As fossil fuels lie untouched again – quietly sequestered in their strata, how must cultures change? Answers lie not in futurism, but in history. Firstly, history teaches that nothing can replace fossil fuels. They came and now have gone. They dramatically increased our power as a species to create change. Fossil powered machinery has ripped and carved landscapes. It has utterly changed transport and distribution systems.
If we consider our god-like fossil powers with regards to both cultural necessity and happiness, what have they added?
Firstly all settled cultures emerge from fields. Fossil fuels have removed people from fields, but they have not increased food production. If we can grow enough food, then all the rest of a culture can follow. I propose that a flood of people can replace now anachronistic agricultural machinery and grow plenty of food. Careful soil husbandry produces food. The same soils remain. They currently remain in an impoverished state. With skill, we can revive them.
True crop yield is output, minus input and the passing on of an undiminished resource for future crop yield. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, growth regulators and artificial fertilisers have considerably diminished that yield. Now, with a few simple tools and the knowledge we can grow food sans skull and crossbone warnings on drums and sacks and sans corporate-supplied machinery.
What about ring roads, retail parks and super markets, all of which are fossil-powered? In the same way that agricultural machinery has removed people from agriculture, so corporate, centralised distribution and procurement has removed people from the trades. It has desolated town centres and villages and has created a need for the fossil-powered family car. I propose that a flood of people will re-occupy workshops and shops in towns and villages – making the family car redundant. Will production falter? I propose that it will increase.
What about overseas trade? The same equation applies – harbour towns have been emptied of purpose by fossil fuels. The end of fossil fuels will return their original functions along with a flood of people. Boat builders, sail-traders, chandlers, innkeepers and all the attendant service trades – baker, grocer, electrician, plumber and so on will flood in as the tide of fossil fuels departs. As fossil fuels depart, so the courses of ordinary history return – every technique we need (bar one, which we shall come to) will have been previously applied.
While people scurry about seeking futuristic replacements for fossil fuels to maintain something like a fossil-fuelled way of life, they scurry for futility. There are no replacements and that way of life is no longer possible.
What have fossil fuels given us? Firstly – a new monopoly by those who control them creating both fabulous wealth for a few and increasing poverty for the rest; secondly -wild high-speed transport by road, rail and most radically by air; thirdly – heating and air conditioning systems at the touch of a button; fourthly – a powerful source of centralised electricity generation for both industrial and domestic consumption.
Losing the high-speed transport will not be difficult – we did it because we could – not because it served a purpose. Grounding aeroplanes will have no effect on happiness. On the contrary, it may increase happiness.
The most difficult task for our new economy will be generating enough electricity for domestic heating. However, once we have removed the difficulty of transport, by removing the need for it, we can more easily reconsider wind, solar and hydro systems (and distribution grids) of a capacity to meet domestic needs.
What is new to economic history is electricity. Let’s hope we are ingenious enough to produce it. Historically, we’ve heated our homes by burning trees. In the Seventeenth century, Britain faced economic collapse, because she’d burnt (as near as damn it) the last tree. Coal revived the economy. Now, facing both catastrophic climate change and economic collapse we must stop burning both biomass and fossil fuels.
We begin, where the Seventeenth Century left off – but without revivalist coal.
A remarkable, but old as the hills, source of happiness may come by the end of burning. It will be the return of humanity – the return of diminished powers – and by the same token, the enlargement of the wonderful and curious diversity and beauty of natural physics. We have travelled without travel. We’ve crossed time zones and climates, oblivious to the terrains and cultures through which (or over which) we’ve passed. Loss of fossil fuels will magnify distances in the best of ways – distances will be felt and experienced – the worth of that experience will be magnified so that minutiae of culture and terrain become apparent – the mundane may appear exotic and newly exotic experience stored and valued.
We’ve consumed without knowledge – dependent on an invisible production from behind the black glass of monopoly interests. Without curiosity, we enter a hopeless ennui – a decadence that finds relief in satiety and flaunted property. That Amazon parcel arrives without amazement, yet it has come by powers unique to history and by powers which may soon “discontinue” civilised life.
Now, we’ll travel on foot, bicycle, or perhaps, on occasion by low-speed electric rail and barge. We’ll walk from grocer’s shop to hardware shop to bookshop (for the same book, which Amazon had provided)… We can visit and trade with overseas cultures by sail – at a speed the wind chooses. Whatever we do, will be effected by the physics of where we are, and by weather; resources; soils; tides; by accumulated knowledge, skills and tools. We become smaller as the world on which we depend becomes more marvellous; as the people on whom we depend become more apparent; as gifts of life’s weathers, seasons, scents, colours, sounds and textures become both more fascinating and more precious. And as we become smaller we may fit more easily – more happily and with less anxiety, as a part of the larger social whole.
There is no way for human cultures to continue unless ecological health is reconsidered as the central indicator of economic health.
There is also no way to survival unless economic responsibility is returned to the diverse perception, ingenuity, skill and ethics of the trades and removed from blind, amoral, (stupid) closed monopolies of the current powers.
The loss of fossil fuels means the loss of unaccountable power and makes happiness and economic survival possible. What have we to mourn? Cultures are what we do with our resources and terrains, not what we are, or have been given, or have achieved. Cultures are methods, not states. We’ve been handed back human-sized tools, human fallibility and so the need for each other, because the corporate tools have failed. We have ancient, tried and tested technologies such as sailing boats, irrigation terraces, food preservation such as cheese/butter making, dried grains and pulses and so on. We have new electricity-powered refrigeration and we can almost certainly continue (egalitarian) electric-powered information technology. Why are we not in the streets rejoicing?