In the first three posts in this blog series, I’ve pointed out that, if high tech civilization collapsed and we reverted to the technology of the year 1750, you wouldn’t like it.
- There’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death.
- If you were among the 10% of survivors, you’d have a 90% chance of being a farmer on the edge of starvation.
- If you made it into the 1%, in many ways, you’d still live worse than most poor Americans live today.
I can see only one thing that might make a normal person think all those negatives would be worthwhile. If one truly believed a hard reset to 1750 technology is the only way to save the world from global cooling, global warming, ocean acidification, tropical deforestation, desertification, habitat loss, mass extinction, or whatever other environmental or societal apocalypse might be brewing, then I can understand the belief that the hard reset to 1750 is worth it. (I don’t agree with that belief, but that’s beside the point).
There’s only one problem: you can reset society to 1750, but society won’t stay there.
Think about it. In 1750, western Europe and its North American colonies had 1750 technology. Why didn’t they stick with it instead of burning coal and petroleum, generating electricity, inventing chemical fertilizers, and everything else we see in the world of 2020?
- Malthus. Population growth essentially always bumps up against maximum food production. People in that situation will follow anyone who promises to avert famine for themselves and their children with new agricultural technqiues.
- International conflict. What did Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, the French Revolutionaries, the Non-French anti-Revolutionaries, and Napoleon all have in common? They wanted wealth and power by conquering foreign territories and harvesting their economic and technological production. All else being equal, when you want to conquer a foreign territory, bigger armies are better than smaller ones. Hence, rulers want to push back the Malthusian limit as much as their hungry subjects do.
- Mercantilism. The dominant ideology of the age called for countries to be as self-sufficient as possible, then export as much as they could to keep other countries from being self-sufficient. This promoted the Industrial Revolution, because the first country to industrialize can satisfy more of its wants and flood foreign markets with cheap goods. That explains Britain’s 19th century global dominance.
- Public health. Up until about 1900, cities were net killers of people. Only a constant flow of young people from the countryside replenished the people who died from crowded and unsanitary conditions. In addition to pushing back the Malthusian limits on their subject populations, rulers also want to keep their soldier-age men alive to fight today’s wars, and their young women alive to be mothers of the soldiers in the wars of tomorrow. Mercantilist factory owners want healthy workforces.
All of those reasons worked together, to goad western Europe and its daughter colonies into increasing agricultural productivity, industrial productivity, military prowess, and medical advances. Which then led to an upward spiral to the world of automobiles, computers, and telecommunications.
“In Europe,” you might protest. “Other societies live in harmony with nature—”
No. Just no. Maybe your sociology prof said Rousseau proved non-Westerners were noble savages, or Frantz Fanon proved non-whites were superior to Europeans. But if he did, he was either stupid or lying. Why did the rulers of the Mayan city-states order their peasants to clear-cut the Yucatan peninsula hundreds of years before the Spanish conquest? How did almost 500 Native Americans end up in a mass grave 150 years before Columbus landed? Why did the Manchu Dynasty buy artillery from Imperial Germany? Why did western African rulers sell their criminals, foreign POWs, and already-enslaved Africans to European slave traders? That’s easy: the western African rulers needed money to buy European guns and gunpowder..
Even if the hard reset to 1750 magically got rid of all the white people on Earth, the social forces encouraging technological development would remain.
The resources needed for technological development would remain, too. The world has about 900 billion tons of coal reserves. If world population plummeted by 90% and per-capita coal consumption by 90%, those 900 billion tons would last up to about 10,000 years. More than enough time for technological growth to start back up again and get us back to the energy-intensive world of 2020. With even more coal burning and less use of cleaner fossil fuels like methane than we have today.
Does that mean whatever disaster you wanted to avert by a hard reset to 1750 would inevitably occur? No. Let’s tackle them in turn.
climate change and ocean acidification
If we don’t burn fossil fuels to provide most of our energy, where can we get it?
Wind power? The wind farm on I-35 in southern Oklahoma is an impressive engineering project. The photo doesn’t do it justice. (That gray, treeless area on the ground between the center and right turbines is I-35). However, wind fluctuations mean you can’t rely on it, and you need a lot of very large turbines.
