One of the articles of faith I have held for a long time is that we are not, collectively, going to deal with the troubles of our future willingly. We are not going to reduce our energy and resource usage in an effort to mitigate the worst impacts of ecological destruction and climate change, or to otherwise make a better future for ourselves and others. Yes, some brave few will do this for a variety of personal reasons, but the vast majority of us are not willing to make the dramatic personal sacrifices necessary to bring to heel the destructive tendencies of this industrial civilization we call home.
The reasons for that are myriad and they have been discussed at length by people smarter than me. It is a problem that pervades every part of our lives, from the personal to the familial, the social to the cultural, the economic and political. No, there will be no great, grand effort of shared sacrifice; and no, there will be no great, grand Green New Deal that will remake all our industrial infrastructure into a non-destructive, regenerative alternative to itself. We do not appear to have the social cohesion, political leadership, economic resilience, and cultural mores to tackle either approach, and the simple fact is that the modern industrial civilization we have come to demand is not one that is amenable to a sustainable solution; we must just live differently. Unfortunately, there is not enough buy in for that different kind of living for us to transition to it willingly.
That recognition is the foundation of another article of faith of mine, which is that we will deal with the troubles of our time, just not willingly. We will lower our energy and resource usage and turn away from the contours of our current industrial civilization and its trappings, but it won’t be due to a moral reckoning. We will not one sudden day collectively acknowledge the pain and misery we are creating for ourselves, future generations, and all the non-human life on this planet and then change our ways; no, we will simply muddle our way through the cascading failures of this very dumb way of living. Our movement toward a simpler way of life will take place haphazardly, piece meal, and often times cruelly. It will not be planned; it will far more be unplanned chaos and destruction, with too little directed effort mixed in. It will take a long time, but will also happen in a series of sudden bursts, sometimes spread far out and other times on the heels of each other. And it will happen in perfectly unpredictable ways.
I wish it was different. I have hoped for it to be different. But there is no indication it will be. Our civilization is unsustainable and therefore will fall, and it will fall in all the familiar ways that past civilizations have fallen. It’s a subject that has interested me for a long time now and it’s one that has driven many of my own ways of living over the years. I have attempted to make the willing changes myself, in my own life, piece by piece. My success at it has been mixed—small and incomplete and too often temporary.
I made those attempts not because I am a particularly good person, though I have framed many of these personal choices in ethical terms. I made those decisions, as often as not, because they fed into a vision of who I was as a person. They were always tied up in ego to some degree or another, which is not necessarily bad. It is an integral part of being human, and so there’s no particularly reason we should not use our ego toward better ends. But I also made those changes because, over the years, I found that they often made for a better life. As I turned away from some of the more suffocating trappings of modern industrial civilization, I found different ways of living that proved far more satisfying for me. I found, time and again, that living a little more lightly was living better.
It also is, in these perilous times, safer. Our fragile and complicated modern industrial civilization is more and more often proving not up to the strain of modern consequences. We received another good reminder of that in recent weeks as harsh winter weather swept across the country, invading places it is not normally found. The power grid in Texas nearly suffered a catastrophic failure and it was only through instituting the extreme measure of rolling blackouts during frigid temperatures that it was kept from going offline completely. As a result, other critical infrastructure failed; people died from cold and fire and carbon monoxide; and the economic and political upheavals are only now just beginning to play out. In other places, the failures were less extreme, but in my own neck of the woods here in Oregon, we saw a historic ice storm that left 300,000 without power at one point, with some of those unlucky citizens losing power for upwards of a week. My own experience was less extreme: three extended power outages over the course of six days, the final one lasting a day and a half. It was inconvenient and at times stressful, but never dangerous.
One of the reasons it was stressful and inconvenient was that we were not fully prepared for it. However, it was not nearly as stressful and inconvenient as it could have been because we were partly prepared for it. We have candles, matches, and flashlights; a handy solar light and a battery-powered lantern; a camping stove; plenty of blankets and warm clothes; several coolers and endless mason jars perfectly capable of being packed with snow and ice and placed in that cooler along with whatever needs to be kept cool in the midst of lost refrigeration; a head lamp; a simple flip phone that can last days on a single charge; and other supplies and knowledge that made a power outage perfectly livable.
Yet I cannot help but think of some of the older technology I used to have when I lived in a rural area. In particular, I missed my wood stove, which would have very handily taken care of both our heating and cooking needs. But I live in the city now, in an apartment, and there is no wood stove in my immediate future. Instead, I am thinking of a butane stove, something that I can set up and cook with in my kitchen without concerns of carbon monoxide poisoning.
It’s an interesting change. Whereas I once worked to make a low-energy and sustainable life due to a sense of ethics, today I am looking at it more and more from a sense of survival. Whereas before I felt confident in having access to the trappings of modern industrial civilization if I wanted them, today I am becoming increasingly concerned that times will come when I won’t have access to them no matter how much I want them. Whereas before I worried I might suffer an inability to access modern conveniences due to finances, today I am less worried about not having the money to pay and more worried about not having the infrastructure to deliver. As the years have gone by, I am seeing more and more the fragility of our system, and the previous fantasies of dramatic social or economic collapse are becoming overwhelmed by the very real observations of crumbling infrastructure, an ineffective political class, strained social cohesion, and economic dysfunction. That sense that we would collapse one way or another, just not willingly, is more and more starting to feel like the definition of the world around me.
