The Problem with Industrial Civilization
This booklet is an excerpt from a larger book project which is in the works, called In the Wake: A Collective Manual-in-Progress for Outliving Civilization. This project, and my writings and life in general, are based on the premise that industrial civilization is destroying the world and exploiting and murdering the inhabitants of the world. I believe that industrial civilization is not capable of doing anything else, whatever political party (or corporation, or American-installed military dictator) is “in charge”.
I want to help to create communities which are equitable, ecological, and sustainable. I also believe that we can’t do this within the machinery of industrial civilization. More to the point, that machinery is insatiable, imperialistic, and in the end, suicidal. Civilization is destroying itself along with the world.
This introduction is necessarily brief, but I encourage you to look at some of the resources at the end of this introduction to learn more about the assumptions this book is based on.
Let me be specific about what I mean by industrial civilization. For many people, the word civilization calls to mind words like “refined, safe, convenient, modern, advanced, polite, enlightened and sophisticated”. Of course, these words are the words that civilized people use to describe themselves. For example, if you look up the word “Christian” in the thesaurus, you will find words like “fair, good, high-principled, honourable, humane, noble, right, virtuous” and other words that Christians might use to describe themselves, but which hardly apply to the Crusades, the Witch-Burnings, or other such atrocities carried out by self-described Christians.
For a more unbiased definition of civilization, we can consider historian Lewis Mumford’s use of the word civilization “to denote the group of institutions that first took form under kingship. Its chief features, constant in varying proportions throughout history, are the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes.” <1>
Anthropologist Stanley Diamond cuts to the chase, and says simply that “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home”. <2>
By “industrial”, I mean a society that is dependent on machines for the basics of life. A society that needs tractors to grow food, trucks to transport it, factories to synthesize fertilizers, and so on, is an industrial society. A society where people participate in the growing of their own food and other basics by hand would not be industrial.
Put the two concepts together and you get industrial civilization. This is a society with an extreme disparity of power, and where machines are built, and humans mechanized, in order to serve the needs of those in power. Since those in power want, essentially, to become more powerful, society is caught in the claws of powerful people who constantly seek to accelerate and extend the exploitation of human beings and the natural world. We can see the effects of this in the intense global destruction of the living world.
That the world is being destroyed probably isn’t news to you. You’ve probably heard that ninety percent of the fish in the ocean have been killed in the past fifty years, and that those remaining are significantly smaller. <3> You’ve probably heard that the oceans are in a state of ecological collapse. And that phytoplankton, the basis of the biosphere, has decreased in global population by six percent in a mere two decades, and by as much as thirty percent in some areas. <4> Populations of krill, the tiny animals just above phytoplankton on the ocean food chain, are down by eighty percent in three decades. <5> You’ve probably read in the news that global warming will kill up to 37% of all species on earth by 2050 <6> (and you’ve probably noticed that the estimates of these casualties from global warming seem to increase just about every week). In essence, you’ve probably noticed, even if you only read the corporate-owned newspapers, that the world is being ever more rapidly destroyed. If you’re paying attention, you don’t even need the papers to tell you this.
Many, if not most of us, realize that this rapid destruction can not continue indefinitely. A society which destroys the land will inevitably die, because all people, in the end, depend on the land for sustenance.
Industrial civilization also depends on energy-hungry machines to survive. Some people seem to believe that machines support our lives, that water comes from the tap and potatoes come from the grocery store. But machines only extract and centralize – I might go so far as to say “loot and pillage” – the natural “resources” that humans depend on. Machines don’t and can’t create life.
As peak-oil activists are publicizing, the amount of oil on the Earth is finite, and civilization is running out. More than half of the extractable petroleum is gone. Demand is skyrocketing because of continued growth and the industrialization of the so-called “Third World”. The supply of oil that runs and builds the machines of industrial civilization has peaked, and is now beginning the not-so-slow process of running out. For a system dependent on growth, that’s a disaster.
A number of recent books examine the situation with great clarity, such as Matt Savinar’s “The Oil Age is Over”, and Richard Heinberg’s “The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies”.
Many peoples’ first impression is that we won’t actually be in trouble until the oil actually runs out completely, several decades from now, but it’s actually much more urgent than that. I’ll use an analogy to explain.
Imagine industrial civilization as a weight which is suspended from a ceiling by many, many ropes. These ropes are the constant supplies of oil that keep civilization from crashing down.
