The idea that we might be leaving the modern age behind is so startling that almost nobody besides a few cranks has prepared for it. Certainly no one in the political and business arenas subscribes to it. Modernity, almost by definition, seemed to come with a guarantee of permanence, implying that the human race had passed a milestone of social and economic evolution that would never be retraced. We are therefore in for some surprises.
The industrial adventure was, strictly speaking, marvelous – a cavalcade of wonders and marvels. The record of technological innovation has been so astonishing that we are conditioned now to believe it will allow us to overcome any limit. But life is tragic and history is merciless. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything. And reality has mandates of its own. The modern industrial age is foundering and has entered a zone of history I call the Long Emergency.
The modern age is foundering on the paradox of too much magic, too many layers of complexity heaped up at too great a scale. At the heart of this literal engine of progress has been fossil fuel: coal, oil, gas, with a side dish of nuclear power. All of these fuels and the systems for using them are set to dwindle and run down in a few decades, for a range of reasons, and we will be disappointed by what so-called alternatives can do for us. Our advanced civilization does not have to run out of these things before we get into a lot of trouble. In fact, we are already there.
A fundamental dynamic at work in this scenario is the relationship between wealth, or capital, and energy. As energy supplies increased in the modern age, so did wealth – surplus income deployable as capital for producing more wealth. We called this process “economic growth.” The expectation that there would always be more (of everything) allowed us to borrow heavily from our future. That borrowing was literal, in the form of debt. The world’s leading banks have choked to death on debt, and only accounting legerdemain keeps up the impression that they are still alive. Hence, the world is broke, with poor prospects of “growing” our way out of it.
Now that we are faced with true resource scarcity, the set of expectations about growth no longer comports with reality. We have entered an age of contraction. The primary task of leadership in this age is managing contraction in a way that minimizes tragic consequences. That leadership is absent. Instead, we have ramped up a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs. This phase of the process is therefore the pretend phase. It is characterized by wishful thinking that technological rescue remedies will allow us to continue running modernity the way it was set up to run.
This blog over the weeks ahead will describe what happens when the pretending has to stop.
Illustration by Fanqiao Wang