Long-term thinking and the luck of now

23 March 2013 by Jennifer

Musings on how to think and talk about the next fifty years or so.

Over the autumn, I was thinking a lot about how the world’s going to change over the next 20 to 50 years as a result of climate change and the oil running out. (It won’t completely run out for a while yet, but what’ll happen first is it’ll start to get a lot more expensive.)

Some books I’d read recently: The God Species, The Long Emergency, Heat.

I find it kind of a downer to think about how ill-prepared we are for that future, but by the same token, I know that thinking constructively about it is a positive move.

So although I’m unlikely to ever become an expert in the fields of peak oil or climate change, I like the idea of starting to talk about that stuff here, as a way of making it more “everyday talk” and affirming that it’s all of our business.

Imagining ahead

The Long Emergency was particularly interesting to me even though it has some serious limitations,1 because it includes an attempt to imagine daily life after peak oil. It set me off going round thinking like “this thing I’m doing now, how will that look in 30 or 50 years’ time?

E.g. I’m eating an orange – when there are few or no oil-fuelled ships, will oranges go back to being a luxury in the UK?

This electronic device is made with plastic – when there’s no more new plastic, will we still have these?

What will we have instead of plastic things that are made to be thrown away when they break?

When we can’t import food so cheaply any more, and there aren’t any more oil-based fertilisers, how much UK land will have to go back to farming? Will my little back garden be turned to food, as in “Dig for Victory” during WW2? How much of everyone’s time will have to go back to farming?

Will it be possible to feed everyone in the UK after the oil runs out, or will there be famine here, accompanied with fighting and disease?

Farming after cheap oil

The Long Emergency flags up some striking ratios: industrial farming using 16 calories of input to produce one calorie of grain, or 70 calories of input to produce one calorie of meat.2

Obviously most of those input units don’t come from humans, because then we wouldn’t have enough food to supply us with the energy. The shortfall is made up by fossil fuel.

So it’s pretty obvious that agriculture is going to look very, very different in fifty years’ time, and probably more of us will have to be doing it than now.

Symbolic pans

You know when you buy non-stick pans, and then a few years later you have to replace them when the non-stick starts flaking off? About ten or fifteen years ago, I felt I’d had enough of that. Bah!

Instead, I spent a large (relatively, for me) sum of money on some stainless steel pans from John Lewis.

(This kind, although this is a pic off the web as I couldn’t be arsed to go and photograph mine :-) )

Photo of a metal saucepan.

At the time of writing, they still look pretty much exactly the same as when they were new, only a bit less polished-to-a-shine. If they’re not foolishly mistreated, they’re probably still going to look the same and work the same in another hundred years.

Those pans sprang to mind when I was reading about the future. They’ve become a point of reference or symbol for me: an example of future-proofing, a present from me of then to me of now, and to me of the future and the world after I’m dead.

I’m thinking: that’s how I want to be doing things in my life, and I want to see it reflected around me.

We have a window of opportunity now where it’s as easy to make stuff as it’s probably ever been (give or take some manufacturing skills already lost). This is part of what I mean by “the luck of now”.

Let’s use that window of ease and abundance to make stuff that’ll last us the next few hundred years, through the difficult times which are now predictable. Let’s not use it to make tat that’ll be broken by next Christmas.

Different types of coolness

Even lots of geeks (often counter-cultural and in love with science) still get more excited about “next shiny toy that can do a clever thing” than “not quite so shiny toy that would last 100 years and still be fixable when it breaks”.

(How cool is this invention?! Salt water + solar power -> drinkable water!)

Photo of the solar oven. It looks a bit like a very big ceramic cooking pot. A woman is kneeling down to pull out the saucer-like bottom bit, where the fresh water collects.

I know that not every technology can be made as unbreakable as a pan can, or as oil-independent as ceramics and the sun. But we can still think about how to make things so they can be fixed when they break. Or things that can still work by people-power or solar power when electricity is harder to come by.

Political systems

Part of the difficulty in preparing for the future is that our government systems are woefully ill-equipped for planning the well-being of future people – even when the future people are us. Too much focus on the next election, not enough on what comes later.

And, as in so many other contexts, the long-term future of the world and our descendants is at odds with present-day commercial interests. If the average voter began to think further ahead, there might be some legislation which would make some rich people (and their companies) suddenly a lot less rich.

Heat is interesting on the funding of “climate change doesn’t exist and/or isn’t a problem” propaganda. I didn’t know till I read this that there’s been some active disinformation on the subject, funded by fossil fuel extraction companies. It’s been similar to the tobacco companies’ attempts to discredit the finding of links between tobacco and lung cancer: “Our product is doubt”, as someone famously said in a then-secret memo.

