Putting the life back in science fiction

Preludes to Collapse

Might as well finish up the triptych.

In my simplistic way, I figure that if we were a spacefaring species, we could build skyscrapers in places such as, oh, the Atacama desert, and a group of people could live in them for years without going outside or going insane.  These skyscrapers would be mostly greenhouses and recycling facilities, with relatively small living quarters.  Such buildings are basically spacecraft or colonies, minus the propulsion.

If we were a starfaring culture using STL ships, such buildings would also be able to ward off artillery, possibly a nuclear strike.  We’d need similar shielding to fall between the stars at high speeds.  Oh, and people could live happily inside for centuries, even while it’s getting bombed.

If we were able to do high tech sustainability, we could build something like a city-state, where a city and its farmlands were mostly self-sufficient.  Such a city wouldn’t look much like what we have now, at least in the US. Large areas within it would be dedicated to rebuilding, reworking, and recycling stuff.  The water that flowed out of it would likely be as clean as whatever flowed in, and waste from the city would feed the fields, which probably wouldn’t smell all that good as a result.

The only reason to bring this up is to provide a sort of conceptual nested Venn diagram, with starfaring cultures at the extreme center, spacefaring cultures engulfing them but still extreme, sustainable cultures engulfing both, and where we are now, with less overlap between their hypothetical space and our space than we might hope. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether high tech sustainability, let alone space colonization and starflight, are even possible. In the latter case, it makes you realize why so many SF writers put jump drives on their starships, so they can pop the action from one planet to another without dealing with the difficult problem of living in space. If there’s one underlying message, it’s that life in space depends first and foremost on long-term sustainability in extreme environments.  In other words, we have to learn to live sustainably on Earth before we can begin to hope to colonize some other planet.  If we can’t solve our problems here, we can’t hope to survive running away from them into space.

Then there’s the other side of the Venn diagram, where the preppers prepare for collapse.  Unlike the space side, they’re real, if only because we know that collapses happen and people survive, but there’s less overlap between them and current civilization than we might hope.

In its way, post-collapse culture is another type of sustainability, where there are fewer people and there’s no little or no long-distance trade, but it’s not quite as simple as most people think.

There are two issues.  One is that many people are preparing for the wrong disaster.  Many prepare for natural disasters, at least for short term survival (I do that).  Some prepare for the collapse of the US or some more paranoid future (black helicopters, laws comin’ after yer guns, and so forth).  Some special types prepare for things like a zombie apocalypse.  Rather fewer seem to prepare for climate change, and that’s a problem.

Yes, the book is still marching towards publication (soon!), but I didn’t spend much space in it telling people how to prepare for living in a changed climate.  The challenge isn’t figuring out how the climate will change (we’re closing off options as we speak).  The problem is that the climate will keep changing for hundreds of years, however it changes. There’s not one set of preparations that anyone can make that are guaranteed to work over the long term. A lot depends on luck, no matter what happens.

As the climate continues to change, people can move to follow a particular climate that they know how to live with (say weather to grow corn or wheat) while adapting to new lands.  There are problems with this–climates are averages of weather, and the weather’s getting weirder as well–so it’s not as simple as moving north every few years and planting the same crops each time, but something similar worked for the Polynesians, so why not try it?  The other alternative is that people can stay in a place that they know and deal with the weather continually changing, on the theory that, because they know their lands, they can continually adapt to whatever the climate throws their way. I suspect each strategy will work fairly well at particular places and times, but I have no idea whether one is a better strategy in general.

The other problem is that preparing for the collapse of civilization is not as simple as readopting the lifeways of our pioneer ancestors or the indigenes they displaced, because 20th and 21st Century global civilization is profoundly changing the planet.  The Old Ones were able to depend on plants and animals (like, say, passenger pigeons), that probably won’t make it past the 21st Century, given how populations of everything from ginseng to mountain sheep are dropping all over the world.  Similarly, we’re doing a pretty good job of depleting groundwater all over the world, so there will be fewer springs, oases, and streams to depend on, and rather more of them will be polluted.  A world where global civilization has collapsed will be a lot harsher, with fewer natural resources and rather more junk to sort through. It’s not necessarily unlivable, but it’s a new world, not an old one.  Survival in it depends on a mix of old and new skills.

Still, there are things we can do now to prepare, such as designing the tools and technologies our descendants will need to survive. My favorite example of this are the rocket stoves and their kin, super-efficient wood-burning stoves that are being built for the developing world. There are a huge number of similar technologies that could, and should, be developed.

In general, designing for collapse involves figuring out ways to solve problems by cleverly using local resources and less energy. Going back to the example of the rocket stoves, currently they’re built in factories and shipped worldwide. In a post collapse world they’d have to be built from scrap by village tinkers. It’s far from impossible, but we’re not thinking much about what kinds of designs can be made from repurposed stuff.  Hopefully that will change.