Solar power? Enough sunlight falls on the Earth that, if you could convert 0.001% of it to electricity, you would get about 1.7 TW of power. For the whole world to use electricity at US consumption levels, we would need about six times that. Possible? Yes. Something we can roll out in the next decade? No.
Now, there is an energy source that can provide a steady, predictable amount of power, even on cloudy and windless days, without emitting CO₂. Not only is it possible, some civilized entities with competent engineers—you might have heard of “the U.S. Navy” and “France”—have safely generated electricity with this technology for decades. And in the long term, we can generate enough fuel for it to provide current US per-capita consumption levels of electricity to the entire world for 5 billion years.
tropical deforestation, habitat loss, and mass extinction
These are problems only because of Malthus. If we want to feed 8 billion people, we need a lot of farmland. How much?
At US levels of agricultural productivity, it takes about 3 acres to feed 1 person a US diet of grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and varied proteins. To feed 8 billion people, we’d need about 100 million square kilometers. Earth’s land area is about 150 million square kilometers, of which today about 50 million is devoted to agriculture.
Does that mean we need to clearcut the Amazon to double Earth’s land used for agriculture? Though I don’t consider myself a green, I wouldn’t want that. How else can we feed all the people on Earth?
Don’t eat like Americans? Mainly, cut way back on meat, especially lamb and beef. That’s a tough sell. Not just to white American men who think meat three times a day is their birthright. Every non-white immigrant I know wants that option, which suggests their ancestors would have eaten like us if they could. Yes, Hindu-Americans might eat only chicken and fish, but they want a rich and varied diet that’s not too different from the rest of us. Market forces suggest that the more demand for food from land, the price of inefficient ways of getting food from that land, i.e., raising meat, will rise until people by less of it.
Feed fewer people? I assume you mean encouraging small families of less than 2.0 children so that population declines naturally, and not the deliberate murder of billions. Most countries have already made this transition. Problem is, the poorest haven’t. If they adopt high-tech, US-style agriculture, the incentive to have many children goes away, because kids then become extra mouths to feed instead of farm laborers who raise more food than they consume. But even then, it would take decades for their populations to decline from their peaks, let alone to levels below where they are today.
Get more food per acre? This is my preference. It’s something human beings have been doing for 10,000 years. Societies with lots of energy at their disposal (see above) can convert some of that energy into food and use some of it to power research. More efficient irrigation (or more plentiful fresh water supplies, with surplus energy, distilling fresh water from the oceans is trivial) would improve the food/acre ratio for deserts and the like. Nitrogen fixing crops could reduce the need for chemical fertilizers while giving comparable yields. Yes, this latter would require genetic engineering.
But which is worse, a world and its 8 billion people saved by genetic engineering and nuclear power, or a world where you have a 90% chance of dying before you get there and, if you do get there, a 90% of working in low-tech agriculture for the rest of your life, which your sacrifice hasn’t even saved?
In the first two posts in this blog series, I’ve pointed out that, if high tech civilization collapsed and we reverted to the technology of the year 1750, there’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death. Even if you were one of the survivors, you’d then have a 90% chance of scraping a living from the land as a farmer. That accounts for 99% of the people reading this post.
But let’s suppose you’re in the 1%. You survived the mass starvation, and your ability to process words and run TPS reports has landed you in the nobility, the clergy, or the bourgeoisie. Congrats. Your life is great, isn’t it?
No. Not at all. Here’s an example of why.
On July 7, 1924, a 16-year-old boy died. A week earlier, he’d played tennis without wearing socks. A blister formed on one of his toes, then got infected, then led to fatal sepsis.
What’s the relevance to this blog post?
That 16-year-old boy was Calvin Coolidge Jr., the son of the President of the United States.
Think about that. Even if President Coolidge wasn’t the most powerful man on Earth, he was in the top 20. The US in that era was among the most advanced countries in the world regarding public health. And despite all that, the president’s son died of something that seems staggeringly minor to any of us who grew up in the late 20th or early 21st century in a First World country. An infected blister. How could someone die of that?
