Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vision of the future : Dune

Science-fiction tells us more about the dreams, hopes, and fears of a age than about any actual form the future could take. It may, however, sometimes offer us a glimpse through a glass, darkly, of how this future might come to be. That is why Kunstler's The World Made by Hand and Greer’s Star's Reach are so interesting to read. They are not the only novels on this subject, however. Other science-fiction classics, not necessarily of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, may help us to grasp what the fundamentals of a post-peak society could be. Frank Herbert's Dune is one of those.

Even though spice is definitely a metaphor for oil and Arrakis definitely a metaphor for Arabia, the Dune universe has little to do with what a post-peak world is likely to look like. It has a Galactic Empire, spaceships, and an advanced, if somewhat vintage, technology – the book was written in 1965 after all. Yet, when you look beyond the Ixian machines and the Bene Gesserit's breeding program, the logic of the Dune society is not unlike what you could expect from a severely resource-constrained society.

We all know about the noble Atreides and the dastardly scheming Harkonnen, but few realize that, despite their differences, both were feudal overlords ruling over a host of local nobles and a far greater number of commoners, including in some places slaves. This is a remarkably common system in history, and even though most of us, myself included, would not like to live in it, it is a logical response to resource scarcity. Fossil fuels have enabled us, for two centuries, to create a huge economical surplus, which in turn has enabled us to bridge somewhat the gap between poor and rich people, at least in the developed countries.

This bridge is very partial, that's true, and it is slowly falling apart, but it does exist. Many people, at least in the de-growth scene, have pointed out that the average French worker has access to luxuries a medieval duke could not even dream of. Few have noted, however, that he has access to roughly the same kind of goods as the rich, the main differences being quality . I am far from being rich, but I do have a computer and a heated house. I can dine in a restaurant and travel by plane. What I lack is access to those goods and services specifically designed to be expensive; i.e., to act as a class-barrier.

Widespread access to luxury goods and services is only possible, however, because our economic system still creates enough surplus to distribute some of it among even the non-elite. During pre-industrial times, the difference between the haves and the have-nots was not one of degree but one of kind. A medieval peasant could not even dream of owning a stone house, for instance. Because the economy produced little surplus, it could support few rich people, and those few could accumulate riches only by reducing the rest of the population to permanent poverty, sometimes barely above survival level. The result was a considerable distance between the wealthy and the rest of the population, comparable not to the difference between a modern-day French worker and a millionaire, but to the one between the same French worker and a Malian subsistence farmer.

Access to technology was, however, rather evenly distributed. Things would be quite different in a high- or even not so high-technology ressource-poor world. The Atreides and the Harkonnen have access to what we would call high-technology (spaceships, powered vehicles and so on), but the universe of their subjects is definitely low-tech, and so is the economy. Caladan's main resource is paddy rice, and the Harkonnen rose to House Major status thanks to their manipulation of the whale fur market.

A resource-poor world could indeed enjoy a relatively high level of technology, even if there is no historical precedent. What it cannot do is mass-produce it. A car or even a computer could theoretically be built by a resource-constrained society with the necessary know-how. What such a society could not support, let alone build, is the necessary industrial infrastructure. The consequence is that those high-tech objects which could still be made in such a context will have to be hand-crafted in very much the same way that books, for instance, were produced in pre-industrial times. Their price would therefore be prohibitive. Surviving complex technologies would then be reserved to the elite, whatever this elite may be.

This may, ironically, encourage the survival or the resurrection of some technologies. During the long descent, society’s focus will be survival, and at some point research and even technology maintenance will cease to be priorities. Unless things become far worse than they need to be, the dark ages will pass and new elites will emerge from the ruins – if history is any guide, they will descend from successful warlords; even if they may have another origins, such as religion. Like all elites, they will want to display their status, and what better way to do it than by using prohibitively expensive technologies from the legendary time of computers and moon rockets. The resulting society could be more polarized than anything in history. After all, Louis XIV might have had chests of gold and tens of thousands of soldiers at his disposal, but he still had to rely on herbs when he was sick. His twenty-fourth-century counterparts may have competent doctors and antibiotics. It is their subjects who will have to be content with herbs.

Such technology would be rather static, however, and there too the Dune universe offers us a good idea of what a post-peak society could look like. Research is a very resource-intensive activity, and it relies upon a network of equally very resource-intensive educational institutions. Both are subject to the law of diminishing returns. While a resource-poor society may do some research, it will have to be limited and very focused; as a result, its technology will look quite stagnant, with very few breakthroughs and those shall be very far between, and a lot of mature technologies used without much change for thousands of years. Technological innovations may still be game-changers in the realm of the economy or geopolitics – the synthetic spice, for instance – but they won't change the way ordinary people live, at least not the way the runaway technological progress of the last two centuries has done. That does not mean that ordinary people won't experience significant, even drastic, changes in their lives – wars, political and religious crises, and natural disasters will still be very much on the agenda – but we won't see anything like the rift between our grandparents' world and ours. In a way, it will be a return to the atemporal peasant world before the Industrial Revolution, a world subject to change but not to progress, where continuity is valued more than innovation.

