Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rise and Fall

The varying prosperity of a nation or a civilization is a matter of endless speculation. Every culture seems to have myths about origins and surely many provide a picture of their destiny. One particular class of modern prediction came into prominence in the early nineteenth century with the writings of Thomas Malthus, who foresaw that an ever growing population could not be supported with finite resources. Two hundred years later the human population of our planet continues to rise, so one does find some space for questioning the wisdom of Malthus. More recently, books like The Limits to Growth, by Meadows et al., have tried to sketch the most likely trajectories of our present world using more quantitative methods. Certainly they don’t offer much precision with their wide range of scenarios.

Probably the most notably success in forecasting the end of a period of growth was that of M. King Hubbert, who predicted the 1972 peak in U.S. petroleum production some ten years beforehand. Of course petroleum is not the nation and the nation is not the world, but the U.S.A. was the leading petroleum producer in the world for decades and petroleum is a key resource. The present situation with global petroleum production is a bit difficult to read. Part of the problem is the definition of petroleum. For example, the tar sands being mined in Alberta are surely quite a different sort of material than the classic gushers of the early Texas days, but all the same the end product is automotive fuel etc. so it is not so clear that the distinction makes a difference.

This problem with definitions is hardly limited to fossil fuel resources. A similar problem comes up in economics, when trying to establish a consumer price index. It is easy enough to assemble a shopping basket of typical consumer goods and to tally its price. But the typical shopping basket of one decade is not the same as that of the prior decade, and once a hundred years have passed the baskets have drifted into mutual unrecognizability. If passage on a sailing ship from Boston to Philadelphia cost 10 dollars 100 years ago (I am just guessing here) and today airfare from New York to London is $1200, then how can we compare the purchasing power of a dollar 100 years ago to that of today?

It is not utterly unreasonable to invent some scheme for answering such questions, but it will necessarily be an invention rather than a discovery. We might be able to gather enough data to measure with reasonable accuracy the median income of families 100 years ago and families today. Does the median family of today live better than the median family of 100 years ago? No amount of data gathering can answer that question!

The immediate impetus to my thoughts here was an essay by James Howard Kunstler, “Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse? That it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean you're wrong.” My reaction to that title is perplexity, because, from my perspective, the collapse is well underway. When did it start is hard to pinpoint. World War 1? The peak of per capita petroleum production in the late 1970s? The peak of conventional petroleum production in 2005?

My perspective is hardly unique to me, of course. For example, long ago Sun Ra taught us, “It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet?”

But I don’t claim that my perspective is accurate. I don’t really think any sort of real accuracy is possible. Is the median family prosperity greater today than it was 50 years ago, is it greater today than it will be 50 years in the future? The easy challenge is the quantitative one. But how all the numbers should be interpreted as quality of life or standard of living or prosperity, that is not a question with a meaningful answer. It’s not just that the ways of living 50 years ago are not available to us today, they don’t even make sense. Of course 50 years is not really over the horizon. Extend the range to 200 or 300 years and the impossibility of comparison is plain. Here by comparison I mean e.g. to determine in some absolute objective fashion that one way of living is superior or inferior to the other. Comparison is certainly possible in terms of a thousand details. It’s the summarization of these that necessarily involves value-based judgments that can hardly take any stand outside the situations being judged. Most likely few modern people would choose to live back in the eighteenth century, if they understood what that choice really meant. But likely, too, that few people of the eighteenth century would choose to live in the twenty first.

Even though we are presented with a steady stream of advances in every facet of life, still it can be that in fact we are already well into the process of collapse. To illustrate the real possibility of such a paradoxical combination, I offer this audio analogy.