Thursday, 28 March 2013

Gifts to the future

Like any organism humans evolve, the difference being that evolution doesn't just occur genetically at the individual level, but also culturally and technologically at the societal level. This is why historical analysis needs multiple subjects to be useful (such as in terms of how societies rise and fall). Every society has a different set of tools (technology or behaviours), responses, environmental cycles, environment's and internal political/cultural cycles. The overall processes, features and events that are common are set are in very broad terms because of these differences. Here's a relevant example, all empires end with violence but the specific form varies wildly; From WW1 and 2's massive industrial battles, Alexander’s defeat of Darius in three set piece battles to the slow grinding raids and centuries of civil wars that ended Rome. Overshoot and catabolic collapse are similar, while all cases are broadly the same, the specifics can vary. A population can collapse from famine, disease, emigration or increased predation in Overshoot, the similarity being depopulation. The commonalities in human societies are those hardwired into the environment (Overshoot) and the basic parts of large human societies (having some sort of Elites). They are very abstract because of this, even though they describe elements of day to day life. In a previous post I used the term 'DNA', so lets look at some of the new DNA that will affect the specific case of current catabolic collapse happening now and what comes after.

The Metric system: After Charlemagne the goal and motto of the French Kings was 'Un Roi, une Foi, un Poids' or one king, one faith, one measure. Here's an extract from Measuring America by Andro Linklater to explain the last one.

  'By comparison [to western traders] in India, where until the twentieth century every locality had its own, variable measures, found it almost impossible to extend their business beyond the nearest towns.  'I never can tell what I am buying nor how I am selling,' a Madras grain trader complained in 1896. 'My agents inform me that rice is at so much the seer (Approximately two pounds) (in one village), while in another it is double the price . I take advantage of the opportunity, invest largely, and expect great profits. When the transaction is closed I find I have lost greatly. The seer in the first place was perhaps less than half the size of that in the other.' The result was that grain markets in India remained local, and when famine struck in one area, people there died even though food was available elsewhere.' 

He also mentions an area of France which had 70 parishes with over a 100 definitions for a foot. Since the metric system is a system of interlocking measures which can be determined experimentally, currently with light but one of the original ideas was the length of a seconds pendulum, it doesn’t have this problem of lack of standardization. Since historic measures were based on the ruler having a definitive set and every local lord having his own ‘based’ of it, it is, relatively, incredibly reliable and easily preserved compared to historic measures. Now, this affects positively (mostly) most areas of life; trade, science, engineering, industry, farming, navigation, travel etc, but lets look a power relationships. Holding an areas definitive measure set was one of the signs/duties of being its ruler while also being a wellspring of power and economic gain. Merchants would often have multiple weight sets, one for selling, one for buying, ones for different social groups etc and it wasn't unheard of for them to use this to impoverish farmers (or in America, frontier families) or other population sectors every now and then, while bribing the local lord to look away. The lords would also behave this way every now and then. Notice the difference between the old system and the metric system, now think about the changes this introduces to say feudal relationships or trading cities. While the main source of power under feudalism is protection, this ancillary source of power has disappeared and forever changed political power structures. This doesn't necessarily affect America, Burma and Liberia because those are the only nations that don’t use the metric system and many nations are likely to lose access to the metric system at least temporarily. Given how low-tech it can be, preserving it won't be that hard. Also, since Imperial measurments are defined by the metric systems (since 1959 in America), they benefit from its standardization and accuracy.

Airships: This technology was only really used briefly and it may well turn into a dead end, but it is potentially seeing a renaissance for both military and transport reasons. Let's assume that the ecotechnic societies of the future can build and maintain a significant level of airships and the attendant infrastructure (which is minimal), and potentially some of the salvage and scarcity industrial societies could as well. So, what has happened? A completely new transport system has appeared which can easily transport low-weight (volume doesn't matter as much) cargo vast distances over land or sea for very little energy. New transport lines would appear, new tactics and logistics, some goods and areas would benefit and a new class of merchants would appear along side a host of new industries. This would effectively represent a way to have large scale (but slow) air travel in the post peak world.