In a strange way, there’s a kind of relief to it, as unnerving as it all is. Rather than trying to force myself to live in a certain way due to some personal sense of morality, it’s a little easier to simply look at the reality around me, recognize its dangers, and get to work addressing them as best I know how. Okay, the power may not hold; so what then do I need to have in back up to make sure I can stay warm and fed, to ensure I have a good enough supply of water, to make sure I don’t go crazy from boredom? What do I need to learn about how to stay safe and warm and fed? What skills will help me to survive the ongoing decline of a society that once felt stable but no longer does?
Similarly, the economy may not hold. How then do I live on less? Where can I cut back now to increase savings while also learning to get by on a lower budget? What can I afford now but may not be able to afford in the future? Perhaps energy prices skyrocket in a year or two; how do I get by with less electricity, less natural gas, less gasoline? What are my options for driving less or not at all, getting rid of a car? How do I keep heat trapped rather than generate more? How do I lessen my use of hot water? How do I get by without a dryer? How do I grow my own food?
Many of these questions I long ago asked and answered. Many of those answers I have already implemented; many of those implementations I have kept and some abandoned; and some of those questions I have not yet fully answered, or only partially answered. But having thought of them in advance, they are less scary now, less daunting should I suddenly need an answer on short notice. As the world continues to strain around me, it’s a relief to already have some of this figured out, and a motivation to figure out more.
Yet even as I embark on these very practical questions of how to make my way in a fast-changing world, I cannot help but return to the strange sensation of seeing what I spent so much time worrying about come to pass. This human-constructed world is failing us and there is little indication that those failures will be rectified in any but the most haphazard of ways. The collapse is happening now, and by all accounts is accelerating. We are proving less resilient and more vulnerable with each passing year; and with each passing year more and more people are discovering this, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.
I find it strangely fascinating that this is no longer just an ethical question. This is more and more becoming one of function and survival, of the question of what kind of life will be forced upon you. It is less and less a question of what kind of life you want to have, but what kind of life you will get to have. We are collapsing now—not because we are choosing to do so in search of a better life, but because the system that keeps us afloat is falling apart. What is left now is to find our way, the best we know how, toward a future that is going to be much more limited than the past. From my own experiences, I still believe that limited future can be a good one, but it is going to look very different than what most of us are used to. I just hope we all can make our way there as safely as possible, even if the path there is a rocky one we find ourselves traveling less than willingly.
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8 thoughts on “Power Down”
The book Muddling Toward Frugality has some parallel thoughts. My memory of it is Johnson’s concern that the transitions not be so large as to destabilize democratic society
Muddling Toward Frugality is a great book. I actually read that one about a year ago and would definitely recommend it to others. I think it’s a little extra fascinating having been written in the late 70s to both see what he got right and in what ways the future didn’t quite go as he thought. But overall, I would say his thesis holds well, and his advice even better. It’s still worth adapting, even as late as it is; the longer we wait, the harder it gets, and those of us who get ahead of the curve not only put ourselves in better position but make things a little less worse for everyone else.
Thanks for bringing up the book. I think it’s a mostly forgotten one that people would do well to rediscover.
This is really excellent, Joel!
Coincidentally, just yesterday I uploaded to Youtube a video (my main 2021 legacy contribution) along quite similar lines. I suspect you will enjoy it (you’ll notice JMG’s influence throughout):
“The Big Picture: Clarity, Compassion, and Love-in-Action”: https://youtu.be/0uhjtpJvohc
I’m curious: might you be open to having a “post-doom conversation” with me? See here and let me know via email: https://postdoom.com/
Thank you, again, for this excellent post. I look forward to exploring your work more fully.
I agree with Nils that Warren Johnson’s book is excellent (another one I first learned about from John Michael). The big difference between all previous collapses and ours, of course, is ABRUPT climate change. Every other previous rise and fall of a civilization occurred within the stability of the Holocene, which we’ve, unfortunately, lost for good.
In case you’re interested, here are two really superb video primers on abrupt climate change (“abrupt” meaning 10,000 years of climate change in half a human lifetime)…
Meteorologist Nick Humphrey: “Ongoing Abrupt Climate Change and Its Consequences” (27 min video)
Robert Hunziker: “Abrupt Climate Change: The World Tour” (1hr video)
Thanks for the videos! It’s been a busy weekend so haven’t been able to get to them yet, but I’ll take a look soon as time permits. I’m curious to see what their thoughts are on abrupt climate change and if they counter the concerns about positive feedback loops with the possibility of negative ones, too.
As for a conversation, I’m going to poke around on your site more, too, and will let you know. I definitely have some potential interest, particularly if we can get the technology piece figured out. I’ll be in touch soon!
Nice post, Joel. When I was in junior high, waaaaaay back in the 60’s, I was sitting in class one day when the teacher said something like the population in year X was so much, and the current population was Y. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember being alarmed. I thought, “If we’ve grown that much in just this amount of time, we’re going to be ‘that much x many’ sometime during my lifetime!” And here we are, “that much x many.” It continues to alarm me. A lot! It alarms me that so many people aren’t alarmed at our population! It alarms me what the population will likely be in the next 20-30 years. Even in just 10 years! We cannot keep this up! It will suredly crash, if not in my lifetime, within my childrens’ lifetimes. And it’s not going to be pretty. This planet can only sustain a certain population for a certain amount of time. Every famine and pandemic proves that. Petroleum has given us a boost, but that boost is temporary and soon to be exhausted. Humans have got to be smarter than this. Quickly.