How Will People Live in the Future (assuming they are wise)?
In my last blog, "What Is A Feasible Living Situation for Future Humans?" I introduced my intent to analyze the feasible solution for human life in a severely energy-constrained world. I started with the proposition that a reasonable goal for human life is to provide an environment in which every person can achieve self-actualization. I do not propose that it would be possible to guarantee that a person will achieve this state, but the nature of the living situation should permit and support that goal.
The analysis I propose is based on the idea that people will be living in an agrarian-type of community, the size of which would be constrained to a number that is roughly what ancient tribes might have reached at their upper limits. I started with the notion that psychological health is optimal when there are not too many people around and yet enough to provide a sense of stability and safety in numbers. At that size, we then need to ask what sort of environment would be condusive to supporting, say, about five hundred individuals in perpetuity (sustainably) over the generations. I provided a basic framework for conducting the analysis.
The picture that emerges is one of a small farming community roughly resembling those of two hundred to four hundred years ago. But the resemblance is largely superficial for the simple reason that modern people have much more knowledge than did people of old. We should be able to construct a more culturally rich and technically advanced society as a result. Additionally, we seek to have a self-sustaining social organization because the interactions between communities may actually be much less than we saw several centuries ago. Self-sufficiency means that a community would be able to function and thrive in an essentially closed system if need be. Travel depends on energy. If people did travel they would likely do it by horse and buggy. But horses eat food that would take photosynthetically-fixed energy away from the community along with soil nutrients that would be dropped on the road!
By technically advanced I do not mean technological in the sense of our current technology-dependent age. We are as dependent on energy guzzling machines as we are on food. And that is part of our undoing. Technical, as I mean it, is having understanding of simple machines, perhaps mostly motivated by human effort, so as to maximize our work efforts and minimize our personal energy expenditures. We have metals (possibly they will need to have been scavenged from abandoned cities) and knowledge of metallurgy that did not exist in prior civilizations. We will know how to make fine plows that should last for many generations once built. We posses much more knowledge of how nature works and with that the simple machines we employ can be far more effective in doing work. Rather than overpowering nature with big, loud machines, we can work with nature to produce our living environment. A simple example is the methods of building our homes in a way that takes advantage of passive solar energy and prevailing wind patterns for heating and cooling. Our knowledge of environments and ecology will help us choose suitable sites for communities. Our knowledge of biology will allow us to build soils instead of depleting them for monetary profit.
We also have knowledge of public health and medical care that, even if practiced without modern medicines, would still be far superior in outcomes than was achieved by even the most caring country doctor of yore.
All of this presupposes that this knowledge I allude to exists in some accessible form that can be used as the basis for education in this future community. That will be a problem that needs anticipation and preemptive action. The Internet will be a distant memory. You won't be able to Google what you need to know. Wikipedia will be relegated to the annals of once-upon-a-time. Therefore the only way to prevent an all out Dark Ages will be to collect and preserve the necessary knowledge in book forms in some kind of library. There is a global effort now to preserve seeds of plants from all over in the event that some global cataclysm wipes out vegetation (see: Wikipedia article and the official Web site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). An effort to preserve knowledge of how to do all of the things suggested here would be needed. Instead of a central vault, however, I would think it best to have this knowledge preserved in many locales so that when transportation is no longer possible it could be found locally.
I should probably make something clear here. I do not believe for a moment that the kind of isolated, community based, civilization that I am describing will be the final version for humanity until the sun dies. That isn't man's nature to just go into stasis and that be the end of it. I do suspect that we will live in this situation for many generations until someone, somewhere manages to grapple with the energy issue vis á vis, finding new sources of highly powerful energy flows. If we can maintain some semblance of education and knowledge (perhaps a community devoted to maintaining a library or being a University of Noesis) I would not be at all surprised if one day in the far future, an Einstein of the day were to discover a way to tap into a kind of fusion reaction we have not yet thought about. Or perhaps there is another approach to extracting energy from wind or solar that has a much higher EROI than anyone has yet conceived. You see I am still hopeful that in the long run, we humans will find ways to exploit the better aspects of our technological knowledge. I am also hopeful that by that time nature will have done a lot toward selecting for higher average sapience than is the case for our species today.
That factor will be crucial because unless mankind has achieved some greater collective and individual wisdom capacity, it is likely to end up re-doing all the mistakes that our current form has made with the use of petroleum and coal (and esp. nuclear). However, I do feel, still, that the bottleneck situation that will give rise to the need for the kinds of communities I am picturing will also work to select for individuals who even now have the genetic makeup to produce higher sapience.In any case, I do think there will once again, eventually be something like our high-energy society, but hopefully without the foolishness of believing in infinite growth (among other foolishnesses).
