Gentle Decline 2/23: Expectations & Excessions
In which I set out what I think is going to happen over the next few decades in terms of the Gentle Decline.
A while back I was asked about how a particular thing would be at “the end of the Gentle Decline”. This question set me off on a course of thinking that hasn’t ended yet, but is close enough for me to write some of it up. There were two particular words in there; “the” and “end”. So this issue examines what I think about those two, and the space between them. There is not one bit of practical advice in this issue, so if that’s what you’re here for, go do some reading in the archive instead, and I’ll return to some more practicality next time.
(How MidJourney thinks a market will look in 2070. I am more optimistic.)
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. All issues are free! You can support the newsletter via Patreon (where there’s often some further discussion about particular points), Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise, including the new Plant More Trees t-shirt.]
I don’t think we can use the definite article with regard to the future. There are lots of things that could happen to change the likely course of events. There will be both improvements and disimprovements, and anyone trying to tell you there’s one way things will go undoubtedly has something to sell to you. But I do have a sort of broad track I expect events to follow.
And I don’t know that there’s necessarily going to be an end to it, either. Sea-level is going to continue to rise for a long time, and even if we started to do something serious about it right now, would still happen for a century or more to come. I think that we’ll be feeling the effects of fossil fuel use as a species for a long time.
Saint William of Gibson’s concept of The Jackpot should be invoked here; this is the set of events in The Peripheral which include climate breakdown, war, disease, and other events - and he says he’s never listed them all off, because it’ll just depress him - which have already started in our own time.
No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.
In one way, Gibson is more pessimistic than I am; his future is a severely depopulated one, wherein it’s clear that billions of people did not make it. He does have it right, though, in expecting it to be gradual and varied, and in saying that it’s already here. In another, he’s more optimistic than I am; his post-Jackpot future has better tech than we do, and I’m not hugely convinced on that. Maybe in very small areas.
Some of my thinking here I’ve outlined before. Issue 2/16 deals with why I think climate change can’t be stopped. 2/6 looks at the very basics of what I think people need to do to cope. And 2/13 looks at predictions I made some years back, and how they’re shaping up. But as far as I can see, and even though writing this feels like I’m repeating something, I’ve never really outlined my full expectations of the next few decades (or at least not in one place). I can’t put a strict timeline on this; nobody can. But you can expect more of it to be visible every year, and within - I think - 15-20 years, so 2030-2035-ish, it will be pretty evident. And all of interrelates, as I’ll expand on below; it is a “wicked problem”.
It’s important to note that - as far as I know - pretty much everyone reading this lives in the West, and has money enough for a net connection and a device to read on, and time enough to be reading me rambling on. That puts you in a very high percentile of people worldwide in terms of wealth, comfort, and insulation from the effects of any change in the world. So a lot of what is already happening in the world is not happening to us, yet. And much like the Renaissance didn’t really happen for anyone except rich white men for some time after the history books claim, the Gentle Decline will happen sooner to everyone except rich (in global terms) Westerners (but eventually, it will). So for everything I’m saying here, you can look elsewhere in the world and see it happening already.
I believe that the most fundamental element of our comfortable Western 21st-century world is supply lines. Whenever something messes with supply lines (weather, disease, industrial action), we feel it a little. Mostly it’s a very minor inconvenience - you can’t get the particular type of a product you like, and have to settle for the next brand over, or the shops don’t have something for a day or two. Sometimes it’s a little more, as I observed in the UK recently and wrote about in Commonplace (short version: every menu has things not available, and eggs were hard to get for a few weeks). And sometimes (not often, yet), we see empty shelves for a bit, or the price of something rockets. Timber for DIY (or any) purposes, for instance, costs mad money right now.
Our supply lines are not resilient. For decades, they’ve run on a just-in-time model, where there’s minimal storage, and everything is in transit until it’s on a shelf, and then it’s taken off the shelf again (by purchase or disposal) within days. Just-in-time can also be understood as just-barely-sufficient, and the phenomenon of a particular toy or electronic device being sold out in days or hours at Christmas or just after release is almost a cultural fixture for us now. Some companies capitalise on it; more would really prefer to sell more instead.