Most peak oil activists would hate such a society, of course, even though some, of the conspiracy theorist kind, might see in my description of it a confirmation of their fears. They would be wrong, by the way. If a Dune-like society does emerge from the long descent, it will be after the demise of our world and of its elite. They are much too closely linked to mass production, to globalization, and to the monetary economy to thrive or even survive in a world where those will be mere memories. They will go the way of Mayan priests and Roman aristocrats. The post-peak aristocrats will be of another stock – they may even be the descendants of successful activists (there are, after all, historical precedents) – and their formation years will be long and troubled.

As I have said, I would greatly dislike living in such a society, but that does not change the fact that its emergence, or the emergence or something quite similar in its functioning if not in its external outlook, is a possible – even likely – consequence of the collapse of a technological society. That does not mean, of course, that we cannot prevent it from emerging. We cannot do anything about the limits to growth, and certainly cannot avert the coming collapse, but we are fully responsible for the way we react to it. Promoting personal and collective accountability and extending democracy, especially at the community level where the consequences of one's choices can be fully felt, might erect subtle but very effective barriers to the rise of “feudalism with hand-crafted tanks”. That means, however, tremendous effort both at the personal and the community level, and it is not certain that every individual and, more important, every community will be willing to make them.

I want to thank David Parkinson, who have copy-edited this post and corrected my rather clumsy English. Without his efforts, it would have been far less readable.


  1. Wow, very good post. I have just now began thinking about what a post peak future will look like centuries from now instead of concentrating on the coming decades and my own childrens future.

    Thanks for giving my ideas of preparing for my great-grandchildrens future by encouraging local democracies and community level responibility

  2. Thank you Damien for a well crafted and balanced assessment of a possible deindustrial future. I would be happy to see you expand on your theme by offering ideas of how this scenario might play out in various regions of the world.

  3. pgrass101, democracy and rule of law are certainly worth preserving and they can certainly be preserved, provided we fight for them at the level where the can be preserved : the community.

    sv koho : this is not the only scenario, and I plan to describe some others. Some will be worse, a few may be better. As for how it will play out in various regions of the world... well the problem is that seemingly minor events can have huge consequences. In 410 it was obvious Britain would be divided into petty kingdoms, it was, let's say far less obvious they would be English-speaking

  4. In many of your posts you have drawn inferences of our current situation to that of late antiquity and the transition from the roman empire to the middle ages. I was wondering, applying that example, if an alternative to peak oil societal collapse presents itself.

    Discussions about societal collapse often discuss the causes of the end of the Western Roman Empire. From reading Joseph Tainter's articles he draws the comparison between the end of the Western Roman Empire and that of the Eastern Roman Empire. The East despite losing most of its territory and much of its income due to the Islamic conquests did not collapse but maintained itself as a political entity at the expense of a dramatic decline in complexity (reduced trade, less coinage, smaller cities, less literacy).

    Do you think that a analogous future is theoretically possible? For example, the central government reduces its level of outlays to match to get ahead of the underlying decline in the economy due to energy scarcity by pushing responsibility for services (health, welfare, education etc) onto local governments to dramatically reduce cost while maintaining control over basic infrastructure and defence. The local government or civil society or combination thereof delivers the services which currently get performed by the central government but at a much smaller scale and at a much lower cost.

    This would ideally ensure government delivers the essential basics maintaining its legitimacy while still binding the provinces to the core through the provision of services that the provinces cant deliver themselves.

    Such an arrangement could theoretically create more political resilience and reduce the attractiveness of competing social/political narratives eg criminal gangs/messianic religious movements etc.

    Do you think this is theoretically doable?

  5. aj macey, it is indeed theoretically possible and as Tainter noted, it is what happened with Byzantium. The problem is that Byzantium may have had more breathing space than we have, due to geography and the fact their neighbors were states of similar complexity. Besides, it entails losing a significant part of our wealth, and it is something we, as a society, desperately want to avoid. As for delegating actual control to sub-national entities... we tend to do the exact contrary in time of crisis : delegating cost, but not responsibilities. France is the poster child for that

    Now, of course, some countries may be lucky and escape the worst of the collapse - I hope Brittany will be among them. They are likely to be on the fringe of the developed world (Ireland for instance) or in the midlist. I am not too optimistic for Britain and France, however

  6. Interesting post - on the other hand, we probably shouldn't forget that what we conveniantly call "feudalism", at least in the case of Western Europe, is as much a product of a specific kind of technology than it is the outcome of a general human desire to rule and subdue. European noblemen were basically a function of the stirrup, which made possible the use of heavily armed cavalry for the royal or princely armies, and consequently the freeholders armed with with spears and swords that had dominated warfare in the Dark Ages and during the Merowingian period gave way to knights in shining armor, who necessarily had to be supported by a whole bunch of underprivileged peasants/serfs (who, in turn, were exempted from conscription and could turn to their lord for protection).

