Monday, October 14, 2013

How Old Are We?

I am sixty years old.  When confronting my age I realize that the older I get the more vulnerable I am to sickness and injury.  I know that as  we age we slowly lose physical strength and ability.  It is hard not to get depressed about this.  The prospect of eventually losing control over more areas of our lives and becoming increasingly dependent on others is not a happy one.

On the other hand ageing can be a deeply satisfying experience, if we are less likely to be under pressure from a job, or under the stress of raising children.  In that case,we can relax, sit back and see everything from the perspective of time and experience, and if they are receptive, we can pass on some of our knowledge to the next generation.

But what about our civilization?  In the past, all civilizations grew old and died, just as individual people did.  So what age do we perceive our present civilization to be?  Are we immortal, forever growing bigger and more complex, as most Economists seem to think, or have we reached a peak and are we starting our energy descent  now,  as many Permaculturists and Peak Oil types believe?

How old is Capitalism and what is its state of health at present?  The present day Capitalist system had its roots about three hundred years ago in eighteenth century Netherlands and England.  

Let’s imagine that a civilization is like an individual, it is born, grows up, matures and then dies.  I find it useful to use developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of life: trust versus mistrust in infancy;  Industry versus Inferiority in elementary school years; (I skipped a few stages here) -  Intimacy vs Isolation during the twenties and thirties,  Generativity versus Stagnation for the 40’s to 60’s and finally - Integrity versus Despair for the last years of  life.  So, what stage is our Capitalist civilization in? My guess is the last stage.

The last stage is the one that interests me because my parents are elderly and fragile and because I work with people of that same generation in a nursing home.  Integrity versus Despair -   Do we deal with ageing gracefully or do we rage against the dying of the light?  Do we feel it all was worth it or are we filled with bitterness and the  urge for self-destruction?

We’ve done the generativity vs stagnation stage.  We did not stagnate.  We out-produced the combined output of every other civilization in history  many times over. We can be very proud of ourselves.  But, now comes a reckoning time.   

The older you get the harder it is to take in food and process it.  It is the extraction of chemical energy from food that is the basis for our ability to do  physical work.   Ageing has to do with declining access to energy.
The elderly are physically weaker, with weaker muscles, circulation, digestive systems, and immune systems.

  All previous civilizations were agricultural and were fuelled by the domestication of plants and animals.  That all changed with the advent of Capitalism and Industrialism.   For two hundred and fifty years our Industrial civilization has run on the energy from fossil fuels.  Now we are  reaching the stage where access to fossil fuels is becoming constrained by natural and economic limits.  

The fact that we are now drilling more and more holes in deeper and more dangerous places and requiring more energy to extract the fossil fuels indicates that we’ve run out of the cheap stuff.  There’s still oil, but it takes more energy to get it, and at some point it won’t be economically feasible to extract it anymore.  This will inevitably lead to global economic contraction because access to energy is the basis for all of the physical output of the economy.

Our civilization is like a stroke victim. When you have a stroke it affects your coordination and often taking in food becomes more of a problem.  Food has to be pre-chewed or pureed. In effect, more external energy has to be applied to make the food digestible. It takes more energy to get the energy.  Just like fracking and digging up the tar sands.  

In Nature the process of taking more energy to obtain energy can quickly exhaust itself, leading to decline and death, and it is no different in civilizations.

Sorry for the bad news.  Now here’s the good news:  remember Integrity versus Despair, Erik Erikson’s last stage of development?  Here’s the Integrity side:  We can think about and relate what is happening now to our understanding of history. Instead of despair, we can build on our sense of integrity.
In the past, when one civilization died another replaced it after a few hundred years.  We don’t know what will happen when a global civilization kicks the dust because it has never happened before, but the effects could be much more encompassing and destructive.

To keep on fracking and digging up the tar sands as energy costs skyrocket is like giving someone at the end-stage of life aggressive and expensive life-support,  while outside the Intensive Care Unit, babies and children are dying of starvation.  

The point is, when the economy stops growing economic competition becomes more of a zero sum game. We cannot continue to let  the few benefit at the expense of the many. The key to our continued survival is in stopping and reversing the current trend towards greater inequality.   It’s going to be more inclusive and representative political institutions that will be the best chance of saving civilization.