Could we start industrial society from scratch today?

– An excellent article over on Resource Insights Blog. Kurt Cobb writes some good stuff and I’ve had his Blog listed in my Blogroll for some time.

– The point he’s making here is one I’ve thought about for years. Though I would have said before that we might rise and crash two or three times in succession until we figured out how to either establish a steady-state relationship with the biosphere or until the resources were too depleted to support another rise.

– After reading his piece, I think I’m in the “we have just one change to get this right” camp now.

– This sort of thinking has been around for awhile. Here’s a quote from Sir Fred Hoyle in Of Men and Galaxies, 1964:

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing 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.

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By Kurt Cobb

Could we start industrial society from scratch today? The answer is probably not. While such a question seems merely hypothetical, its answer has important implications regarding the prospects for a sustainable industrial future.

The reason it would be so difficult to start an industrial society from scratch today is that most of the natural resources associated with advanced societies have been drawn down to a point where it would be difficult to extract what’s left without an up-and-running industrial system. It is worth quoting at length Harrison Brown, author of “The Challenge of Man’s Future,” writing on this point in 1954:

Our ancestors had available large resources of high-grade ores and fuels that could be processed by the most primitive technology–crystals of copper and pieces of coal that lay on the surface of the earth, easily mined iron, and petroleum in generous pools reached by shallow drilling. Now we must dig huge caverns and follow seams ever further underground, drill oil wells thousands of feet deep, many of them under the bed of the ocean, and find ways of extracting the leanest ores–procedures that are possible only because of our highly complex modern techniques, and practical only to an intricately mechanized culture which could not have been developed without the high-grade resources that are so rapidly vanishing.

As our dependence shifts to such resources as low-grade ores, rock, seawater, and the sun, the conversion of energy into useful work will require ever more intricate technical activity, which would be impossible in the absence of a variety of complex machines and their products–all of which are the result of our intricate industrial civilization, and which would be impossible without it. Thus, if a machine civilization were to stop functioning as the result of some catastrophe, it is difficult to see how man would again be able to start along the path of industrialization with the resources that would then be available to him.

What Brown is really describing is a lack of resilience in modern industrial civilization. It lacks the redundancy built into agrarian cultures because the whole system has become so specialized and interdependent. For example, rare earth minerals are critical to the functioning of modern electronics, in the making of strong magnets useful in such things as hybrid cars and as catalysts in chemical processing. Some 90 percent of these elements currently come from China. Any cutoff could prove difficult for the rest of the world. There are other known deposits of rare earth elements, but it would take time to develop them and start up production.

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