Catabolic Ephemeralization? Carson Versus Greer

Last week, Kevin Carson, a political historian and theorist of the Mutualist tradition, took issue with the concept of catabolic collapse, a term coined a few years ago by the author John Michael Greer. Greer responded; the exchange that followed provided an illuminating look at two views of the future that actually share many qualities but which differ in important respects.

Greer is one of a handful of prescient observers (along with James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov and Richard Heinberg among others) who has taken a stab at trying to predict what the world might look like as the interconnected crises of resource depletion, climate change and economic collapse unfold in the coming decades.

While he pursues his own unique line of thinking, Greer’s work shares with those other authors a few key convictions, the most important being that there is no combination of alternative energy, conservation or other technology that can keep our globalized system running as it has. And along with those other writers, Greer believes that its not just car culture and the Interstate highway that’s doomed; the Internet itself is unlikely to survive for many more years.

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Decaying infrastructure. By swanksalot via flickr.

Unlike some post-peak writers, however, Greer doesn’t believe that we are facing what some have called a secular apocalypse in which industrial civilization imminently and rapidly implodes over a course of months. Instead, he argues that we are likely to experience what he calls “catabolic collapse” in which industrial civilization reverses course, shedding layers of complexity, infrastructure and technological achievement in a series of painful downward steps, happening over time. Catabolic collapse begins at the point at which the available energy and other resources of  a complex society are not enough to maintain its energy- and capital-intensive infrastructure.

According to Carson, the problem with the theory of catabolic collapse is that it ignores what he calls “one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology: ephemerality.” The classic example from Buckminster Fuller, he writes, is the replacing of “a transoceanic cable system embodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each.”

“It’s quite true that the mass-production industrial civilization that peaked in the 20th century is falling into ruin, failing to invest in upkeep at sustainable levels, and generally eating its seed corn — just as happened with Rome. The difference is, the Interstate Highway System, the civil aviation infrastructure, and the old electrical grid aren’t something to mourn. They’re something that would decay anyway, because they’re increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of production technology and economic organization the emerging successor society will be based on.”

Thanks to technological advancement in recent years, Carson argues, distributed infrastructure — including distributed renewable energy and distributed manufacturing enabled by peer-to-peer open source design— is making that same collapsing infrastructure obsolete.

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3D printer. By Opensourceway via flickr.

“Metaphorically speaking, we live in the early days of an emerging economy in which peasant villages — with a Star Trek molecular replicator in each cottage — lives in the shadows of the decaying aqueducts.”

Having followed Carson’s work for a few years, I think I understand what he is saying; unfortunately his choice of metaphors here seemed to have caused quite a bit of misunderstanding among Greer and his followers, who are so put off by the idea of Star Trek (“touchstone of the absurd” according to Greer) that they don’t notice that the replicator “technofantasy” Carson mentions is in fact a metaphor.

More to the point: Greer takes issue with the idea that the ephemeral technologies Carson mentions are really less resource intensive, arguing that we only think they are because of mistaken accounting. Satellites are not possible without a space program, and space programs require so much infrastructure that it’s ludicrous to suggest that they require fewer resources than transoceanic cables. As for the Internet, “Descend from the airy realms of cyber-abstractions into the grubby underworld of hardware, and it’s an archipelago of huge server farms, each of which uses as much electricity as a small city …”

So which is it? Are we headed for a future in which short-wave radio returns and a rebuilt postal service takes over from failing server farms, as Greer would have it? Or will we be able to “leapfrog” away from our old imploding infrastructure toward a world of distributed, highly efficient, peer-to-peer manufacturing facilitated by open source design?

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Mobile phone charging station in Uganda. Source: AdamCohn via flickr.

It is at this point when I feel it’s time to step back and ask: what do we really know, and what can we observe?

