The New Dark Age

By J.W. Downs
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 14, Number 1 (Fall 2003)
Issue theme: "Mass immigration: the public health dimension"

Every new generation has been warned about the deteriorating society and its impending doom. Seneca issued such warnings back in Roman times, but it took another four hundred years for Rome to fall and the Dark Ages to set in across Western Civilization. Our grandfathers told our fathers and our fathers have told us that things were going from bad to worse, while in reality our situation was generally improving. The older generation generally looks on changes in style and mores as deterioration.

It is true that much contemporary art, music and literature lacks merit, but it has always been this way. Inferior material is quickly forgotten, leaving only the better examples to survive and allowing us to point to these as typifying the good old days.

Things started to change with the Industrial Revolution, but World War II in the middle of the twentieth century marked the beginning of an unprecedented change. From the New Stone Age until the twentieth century the majority of people were engaged in agriculture. Land transportation was powered by horses and sea transportation was powered by sails. There were innovations and improvements in carriages and ship design, but they were still powered by horses and wind as they had been back to prehistoric times. The first powered flight occurred in 1903 and some sixty years later we made our first round-trip to the moon; neither event utilized horse or wind power. The scientific and technological advances made during and after WWII have thrown us into uncharted waters and we can no longer look to the past to help us navigate the future. The family farm is a thing of the past, with only about five percent of our population actively engaged in farming.

I do not wish to fall into the pattern that the older generation frequently casts itself in predicting gloom and doom, but there are some indicators that cannot be overlooked and that cannot bode well for the future of our society. Like a hypochondriac who is finally confronted with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, we must acknowledge and try to deal with these. As Neils Bohr pointed out, prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future. Past predictions, some of which were made by the best-qualified and informed minds, frequently, if not usually, missed their marks. Lord Kelvin pronounced flight by heavier-than-air flying machines to be impossible, and the most remarkable prediction was Thomas Edison's statement that the phonograph might be used to record wills, but would not have any other practical use. Edison was the inventor of the phonograph. On this cautionary note, it is safe to speculate on the future based on three inexorable factors that will confront humanity sometime, probably within the twenty-first century.

These factors are

1. The exponential growth of the earth's human population.

2. The consumption of our natural resources, which are being depleted at an exponential rate. Even the renewable resources, such as forests and harvests from the sea, cannot be considered renewable if they are consumed more rapidly than they can be regenerated.

3. Our nearly total dependence on petroleum as a source of energy. Petroleum is finite and is not a renewable resource.

These three items are of such importance that it would be difficult to place them in an order of priority.

Life is good for us now, but our situation may be analogous to passengers on a flight that is over half-way to Hawaii when the crew notices that there is insufficient fuel to complete the journey and the point of no return has already been passed. The passengers are informed of this dire situation, but are having such a good time drinking champagne and watching the in-flight movie that they do not wish to be bothered. Besides, they do not like to hear bad news. Most are confident that someone will come up with a solution to the problem. There will be a few on board who will recognize the gravity of the situation and could possibly get the passengers ready for the inevitable ditching, but they would be voted down by those who are enjoying the flight and see no reason to make the necessary preparations that could possibly save them.

World population is growing exponentially with few people expressing alarm. The United States government's adamant opposition to all forms of birth control is actively making the situation worse by withdrawing all aid directed at helping to bring populations within the carrying capacity of the land, resulting in a net gain of more poverty and starvation. It is true that there may be enough food to sustain everyone on earth if properly distributed, but this would only be a temporary situation since the world population is growing. Given enough time, any growth rate will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the entire world.

At the same time that the world population is growing, the world's natural resources are being depleted at an exponential rate. Our forests are being chopped down faster than trees can grow and the oceans are being over-fished to such an extent that a moratorium has had to be declared on some species. As the large predator fish (tuna, swordfish, etc.) are depleted, fisheries are going after the smaller fish upon which these larger fish feed, undermining the food chain and making it even more difficult for the larger fish to stage a comeback. This is analogous to eating seed corn.

Few people have a clue as to our dependence on petroleum to sustain our way of life. We like to think that when it runs out, we can switch to electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, solar and wind power and keep on going. On close examination we find that generating electricity accounts for over half the petroleum we import. Ethanol at present provides about one percent of our energy needs. It is estimated that to grow enough corn to convert to ethanol for all of our energy needs, every acre of farm land in the country would have to grow corn. In addition to this problem, it takes energy to plant, fertilize, harvest and distill the ethanol, so that it may take more energy (petroleum) to produce a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of ethanol will yield. Also, it is difficult to imagine a fleet of 747 aircraft running on ethanol.

While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, we are blessed with very little of this element in an uncombined state. To extract energy from hydrogen we must first separate it from oxygen. This takes at least as much energy as it will yield when re-combined with oxygen later. We must remember that water is the burned ash of hydrogen.

Solar and wind are nice clean sources of power, but are intermittent and there is no known way to store large amounts of electricity to provide a dependable source approaching that of a generator fired by fossil fuels. We have already reached the point where the annual petroleum consumption is greater than the discovery of new oil reserves. Periodically an oil field is discovered and is loudly proclaimed to keep us in petroleum for the next several hundred years at the present rate of consumption.