    It would occur to me that "hand-crafted tanks" still require a degree of complexity (steel mills, ballistics experts, specialized engineers, refineries, to name just a few) that cannot be met by a "feudal" society, i.e. one based on personal obligations rather than on state bureaucracies and general government. I would first expect a brief era of "renationalization", with national governments everywhere trying to organize scarcity and shortcomings as good as they can, while upholding the kind of international trade that makes available whatever fuels they need for the few tanks they mange to keep running. And even after that there will still be handguns, and the stirrup/knight constellation will not return any time soon.

    Amitiés d'Allemagne!

  7. working in government I can see the trap you mention. Any problem leads to more control by the central government. In any crunch period the central government will control ever more resources (but will be ever less responsive), on the presumption that things will return to business as usual, which of course wont happen.

    I could readily forsee that local government activities get curtailed as the central government expropriates more and more tax revenue to meet an ultimately unpayable ever increasing health and welfare bill.

    Having read Tainter's work about the inevitable decline in returns on complexity which is the underlying cause behind societal collapse everything that's happening has an air of inevitability and everything I do at work seems utter futility. Precious resources get wasted on things like tourism which really has no future while industries like agriculture are left to wither on the vine (due to cheap imports). Try and raise a critique of any policy applying the concept of peak oil and your looked at like an idiot even though I am just repeating what such radicals as the IEA, US Dept Energy and more recently Lloyds of London are saying.

    If the trend is towards more greater centralisation, what is the circuit breaker? When the policy makers come to make a decision what political steps need to be taken by civil society/local government to avoid the response of taking more power away from the local level? The Transition Town movement seems like a good start but they seem pretty much akin to Machiavelli's 'unarmed prophet' a messenger that can be ignored (or destroyed) because they have no real power.

    What concerns me most about the great unravelling ahead is that centralisation happens not just politically but economically as well. We are completely hostage to the economic viability of large scale centralised organisations in other parts of the world.

    Unlike the later roman empire we are on multiple levels dependant on long distance for the essentials of life, which we have no ability to replicate. Those who do have the ability to replicate them don't do it for charity when the economy goes downhill they will go bankrupt quickly along with the ability to repair and replace what they made. For example, if peak oil leads to recession and recession leads to less consumption people will fly less and they will not buy new cars, so ultimately the aviation and automotive industries which require mass production to be viable shut down in quick succession. If my car breaks down but the component manufacture has gone out of business I cant fix it like the old cars, its had it.

    Sorry Bernd, I dont see international trade holding up real well, no doubt weak governments (The West) will protest about free trade while realistic governments ie China gobble up all the critical resources the global economy needs. What trade there is will increasingly be "I give you x resource and you give me y resource with increasingly savage trade wars in between as each region tries to beggar its neighbour. I don't see a period of 'renationalisation,' at least from where I am sitting (Australia) as that would mean governments accept business as usual is no longer working.

    In the long term our tanks hand crafted or otherwise will just rust in the yard, or get stripped by unpaid soldiers and sold for scrap metal as the government spends all its money on welfare.

  8. Medicine herbs might be an improvement over the American health care system!


  9. Bernd, strictly speaking feudalism is a social system based upon a vassal - liege relationship. Under is pure form it existed only in Western Europe and Japan. Yet, even though Japanese knew the stirrup and their warrior class had quite a similar ethos as our own, their fighting style was very different. Besides, the "shining armor" period in occident was relatively short. Until the 11th century knights were mailed, not armored and used their lance old-style. After the fourteenth (and, for instance Crecy, Bannockburn and Azincourt), it was common for knight to fight on foot. They charged headlong only footer who could not hold their lines, which was becoming increasingly rare.

    I think the mark of feudalism is not the knight, it is the castle from which a lord can control a small territory while being protected from attacks. There is one not far from where I work. Would not take so much work to make functionnal.

    And don't underestimate makeshift fighting vehicles. Sure they won't be anything as deadly as a Leclerc, but building, said, a diesel tractor or a pick up should not beyond the skills of even a post peak technicians - the principles are simple after all. Then you put metal plate on it and add a machine gun or a small gun... the result would be grossly inefficient but could still deadly against somebody with only small arms.

    The Soviets did it in 1941 (the NI tanks) and more important, African warlords still do with their "technicals" with sometimes impressive results. Just ask Ghadaffi what he felt when his ultra-modern, fully armored army was beaten to a pulp by rag-tag chadian warriors riding transformed pick-up.

  10. aj macey, working in local government, in a political position, i see the same process as you do, and even though I should be able to influence things, in practice it is impossible. Anything challenging the status quo is just ignored... and the gods help me if mouth something else than the left wing doxa in a rally.

    As for the circuit breaker, it depends. In some area, there are enough regional identity to fuel a devolution or even independence movement (think Wales, Brittany). In Amerika, for instance, you should watch the larger native reservations.

    Elsewhere, remember that regulations work only if they are enforced. As the central state loses the capacity to control the society at the local level, local necessity will take over out of necessity. Grey or black economy will become widespread, making trade regulations irrelevant and local security forces will take over as national police retreats to the largest urban center.

    Remember that collapse entails also a loss of function. Political authorities basically retreats from day-to-day administration as well as from the management of the economy. Today it is done through privatization and it will take some time to come to fruition, but the pattern is visible. Inevitably, somebody will creep in the void, the problem is that he might not be very democratic