Some examples:

  • In spite of Greer’s claim that the infrastructure of satellite communications is larger than laying transoceanic cable, we simply don’t know whether this is true or not. We do know that countries such as North Korea and India, which have energy consumption orders of magnitude smaller than the United States, have managed to launch satellites.
  • Even so, it’s important to note that satellites are not necessary for cell phone communications. The vast majority of cell calls are not routed through satellites, but through local cell phone towers. As Hobert Pruitt puts it, “cellular phones are basically fancy radios that use cellular towers.”
  • Cell phone penetration in Africa is expected to exceed 80 percent in the coming year. This is 10 times the number land line users. In Somalia, a country with ongoing civil war and no government, there are six cell phone companies and a 16.3 percent penetration, which suggest that cell phone access could be quite resilient and even grow in very dire situations. Mobile-money services in Somalia actually substitute for banking, which is non-existent.
  • Globally, more people have cell phones than have access to grid electricity and safe drinking water. Internet penetration globally is at 34 percent. If Greer is right that modern telecommunications is full of hidden embodied energy and capital costs, how is this possible?
  • The idea that the Internet is a huge energy hog is a myth. Claims that it is can be traced almost entirely to reports written by Mark Mills for the coal industry, presumably to promote the idea that without coal everyone would have to give up Facebook.
  • Even if current Internet infrastructure is vulnerable, there are alternatives. In Athens and around the world, for example, growing numbers of people have been creating parallel internets by creating a “mesh” of rooftop wifi antennas. The fact that people are setting systems like these up in a place with amidst a collapsing economy is a hint to a direction things might go, at least in the short term.

Of course none of this obviates the need for things like food security, water and basic sanitation. But these are issues that are probably better addressed with existing site specific permaculture design approaches and open source appropriate technology.

Greer is a big advocate of distributed renewable energy, mostly using a time-tested, small scale off-grid approach as opposed to the net metering/plug-in path that most people pursue.

There is a third option however. The rapidly falling cost of solar power, combined with the microgrid revolution and improving storage technology makes community-scaled, shared renewable electricity even more viable than in the past. Stitching these microgrids into the broader grid greatly increases the resilience and potential efficiency of both.

Finally, there is the potential of distributed manufacturing from open source design, which Carson has written about in great detail. The only thing I would emphasize is that Carson’ view (as I understand it) is not that distributed manufacturing allows for continued consumption at our current level. Rather, as centralized production models collapse and overproduction ends, the need for a “push” economy fed by incessant advertising and consumerist addiction will fall away as well.

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Open source, modular tractor designed by Open Source Ecology. Source: EchelonForce via Flickr.

Putting these and other elements together–hi-tech, distributed communications, distributed energy and manufacturing, local sustainable food systems, appropriate technology and tactical urbanism among others–sets the stage for a future that looks quite a bit different than the present one. One might describe it as a kind of postmodern pastiche that looks neither like the antiquated futurisms we once imagined nor an idyllic return to preindustrial peasant society.

It’s a future that by current middle-class measures might look impoverished, but by other metrics is healthier, more resilient, more nourishing and more abundant in the ways that really matter.

13 thoughts on “Catabolic Ephemeralization? Carson Versus Greer

  1. Molecular replicators are just great, until they break down. Then what happens? Where do the spare parts come from? To make a complicated piece of high tech like this, it requires a vast infrastructure of high tech fabrication – making ultra-pure doped silicon, making ultra-pure dopants, getting the circuits onto the silicon – and on and on, and without this supporting infrastructure – the instant the molecular replicator breaks because a cosmic ray or radiation/EMP from a solar storm causes a chip to go bad, you’re out of business and back to Greer’s model.

    It’s true that high tech *can* last for a long time, up until last year I was able to use my HP-25 calculator from undergrad days in 1976, but now the “9″ on the keyboard no longer works – so I use my fancy HP calculator from 1986. How about 100 years from now – or even 50 years from now? Will either machine still function? I have a Mac Powerbook G3 from 2001 which can read (useless) 800K floppies or even, with a special drive, 120MB floppies. Try finding any of those at any price. OK, the SCSI bus. Out of luck here, too. Well, it turns out you can use a USB SD card reader/writer, and you can still use ethernet after a fashion, but no wifi. I suppose you could use dialup if you could find it. You won’t be looking at any youtube movies, it’ll be able to handle smaller jpeg pics – lots of limitations. And as time goes on it gets worse, so if USB goes away, then that’s it for upgrading.