Simple. Penicillin was discovered in 1928. Sulfa antibiotics were discovered in 1932. Sulfas were the first to be commercialized, in the late 1930s. More than a decade too late to save Calvin Coolidge Jr. Let alone anyone, even the elites, living in 1750. Or with 1750 technology.
But it’s not just antibiotics that didn’t exist back then. Want fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat? The first mechanical ice-making machine was invented in 1805. Oh, you want your refrigerator to be electric-powered? That didn’t get invented until the 1920s. (And the first electric refrigerators cost about 60% more than a car). Speaking of cars, the first vehicle built around an internal combustion engine dates to 1885.
Could you get by with local, in-season foods, candles and lanterns instead of electric lights, and horse-drawn carriages instead of automobiles? Perhaps. But some things we take for granted lack any 1750-technology equivalents. Want to send a message to someone? Write a letter and hope the postman gets it to the recipient while the message is still relevant. Want to visit a country on the far side of the world? If you train as a sailor, the winds are favorable, and you don’t lose all your teeth to scurvy on the way, you might be able to. Want to play Candy Crush on your phone? Sorry, no phones, tablets, or computers.
And I haven’t even gotten to dishwashers, washers and dryers, microwave ovens, central air and heat, ballpoint pens, LEGO sets, MP3 players, insulated mugs, bicycles, bike helmets, ibuprofen and acetaminophen…. Think about your favorite things. Something that brightens up your day or makes things easier. And think, just for a moment, how many people use how many machines to let you buy and receive that thing in the app store, Target, or Amazon.com.
Maybe you realize all that and accept it. You might be thinking something like, “To save the Earth, we all must give up something. Even kings, priests, and millionaires must sacrifice. If I can’t send emails or check my fantasy football team, or even if I run the risk of dying from spoiled food or a scratch that turns septic, I will gladly make that choice.”
You will? I’ll bite back the obvious rejoinder, why haven’t you done so already, and instead tell you this. Even if you give up modern technology to save the Earth, modern technology is going to come back.
A bold statement? I’ll explain why it’s true in my next post.
In part 1 of the series, we compared today’s population with that of Earth before the Industrial Revolution, call it 1750. Assuming farmers back then were as productive as possible, the food supply back then supported a population about 11% of what it is today. We rounded this off as If civilization collapsed, there’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death.
But let’s say you’re in the 10% of human beings who survived the civilizational collapse. You’d live a joyous life, back to the land, right? Wrong.
There’s a 90% chance that, if you survived, you’d be a subsistence farmer
France in 1750 was one of the most prosperous places on Earth. Yet the best estimates of French society of that day are that about 98% were commoners, with the vast majority of them being peasants. Not all peasants were serfs, tied to a nobleman’s land, but even being a free peasant working a farm one owned himself in 1750 would have been a lifestyle you would hate.
Easily. I lived on a farm part of my childhood. Do you want to know the specifics of being a dairy farmer? “Living in perfect harmony with nature?”
Get up at 5 am. Guide the cows into the milking barn. Hook up their udders to vacuum pumps and store the raw milk in a giant thermos. Finish milking them by 7 am. Spend the day maintaining things on the farm, going into town for supplies, or working in the city for a steady wage and benefits. Then, at 5 pm, milk the cows again. Yup, twice a day, 365 days a year. Stop milking the cows and the cows will stop giving milk.
Some days, you have extra herd management to do. The cows will only give milk if they’ve given birth to a calf. Cows like to calve in the depths of a Midwestern winter. And they like to calve in safety, i.e., in the woods at the back of the 300 acre farm. Hopefully you can find the calf before it freezes to death or catches a serious infection.
But a cow that gives milk to its calf doesn’t give milk to the farmer. So you take the calf from the cow at a very young age, pen the calf up, and feed it formula.
Don’t forget, half the calves are male, and give no milk. So every spring, you castrate most male calves and fatten them up for the slaughterhouse. Watch the futures prices to guess when is the best time to sell them for 60 cents a pound, maybe $400 each. Maybe you’ve made a profit. Maybe.