Efficient ways to use wood: A 1000 years ago most of France was deforested for the production of charcoal and this wasn't uncommon, England and Germany suffered similarly and this was one of the main drivers to using coal. Huge swathes of America suffered similarly during colonization. Using wood as a cooking or heating fuel (see Haiti) can have a similar effect, especially with overpopulation. Now, Bio char is simply charcoal used as a soil amendment and while it may or may not work in that capacity, one of the features of the movement is the invention of highly efficient charcoal production methods that additionally produce useful side-products, such as bio-oil and syngas. Additionally there's wood gas, Rocket stoves, Rocket mass heaters and solar tech (hot water, furnaces etc) to take some slack off wood. If I was going to live in the country, I'd either build or buy these things (the relevant ones), because from experience I know that chopping wood is hard (didn't actually manage to cut a lot) and anything that reduces that workload and reduces environmental impact is worthwhile, both now and for a post peak world. So an opportunity is available to future societies to have access to technologies that allow very efficient use of forests and access to significant energy resources, without massive deforestation. Since the benefits of forests are numerous, and thanks to the sciences of ecology and biology known, this would be a significant gift to the future.

Guns: Guns (including artillery), when they were fully developed, changed warfare immensely and in all areas. Add a bayonet and suddenly an age old truism disappears, ranged infantry can now regularly defeat cavalry charges and cannons made artillery important for non-siege battles, before they were used but never decisive. They also drove improvements in logistics and organization, since it meant that it was much harder for a soldier to carry all their equipment. By their nature, they forced fighting forces to either acquire secure supply lines or gain local support (Guerrillas), basically roving armies that survive by looting the countryside are far less effective than before, though under certain circumstances still possible (see thirty years war). Same with a few other warfare types, and depending on how automatics fare, disorganized large raiding groups could become relatively rare, though it has made small organized raiding groups that much more effective against civilian targets (see the Mumbai attacks). If automatics disappear, small raiding parties are that much more ineffective and the emphasis will likely be further towards artillery. Also, cavalry based armies are at a disadvantage along with cavalry themselves due to advances in transport technologies and the increased accuracy of guns, so the historic pattern of nomadic raiders conquering civilizations is likely to either disappear or be diminished in areas that continue to have access to modernish (so fairly accurate and don't explode every now and then) guns.

Electricity: Electricity, as a new form of energy provided more options and capabilities to society. Now, most people are familiar with its use in communications, heating and mechanical uses, but I’m going to look at materials. Run a sufficient electric current through brine (a Sodium Chloride, which is table salt, solution) and you get Hydrogen and Chlorine (useful to add to carbon chains and other things) gas plus sodium hydroxide (used in biodiesel production or cleaning). Traditional smelting techniques don't work on a few useful metals, primarily Aluminum and if you try it, well as my chemistry teacher said 'It'll sit there and laugh at you'. The societies of the future will have far more useful chemicals at their disposal than any pre-enlightenment society ever did. Though they will be faced with significant opportunity costs due to the limited energy available

Non-transport linked Communications: If you've read Terry Pratchet’s disc worlds you'll know what the 'Clacks' are and yes they were real, Napoleon built a system of
them. They reason we don't have them now is that electricity does the job better, either as radio or as electric telegraph. As it stands, electric based communications completely change communication and management. Before, communication was tied directly (except for a few special cases) to transport, which meant news of a coup, invasion, revolt or famine could reach a rulers ears months or (occasionally) years after it had started, even in the smallish kingdoms in China it could take months or decades if multiple factions existed to complicate transport. Radio has drastically shortened both rulers and society’s reaction times while also enhancing the advantage of well organized militaries. The delinking of transport and communication is fortuitous because it makes communications more resilient, if transport breaks down temporarily or permanently then communications aren't necessarily cut and transport is still a viable backup for communications.