Now imagine the weight of civilization as the energy required to deal with all of civilization’s needs to keep existing – energy to build and maintain the physical infrastructure, to transport and centralize materials and resources, to engage in war and occupation to ensure a constant supply of resources, to industrially produce food for a growing population, and so on. As those needs increase, the weight gets heavier. For example, as the water tables in agricultural areas drop, more energy and infrastructure are required to drill deeper wells, to pump water from further away, to construct and maintain irrigation systems. Things like this increase the “weight” of civilization. And those actions tend to cause their own problems, like depletion and salinization of the soil, which will require more and more energy in the future. The weight just keeps on getting heavier.
Now, industrial civilization has managed to persist so far because it keeps getting more and more ropes – that is, it extracting more and more oil each year. But now oil production has reached a plateau. Civilization has as many ropes as it will ever have, but it keeps getting heavier. The ropes are stretched taut, and soon they’ll be stretch to the breaking point. Some time around 2007 the gap between the demand for oil and the production will become “unbridgeable”. There won’t be enough oil, or ropes.
If you cut a rope in our strained example, maybe the other ropes will still be able to hold it up. But if you cut another one, and then another one, eventually the remaining ropes will be overloaded. They will all snap and the weight will fall.
But civilization isn’t a single object. A more accurate analogy would look at civilization as a set of weights, which are all hanging by ropes and connected to each other by cables. Each of these weights is a segment of the interdependent industrial economy: synthetic fertilizer production, oil extraction, natural gas distribution, military arms manufacturing, and so on. And each of these weights is connected to each other by cables because they are interdependent. Fertilizer production requires ample supplies of natural gas, and reliable oil extraction depends on a stable regime backed up by a well-armed military. Once the ropes snap on one weight, it falls and pulls on the weights connected to it by cables. And then one after the other their ropes snap too, and the entire apparatus falls in ruin.
That’s called a “cascading industrial collapse”, and I think it’s the most likely future for industrial civilization within the next decade or so.
This knowledge is a shock that many people are unable to cope with, so they ignore it. Or they cheer for or work on energy technologies like fuel cells with which they hope to draw out the lifespan of civilization. But at the same time civilization brings them their gasoline and electricity, it also strips away the forests that used to provide fuel and wood for anyone who lived near them. It poisons the air, water and soil, it empties the oceans of fish and destroys the sensitive balance of the Earth’s climate. And as it reaches out, one foot already in the grave, to pillage the last bits of remaining “resources” it displaces and murders those human communities that have managed to survive as long as they can. Remaining indigenous groups world-wide are displaced, threatened, and assaulted to obtain more oil and minerals. Rural communities shrivel as agriculture, forestry and fishing become ever more mechanized, or simply cease to exist because of deforestation and the collapse of fisheries. Even now, already a billion people, one out of every six people on the planet, live in squalid conditions in urban slums, and that number is likely to double within the next quarter century, according to the United Nations. <7>
The longer industrial civilization lasts the more human and living communities it will destroy. We know that it’s going to come down one day, and probably soon. The longer it exists, the worse shape we will be in. Knowing that, we realize that it is time to bite the bullet.
Industrial civilization needs to end as soon as possible.
It is my starting point that if we want to have healthy communities and landbases, which can recover from the attacks they have faced, we must first get rid of industrial civilization. You can’t heal from an assault until the assault has actually ended.
Those of us who are aware of the situation are often deluged by greenwash. Those in power want us to believe that the situation can be remedied by minor fixes, by seamlessly replacing the dirty, industrial system with a “green”, solar and wind-powered equivalent. But it doesn’t work that way, as the references at the end of the introduction examine in great detail. The “renewables” offer only a tiny fraction of the energy required to prevent collapse. And once industrial civilization has collapsed it will be next to impossible to produce industrial “renewables” like gigantic wind turbines.
For many industrialized people, the severity of this situation is almost impossible to understand, accept, or perceive. Some people will go to any intellectual or emotional length to deny or ignore the situation, and insist that we can simply use hydrogen cars and solar powered computers without fundamentally changing our lifestyles. This is mere wishful thinking, but those in power prefer it. If the truly dire nature of our situation were universally recognized, the economy would collapse shortly thereafter. Who would buy stocks, who would go to work, who would put their money in the bank, if they knew that in the coming years the collapse of industrial civilization was inevitable?
The situation is clearly desperate. The upward energy consumption trend and the downward availability trend will collide catastrophically. The result will be the collapse of industrial civilization, and there is nothing that anyone can do to stop it.
But there are things that people can do about it, during and after it. Which is what this book project is for.