Habits of thought

In the last couple of years, I’ve read things where people have been saying like: this is the first generation in many years that doesn’t expect their children’s lives to be better than their own. In some ways, we are beginning to think “oh, actually it doesn’t just keep on getting better and better”.

Government cuts are currently falling on the poorest while leaving the richest to get richer: that’s things getting worse. But it’s something we can justifiably attribute to the choices of individual humans of now. So it’s tempting to think that if we could just get the government right, we could go back to expecting things to keep getting better again: the default habit of thought in the modern age.

And yet: what climate change and the end of the oil is going to do to us could be way way worse than what the Coalition Government’s unfairness is doing to us.

There’s also the fantasy that newly developed technology will solve all the climate change and fossil-fuel-shortage problems. Yes the oil will run out, but “They” (the mythical “they”, satirised with some humour in The Long Emergency) will have come up with some new “more efficient” technology “by then“.

(Look, we have electric cars already! Except they’re made using oil…)

But no, there isn’t a mythical “They” with answers, or expecting to have answers; the people who’ve looked in detail into what’s coming are not optimistic. The most optimistic views are coming from the oil companies, because they’d rather not have to change what they’re doing!

Not to say that I have no optimism myself. I have some about human ingenuity. I’m just aware that that can be scuppered at times by the greater weight of human stupidity :-/

Future generations

It’s possible I’ll have died a natural death myself before the worst of the upheavals, but I still think about this kind of thing, partly because I always have thought of my life as part of a longer stream of life. I like to do things that will still be good after I’m dead.

Other civilisations have (now somewhat famously) done better than ours on thinking ahead:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. … Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.

Constitution of the Iroquois Nations

But a strand of “eye on the future” runs through English culture too, for working class people if not always in Government. Here’s a quote I love, on doing good work in general. It’s from Joseph Garner, Alan Garner‘s Grandad, so must date back to the early 20th century or late 19th,3 if not before:

Always take as long as the job tells you; because it’ll be here when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying ‘What fool made that codge?’


Some footnotes, inc a long quote about the agriculture stuff…

1. Book limitations, The Long Emergency: E.g. it’s mostly US-centric, and makes sweeping, implausible judgments on Islam. More discussion in reviews at the LibraryThing page.

2. Calories in and calories out in industrial farming:
(Bolding and extra paragraph breaks added by me for easier on-screen reading.)

On American farms in the early 1800s, the balance between calories expended and calories produced as food was about even. This occurred as tools reached a high stage of refinement but before machines replaced human labor and traditional knowledge. It implies a distinction between tools and machines, between work done with tools and work done by machines.

Under the current industrial farming system it takes sixteen calories of “input” to produce one calorie of grain, and seventy calories of input to produce one calorie of meat. (Douglas Harper, Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture, 2001.)

A hundred years ago, just before the introduction of the fossil fuel-based technologies, more than 30 percent of the American population was engaged in farming. Now the figure is 1.6 percent.

The issue is not moral, academic, or aesthetic. Rather it’s a matter of those ratios being made possible only because cheap oil and automation made up for so much human labor. We did what we did in the twentieth century because we could.

As industrial agriculture reached its climax in the early twenty-first century, the fine-grained, hierarchical complex relations between the soil and the human beings and animals associated with food production have been destroyed or replaced by artificial substitutes. … [G]round … has been transformed from an ecology of organisms to a sterile growth medium for crop monocultures.

There is no reason to assume, as we move further away from the oil age, that some miracle replacement for oil will allow a return to industrial agriculture – especially insofar as replacing “soil amendments” made out of oil. You can’t make fertilizer or pesticides out of wind power alone.

The Long Emergency, p241 onwards.

3. Joseph Garner: Source is AG’s essay Aback of Beyond, in The Voice That Thunders. I don’t know his Grandad’s date of birth, but AG himself was born in 1934.

1 thought on “Long-term thinking and the luck of now”

  1. you mention global warming – whilst global warming clearly exists it might not be happening just because of the reaons we have supposed A signifcant contribution is currently in africa. where people are burning areas of ‘grassland’ to keep down fungal and bacterial infection on plants at the cost in polutants and co2 equivalent to 6000 cars per hectare, and they are burning a million hectares a year…

    I been watching TED and I watched a talk by alan savory, who simply by challenging one idea that has been taught to everyone for more than 50 years – that desertificationn happens as a result of over grazing, has moved land from desart to agricultural, refilled watercourses, and increased food production many fold

    have a look at the here http://www.savoryinstitute.com/

    and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI

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