Industrialism: Here I mean factories, mass production, and such. 1000 years ago, parts of Europe had that, along with mass deforestation, an underclass of exploited workers and trade shocks. It was restricted to a handful of cities and a very small percent of the population, but it was done under human power as well as semi-developed wind and hydro-power. So industrialism isn't limited to fossil fuels and since wind, water and solar power is far more advanced than it was a thousand years ago (water turbines were perfected in the 20th century), it will encompass a greater proportion of society than it did back then. So, while the middle class will shrink it probably won't to the historical mean of 10%-ish, maybe 20%, and factories (some human powered, some not) will still exist and churn out stuff. It won't encompass the whole society like it does now, probably only a third or so, and other concerns (like environmental protection)/societal types will balance it out. Add in the various organic agriculture's and future societies will be organized very differently than past societies both quantitatively and qualitatively. 

Bio-fuels: Bio-fuels provide the ability to both create and store high quality chemical energy and provide new resources for farmers to generate. The societies of the future will use this chemical energy differently than we currently use fossil fuels, such as only for limited specific uses (e.g. ethanol/biodiesel cars in remote areas) and as efficiently as possible or for energy intensive production methods. Since large scale projects are in general going to be ditched in favour of small scale projects (more economical in the post overshoot world), most of the production is likely to take place either on the farms or close by. As an experiment I used the glycerol from a small batch of biodiesel to make a bioplastic (added starch), which was pretty easy.

Secularization: All the other examples are of physical technology, so I'll throw in a social change because this area does change and evolve, albeit slowly. The Christian faith (specifically Catholic, though other sects have behaved similarly) used to have an incredible hold on the western world, politically, economically as well as spiritually, and the Pope was
 a powerful temporal ruler. So conflict regularly appeared between secular rulers (Kings, Emperors, etc) and the church, notable the Holy Roman Emperors continuous fights with the popes. The secular rulers won that long and hard fight and this was helped in the end by the splintering of Christianity (i.e. Protestant, however earlier heresies existed and almost caused a split), which unfortunately caused a rising spiral of civil strife and wars. The thirty years war was the most destructive, death toll 3-12 million, of these wars and it caused Europe to displace Religion from Politics
 and birthed the modern international system from the treaty of Westphalia. At the time it lowered religious freedom by freely allowing Kings to persecute Catholics or Protestants, but it brought a measure of peace. From this popular sovereignty, something reviled by the catholic church since they insisted they had a divine mandate to pick and depose civil leaders, other political structures necessary for modern democracy appeared. Here in Australia, the population is deeply secular in regards to political life and there aren't a lot of events or processes that could easily and quickly change that. Modern Australia's attitude to religion is somewhat influenced from when the convicts burnt churches down or were whipped by priests.


  1. Ha! That post gives a new dimension to the description "ruler". Never thought of it like that before. Very astute.

    Yeah firewood can be a pain and I use about 2 to 3 trees per year of firewood. But they take a lot of effort to process. On the other hand solar hot water takes very little effort once setup correctly. It took about a year of tweaking the system here before it was finally working as it is meant to. If you are not connected into the system, you have to be on top of everything.

    Picking up a wind turbine over the next few weeks to add onto the system. The goal is to be 100% solar and/or wind. The pareto principle is proving to be a bit of a pain. I'm about 96% of the way there, but that last 4%...

    I reckon you are correct in your remaining comments. Too many people forget about what is actually possible and instead they fixate on the loss of entitlements. It is amazing what you can achieve if you put your mind to the task at hand. Chris

  2. @Cherokee Organics
    You can tell when a change has been effective when most people simply accept it. The modern form of representative democracy is only 400 years old, yet it is now the default form and has allowed democracies bigger than a city.

    Solar hot water is probably going to be one among the best legacies simply due to the labour and trees it will save.

    You'll get to 100%, then its only transport you have to worry about. Lots of options available.

    The loses are important, but you have to ask what is available and what can be done. Industrial civilization has done things in one way and while that way can't be done for much longer, the ideas, concepts and methods behind that way can used in other ways. Quite a lot can be done.