1. Introduction
  2. Prophets of Doom
    1. Oil
    2. Networks
    3. Disasters
  3. Scenarios
    1. Worries
    2. Slow Connections
    3. Disturbances
    4. Urban Optimism
    5. Mega-Technology
    6. Eco-Technology
    7. Energy Issues
  4. Social Change
    1. Silent Change
    2. Predicting Change
    3. Drastic Change

I would be happy to receive any comments you might have on this draft version.

Scenarios: Energy Issues

Many praise such a vision of a low-energy, locally sourced mode of life as a humane goal. Others claim we will end up in a low-energy future whether we like it or not. We saw earlier their argument that there are no workable substitutes for oil or natural gas at the scale needed to maintain our current levels of energy consumption.

For an even more low-energy ecotopian vision, see the narratives picturing an imagined Eugene, OR in 2035 by local activist and permaculture advocate Jan Spencer.

It can be inspiring to read idyllic descriptions of a life consuming less energy, with strong local community bonds and mutual support, living close to the local bioregion. Too often, though, this romanticizes an imagined past of rural or hunter-gatherer life. But people kept leaving such communities, desiring more choices, more abundance. Anthropologists also tell us that while hunter gatherers did have a more leisurely lifestyle, it had its own drawbacks. Kevin Kelly summarizes this research in the early chapters of What Technology Wants. He argues that given our current population and urbanization, the alternative to high energy use would not be idyllic; it would mean regressing back a century or two to a condition of slums and rural poverty. Then this would restart technological growth and the demand for more energy, because the same causes would be present and the same tensions and dynamics would be active in technology and culture. We could avoid repeating history only by enforcing drastic limits on social and technical possibilities. But should not avoid tensions and complexities. It would be better to live those complexities mindfully and transcend them in the direction of openness rather than limits. We grow by going through tension and arriving at a new wholeness. For this, thoughtfully developed and used technology and energy are needed.

“If we fail to enlarge the possibilities for other people we diminish them, and that is unforgivable. Enlarging the scope of creativity for others, then, is an obligation. We enlarge others by enlarging the possibilities of the Technium, by developing more technology and more convivial expressions of it.” (What Technology Wants, 349)

The development of tools produces new choices (348). Technology moves towards more options, more opportunities, more connections, more diversity, and, Kelly admits, more problems (359).

See also the discussion in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. The Scots writer Ken MacLeod reported in his blog some forceful words: “The usual conception of sustainability, Prof McInnes argued, was a dangerous idea. Technological stagnation only means slower resource depletion. We need continuous technological progress to make new resources available. The idea that we should use less energy is outrageously inhumane and regressive. Most of humanity gets its energy from burning wood and dung. We need a vast increase in energy production. That means nuclear power, including new kinds of nuclear plant such as the Thorium Energy Amplifier. Nuclear waste is just inadequately burned nuclear fuel. We need to find ways of burning it all. Most recycling schemes are feel-good rather than do-good, condemning us to pre-industrial, manual rooting about in rubbish. We need plasma torches and mass spectrometers to really recover all the useful stuff in our waste.”

We can be sure that the future will be different from both our rosy and our calamitous forecasts, in ways that we cannot now predict. But we can be sure it will contain cities, as well as some successor to suburbia. We might imagine the latter to look like villages, with ample time for community cooperation and intense local relationships, but where there's also plenty of technology handling background support and far-flung connections. (H. G. Wells envisions something like this in his novel Men Like Gods.) This means finding good energy sources and more useful technology. Whether that is best done through mega-interventions or through ecotopian green is a tactical question, depending on what turns out to be technically possible and what kind of political will and resources can be assembled. It is likely we will mix some large engineering with small local hi-tech and bio-tech in ways that we can now only faintly glimpse.

We’re either at the start of a renaissance, or at the end of civilisation. Increasingly, from facts and figures and arithmetic, we’re building the intellectual tools to decide which it will be. While some shrill conservatives cling to the past, the rest of us are moving forward to something still in the process of being defined. That’s why, compared to them, we look a bit untogether. They know precisely what they don’t want, but we can’t yet clearly articulate what we do want. That’s the nature of the future—it’s a collective act of informed imagination. And the quality of information is improving. (Brian Eno)

(Continue to Social Changes: Silent)