If we’re prepping for climate change and collapse, I hope that one way we do it is to encourage hobbyists, makers, and students to start designing post-collapse tech now. If I knew anyone who was interested, I’d encourage them to figure out things that can be built from garbage, recyclables, whatever, designs that are simple but not necessarily obvious, designs for things like medical equipment, lighting, paper, fire starters, water and soil purifiers, and so forth. They won’t necessarily be economically viable now, but now we’ve still got the time to experiment with designs, the resources to allow prototypes to fail and be refined. If we wait until things really start heating up, we won’t have these luxuries, and a lot of people will suffer as a result.

Collapse is ultimately another form of sustainability.  As I like to tell people, over the next century or so, we’ll utterly transform our civilization into something more sustainable.  Either we’ll figure out high tech sustainability using renewable energy and transform our world into high tech sustainabilistan, or we’ll harness renewable energy as the few survivors chop wood to feed our fires midst the ruins.  Either way we’ll be sustainable.  What we’re working on right now are the details about what we’re willing to endure during the transformation, how many people we can support afterwards, and what happens to the planet as a result.  Not getting to sustainability is really not an option any more.


10 Comments so far
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Reflective or refractive sunlight-concentrators make good fire starters on any day with direct sun and they date back to ancient times.

The slow sand filter is a good purification method for fresh water that has never gone completely out of fashion.

I wonder if there’s any better low-tech, non-electric lighting method than candles or oil lamps. The “limelight” of the 19th century was literally light generated by a high temperature flame against a piece of lime (calcium oxide) that became brilliantly incandescent under the heat. It’s more efficient and more concentrated light than you can get from a standard flame. But it required concentrated oxygen to produce the hot flame — not quite a low tech solution. The gas mantle lamps of the late 19th century/early 20th were also more efficient than candles or oil lamps but they required mantle materials that aren’t widely available.

If you haven’t read Low-Tech Magazine before, you might want to try it. They dig up a lot of interesting old stuff that might be useful again in a post-collapse future, or even in a non-collapsed future where people appreciate the benefits of simplicity.

I don’t endorse it without reservations. A lot of their analysis “proving” new-is-worse wanders into crank territory. But if you just want to learn about neglected old technologies, it’s great.

Comment by Matt

I’m pretty sure you’re aware of this, but appropedia tries to list technolgies that are useful in the context you describe. Quality of the pages varies widely.

Comment by martin089

Thanks for the replies and the links. I’ve read Low Tech magazine, but not recently.

One thing to realize is that, with active experimentation, a lot of it won’t prove out. That’s okay, because we’re in a good time for things to fail. We can afford to try stuff and fail right now, and hopefully more of us will get into it.

Comment by Heteromeles

“Preparing for the end,” is doubly interesting because it provides a soft-propaganda option for asserting that failing to take climate change and sustainability seriously is stupid. It demonstrates that the people pursuing these ventures are acting on sincerely held belief with their personal time and resources, and if they develop things of interest to other segments of society while doing so that provides extra chances to get past ideological blinders and censorship.
The real question though is how much can be done that isn’t masturbatory. Reuse of discarded materials is one thing, making a low-effort, low-waste replacement for modern mining, smelting and metallurgy is something completely different. Ultimately we want such a replacement unless we’re giving up on materials science more complicated and difficult than iron-age forging. Without it we’ll run out of useful garbage to recycle at some point.

Comment by anonymous coward

I guess that’s where the hobbyist smiths come in, along with the SCA crowd, the permaculturists, the Mountain Men and other re-enactors.

One of my big concerns is that people don’t have a good idea of what adapting to climate change means. It does involve changes in everything from food to clothing to shelter, whether you’re trying for sustainability or survival. That’s what the book is for, and I’ll have it out (hopefully!) soon.

Comment by Heteromeles

“Reuse of discarded materials is one thing, making a low-effort, low-waste replacement for modern mining, smelting and metallurgy is something completely different.”

Not completely different. It all ties together.

If you design products and packaging with the intention that they be recyclable, the problems get easier. And if you require that chemicals which come into contact with human beings must have strong evidence that they are safe, that simplifies things a lot too.

People don’t want to give up stuff they want, and it will be a lot easier to give up stuff they have to give up anyway when they have the clear idea that it’s unhealthy. If 80% of cancers are environmentally-induced, and you don’t want to get cancer….

It inevitably takes energy to refine and smelt and shape metals. When energy is expensive we have less of that. But if computation is still cheap, we can design stuff to use less. For strength, use just the amount of metal, or carbon fiber, or graphene you need. If it’s expensive, use it sparingly.

If our existing methods become impractical, the new methods don’t have to be low-cost. They only have to work better, not perfectly.

Comment by J Thomas

“People don’t want to give up stuff they want, and it will be a lot easier to give up stuff they have to give up anyway when they have the clear idea that it’s unhealthy. If 80% of cancers are environmentally-induced, and you don’t want to get cancer….”
Apologies for taking so long to get back to you. You seem to presuming a lot of things about scale that are dubious assumptions for, ‘after the collapse.’ The issue is that resilience in the face of increasingly weird climate/weather disasters means fault-tolerance for unreliable shipping, rail and road networks, and surplus for evacuating and re-establishing the inevitable refugees. After the collapse it’s likely you can’t count on short-term disaster relief, and every area is expected to generate and preserve surplus in a normal year. What can we accomplish when our resource base and labour pool is one person in a village? Think less of no-landfill product boxes in internet-catalogs and more of stuff like the Global Village Construction Kit. We also have to end up with a system that generates regular increases in productive land and ecology that exceed losses due to disaster and mismanagement, because disaster has always happened and the only safe bet is that it will be at least as bad in the future. We, or our descendants, will need large ecological reserves and surplus productive capacity just for stability alone, never mind progress.