Because some people identify very closely with industrial civilization, the thought of its collapse seems like their own death. They can not imagine that anything might happen afterwards. But the collapse, in theory, doesn’t necessarily have to be very violent, and could ideally involve less deprivation and poverty than now exist. This would require an honest look at the situation by everyone. It would mean scaling down industrial capacity as rapidly as possible, and focusing efforts on ensuring that as many people as possible are fed and healthy, instead of trying to create hydrogen cars or other false hopes.
However, we know that governments and corporations are not going to do this. It would be very unpopular, make very little profit, and generally distribute wealth, power and self-determination, whereas industrialization has concentrated the control of the basics of life in the hands of very few people.
The fundamental inability of the controlling institutions of society to deal appropriately with the situation puts us in a rather desperate situation. It’s up to us as small, face-to-face groups (the only groups which can really be democratic or accountable, in my opinion) to do what needs to be done to ensure that things turn out as well as possible.
The Purpose of this Booklet
Many of us are very busy with making a living, taking care of ourselves and each other, doing activism and so on. We can’t all spend as much time as we’d like camping in the forest, growing gardens, learning improvised wilderness first aid, or learning other skills for collapse. And the likely timeline for collapse is staggeringly short. We can expect massive disruptions of global industrial and transportation systems starting between 2005 and 2010. <8> One of the reasons that I am writing this is for it to be a “crash course” for the crash, a way of quickly introducing a variety of important skills and technologies to people who aren’t familiar with them, as well as creating a reference and resource for those who are.
It’s difficult to predict exactly how the collapse will play out (although Planning, Prediction and Preparation is the subject of the next In the Wake excerpt booklet). The collapse of various civilizations in history took years or decades to collapse. So looking at those examples, it’s tempting to go back to sleep and say “don’t worry, we have plenty of time to figure out how to deal with collapse. It will happen gradually.” But that’s far from guaranteed. Those civilizations took centuries or millennia to reach their full extent. The dominant technological civilization on the planet is dependent on machines that are only decades old. The time-scale of change has become profoundly compressed by rapid industrial change. We can expect the rate of collapse to reflect that compression. Also, those historical civilizations were based on technologies that were much less interdependent than ours. If the oil supply is interrupted, it becomes impossible to maintain the electrical generation and distribution infrastructure. If the electrical infrastructure goes out, then almost all of the rest of the infrastructure goes out immediately. Telecommunications may continue temporarily by generator and battery power, but even communications are becoming electrically-dependent, and hence more brittle.
Additionally, there is reason to believe that industrial collapse may happen very rapidly because of deliberate attacks on industrial infrastructure, oil and electrical infrastructure in particular. These attacks are quite common in some areas of the world already, and are becoming increasingly common in North America. (However, they are not very publicized, probably because those in power don’t want people to realize how incredibly fragile and vulnerable the infrastructure actually is.) If there was a coordinated attempt to collapse the industrial system by a small group of committed people, near-total industrial collapse could happen very quickly, over a period of weeks or even days.
Though it may seem ironic to some, I believe that this rapid collapse is probably the “best-case scenario” for the planet. I’m a bit of an optimist, despite the awful state of things. So I’m planning for an optimistic scenario which involves near-term, rapid industrial collapse. It’s a remote possibility that industrial civilization may continue for decades longer if it makes extensive use of destructive technologies like nuclear power and coal-seam gasification. But if it does last that long we are seriously fucked. I doubt that many, if any, human beings would survive, let alone most other species. And I’m not going to write a book for a world with no humans in it – who would read it? So that leaves us with the urgency of a book for the “optimistic” scenario of rapid collapse.
I wish to provide a handbook not just to help people survive industrial collapse, but to share some of the skills people will need to demolish the remnants of industrial civilization, and civilization in general, and to build egalitarian and ecological communities of their own.
The techniques covered in this book project are chosen by the following general criteria:
o They must either apply broadly and generally to a variety of bioregions, or have the potential to be exceptionally beneficial to people in some bioregions.
o They should permit a reduced impact and/or reduced consumption, rather than increasing consumption.
o They should operate with “found resources” and remnant resources as much as possible, as opposed to cultivation or metalworking, so as to maintain the wilds and minimize labour.
o They should be relatively simple, so that they can be learned quickly.
o They should be as compact as possible, to maintain the wilds. (That is, a technique that allows a 1000 square foot garden to meet food needs sustainably, would generally be preferred to a 1500 square foot garden which yields the same amount of food, since the smaller garden leaves more room for wilderness. That assumes that both gardens are equally sustainable.)
o They should include easy to find or make items, so as to permit rapid scaling up, democratic application, and reduced scarcity.
o Whenever possible, their use should be creative and fulfilling, rather than repetitive.
o They should be portable, and rapidly scaleable and expandable.
o It should be possible for a small group to build and maintain them.
o Wherever possible, their use should involve the degradation of remnants of the industrial system, and the rejuvenation of the land.
o Techniques chosen tend to make societies more egalitarian and distribute resources and power more fairly.