A community, as envisioned here, is essentially like a single living organism, as opposed to how our current societies tend to be more like ecosystems — very 'porous' and constantly subject to changes in composition. Organisms thrive by maintaining their structural integrity and having a steady, controlled throughput of material and energy flows. In the case of materials organisms can develop ways to recycle much of what they need, especially if they have the energy to reconstitute the natural decay or breakdown materials into usable forms. The model for this kind of recycling is photosynthesis itself. But over the really long lifetime of an organism, new material resources are needed and that is why our community has to have a sufficiently large territory so that nature's capacity to renew vital resources (like water) have to come into play.
The figure below is a systems diagram of a community as a single organism. The importation of resources is controlled as is the influx of energy and its conversion to usable form. All converted energy (also called exergy in physics) is used to perform work to produce and maintain the asset stocks, essentially everything humans need and use, but also including their own biomass. Work results in energy being dissipated as waste heat. Also as assets are used, or consumables are consumed, or as time and entropy take their due, material assets break down to wastes that must be disposed of or recycled. Longer term readers may recognize this diagram as what I have also called an 'abstract economy' elsewhere. A steady-state economy obtains when the asset stocks maintain a given level within some range. Our ideal community will have asset stocks sufficient to allow all individuals, over the long-term, to achieve self-actualization, all other things being equal. Note that whatever that level is, it depends in turn on the extent of the external territory of the sources and sinks. An insufficiently large territory will result in unsustainable stock levels. Once an asset stock level is achieved that is in balance with the natural flows of material, and especially energy, then it must stay within the boundaries of its range thereafter. In other words, the system can grow only up to the point of balance with the carrying capacity of the territory and then remain stable thereafter (see: Steady State Economy).
Figure 1. This is a systems diagram depicting a stable (steady-state) abstract economy such as a single organism or the future community described here. The open rectangles represent the sources and sinks that are part of the environment and not under direct control of the community, e.g. the forests and watershed areas from the prior blog diagram.
Energy cannot be recycled and needs to enter the system from outside more or less continuously or in regular pulses such as the diurnal cycle of day and night and the seasonal intensity of sunlight, It will be used to do useful work as it flows through, and is released as waste heat to the environment where it is carried away. For the communities envisioned that means, fundamentally, capturing solar energy in a variety of low-tech ways and harnessing it to do the work of maintaining the community in health. A substantial amount of the work (though by no means all of it) will be devoted to maintaining the systems of capture and conversion themselves. For the most part this means the growing of food that will provide the basic motive power for everything else. It will take much manual (human and animal) work to maintain the food system. But also work directed at maintaining the standing capital assets (houses and barns, etc.), acquiring raw resources from the field (e.g. building materials such as rocks and wood) will need doing. Most important, for the purposes of maintaining the potential for self-actualization is providing education, entertainment, and aesthetics.
The work of maintenance need not be back breaking as it probably was 200 years ago. As I said, we are much more knowledgeable today thanks to the industrial age we have lived in, and we can find ways to work smarter rather than harder. However, a really important key to this succeeding is finding a site for the community where natural inflows of energy are easy to capture. For example, in my previous blog I mentioned a stream or river running downhill from an elevated watershed. This is actually essential. The community will be able to exploit the gravitational potential energy in such a stream. Water wheels will do much to provide power to simple machines, like lathes and looms. These will have to be constructed from sturdy materials, such as the scavenged metals mentioned above, to have a multi-generational life time. Another source of potential mechanical energy is wind, but this is much more intermittent than a running stream. It could be used to power water pumps that would return some downstream water back up to a reservoir as a way of storing this energy. Or to pump water into water towers that supply running water for the community living and working spaces.
It is even conceivable that these flows of energy might power low voltage electrical generation. This one is a bit more tricky, of course, as it implies a need to maintain more complex machines (generators and such). One rule that will have to be observed is this: every power generating or power using machine must produce enough work to not only support their on-going purpose but to also provide for their own maintenance. This rule applies to the extraction of any raw materials needed to repair or remake the machines. Electrical lighting might be nice, and convenient. But having the ability to keep generators running means that some additional energy must be captured somewhere else in order to work whatever materials are available to construct the new machine that replaces the one that wears out. Our industrial age was possible only because we always found more energy (in oil, etc) to go get the next increments of metals and other materials, work them to the shapes they needed to be to serve, and then repair or replace them when they wore out. In an energy-constrained world, one of low power inputs, that won't really be an option.
What you won't see, for certain, are photovoltaic panels and wind turbines powering television sets and computers! No matter how you arrange it, those devices cannot provide the energy needed to replace themselves when they eventually wear out. Even if a community started with them in good working order, within twenty to thirty years they would be useful only for scavenging bits of metal and such. It would probably be better to forgo any attempts to set the community up with these sources because one day they would be gone, forever.
The food system will be the biggest single subsystem of work and energy capture in the community. In all likelihood every member of the community will be engaged in some activities supporting this subsystem. Even the blacksmith would be part of this effort. And the school teacher would no doubt help out at peak work load times, like harvest. With what we now know about plant nutrient requirements, permaculture balancing of production, consumption, and recycling, we should be able to develop highly productive cultivated lands. One needs ample acreage to provide buffers and excess production for storage against bad weather conditions. Additionally, the management of seed will be quite important as a sub-specialty of the endeavor.