And remember, this is in the late 20th century! Without electricity, you don’t have vacuum pumps. You squeeze cow udders by hand. Far slower than using a pump. Be optimistic and call it four hours instead of two. Or in other words, in 1750, you’d spend a full working day just getting milk out of cows.
And then what do you do with it? In 1980, a tanker truck drives to the farm and pulls milk from the giant thermos. 1750 lacked tanker trucks. And giant thermoses. So you have to either consume/sell it immediately or convert it into a long-term storable product, namely butter or cheese. Hope your hands didn’t get tired squeezing cow udders, because now you have to crank a butter churn for hours.
TL;DR Working on a dairy farm with 1750 technology would be hard work. Actually, working on any farm at that tech level would be hard work. And that’s the work 90% of the survivors of a civ collapse would have to do, or else last post’s estimate of 90% of humanity starving to death would be too low.
Hey, on the bright side, if you can sit at a desk and process words, you can probably sit on a stool and squeeze cow udders all day.
I can still hear the objections. “My MFA in Creative Writing and my carefully curated taste in political candidates proves that I’m suited for a higher state than mere farming. After all, 2% of French people in 1750 were priests or nobles, and many commoners lived well, too.”
Sure, let’s say the 1-in-100 chance hits, and you both survive the famine when high technology collapses and you find yourself a member of the upper classes in the new, low-tech order. You’d still be worse off as a 1750 aristocrat than a middle class citizen of Western Civilization in 2020. I’ll explain why in my next post.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a lot of interest in the collapse of civilization. The YA book and movie markets are glutted with dystopian images of collapsed cities and zombie-apocalypse TV series The Walking Dead is past nine seasons and still going. Serious descriptions of collapse are bandied about by the globalist elite (consider the number of presidents and prime ministers listed as notable members of The Club of Rome, authors of The Limits to Growth, and everyone is familiar with the concepts of Peak Oil and Climate Change. Prepper magazines abound on newsstands.
Whatever the reason, millions of people spend time daydreaming about the collapse of our high-technology, high-energy civilization. I grew up in a rural area, in a time before smartphones and wars for oil, so I understand in part the appeal of a quieter, slower way of life. But I know too much to believe that the collapse of high-tech civilization would allow the human race to build a no-fossil fuel, low-energy utopia. The human race has lived a low-energy lifestyle for most of its existence. Reverting to the energy consumption and technology levels of, say, Western Europe in 1750 would be really bad idea. This blog series will explain why. Today’s post will talk about the first reason. It’s kind of a big one.
There’s about a 90% chance you would starve to death
There are somewhere north of 7 billion people on Earth today. In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution got rolling, the consensus of world population estimates was about 800 million. In other words, world population back then was about 11% of what it is today.
That had nothing to do with population restraint. Human beings have had sex at a pretty steady rate since the end of the last Ice Age. The only limit on population growth has been food supply. So the reason world population in 1750 was a tiny fraction of what it is today is that’s the maximum number of people that could be fed with the agricultural technology of the time. The obvious conclusion is that, if we revert to 1750’s technology, we’ll revert to 1750’s maximum population.
I can hear the protests now. “Without our rampant pollution, farm yields will go up.” “We’ve developed superior crop strains that, if available in 1750, would have increased food supplies.” “In 1750, the kings and priests hoarded excess food, which we won’t allow.” But that’s all BS. Maybe not the superior crop strains, but the only reason US farmers get 140 bushels of corn per acre is through ongoing crossing of inbred corn strains. Those inbred strains don’t breed true. Seed companies have to keep producing those corn strains every year. Want to bet we can keep producing corn hybrids every growing season indefinitely? Without the modern infrastructure of telephones, computers, biology labs, and transport used by today’s ag scientists?
I can also read the minds of the protestors. I won’t be among the nine out of ten starving to death. It will be someone else. Really? Is that a bet you want to take? My skills are too valuable for society to let me die. Really? I can sit at a desk and process words as well as you can, and the pay ain’t bad, but the niche I work in is probably similar to yours: a job that only exists because of the economic and technological bounty of the last 250 years.
But, sure, you have a 10% chance of being one of the lucky ones who survive. You still don’t want a civilizational collapse. I’ll get into why in my next post.