Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shadows out of time

I'm currently reading Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, a book by the great French historian Fernand Braudel. He wrote about the humble daily necessities of life in the centuries and millennia before the industrial revolution. Life back then centered on the absolute basics: food, housing, tools, and clothing, as well as the social practices surrounding them, like law and religion. In pre-industrial days such fundamental realities changed very slowly if at all, on time scales dwarfing a human life. Generations, centuries, millennia. The daily and seasonal routines defined human existence, placing strict limits on the possibilities of human enterprise, whether pursued by peasant or monarch or priest.

Unlike other historians of his time, Fernand Braudel didn't see history as the outcome of choices made by rulers. The people at the top of human societies started wars and rebellions; diverted the production of food and material by commoners for their own ends; preserved dynasties and struggled for political power. But everything the rulers did, Braudel maintained, was entirely constrained and channeled by the physical and cultural limits of limited resources and technology. These, in turn, were the domain not of war councils but of methodical, deliberate centuries of common labor, which made the fabric of everyday life.

Today, "history" is for most people a boring, forgotten subject from the childhood purgatory of decrepit public schools. Or, it's an electronic diversion piped into the home via cable television, filled with lurid, facile documentaries about wars and royal debauchery. History needs to be more than that. A way to prepare for what's coming. In the age of peak oil and extreme climate change, we will find a vital resource in scholars like Fernand Braudel, who devoted their lives to understanding what human societies were like in the days before hydrocarbon fuel. Those days spanned almost the entire past existence of humanity, dating back to the lost legendary times before the written word. When human beings wandered a pristine immensity of plains, forests and mountains, teeming with animals in the billions. Places ruled by birds and beasts and fish, vast beyond imagining beneath the vaults of heaven, untouched by cities and their reach.

Thousands of years have passed since those ages. Two great transformations of human life have happened in that time: the invention of agriculture, about 13,000 years ago, and the creation of cities, about 5,000 years ago. Further changes happened in the age of cities, as human beings improved their methods of building structures, producing food, exploiting animals, waging war, and so on. But all the changes took place over hundreds of years. An ordinary person typically lived only to age 40 or so, before being killed by accident, disease, or starvation. From the perspective of that lifetime, the routines of everyday life appeared to change not at all. The routines were like the mountains: apparently timeless, even though subtly shifting and changing their shape over huge lengths of time, at a rate too slow to see.

In the knowledge of those times we of the present will find practices and devices, from spinning wheels to ox-drawn plows, that need to be resurrected for the future beyond fossil fuels, which will be the remaining ages of humanity's time on Earth. Our past will also yield lessons to be learned and warnings to be heeded, of the catastrophes so common in the first age of age scarcity (ca. 200,000 B.C. to A.D. 1800).

The book I'm reading by Fernand Braudel describes two of the commonplace disasters: pestilence and famine. In the pre-industrial era, the threat of disease and starvation hung forever over every human life. One or two bad harvests could mean early death for whole communities. Monarchs may have hoarded excess food, but if crops failed the ruler still had to face rebellion by desperate subjects. And rulers had no more immunity to microbial slaughter than anyone else.

In the previous world of scarce energy, human communities lacked the means to protect against famine and pestilence. They were without industrial abundance but also without knowledge. Our descendants will once again exist without material abundance built on surplus energy. But they may, if all goes well, possess our scientific knowledge, of soil, plants, pests, fertilizers, and other facets of agriculture. The societies of coming centuries will also have, if all goes well, access to our knowledge of bacteria, viruses, nutrition, physiology, and the many other components of human health. Our descendants won't be able to build and operate huge mechanized farm machines or giant MRI devices, but they will know far more than our pre-industrial ancestors about the way the physical world actually works. Or so we can hope. In the best case scenario for the human future, ecotechnic civilizations will be inhabited by healthy, well-fed citizens, existing in low-energy, low-consumption, ecologically rooted settlements.

I'm going to try, in my upcoming description of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the twenty second century, to describe what the tentative foreshadowing of such a society might be like. We may not get there, but we have to try. Because of what's at stake, and what the future will look like if we fail.

We can behold that future in the most horrifying episodes of our pre-industrial past. Fernand Braudel tells of one such cataclysm, the Deccan Famine of 1630 in India. Unknown thousands upon thousands of people starved to death in the cities and countryside of the subcontinent. Perhaps millions. Braudel quotes a Dutch explorer who visited India during the famine:

People wandered hither and thither, helpless, having abandoned their towns or villages. Their condition could be recognized immediately: sunken eyes, wan faces, lips flecked with foam, lower jaw projecting, bones protruding through skin, stomach hanging like an empty sack, some of them howling with hunger, begging alms.

Braudel then writes in his own voice, "The customary dramas ensued: wives and children abandoned, children sold by parents, who either abandoned them or sold themselves in order to survive, collective suicides... Then came the stage when the starving split open the stomachs of the dead or dying to 'eat their entrails.' "

Braudel concludes with the words of the Dutch merchant who beheld these things:

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people died, to the point when the country was entirely covered with corpses which stayed unburied, and such a stink arose that the air was filled with it and pestilential. 

The future will not be utopia. But it must not be hell. From the Mars novels of Kim Stanley Robinson: shikata ga nai. There is no choice.

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