Many different artisan skills will be needed in the community as in days of old. But the level of specialization will be far less than we've grown used to. Everybody will have to have some general skills in food production, maintenance of equipment and animals. There is some evidence that people who are less specialized and engage in a wider variety of work activities tend to be happier and more fulfilled by their work. This would, in my mind, contribute a great deal to the achievement of self-actualization — the ultimate goal of all of this!
Of course providing for health needs and possibly dentistry will require specialized knowledge that would necessitate individuals taking on these roles (the town doctor, etc.)
Education may become more a matter of home-schooling and on-the-job training with a smattering of formal education in mathematics, literature, etc. being carried on at other times. Since there would no longer be a mandate from society to learn math so that you can get a better job, people should find education more enjoyable and fulfilling for its own sake, rather than just another chore they are expected to do.
Now we get to one of the more delicate issues with community life and that is the management of affairs of the community, what we might be tempted to call governance. I suspect every community of this kind will find what works for them in terms of who they decide should provide management oversight, how they decide such, and what level of authority/responsibility they give them. However, given the lessons we hopefully have learned about politics, I would hope that between elevated sapience and awareness of the role of wisdom in managing the social process people would tend to look to the wise elders for leadership (see my series Sapient Governance linked from the series index page).
It might not be a problem since the community would be seeking to maintain a steady-state condition and NOT grow in any particular way. It is the decisions about what, when, and how to grow that complicate life for us all. And as long as we have this belief that growth is good pounded into our head and impinging on our psyches (as a replacement for self-actualization, I might add) we are slaves to the necessity to channel precious resources into the fools game. The community needs to remember that it is more like a single adult organism than a cancer or wild population. The wise elders are more like custodians of the balance than directors of new projects. By not growing, the elders can focus more on resolving the complex social issues that arise between people who have differing views (think about Solomon settling the dispute over motherhood of a baby). Even in the wisest of communities I imagine differences of opinion will emerge. There is also always the affairs of the heart that can complicate life and impede progress toward self-actualization!
Engagement in Development of the Mind and Consciousness
The society will be in balance when everyone in it has sufficient freedom to pursue education (formal or self) and gaining better understanding of themselves and their world, including their neighbors. A community that actually values the development of the inner life, knowledge, the mind and one's consciousness, is the community that will thrive in the future, even with energy constraints. This isn't something that must be done in a certain number of years. Given the balance between work, play, and pursuit of self-actualization, it becomes a lifetime endeavor. There are so many ways that people can engage in mental activities that exercise their brains. These should come to the fore in a future sapient society. Without the mind numbing din of television game shows and spectator (couch potato) sports or a life-sucking useless 'job' people should be free to grow and mature in harmony with their environment and their own psyches.
Even though this vision of a society in which everyone has to be a part of growing their own food, and they will not be able to download the newest cute ringtone for the iPhoneTM I don't see it as going backwards so much as learning to integrate what humans experienced in the past with what we know is possible today. We don't need to abandon everything and become slaves of the land as long as we are smart in how we go about creating these communities. A huge part of that trick is taking into consideration the lay of the landscape that will provide the maximum of flow of free energies. There probably aren't that many truly good sites available, unfortunately. But at the same time, after our current civilization crashes I don't imagine there will be all that much competition for what there is.
Despite the fact that much of this may seem to be an attempt to lay out a blueprint for a future social order, it really isn't. I am more concerned with understanding the requirements and constraints for something we might call 'true sustainability' for human life in this world. I started from the assumption that to be human means achieving the highest level of mental life or self-actualization. Unless a human-built environment can successfully provide that milieu it is not worthy of our potential as a species. The question then becomes what framework of community would be able to support this objective in a severely energy-constrained world, since that is what we are going to end up with? In one sense the analysis will provide some guidance to those who want to pursue such communities proactively, before the presumptive crash. But this in no way suggests that there are some set of rules, other than the laws of nature, that dictate that it should be done in some proscribed manner. The only rule that might be implied is that human communities will need to forgo their tendency to try to grow in population and consumption. But I think if the people of tomorrow are at all wise, they will recognize this and live in balance with whatever the world has to offer them.
I received several e-mails from readers who wondered how my ideas were different from communes and other idealized communities that have come and gone with the ages. For one thing, those communes were never really based on biophysical economics in the sense I've been describing it here. They did not consider the energy balance needed to sustain for the long term. Many of the ones I've reviewed were dependent on trade of some kind with the outside world. The most successful introverted communities have had some shared doctrine, e.g. a set of religious beliefs that bound them to a lifestyle and to one another from within. The Old Order Amish come to mind.To a large degree I imagine the communities I describe as being bound by something akin to religious belief, but belief in the benefits of self-actualization and development of the mind. I think whatever purpose is given for the formation of a community it has to foremost balance the need of the community with the needs of individuals in the way that I think religion does. Our current world pays lip service to individualism and entrepreneurship while entirely enslaving us to the economics of profit. Not a good fit to my way of thinking.