You also seem to place overmuch responsibility for the problems of consumerism on the brainwashed consumers. Consider, how many people in America wanted their homes filled with disability-causing lead paint fifty years ago? How many knew that lead paint was strictly unsafe for use? How many people repeat, even today, lead industry PR which blamed childhood lead poisoning issues on ‘eating lead paint chips?’ The people usually don’t know what they’re really getting in consumerism, so it’s a little disingenuous to say that they are supporters of lead poisoning, agricultural antibiotics overuse, child labour, conflict diamonds, soil erosion, destructive reef-dredging, global warming, and the rest of the human rights and environmental issues which remain hidden when someone looks at a box in a store. It’s more correct to say that the system of consumer product development pushes these things on consumers, and occasionally some of them break through the propaganda to say, “That goes too far!” with things like the anti-Apartheid boycotts.

Comment by anonymous coward

I don’t disagree with you about anything you said here. I just have a slightly different emphasis.

Before a collapse, we might be able to improve things by persuading consumers to want less harmful stuff. They didn’t know about lead paint or thalidomide or diethylstilbestrol before they found out. Now we’re getting the early warnings about phthalates. There hhve been a series of these things. Maybe we can persuade people that it’s time to stop exposing people to new chemicals in general until they’re proven safe, rather than take them off the market when they’re proven dangerous. Simplifying the stream of raw materials is good for health and also makes recycling easier and cheaper, etc. This doesn’t apply so much after a collapse when the economy will necessarily be much simplified.

If we can build stuff using fewer resources, that helps to delay a collapse and gives us more to work with in the short run. So it’s worth doing, to the extent that we can do it.

Comment by J Thomas

“If we can build stuff using fewer resources, that helps to delay a collapse and gives us more to work with in the short run. So it’s worth doing, to the extent that we can do it.”

I think I understand, your emphasis is on short-term measures that are plausibly achievable over blue-sky? Tangible progress is ultimately progress, but I tend to pursue more radical goals because the logic of consumer capitalism drives the creation of new problems and the recurrence of old ones. I like using lead paint as an easily understood issue for explaining this because it was banned as much as a century ago in places in Europe, is unquestionably illegal in any place with adequate consumer safety measures now, and toys have been found on store shelves in America with it in the last decade thanks to Chinese outsourcing/”free trade” treaties.
We often do benefit from reforming particular ills of consumerism one at a time, greatly in many cases, but this is still a never-ending task which society has failed to perform adequately in living memory. Ultimately the only lasting solution for the problems of consumerism is its end. This requires competing alternatives with lesser problems which are ready to give people what they need and a fair amount of what they want. As is obvious to anyone following news of coral bleaching, icecap retreat and so on, the current industrial-extractive system of economy is on course to destroy itself already. That means sooner or later we or our descendants are going to end up in post-consumerism anyway, so we should at least try for intentional change to a preferred outcome instead of a hard crash into the return of feudalism.

Comment by anonymous coward

“I think I understand, your emphasis is on short-term measures that are plausibly achievable over blue-sky?”

To some extent, we don’t have to choose between those. We can do both.

Sometimes it does make sense to choose. Like, highways are very expensive but they pay off over decades when they are built in places we need them. They are part of the problem of decaying infrastructure, but if we aren’t going to be using highways designed for automobiles and trucks for decades longer, why pour resources into refurbishing them?

Efforts to improve systems that we’ll stop using soon are wasted. But we can’t be sure which systems we’ll stop using soon. So it makes sense to make improvements that will pay off quick, and it makes sense to put some effort into long term things too. If we stop fixing things because the system will inevitably fail even when we try to fix it, then we make it certain that it will inevitably fail….

Some of our industrial products are toxic, and we don’t know which ones. It’s good for us to use a smaller number of plastics etc, because that cuts the risk. Also as products get redesigned to use a smaller number of materials, it may get easier to substitute renewable materials. An easier transition.

“This requires competing alternatives with lesser problems which are ready to give people what they need and a fair amount of what they want.”

Yes. The USA has led the way in consumer junk. We have a movement to get away from that, and it currently is not getting advertised very well because there isn’t enough money in selling it. But as traditional consumer junk gets less available, it will make more sense to market stuff as “natural” etc. “Make a virtue out of necessity.”

We might get extended labeling laws. The more that people look at food labels and shampoo labels etc and reject products with ingredients they don’t understand, the more that manufacturers will be encouraged to leave out the special stuff. If we could extend that to other manufactured goods, and require labels that reveal each plastic and lubricant etc, that would encourage more simplicity in materials in consumer goods generally.

Comment by J Thomas

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