In 2010 I read a work of semi-speculative fiction by William Forstchen, Professor of Military History at Montreat College in North Carolina, entitled One Second After.
The science in this work is grounded not only in his discipline, but in effects that have been known throughout most of the twentieth century, and which were first made popular knowledge during the 1980s in connection with former US President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.
What this book asks is: what happens, if the technology dies?
I don’t want to spoil the book — this is a page-turner, and a cracking good story, one that brought me to tears several times as events unfolded for one character or another — but I’ll summarise it simply by saying that within a year without the technologies we know and depend on available the North American population has shrunk by 75-80% — or, to put it another way, in the forty-eight “continental” American states, the remaining fifty million have buried two hundred fifty million plus of their family members, neighbours and friends.
All this, mind you, without losing a single city or town to a sneak attack or battle.
Over the past several years, in connection with research work I was doing on our energy profile, our approach to regional planning, our infrastructures and the warning signs in the economy that the collapse of the dominance of financial capitalism (the degenerate form of industrial capitalism) was at hand, I have given much thought to how sustainable life in our cities, our suburbs, our exurbs and our independent rural villages and small towns would be.
I have modelled population possibilities based on local availability of resources. The scenarios for “good places to live” that resulted from this, and an assessment of how urgently one would need to consider uprooting and moving if you didn’t already live in “a good place” for the future, ranged from an uplifting future to a set of grim options.
But nowhere as grim as Fortschen paints: and the surprise (which it ought not to have been!) is that the only speculative part in this entire work is would the triggering event take place.
Everything else derives from “facts on the ground” that are right out in the open, waiting for us to see them: for them to be “present to us”, as Heidegger said in Sein und Zeit, rather than us looking at the world solely through the technological framework’s preference for “ready to use”.
I am still kicking myself over this in part because I’ve read Dmitri Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse and listened to his Long Now Foundation lecture: his analysis of the last days of the former Soviet Union and the collapse of society in the former Soviet Republics pointed out many of the same problems Fortschen lays out — and Orlov further pointed out some of the “saving graces” in post-Communist society that a post-collapse American society wouldn’t have going for it as readily.
Orlov, by the way, thinks the unwinding of cheap energy and the collapse of financialisation are more than enough.
Michael Ruppert, in the Chris Smith documentary Collapse, makes the same points — and pointed out in 2009 that the dominoes were already falling.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell: we depend on almost everything that matters for life to be transported over longer distances than a person can walk, or a horse and cart can manage.
You do have a horse and cart lying about, don’t you?
That’s about 6 km (4 mi), in case you hadn’t thought about what that distance might be. You might not want to carry a load on your back for 6 km, but it’s an eminently walkable distance otherwise. It’s also, if you do need animal power and a cart to haul a load, about the out-and-back distance in a day, including loading and unloading and caring for the animals.
Don’t believe me? One of the items to look at is the distance between grain elevators on the Prairies, as these were built with the coming of the railways.
The farmers needed to hitch up the team of horses to a wagon/cart and ride to the elevator to sell their crops, then return home, with nearly all the trip occurring during daylight hours.
In October, that meant a round-trip time of about 10 hours. With unloading time — let’s assume the cart is loaded the day before, although in many cases trips had to be taken repeatedly to get the harvest to market — at the elevator, that meant a maximum of 3.5-4 miles’ travel one way.
That’s why the elevators were spaced, regular as clockwork, at 11 km (7 mi) distances. The little villages at the depots are gridded the same way.
Similar placement occurred in the East, with dairy operations, although there the milk shed for the “milk run” on the rails were a little closer together, since it was necessary to employ more parallel activity (workers) to wrestle milk into refrigerated cars from icehouses to avoid spoilage, implying multiple trains/day and closer distances from farm to station.
One in four people in North America requires chronic medication — pharmacies have, on average, a thirty- day supply of drugs.
Your typical supermarket has two or three days’ worth of supplies of a product.
Gasoline (petrol) in service station tanks or distribution centre tanks will spoil after a few months — paradoxically, it lasts longer in a usable form in the tank in an automobile — and so large scale supplies of refined products aren’t locally available.
The average distance from power source to point of consumption on the electrical grid today, in North America, is well over 400 km (250 mi).
As the East discovered in 2003, the system is also interlocked: there are only a handful of grids on the continent, and cascade failures (a few seconds’ time to collapse the entire grid, in 2003 three days’ around the clock work to restart it). Collapse base load and, even if parts and service people can rush to fix things, it takes time and deep coordination to restart semi-continental scale grids.
What One Second After awakened me to is the deep interdependence we have built between systems, all of which must work 99% of the time at least (and, in some cases, to five nines [99.999%] or better reliability.
