Industrial Civilization Could Not Be Rebuilt

A suggestion, for the sake of thought: If industrial civilization collapsed, it probably could not be rebuilt. Civilization would exist again, of course, but industry appears to be a one-time experiment. The astronomist Fred Hoyle, exaggerating slightly, writes:

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing high intelligence this is not correct. We have, or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.

Hoyle overstates all the limits we actually have to worry about, but there are enough to affirm his belief that industry is a “one-shot affair.” In other words, if industry collapsed then no matter how quickly scientific knowledge allows societies to progress, technical development will hit a wall because the builders will not have the needed materials. For example, much of the world’s land is not arable, and some of the land in use today is only productive because of industrial technics developed during the agricultural revolution in the 60s, technics heavily dependent on oil. Without the systems that sustain industrial agriculture much current farm land could not be farmed; agricultural civilizations cannot exist there, at least until the soil replenishes, if it replenishes.

And some resources required for industrial progress, like coal, simply are not feasibly accessible anymore. Tainter writes:

. . . major jumps in population, at around A.D. 1300, 1600, and in the late eighteenth century, each led to intensification in agriculture and industry. As the land in the late Middle Ages was increasingly deforested to provide fuel and agricultural space for a growing population, basic heating, cooking, and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. A shift to reliance on coal began, gradually and with apparent reluctance. Coal was definitely a fuel source of secondary desirability, being more costly to obtain and distribute than wood, as well as being dirty and polluting. Coal was more restricted in its spatial distribution than wood, so that a whole new, costly distribution system had to be developed. Mining of coal from the ground was more costly than obtaining a quantity of wood equivalent in heating value, and became even more costly as the 54 most accessible reserves of this fuel were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater flooding became a serious problem.

Today, most easily accessible natural coal reserves are completely depleted. Thus, societies in the wake of our imagined collapse would not be able to develop fast enough to reach the underground coal.

As a result of these limits, rebuilding industry would take at least thousands of years — it took 10,000 years the first time around. By the time a civilization reached the point where it could do something about industrial scientific knowledge it probably would not have the knowledge anymore. It would have to develop its sciences and technologies on its own, resulting in patterns of development that would probably look similar to historical patterns. Technology today depends on levels of complexity that must proceed in chronological stages. Solar panels, for example, rely on transportation infrastructure, mining, and a regulated division of labor. And historically the process of developing into a global civilization includes numerous instances of technical regression. The natives of Tasmania, for example, went from a maritime society to one that didn’t fish, build boats, or make bows and arrows.

Rebuilding civilization would also be a bad idea. Most, who are exploited by rather than benefit from industry, would probably not view a rebuilding project as desirable. Even today, though citizens of first-world nations live physically comfortable lives, their lives are sustained by the worse off lives of the rest of the world. “Civilization . . . has operated two ways,” Paine writes, “to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”

Consider the case of two societies in New Zealand, the Maori and the Moriori. Both are now believed to have originated out of the same mainland society. Most stayed and became the Maori we know, and some who became the Moriori people settled on the Chatham Islands in the 16th century. Largely due to a chief named Nunuku-whenua, the Moriori had a strict tradition of solving inter-tribal conflict peacefully and advocating a variant of passive resistance; war, cannibalism, and killing were completely outlawed. They also renounced their parent society’s agricultural mode of subsistence, relying heavily on hunting and gathering, and they controlled their population growth by castrating some male infants, so their impact on the non-human environment around them was minimal. In the meantime, the Maori continued to live agriculturally and developed into a populated, complex, hierarchical, and violent society. Eventually an Australian seal-hunting ship informed the Maori of the Moriori’s existence, and the Maori sailed to the Chathams to explore:

. . . over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing most of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim. A Moriori survivor recalled, “[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep . . . [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and eaten – men, women, and children indiscriminately.” A Maori conqueror explains, “We took possession . . . in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killed – but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.”

Furthermore, we can deduce from the ubiquitous slavery in all the so-called “great civilizations” like Rome or Egypt that any attempt to rebuild a similar civilization will involve slavery. And to rebuild industry, something similar to colonization and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade would probably have to occur once again. After all, global chattel slavery enabled the industrial revolution by financing it, extracting resources to be accumulated at sites of production, and exporting products through infrastructure that slavery helped sustain.

So, if industrial society collapsed, who would be doing the rebuilding? Not anyone most people like. It is hard to get a man to willingly change his traditional way of life; even harder when his new life is going into mines. And though history demonstrates that acts like those of the Maori or slave traders are not beyond man’s will or ability, certainly most in industrial society today would not advocate going through the phases required to reach the industrial stage of development.