I’d love to hear some of your thoughts about what sort of criteria you would think about, and what tools and techniques you would use. I’ll try to include them in the full book, in future updates of this booklet, and on the website, as appropriate.
Industrial collapse is a very big topic, and this booklet only covers a very tiny corner of it.
This particular booklet is about tools and techniques you can use cope with industrial collapse, or “gridcrash”. In this booklet, I don’t write about some of the other effects of that, like rioting or violence. So the knowledge in this booklet is quite handy in certain circumstances, and not so handy in others. If you live on the outskirts of a small town, for instance, this information will be quite useful. If you’re living on a 15th floor apartment in downtown Los Angeles and the grocery stores are just about empty, power is out, and it looks like it won’t come back on any time soon, this particular booklet won’t be the most useful for you right away. (I would suggest that if you can, you quickly get to a place where it would be useful.) We’ll get to those situations in further writings. In the meantime, I suggest that you (and everyone else) think about industrial collapse, what it means, and what you plan to do about it.
There are some basic tools that will be of use to people in somewhat settled communities. Most house dwellers would need tools to replace their faucets and taps (Water, page 1), their toilets and drains (Latrines and Greywater, page 15), their refrigerator and freezer (Cooling, page 22), their stove, oven, toaster and microwave (Cooking, page 27), their electric lights (Lighting, page 39) and their garbage and recycling pick-up (Rubbish, page 42). Furnaces and other house-related topics will be covered in more detail in future writings on the subject of shelter.
I hope that this information is useful to you. If you have any comments, or suggestions, or wish to contribute to the project, please do contact us. You can also check out the website at www.inthewake.org. There you can see more information about the book project, more discussion and essays, more links to web pages and books of interest, as well as more information about relevant skills and strategies.
Thanks, and good skill.
Copyright 2003-2004 inthewake.org, redistribution for for-profit uses prohibited without permission.
1. Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1966. Page 186.
2. Diamond, Stanley. In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1993. Page 1.
3. Myers, R A et al. (2003) “Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities”, Nature 423, 280-283, Letters to Nature
4. Gregg, W W, and M E Conkright, (2002) “Decadal changes in global ocean chlorophyll” Geophys Res Lett, 29(15), 1730
5. Atkinson, A et al. (2004) “Long-term decline in krill stock and increase in salps within the Southern Ocean”, Nature 432, 100-103, Letters to Nature
6. Thomas, C D et al. (2004) “Extinction risk from climate change”, Nature 427, 145-148, Letters to Nature
7. UN-HABITAT, The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, UN-HABITAT, 2003
8. Duncan, Richard C, Olduvai Cliff Revisited: The Olduvai Cliff Event: ca 2007, March 5 2001.
Civilization and Industrialism:
Derrick Jensen’s writings are some of the most insightful, intelligent, moving, and relevant works I have ever read. I heartily encourage you to read his work starting with A Language Older than Words and also his latest (not yet published) book, tentatively titled Endgame: The Collapse of Civilization and the Rebirth of Community. Derrick’s website includes a subscription “reading club” where you can read Endgame and other works currently in progress. www.derrickjensen.org
Anthropologist Stanley Diamond wrote the excellent book In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization.
Chellis Glendinning’s My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization is a moving and personal book in which Glendinning examines her own childhood abuse and traces its roots to civilization itself.
Lewis Mumford is an incredibly prolific writer, historian and social critic. Some of his most relevant books to these premises include the two-volume set The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, and The City in History.
John Zerzan is the author of a number of great anti-civilizational books, including Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization, and also edited the excellent book Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections which is available online at: http://www.blackandgreen.org/ac/index.html
Daniel Quinn wrote the very readable storie Ishmael, My Ishmael and The Story of B about the origins of civilization.
Extensive related writings by a number of authors are available at: http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/ and http://primitivism.com/
Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and The Fate of Industrial Societies is an excellent introduction to the topic of Peak Oil. He has also written a book about some of the options in response to the Peak Oil situation called Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. (www.museletter.com)
Excellent websites on the subject of Peak Oil include http://www.wolfatthedoor.org.uk, http://www.dieoff.org, http://www.hubbertpeak.com, and http://www.oilcrash.com.
General Ecology and Overshoot:
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, by William R Catton, Jr, is an excellent book on ecology and carrying capacity.