Those who do the math soon find out that "present rate of consumption" is not a reality, and that the life of the new source can be measured in months, not years.

It would be unwise to predict what will happen when the increasing population collides with the depletion of natural resources, but it is safe to speculate on some of the possibilities when this occurs. The ensuing Dark Age would be quite unlike the one that gripped Western Civilization for a thousand years after the fall of Rome. There is far too much existing technology for us simply to return to an agrarian existence.

Countries that control the last dwindling supply of petroleum would be in a position to control the rest of the world and would probably not be in a sharing mood. There is an alarming amount of conventional armament distributed over the globe and an even more alarming number of nuclear weapons. It is unrealistic to believe that at least some of these will not be used this century.

In all probability, when the crash comes it will be sudden and chaotic, unlike the gradual build-up that has created our present society. If our governing and legal structure is disrupted, the threat to personal safety would not be an invasion of foreign forces but our own citizens doing anything they can for their own survival. Unfortunately, evolution has worked on the survival of the fittest, not the survival of the nicest. If society suffers a severe breakdown, a Siberian peasant with a wood stove and a couple of yaks would be in a much better position to survive than a well-off city dweller who is dependent on electricity, natural gas, a job and a steady supply of groceries brought in from a distance and which must be purchased with money.

Human nature will be in control during the next Dark Age. Historically, we have some rather bad examples of human behavior when bullies take charge; many of these examples are well within the memory of living people. There are radical elements in even the most civilized countries (including our own) to repeat the enormities perpetrated during the last century. The veneer of civilization is thin. During chaotic times leaders like Hitler are more likely to take over than a future George Washington.

To be fair, we must also point out that prosperity does not always bring out the best of human qualities. By all standards, America now has the wealth and resources to permit a higher standard of living for the average citizen at the present population level. Instead, we have some people who grab up vastly more money than could possibly be justified on the basis of improving their standard of living. Much of this has been done to the detriment of the general population. Very few of the obscenely wealthy use their wealth for anything but themselves. This is nothing new. During Roman times, Seneca observed, "Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue," and "It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more that is poor." Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) said, "If Heaven had looked upon riches to be a valuable thing, it would not have given them to such a scoundrel." Shortly before the last stock market slump, some of our "better" citizens were making statements like, "Only the little people pay taxes" and "There is nothing wrong with greed."

Nor are we using our present prosperity and available knowledge to the best advantage, showing few signs of cultural advancement besides increasing technology. Cults are flourishing and religious fundamentalism is increasing and infiltrating our government at all levels as well as our schools. With all of the scientific knowledge at our disposal, we still have followers of the Flat Earth Society, Creationism, crystal power, witchcraft (bowdlerized and benign now) and astrology, to mention just a few. There are many internet websites for astrology which seems to be an anachronism like using a Global Positioning System on a buggy.

It is true that cultural advancements are difficult during hard times, but peace and prosperity have not done much better. There was a marvelous four-frame cartoon by Toles showing John Adams writing at his desk Frame 1) I must study politics and war. Frame 2) So that my sons can study mathematics, commerce and agriculture. Frame 3) So that their sons can study painting, poetry, music and architecture. Frame 4) So that their sons can watch WWF Smackdown, Jerry Springer and Jackass on television.

There can be no doubt that a major adjustment will be made when our increasing population collides with diminishing supplies. There are a few things that could delay the onset of the inevitable shortages, but incredibly there is opposition to most of them. Irradiation of food to prevent spoilage would help eliminate a large amount of waste. Periodically there is news that millions of pounds of meat are recalled and destroyed because it might be contaminated with e.coli or salmonella bacteria, yet there is not a shred of scientific proof that radiation has any ill effects on those who eat irradiated products. Likewise, genetic engineering has the potential of increasing food production enormously, but popular opinion is holding it back. Admittedly, this will need supervision and testing but it has great potential. Hemp is a renewable crop that could be grown in place of tobacco but it is not legal to grow hemp because it is related to marijuana. Hemp can yield a variety of products such as paper, cloth and oil and was considered respectable enough for our forefathers to write the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. We can only conclude that these things are held back by popular and legislative ignorance.

Actually, we have exactly enough natural resources; i.e. all of them. They are the fixed values in the equation of life. The variable is our use of them. Following the rule that two can live as cheaply as one, but only half as well, the natural resources are being divided by an increasing number of humans. We should also consider the impact that human population is having on the other inhabitants of this planet. The present extinction rate of flora and fauna must surely exceed that of the great extinction at the end of the Paleozoic Era when expressed in the loss of species per century.

After 9/11 several televangelists proclaimed that the destruction was brought on by the wrath of God who was punishing us for a lifestyle that was distasteful to televangelists. We appear to be headed for a period of enormous adjustment (but probably not complete destruction) on our own and without the need for Divine intervention. After the New Dark Age, archaeologists should have no trouble finding abundant evidence of our having been here. We cannot help leaving vastly more artifacts and remains than our cave-dwelling ancestors thirty-five thousand years before our time had left us. The amount of concrete rivals our reef-coral colleagues in sheer volume of calcium carbonate poured and deposited, respectively, so archeologists of the distant future should have no trouble finding some very interesting digs.

About the author

J. W. Downs is a freelance writer living in Santa Clara, California.

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