Walked to Downtown Subscription and ran into a friend. We shared a table and over coffee he showed me a magazine called World Watch with this article in it. The article says that a theory that explains the evolution of ecosystems may also apply to civilizations as well-and we’re approaching a critical phase.
Our Panarchic Future | Worldwatch Institute
Because energy is a society’s master resource, when Rome exhausted its energy subsidies from its conquests-when it had to move, in other words, from high energy-return-on-investment (EROI) sources of energy to low-EROI sources-it faced a critical transition. And, at least in the Western part of the empire, it didn’t make this transition successfully. It couldn’t sustain the cost and complexity of its far-flung army, ballooning civil service, hungry and restless cities, elaborate information flows, and intricate irrigation systems. Not that it didn’t try. Rome’s prodigious effort to save itself by putting in place a system to aggressively manage its energy problem was simultaneously one of history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies. It was a triumph because, for a while at least, the effort reversed what seemed like the empire’s inexorable decline; but it was ultimately a tragedy because it didn’t address the empire’s underlying problem-complexity too great for a food-based energy system-and was thus bound to fail.
The western Roman empire couldn’t make the transition from high-EROI to low-EROI sources of energy. Today, our societies are headed toward a similar transition as oil becomes harder to find. Sometime in the 1960s the United States crossed a critical threshold when its EROI for domestic petroleum extraction started to fall, and it’s likely that since then just about every other oil-producing region in the world has crossed the same threshold (often it takes a while for data to show clearly that the threshold has been crossed). Very few people-certainly not our society’s leaders-grasp the significance of this change, yet it’s of epochal importance. It marks the beginning of a shift from our modern industrial civilization to some other kind of civilization.
The author explains that as society becomes increasingly connected, complex, and efficient, it also becomes less resilient. This lack of resilience has brought the world to a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a major ‘pulse’ of social transformation. Humankind has experienced only a handful of such pulses throughout its existence, including the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution, and the recent global communications revolution.
I think most of us can tell that WE are on the verge of something, but exactly what that is we don’t know. As an artist I know the feeling well, because it precedes most of my recordings, but of course the scope of this is much larger. This is not a personal or artistic transformation, this is possibly world-wide.