Many of our supply lines are quite long. A good few of the vegetables in the supermarkets at this time of year have come from Morocco or the Greenhouse City in Almeria, Spain. Apples and lamb have come from New Zealand. Asparagus from, yeah, I know I repeat it all the time, Peru.
Supply lines are what will mess up the 21st century. We’ve already seen some of this with shipping issues in the last two years, which still haven’t completely settled back to a pre-pandemic level of speed or predictability. Supply lines are affected by disease, either because people in ports and on ships can’t work due to being ill, or because lockdowns prevent them from being able to do so efficiently or at all. We’re very likely to have more pandemics. They’re affected by weather, in that storms, snow, extreme heat, and extreme cold can prevent the ports from functioning, keep ships away from coasts, or even sink them. We’re going to have more extreme weather. They will be massively affected by sea-level rise, because the ports will become unusable, and indeed hazardous, and sea-level rise is utterly inexorable. And supply lines will also be affected by rising fuel costs, increased border and customs charges and effects, changes in trade treaties, and very probably wars (wars are a frequent response to tight economic situations, nonsensical as that is).
The longer a supply line is, the more fragile it is. And even a small reduction in volume causes the cost of using it to rise quickly - I’ve seen this in action with clients over the last two years, where shipping that was not a major cost is suddenly the same price - or more than! - the product being shipped. There will, of course, be efforts to keep supply lines in action, but just by themselves, those efforts will cost more. Eventually, long supply lines will be used mostly (never “only”, because only a Sith deals in absolutes, and historians are clearly Jedi) for high-value, low-weight/low-volume, non-perishable items. So much like the pre-19th century trade routes: spices, fabric, jewels, precious metals, tea, coffee, and artwork. And electronics (note, though, that there’s already a shortage in semiconductor chips).
So, long supply lines will not go away, but they will change. Low-value, high-weight/high-volume, perishable items will not be provided as much from distant places (hence, already, my muttering about the cost of timber). There are lots of things that fall under these descriptors, but the main one is staple foods: potatoes, wheat and other field grains, rice, soy beans, and what are still seasonal foods in most of the global north: legumes, salad leaves, tomatoes, soft fruit. There are two options for this: we pay (quite a lot) more to have them imported still, or we grow them more locally. Now, as it happens, Ireland grows a lot of potatoes and grain already, so that’s not a major change right here. Next door in the UK, on the other hand, and across much of the rest of the West, that’s not the case. For an example of how this is happening in some places already, see Northern Canada’s eye-watering food prices.
So there will be a need for more local food production. I’ll come back to more implications of this later on.
Next up, we have energy supplies. I think most people in Europe are already aware that energy prices have gone up due to the Russian war in Ukraine. The prices are never going to come back down to where they were in 2021, and there will be a load of different reasons why they’ll go up more: other wars, supply line issues again, rising costs of extraction of fossil fuels, and increased use in local food production (see interrelation of issues, wicked problem, etc.). This can - and will - be mitigated by a move toward wind, water and solar power, and by better insulation, better batteries, and a reduction in the use of energy just for the sake of it. We’re already seeing smaller displays of Christmas lights this year, for example. And eventually, people will shift to wearing more layers in winter. But all of that will still be a change.
There will be more pandemics. As travel costs (due to the same issues as supply lines, and also energy) rise, this will have a direct effect in slowing them down, but just the number of humans on the planet right now means we’re inevitably going to have some. Even as we treat the current pandemic as being “over”, there have been 6.65 million deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 worldwide to date. Allowing for the places that fudged the numbers (almost everywhere, really), that’s not a small impact. And COVID has long-term effects in survivors, too, which reduce productivity and make us more vulnerable to other conditions and diseases, including extreme weather. There’s going to be a point in the future where Long COVID is the “underlying condition” that makes some SARS variant more lethal. These future pandemics will have knock-on effects because of public health per se and also because of the effects of lockdowns, travel restrictions, and so on.
And then there are the direct, immediate effects of climate chaos: sea level rise making coastal settlements and infrastructure unusable; extreme weather becoming more frequent and damaging infrastructure and crops; climate refugees arriving in various places, both expected and otherwise. I’ve talked a lot about those in other issues; I won’t re-hash them too much here.
