Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bottleneck

When it comes to addressing the major sustainability issues of the day—peak oil, global warming, loss of arable land, dwindling fresh water supplies, overpopulation, there are two kinds of books: the kind that spend several hundred pages detailing the problems that face us in horrific detail, only to end with a “happy chapter” that explains how organic farming, conservation, and/or mass transit will save us; and the kind that outlines the complete collapse of human society—often in luxurious detail.

There is another model, somewhere between miraculous redemption and complete collapse; a model that I would call the bottleneck. The concept of a population bottleneck has an important place in human history. A population bottleneck is a significant reduction in the size of a population that causes the extinction of many genetic lineages within that population, thus decreasing genetic diversity. A population bottleneck in human history probably occurred around 130,000 years ago during the last interglacial period. A second bottleneck occurred around 70,000 years ago with the super-eruption of Toba, a volcano located in northern Sumatra causing an "instant ice age." Dramatic climate change undoubtedly decimated populations in most parts of Africa. Human population may have dropped as low as 5,000 females.

The concept of the bottleneck can be used in a wider context. Just as populations can lose genetic diversity, societies can lose knowledge, technology, even beliefs and ideals. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe’s population declined by about a quarter. The institutions of government and learning disappeared. Technological knowledge was lost. Even though Roman roads and aqueducts continued to be used, upkeep on them lapsed and they eventually fell into disrepair. The writings of the Greeks were lost to the West, although fortunately saved by the Moslem world.

Today the world is facing a population overshoot. We are using up non renewable resources, and depleting renewable resources faster than they can be replaced. Resource scarcity, most importantly peak oil, threatens major economic disruption in the short run while global warming will have a major impact in the long run.

On the other hand, humans have proven that they can live in the most extreme environments; and there will be enough resources and renewable energy to support a technologically advanced society of some size, albeit much smaller than today.

This raises the likelihood that the future will not be a complete collapse, but rather a bottleneck. The size of the bottleneck remains to be seen, as does the amount of time it will take to get to the narrowest point. It could be small enough, and quick enough that getting through will seem like a collapse or it could stretch out over time as a gradual decline. If human population returns to pre oil era levels, it would mean a loss of 80 to 90% of the present population.

It won’t happen all at once, peak oil theory envisions a slow decline over the next century. Some oil can be produced for much longer. Global warming will also unfold over many decades at the least. But the effects of both will continue inexorably.

We may be seeing the first signs of a bottleneck. $140 a barrel oil helped tip the economy into recession and the oil peak will likely prevent a normal recovery. The recovery that has happened has benefited only the most wealthy while the middle class continues to be mired in recession, defaults on home mortgages continue to rise, and the ranks of the poor continues to swell. We have an economic bottleneck.

Viewing the future as a bottleneck changes the questions that we should be asking. Much of the green movement is seeking ways to create a sustainable society, when such a thing is not be possible at present levels of population and consumption. Instead, we should be thinking about what we want to get through the bottleneck. Like the medieval monasteries that kept writing alive, we may need institutions to keep today’s knowledge, technology, and beliefs alive.

One of the most important, and perhaps one of the most fragile of those beliefs, is the innate value and sanctity of the individual—perhaps humankind’s greatest achievement. True acceptance of this belief has taken centuries of bloodshed and struggle. One only has to look back two centuries to the United States’ early years. At that time the U.S. was considered a radical experiment among Europe’s kingdoms. But even so, we considered women to be less than man’s equal and blacks and natives to be something so inferior that their rights need not be considered.

The struggle we undertook to reach today’s level of equality was long and painful. Today we take for granted that, as Martin Luther King said, the arc of history bends toward justice. Unfortunately this need not necessarily be true. In a future where only a small fraction of today’s population will survive, ideals could be the first casualty. In medieval times, people readily sacrificed their freedom for the safety that feudal hierarchies provided them. How much will we give up to achieve a similar measure of security in the future?

For those of us who revere these values, the question becomes: how do we form the monasteries of the future that will preserve that which is truly best about our great but flawed civilization?