growing demands of rulers to defend against, or defeat, others’ armies with more men and better weapons, only intensified the exploitation of the forests. Huge areas became deforested, as with the Mediterranean during the time of the Greeks and Romans.

The development of any civilization is limited by the amount of usable energy available to it, and the efficiency of energy use. The more energy and greater efficiency, the greater the percentage of the population that can be devoted to things other than getting that energy, and the greater the number of machines for extending human capabilities. Agricultural societies are limited by the available bio-mass (predominantly food, fodder for animals, and wood) and the efficiency of the mammals utilized (humans, horses, oxen etc.) in converting that bio-mass into useful energy. Human technology can stretch that limit, through such things as the plough, wind-mill, and sail boat, but not fundamentally remove it. Defeating other societies, and taking their land and enslaving their people, can also increase the amount of energy available. In addition, small elites can live very well if they are able to capture the surpluses of the rest of the population. The celebrated democratic institutions of ancient Greece were only for a very small male minority, while the rest of the male population served as slaves and serfs. None of these factors removed the overall limit of complexity and development that agriculturally-based societies operate within. Morris6 developed an index of social development and noted that only three civilizations could be identified as reaching the low 40’s on his index, those of the Song Dynasty, the Roman Empire, and modern civilization. As Morris puts it “If someone from Rome or Song China had been transplanted to eighteenth-century London or Beijing, he or she would certainly have had many surprises … Yet more, in fact much more would have seemed familiar … Most important of all, though, the visitors from the past would have noticed that although social development was moving higher than ever, the ways people were pushing it up hardly differed from how Romans and Song Chinese had pushed it up.”6

Fossil Fuels and Industrialization

Then, just at that theoretically transplanted person was being surprised at the lack of change, humankind discovered how to utilize the staggeringly rich energy gifts that our world had carefully developed over 400 million years; the accumulated trapped energy of innumerable amounts of marine organisms and plants and animals. As with any adolescent, we leapt at the chance these new energy sources provided to remove the previous limitations on what was possible. We used these enormous amounts of “ancient sunshine” to leap above those constraints and grow our population and economy at dizzying rates with seemingly no limits. The hydrocarbon age of man had begun, and exponential growth became the norm. We had seemingly become independent of the regenerative ecology that gave birth to us and quickly assumed that we were the masters of the earth rather than its dependents, remaking our environment as we wished.

This new age of hydrocarbon man has been referred to as the Anthropocene (anthropo means man), to delineate when humanity started to make a significant impact upon the ecology of the earth. Coal had been used for heating after human demands lead to the destruction of forests in many areas, but the real revolution started when we worked out how to use coal to boil water into steam and then use this steam to drive an engine. These steam engines were first used in the coal mines to pump out water, and then found many others uses such as driving the wheels of trains and the propellers of ships, and driving turbines to create electricity. Coal could also be gasified to create town gas used for cooking and lighting. The available coal seemed endless but the exponential growth facilitated by coal’s concentrated energy drove an exponential demand for it. In the birth-place of the industrial revolution, the United Kingdom, the peak of coal production was reached in 19137, just over a century after widespread adoption of the steam engine. Oil came to the rescue. It had been used as a heating and lighting fuel for thousands of years, but its combination with the internal combustion engine in the mid 1800’s created the next revolutionary change. The usage of the internal combustion engine expanded rapidly, producing a rapidly expanding demand for oil. As with coal, oil was seen as a nearly infinite resource but the exponential growth in demand quickly reduced the huge amounts available. It took just over a century for the United States to reach its peak oil production, in 1970. The last part of the fossil fuel trinity, natural gas, had to wait until a transportation infrastructure of pipes was in place, which did not happen until the post World War 2 years. Since then its use has multiplied in the heating of homes, and the production of electricity. Humankind also discovered how to utilize these hydro-carbons as a raw material source in the production of new products, such as fertilizers, plastics, and organic chemicals which have become a ubiquitous and essential part of modern society. No matter how much we consider human ingenuity and the resulting technology to be the basis of our current living standards, the true determinant has been the finite hydrocarbon resources that we first started to fully utilize only a couple of centuries ago. Since that time our use of these fossil fuels has expanded nearly 800 times, with a 12-times increase during the twentieth century8. Without them our modern society would be impossible, and as we deplete them we bring closer the day when we will have to do without.

Our numbers also multiplied rapidly, doubling to 2 billion in little more than a hundred years after the industrial revolution started. Then we doubled again to 4 billion in only 50 years, and on track to double once more, to 8 billion, in another 50 years. Without the mechanization of agriculture and the use of hydrocarbon-derived fertilizers and other chemicals to increase crop yields such growth would not have been possible. Industrialized agriculture has now developed to the point where 10 calories of energy are used to produce and deliver 1 calorie of food; a situation unsustainable without the gift of hydrocarbon energy sources. With the increase in numbers also came a huge increase in per capita production and consumption as we pushed our new hydrocarbon resources to the limit. Our world had seemed so vast, that no matter how much we despoiled it we could never undermine it to the point of endangering ourselves. Sadly with our increasing numbers and per capita ecological footprint, like all adolescents do, we have grown to such a size that we can endanger our parental earth. Our fouling of the air with heat trapping waste products is only one of many ways in which humanity is undermining the ability of the earth to support it.

Today

Our choice is whether to continue to grow our society with little regard to the consequences for our supporting ecology and the limits of our energy supplies, or to accept limits upon our development to allow our society to continue to exist in anywhere near its present form. Such an existence may be a simpler one with much less material goods, but also perhaps a more genuine and enjoyable one.

We are rapidly approaching, or may even have already reached, the fork in the road after which we will not be able to take the alternative paths. Increasing knowledge of our impacts upon our ecology only seems to shorten the amount of time we have left for action. What were thought to be crises that would only inhabit our grandchildren’s lives have suddenly leapt into our children’s and quite possibly our own lives. In these pages I hope to lay out the nature of our predicament and identify some of the actions which could provide support through what will be a difficult transition. That there will be such a transition is already inevitable, our choices are about how many of us make it and what kind of life will await those that survive. If we are to make it into adulthood we must not have our focus pulled away by those that deny that such problems exist, nor by those that tell us that technology will provide an escape. We must also accept that we will have to find more enjoyment and happiness within ourselves rather than through ever increasing material gratification. If we do not respond adequately, then our global civilization will almost certainly enter a new dark age.

References

1. Tainter, Joseph (1988), The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press

2. Diamond, Jared (2004), Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Adult

3. Fagan, Brian (2003), The Long Summer, Basic Books

4. Bachhuber, Christopher & Roberts, Gareth (2009), Forces of Transformation: The End of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean (BANEA Monograph), Oxbow Books

5. Dickinson, Oliver (2007), The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age: Continuity and Change Between the Twelfth and Eighth Centuries BC, Routledge

6. Morris, Ian (2010), Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux

7. N/A (2011), Jevons’ coal question: Why the UK Coal Peak wasn’t as bad as expected, The Oil Drum. Accessed December 27th, 2012 at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8241

8. Hall, Charles (2012), Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy, Springer

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