So: we have an interrelated complex of supply line issues, a need for local food production, rising energy prices, further pandemics, and direct climate change effects. We cannot prevent this. We can move toward accommodating it, and much of Gentle Decline is a combination of preparation for that and frustration at the lack of preparation actually happening. But prepared or not, there will be changes caused by this complex of issues.
The main one is going to be a step down in consumerism. This is often depicted as a fall in quality of life, but I’m not convinced by that. I am in fact unconvinced that cheap clothes, cheap processed food, bright lights and so on are “quality” in any way. My expectation is that we’re going to buy fewer things, and that the fewer things we buy will, of necessity, be of higher quality. Food will no longer have long supply chains, and more of it will be bought from local producers (probably at higher prices). We’ll pay more for energy, and consequently use less. More of us will work locally to where we live, and more of us will be involved in agriculture, food production, textiles, and skilled manual work than at the moment.
Travel will become less frequent. I don’t mean that people will travel less for holidays or to see family - indeed, I think that longer-duration trips will become more normal, with remote work happening alongside - but the possibility of disappearing to another country for a weekend will reduce, and work travel will drop a lot.
Public transport use will increase, where that’s possible, and sensible governments (from which I specifically exclude the USA) will provide more public transport (this is slowly happening in Ireland, although rural public transport is still light-years behind other European countries). We’ll also see a rise in what can only be termed privately-provided public transport, like the stagecoaches of early modern Europe (and, admittedly, the US). This will be impacted from time to time by pandemic conditions, so remote work really is going to be a major aspect of employment.
Some aspects of technology will change. In particular, anything involved in food production that needs long supply lines for maintenance will gradually disappear. If you’re dependent on local production of food, and you haven’t complex supply lines to fall back on, the idea of waiting for a new chip from Korea to replace the one that blew out in the tractor is just not going to float, so either we have local stockpiles of such components, or we step back to tractors without them. We’ll see more electric vehicles on farms, though (assuming battery tech continues to improve), and possibly more use of things like drones (which are not, it turns out, hugely complex technology) to monitor crops and livestock. We’ll see more industrial greenhouses locally.
The technology we can reliably produce and maintain at a local scale in the West is that of the early 20th century, maybe up as far as the 1940s. I don’t think we’re going to have to fall back that far in most cases, but it’s a baseline to keep in mind.
It’s not necessarily the case that shorter supply lines, more local production, etc, will lead to lower technology. Indeed, the absolute epitome of these ideas is the self-sufficent space station or colony spaceship, and those are about as high-tech as humans can reach right now. But they’re also incredibly expensive, and depend for their initial creation on very complex supply lines. I expect we’re going to see a mix of relatively low-tech stuff (bike deliveries, backyard farming, local repair shops) and higher-tech stuff (very high-quality broadband, complex solar power, highly efficient batteries, 3D printing). The emphases will be on “local” and “reliable”. This is in some ways a solarpunk future.
Different aspects of this will proceed at different rates, and I think anyone trying to predict those is onto a losing track; there’s just too much chaos out there, and there’s going to be more. I also don’t think it’s going to end in any meaningful timeframe; the retreat from the rising sea is going to continue for centuries. Eventually, the fossil fuels will run out, and then we’ll have to adapt from using plastics to something else - but honestly, that’s probably past my horizon. Overall, I think the thing that is going to decline most, if gently, is energy use. I don’t think we’ve hit the peak yet, even, but it has to come soon. The further out that peak is, the steeper the decline on the other side.
I’m not making predictions here about new economic systems, either. I don’t like capitalism, and unregulated capitalism is largely the cause of the situation in which we find ourselves. But at the moment, it’s going to continue to be the frame in which we operate for a while.
I am very interested in other people’s take on this - predictions and guesses alike. The one thing I’m not interested in is “technology will be invented” without showing me someone who’s currently working on that technology and is making progress. We can’t rely on it otherwise.
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On the subject of shorter local supply chains and reduced energy use. The hybrit steel plant that is being built in Sweden is a good example of this. Running off locally generated renewable power and locally generated gases to power the process.