    And just think of the high tech and all the infrastructure it takes to get those satellites up in orbit – and then keep track of all the space junk up there so the comsats don’t get smashed to bits on their first orbit. And satellites do wear out and have to be replaced. Telstar, launched 51 years ago, is still up, but ceased working after 1 year (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telstar). It went up on a Delta rocket – and I could go on and on.

    I don’t think that comsats are going to be what does it for future comms, though. If anything, I’ll bet it’s more in the nature of fiber-optic cables replacing the copper cables laid starting nearly 150 years ago, but we could be back to horse and buggy days, too, with long distance travel going by trains and sailing ships (www.sailtransportnetwork.org/node/930) My bet is that we’re probably headed back to some version of how things were, say, about 1935 or so, when most long-distance overland transport occurred by train, a lot of what went by sea went by sailing ship, and most items were made using analog-driven (as opposed to digitally-driven) machine tools. It’s a crapshoot whether such a thing as the Internet will still exist, though.

    • Streamfortyseven,

      To be clear, I view the Star Trek idea as only metaphor — I don’t see that we’ll be ordering up cups of Earl Gray on a home replicator any time soon (or at all). But what if you could develop a replicator that could replicate itself? Wouldn’t that solve the repair problem?

      This is what RepRap is doing with its 3D printer designs: http://reprap.org/wiki/RepRap. I do not know how far this process can be taken, or at what scale various things can be hacked, repaired and rebuilt, or what level of centralization would be required. But as I understand Greer’s theory, catabolic collapse means that various pieces of the current system could stay in operation for many years, even at a much lower level of net energy consumption. Couldn’t a good portion of the energy available be used on the necessary functions that small scale production can’t achieve?

      Thanks for your comment!

      • 3D printing, well, it can produce plastic trinkets. The one the department purchased has left a littering of aborted jobs—complicated, failure prone, and I’m really not sure what problem it solves that human labor using their hands and brains could do a better job crafting—a bird feeder? Make it from wood. Enclosure for some electronics device? Wood or sheet metal again suffices. Furniture? Housing? Yeah, no. It’s a toy. But, humans are expensive, and by and large in too much a hurry to build things well (exception: Shaker furniture), so hey, 3D printing fad—check out the fins on the ’13 models!

        As for solar costs, how do they mine the resources (by burning scads of Carbon)? How do they assemble the panels (by burning scads of Carbon)? How do they ship the panels (by burning scads of Carbon)? How do they install the panels (by burning scads of Carbon)? How do they maintain all those road and rail and sail networks involved (by burning scads of Carbon)?

        If only people would put on sweaters, we could then use all that energy to instead…so, how is that putting on the sweater thing going? Or are we still in mourning for that plea by Carter?

        • Jeremy,

          I would put the sweater idea in the “necessary but not sufficient” category of solutions.

        • I would disagree that “humans are expensive.” Humans are a very efficient engine. I can get up in the morning and explore my environment without having to eat for several hours. I can grow enough food on a little patch of ground – enough to feed 3-5 people – with about as much energy as I expend going about my daily routine. In my 20′s I could easily outwalk a horse over a 20-mile stretch in the high mountains carrying all my gear (and so could my girlfriend!). AND I can do all that on only 2500 kilocalories a day, which I can get from meat, seeds, nuts or plant fiber. What makes individual humans efficient are 1) bipedalism, 2) opposable thumbs on a dexterous hand, and 3) extremely large brains.

          What makes humans “expensive” are the elites. Without elite social classes (government, academia, corporations), the working class could keep more of the fruits of their labor. In fact, without the elites, “the working class” is not even a relevant term, as everyone would be working or supported by kin. Get rid of class and you get rid of “expensive” humans.

  2. Well, what about using the most efficient engine we have – the human body? I can grow 10,000 pounds of food on 1 acre with 10 gallons of gas and no more human labor than what I spend walking around all day (my EROI is 3.5:1, BTW). The surest way to “soften” our landing in collapse is to get everyone growing some of their own food. It is not that difficult. I teach people how to do it every year.