The great failure of “continental scale” entities — whether this be the former Soviet Union, or the current Canada, United States, Australia, or China, and increasingly the European Union — is that the large scale “market” that emerges is an inducement to rationalising activity across the scope of that entity.
As a child, I remember routinely seeing something that I, living in Toronto, didn’t really resonate to: “Prices higher west of the Rockies”, in advertising.
The reason, I later found out — especially after moving to the West Coast — is that the Pacific Coast and Intermountain regions of North America didn’t have the ease of transportation and energy flow over the mountains that the East and Prairies did.
Local manufacturing, local companies, local markets persisted a generation longer in the West than elsewhere on the continent.
That is, of course, long gone now.
What the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union found, as the system and then the country came apart, was that routine supplies of food, of power, of parts, etc. were disrupted.
The USSR, in the name of “efficiency”, had mandated “country product mandates”. One plant produced all light bulbs, for instance, for a country spanning thirteen time zones.
Another one produced all standard bolts. Yet another one processed all salted, tinned meats.
Cascade failures in production began to occur even before the Gorbachev regime gave way to the independent republics.
Once the borders went up, the economies collapsed further, as “rents” were charged to pay for the new governments and to “redress” grievances.
Fortschen doesn’t say it — it wouldn’t be essential to his story line — but we do exactly the same thing, and with one additional twist: for many items of daily use, we don’t even make them anymore.
Industrial capitalism resolved itself to product mandate plants — Black & Decker or General Electric making all power tools here, all small electrical appliances there; all wiring harnesses made in one place for a variety of uses in the parts chains of manufacturers — to increase profits and “be more efficient”.
If you are building a modern factory, which is labour-shy but robot and numerically-controlled processor centric, this makes sense. Small plants with light levels of throughput can’t justify the technology on a economic basis. This is why much of the remaining manufacturing in North America uses older machines and produces replacement parts or custom items where the set up/breakdown pays off.
Financial capitalism took this one stage further.
It encouraged companies to outsource, to handle their pollution or safety standard costs by working overseas where regulations permitted actions not allowed at home, all for a few cents per share extra earnings.
In turn we, as consumers (rather than as citizens!) lusted after a few cents off the price of everything.
The continued collapse of the debt economy that is unfolding, energy security issues, high seas piracy, further strangling of transport with inept responses to terror worries while real terrorist issues are left to fester for lack of will to face reality, institutional breakdown leading to the rise of borders where none really exist, industrial agriculture’s products being behind many of our chronic illnesses — we have so many inter-tangled worries.
No wonder John and Jane Average are more concerned with who will win on American Idol! Yet the prudent individual whose timespan is broader than their own immediate moment knows that lean years follow fat years.
Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger, when elected to the Papacy, was sending us all a message with his choice of name “Benedict”, for St-Benedict, in the face of the long dying of the Roman Empire in the West realised the need to preserve and protect something for the future and look beyond the needs of the day.
I do not know, of course, if that was his motivation (the speaker of that quote has known him for many, many years) but it would be a prudent response nonetheless.
James Howard Kunstler, in his book Home from Nowhere, talks about Ruckytucks Farm, located in the Hudson Valley near his then home in Saratoga Springs, NY.
For the farmer to succeed, the farm had to be both organic and have local buyers: there is no market with the food chains for small producer outputs, and none for industrial agriculture’s products at a local price point versus the production of massive operations in California, México, Chile and the like.
This, of course, is what underlies community supported agriculture (CSA), as written up by Wendell Barry and others.
Kunstler wrote about it — as he assumed food would be the one problem society wouldn’t have in his part of the world in his novel World Made by Hand — to show that it would be possible to go back.
Fortschen, on the other hand, points out that none of the expertise, none of the seed stock and none of the tools to go back are likely to be present if the jump into disruption is fast.
I keep reminding myself that Fortschen wrote a novel, but the reality is that the ability to do what he talks about isn’t futuristic at all.
It is very real, very accessible and very possible today (as it has been for at least two decades now).
I also keep reminding myself that even if Fortschen’s event does — mirabile dictu! not occur, our society’s systems are stretched to the breaking point.
We, in our comfortable Western lives in North America, Western Europe or the Antipodes, may not have everything fall down around us as major earthquake victims — think the Haïtians in the Port-au-Prince area did in 2010, and still not rebuilt — but our homes will be equally useless to most of us without power that comes reliability, fuels for transport that are always available … I think you get the picture.
I urge you, if you haven’t, to read Fortschen’s One Second After; Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse; Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand; Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead; John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent; and to then do the following:
Walk. Find out what’s within 6 km (4 mi) of where you live. Look at it as though this is the only way to get around.
Learn how a world made intensely local would work for you where you are now.
The time to start thinking about “what happens next” isn’t “one second after” — it’s years ahead of the need.