Saturday, June 26, 2010

Vision of the future: Dune

By Damien Perrotin
The View from Brittany

Science-fiction tells us more about the dreams, hopes,, and fears of a time than about any actual form the future could take. It may, however, sometimes offer us a glimpse through a glass, darkly, of how this future might come to be. That is why Kunstler's The World Made by Hand and Greer’s Star's Reach are so interesting to read. They are not the only novels on this subject, however. Other science-fiction classics, not necessarily of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, may help us to grasp what the fundamentals of a post-peak society could be. Frank Herbert's Dune is one of those.

Even though spice is definitely a metaphor for oil and Arrakis definitely a metaphor for Arabia, the Dune universe has little to do with what a post-peak world is likely to look like. It has a Galactic Empire, spaceships, and an advanced, if somewhat vintage, technology – the book was written in 1965 after all. Yet, when you look beyond the Ixian machines and the Bene Gesserit's breeding program, the logic of the Dune society is not unlike what you could expect from a severely resource-constrained society.

We all know about the noble Atreides and the dastardly scheming Harkonnen, but few realize that, despite their differences, both were feudal overlords ruling over a host of local nobles and a far greater number of commoners, including in some places slaves. This is a remarkably common system in history, and even though most of us, myself included, would not like to live in it, it is a logical response to resource scarcity. Fossil fuels have enabled us, for two centuries, to create a huge economical surplus, which in turn has enabled us to bridge somewhat the gap between poor and rich people, at least in the developed countries.

This bridge is very partial, that's true, and it is slowly falling apart, but it does exist. Many people, at least in the de-growth scene, have pointed out that the average French worker has access to luxuries a medieval duke could not even dream of. Few have noted, however, that he has access to roughly the same kind of goods as the rich, the main differences being quality . I am far from being rich, but I do have a computer and a heated house. I can dine in a restaurant and travel by plane. What I lack is access to those goods and services specifically designed to be expensive; i.e., to act as a class-barrier.

Widespread access to luxury goods and services is only possible, however, because our economic system still creates enough surplus to distribute some of it among even the non-elite. During pre-industrial times, the difference between the haves and the have-nots was not one of degree but one of kind. A medieval peasant could not even dream of owning a stone house, for instance. Because the economy produced little surplus, it could support few rich people, and those few could accumulate riches only by reducing the rest of the population to permanent poverty, sometimes barely above survival level. The result was a considerable distance between the wealthy and the rest of the population, comparable not to the difference between a modern-day French worker and a millionaire, but to the one between the same French worker and a Malian subsistence farmer.

Access to technology was, however, rather evenly distributed. Things would be quite different in a high- or even not so high-technology world. The Atreides and the Harkonnen have access to what we would call high-technology (spaceships, powered vehicles and so on), but the universe of their subjects is definitely low-tech, and so is the economy. Caladan's main resource is pundi rice, and the Harkonnen rose to House Major status thanks to their manipulation of the whale fur market.

A resource-poor world could indeed enjoy a relatively high level of technology, even if there is no historical precedent. What it cannot do is mass-produce it. A car or even a computer could theoretically be built by a resource-constrained society with the necessary know-how. What such a society could not support, let alone build, is the necessary industrial infrastructure. The consequence is that those high-tech objects which could still be made in such a context will have to be hand-crafted in very much the same way that books, for instance, were produced in pre-industrial times. Their price would therefore be prohibitive. Surviving complex technologies would then be reserved for the elite, whatever this elite may be.

This may, ironically, encourage the survival or the resurrection of some technologies. During the long descent, society’s focus will be survival, and at some point research and even technology maintenance will cease to be priorities. Unless things become far worse than they need to be, the dark ages will pass and new elites will emerge from the ruins – if history is any guide, they will descend from successful warlords; but there are other origins of elites, such as religion. Like all elites, they will want to display their status, and what better way to do it than by using prohibitively expensive technologies from the legendary time of computers and moon rockets. The resulting society could be more polarized than anything in history. After all, Louis XIV might have had chests of gold and tens of thousands of soldiers at his disposal, but he still had to rely on herbs when he was sick. His twenty-fourth-century counterparts may have competent doctors and antibiotics. It is their subjects who will have to be content with herbs.

Such technology would be rather static, however, and there too the Dune universe offers us a good idea of what a post-peak society could look like. Research is a very resource-intensive activity, and it relies upon a network of equally very resource-intensive educational institutions. Both are subject to the law of diminishing returns. While a resource-poor society may do some research, it will have to be limited and very focused; as a result, its technology will look quite stagnant, with very few breakthroughs and those very far between, and a lot of mature technologies used without much change for thousands of years. Technological innovations may still be game-changers in the realm of the economy or geopolitics – the synthetic spice, for instance – but they won't change the way ordinary people live, at least not the way the runaway technological progress of the last two centuries has done. That does not mean that ordinary people won't experience significant, even drastic, changes in their lives – wars, political and religious crises, and natural disasters will still be very much on the agenda – but we won't see anything like the rift between our grandparents' world and ours. In a way, it will be a return to the atemporal peasant world before the Industrial Revolution, a world subject to change but not to progress, where continuity is valued more than innovation.

Most peak oil activists would hate such a society, of course, even though some, of the conspiracy theorist kind, might see in my description of it a confirmation of their fears. They would be wrong, by the way. If a Dune-like society does emerge from the long descent, it will be after the demise of our world and of its elite. They are much too closely linked to mass production, to globalization, and to the monetary economy to thrive or even survive in a world where those will be mere memories. They will go the way of Mayan priests and Roman aristocrats. The post-peak aristocrats will be of another stock – they may even be the descendants of successful activists (there are, after all, historical precedents) – and their formation years will be long and troubled.

As I have said, I would greatly dislike living in such a society, but that does not change the fact that its emergence, or the emergence or something quite similar in its functioning if not in its external outlook, is a possible – even likely – consequence of the collapse of a technological society. That does not mean, of course, that we cannot prevent it from emerging. We cannot do anything about the limits to growth, and certainly cannot avert the coming collapse, but we are fully responsible for the way we react to it. Promoting personal and collective accountability and extending democracy, especially at the community level where the consequences of one's choices can be fully felt, might erect subtle but very effective barriers to the rise of “feudalism with hand-crafted tanks”. That means, however, tremendous effort both at the personal and the community level, and it is not certain that every individual and, more important, every community will be willing to make them.

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