  • F.T. says:

    While i welcome the intent to facilitate discussion and thinking process in general, which this piece advances, – i must also note that great number of statements in this piece are invalid.

    I lack both time and desire to point out to every mistake this piece unfortunately contains, but i will do so for a few mistakes in the beginning of the piece.

    “Industrial civilization” can certainly be rebuilt, and chances are it won’t ever collapse completely.

    Any “industry” is basically mass-production of goods and/or services. Therefore, nearly every significant human civilization we know about which existed during last 5000+ years – was already 100% industrial civilization, as it’s quite unfathomable that their smiths were not “mass producing” plows, swords and spears and related services, at very least.

    Therefore, the lack of resources is not an obstacle to industrial civilization. We know from history that early enough civilizations did not have any access to iron, as they did not know how to work it, – but that did not prevent them from doing whatever industry they could based on bronze. Even before those, when bronze works were not known neither, – humans were still quite industrious using stone to shape their weapons and tools. Access to any “oil”, “coal” or say “solar power” back then was clearly impossible, too. I foresee no shortage of “rocks” to work on. This means, as long as at least some small human societies are alive, – there will be some industries. The difference is only what kind of industries we’re talking about.

    With “coal gone” and “oil gone”, – if it would ever get to all extractable resources of those actually extracted and burned, – Earth athmosphere would then have at least 1400 ppm of CO2, average surface temperature would increase by at least 16°C, thus effectively killing life as we know it, including all humans. For more details, please refer to James Hansen et al (2013, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A (Phil Trans R Soc A) Vol. 371, No. 2001). Therefore, the argument about lack of resources is quite wrong, as it leads to impression that there would be some humans who could try rebuilding. A wrong impression.
    The line about “builders will not have the needed matherials” – is dramatically short-sighted. Even now, in different parts of the world, dramatically different matherials are being used to do same kind of industrial activities. For example, there are publically available recordings of modern indigenous people hunting with wooden spears. No doubt they have spear-making specialists among them, offering their product and service in return for certain kinds of goods and/or favors. This primitive, but still industrial, activity is aimed to achieve the same goal as what any modern hunting rifle manufacturer does; namely – allow a society to have efficient hunting weapon. Therefore it’s quite obvious to me that humans are capable to facilitate industries no matter what kind of resources they have available, – the only real requirement is that sufficient number of humans maintain a society which is able to pass sufficient know-how to following generations and maintain enough social interaction to let some members specialize.
    Agricultural revolution mentioned has nothing to do with increasing productivity of soil. What it did was quite the opposite: those “industrial” methods you mention actually killed soils, effectively turning them into nearly-dead substance which, for simplicity, we can call “dirt”. Then, by adding certain chemicals, it allowed to have massively inferior harvests (to what is possible while growing in actual soil, – i.e. in surface layer of Earth which is locally rich in all the natural kinds of microorganisms, fungi, invertebrates, etc).

    You see, back in 1960s, nobody had any idea about what soil microbiology is. Heck, even now, almost nobody does. And so when problems arose about over-using soils, this “kill it then artificially force plants to grow up” was accepted as a salvation. While in fact, it’s no less salvation than killing badly-ill person and then plugging him in into artificial lungs and heart and demonstrating his relatives that he’s “alive”.

    Again, i am sorry for being unable to comment on more specific statements than those four from very beginning of your piece. Farewell.

    • admin says:

      Your comment on “industrial” society is a mere semantic debate. Define the word how you want. I think, though, that you know what I meant by the word. I’ve defined it pretty exactly in a pieces from Hunter/Gatherer and in a recent article entitled “Critique of the Concept of ‘the System’.” By “industrial society” I mean a specific mode of production that arose around the 1800s. And no, that couldn’t be rebuilt without access to specific kinds of resources.

      You’re quite right that should our current global civilization start to decline, areas in collapsed or economically declined areas will sometimes have ways of life that mimic, say, the iron age or perhaps the middle ages. I’ve never denied any of that, although I think that sort of think becomes much less likely as time goes by. What seems more realistic, honestly, is a future approaching what we read about in sci-fi depictions of collapsed areas, with a weird mix of high-tech and low-tech determining the structure and social relations of marginal societies.

      I want to remind you, though, that none of this really says anything about the main point: that our current pace of technological development needs to come to a halt, and then decline, if we are to preserve wild nature, including wild human nature. Societies based off of computing and biological technologies drastically reduce the autonomy of small social groups to make their own decisions about their lives — to such a degree that it can even modify the way they think and act, and does. If we are not okay with, e.g., social media technicians controlling the way we feel, we have no other option but to reject the whole social system on which that sort of thing is based.

      I appreciate the comments about Hansen’s article and the agricultural revolution.

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