The succession model

In Swedish / på svenska.

I claimed that this would be a blog on concepts and on the future. So it’s been, but so far, “The Translation Blog” might have been a better name. In any event, now some of John Michael Greer’s texts are available in Swedish (with more coming) and it might be time to think about their contents.

The main point is succession and especially the step-wise character of succession. To summarise the steps we’re heading for according to this model:

  • Industrial society: here’s where we are today. Huge use of energy and resources; the most profitable strategies are based on this (globalisation is one example); those strategies lead to depletion of the energy and resource base
  • Scarcity industrialism: the next step, when less wasteful strategies become important; efficient use of resources and energy becomes ever more profitable; access to resources becomes a matter of survival and the state increasingly takes over from the market
  • The age of salvage societies: finally, so little resources are left (= they’re so expensive to produce) that even a minimal industrial society can’t be maintained. What remains is to live off the remains (of industrial society). This will likely feel like a very primitive society in comparison to today’s
  • Further steps: the remains of industrial society are running out and other social forms emerge. We’re probably quite a bit into the future and I can understand if Greer doesn’t want to guess here
  • Ecotechnic society: this is an imagined “climax state” for technic societies, when humanity has found a long-term sustainable way of life while still maintaining relatively advanced technology

How to understand, and use this model? As a prognosis it’s pretty bad – there are no details and all the stages merge fuzzily! It can’t be used to plan a career (other than quite broadly – rocket scientist might not be a good future profession), or investments, or much else.

It can still be useful, but it must be used in the right way. It’s a model, but not a quantitative model. Thus, it can’t be used to make quantitative predictions, including rates of change. It can, however, be regarded as a concept, a mental image that forms the background of a more detailed picture of the future. In this way, it suddenly turns useful.

Many people expect Ragnarök or the apocalypse (or just a zombie invasion) when industrial society collapses and Western civilisation fals, but the succession model suggests instead that life goes on. It’s not business as usual – there will be enormous human suffering and misery, and those of us who grew up in the abundance economy will find it tough – but humanity goes on, the biosphere lives on. What’s happening now is just a repeat of something that keeps occurring in nature and which has happened to human beings again and again. It’s on a larger scale this time, but we’ve been through ice ages and survived.

It might therefore be worthwhile to glance further ahead, at least with one eye – yes, we need food, water and heat, but if everyone is preoccupied only with that very little of the scientific thinking we’ve painstakingly built up over the past few centuries might survive.

The succession model, in other words, also suggests a long-term perspective. This process will take time. All our projects, all our plans, everything we do must take this into account. Nobody alive today will live to see an “ecotechnic” society. As Greer notes in Toward an Ecotechnic Society, it took thousands of years for the agricultural ecology to develop into a sustainable system.

The driving factor is energy supply. It’s the most fundamental factor in this model, particularly in the long term but it might have short-term consequences too. Mikael Höök writes in the latest issue of Effekt magazine  that Denmark, Norway and Russia together supply around 80 percent of Sweden’s oil. Denmark is expected to stop exporting by 2015 (that’s quite soon) while Norway won’t be able to deliver much after 2030. That leaves Russia. In a world where energy increasingly equates with power that’s likely to have further consequences than the purely economical.

Midvintermörker“, which I’ve recently reviewed on the blog, is either worrying or irrelevant, from that perspective. It’s worrying for what it says about Sweden’s freedom of action and irrelevant since if all oil comes from Russia, they’d probably prefer to turn off the tap than shoot at us. It’s much easier.

The succession model certainly has limitations as well. As mentioned, it’s not very detailed – “the financial crisis 2.0”, which Nicole Foss from The Automatic Earth blog, gave an interesting presentation on the other day in Gothenburg, is invisible. The focus on energy supply makes other political, economic and social factors seem irrelevant. How you choose to organize your society can have large impact on quality of life in it.

There are a few prerequisites for the model. It assumes that oil production declines sharply but not in a rapid collapse. It also assumes that climate change does not happen suddenly and strongly.

A few words on how these ideas are holding up. The texts were written in 2007 and so, in 2011, some signs of an emerging scarcity industrialism should be visible. According to Greer these would be

  1. Resource nationalism: this is visible, for example in Russia use of the “gas weapon” against the Ukraine and the EU and in China’s patient efforts to secure access to African energy and natural resources.
  2. An end to globalisation: the earthquake and tsunami in Japan might lead some to reconsider, but I don’t see any wider tendency to rebuild national and local industry. Energy prices aren’t sufficiently high to drive this.
  3. Increasingly efficient use of resources: this is visible, but it’s driven more out of climate worries or a general eco-friendliness than the cost of wasting resources.
  4. Increased government power and reduced corporate power: the financial crisis marked the definite return of state power and it shows no sign of retreating.

There are some signs, but it’s largely a matter of looking for what you want to see. This might be interpreted as an exercise in make-believe, but that’s to misunderstand the model. It’s not a “theory” to be “proven”, it’s a different way of looking at the world. By definition, some things will then be visible and others not. Nothing prevents us using several views of the world, illuminating different aspects.

I find the succession model useful as “background”. Energy and resources supplies will play an enormously important future role and the fundamental idea, the principle of succession, seems reasonable enough. We’ll see what happens – another background might turn out to better match reality. If so, we must have another one ready.

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