    Face it, civilization requires slaves. Look in any basic anthropology text or read my book (The Laws of Physics Are On My Side) for more detail. We pat ourselves on the back right now and say how “democratic” and groovy we all are, but it is only because of our huge use of cheap oil energy – i.e. energy slaves. Since oil is declining in supply and increasing in price, we are losing our ability to throw ever more energy at each and every problem. The solution is to use the human engine, which can grow its own fuel. This is positive feedback loop that dwarfs all others.

    • Hi Walter,

      I think what you’re doing at FA farm is fantastic — a very useful corrective to assumptions about supposedly “efficient” industrial agriculture.

  3. I think the emphasis on cell phones is something of a straw man [please, take that as a technical term rather than a term of abuse as is popular in scientism] since Greer did not focus on the question of cell phone vs. standard phone infrastructure and cell phones are an unusual case. In very poor countries, if you string up a lot of copper wire for landlines it will be ripped down within weeks, hence even if cell phones aren’t the least resource-costly form of telephony immediately they certainly will be long-term. North Korea can put up satellites but I have no doubt that they could lay a cable as well; there’s no contradiction between saying we could continue for a long time to have satellites in a declining economy, if we prioritized them, and saying that satellite programs consume more total resources than older alternatives.

  4. Hi Lakis,
    here is a link to a page from which you can download a large PDF
    http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/publications/view/1349
    This report examines the potential for nanotechnology to enable deeply transformative production technologies that can be developed through a series of advances that build on current nanotechnology research.

    If there is a high tech way out of our current predicament it is through something like this pathway.

    • Hmm, usual optimistic mumbo-jumbo I’ve seen from pro-Hydrogen publications.

      “Similar shifts have happened with the dematerialization of music, renewable energy (first wind and now solar PV), electric cars”

      Heh, heh! Electric cars. And no mention of their total market failure back in the 20s (or is the quote to the quite anemic second attempt at electric cars in the present day?). Ahh, obligatory Ford meat-processing slaughterhouse efficiencies promoted as a good thing—it’s a job, but you’ll hate it, whoops, high turnover means you have to fork more money over to the workers. Automate those workers away, and what do they do?

      “In a time of growing tensions, the potential to gather the world around a common challenge should not be ignored”

      Yes, yes, we all hold hands and sing kumbaya. Nope! Not how humans roll through history.

      Trends time! Meh, nothing exciting that would help the billions of poor people, plenty someone rich with cancer might shell out for. First world BAU complexity. Anticipated future tech, ahh, just like the anticipated future Hydrogen power will solve all problems if only we could have a little more research funding, please.

      “Experimental results which have demonstrated the potential to increase grain production per hectare by a factor of roughly 10″

      Hooray! Consequence: 70 billion humans squashed all together, industrial feedlot farming. Sign me up for that merely survivable environment. Ahh, well, extant pollution is keeping sperm counts down, thank goodness.

      Oh and look, nanoparticles could be toxic? Let’s see, benzene causes cancer, but do we stop blasting lungs with it? Nope! Cars, and more cars. So, toxic nanoparticles…well, maybe there’s some other nanoparticle to clear the body of all the other toxic nanoparticles—how much would that treatment cost? Be rich or don’t get sick, I’d imagine, from current best practices. Expect regulation to lag, whining and evasion from the polluters, usual mess of externalities. So, BAU.

      “David King, former chief scientific adviser to the British government, suggests “that future historians might look back on our particular recent past and see the Iraq war as the first of the conflicts of this kind— the first of the resource wars”.74″

      First? Bwahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Hoo! Too funny! Let’s see, recently, the various plays by Germany and Japan in WW2 for oil, rubber, etc; the Occupation of the Ruhr (mmmm, love that German coal for French steel), and that Xenophon-led army “well if they won’t feed us we’ll take it by force.” Maybe he should have asked a historian, first?

      Color me vastly unimpressed with this BAU bunk—see E. F. Schumacher for some real solutions for the teeming poor (hint: less nanogollygeewhiz, more trees).

  5. [...] a promising new turn. The vehicle for that sudden swerve was a  essay by Lakis Polycarpou, titled Catabolic Ephemeralization: Carson versus Greer, which set out to find common ground between Carson’s standpoint and mine. In the process, to his [...]

  6. [...] debate that is described in the article, Catabolic Ephemeralization? Carson Versus Greer, is summarized in this excerpted [...]

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