Why You Don’t Want Civilization to Collapse, Part IV

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.

  1. There’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death.
  2. If you were among the 10% of survivors, you’d have a 90% chance of being a farmer on the edge of starvation.
  3. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?