As high technology becomes ubiquitous we use it for all manner of trivial tasks. But this may not always be the case. If we hit the limits of our resource and energy reserves we may be in for an interesting situation. How will we reintroduce the ‘basic’ skills to our local communities when the ever advancing tide of the Internet is reversed and the globalised markets cannot deliver anymore? Who still knows how to do that stuff anyway?
Natural disasters take their toll on the world. Often the places impacted seem like they are so far away – developing nations; unprepared; terrible suffering; but so far away. We feel sympathy for those affected but cannot directly relate to the situation ourselves. At the moment we feel quite isolated from these incidents in our concrete and steel cities, with our fossil-fuel-run defences and our ubiquitous technological gadgetry.
Yet we may not be as distant from these events as we think. The developing world is producing our technology and natural disasters can cause jolts that our globalised market economy is unable to adjust for in a timely fashion. One such example is the flooding in Thailand that has left scores of people dead and much of the country’s infrastructure – and industry – under water. The ripples of this disaster can be felt here in Australia too. Emotionally, we can relate to the shocking reality when we watch TV. But the pain can also be felt in the hip pocket if you want to buy a hard disk for your computer. In our globalised world these are largely produced in Thailand and now supplies are running low and prices are rising.
In recent days I have used the Internet to find out some very basic stuff. How do I make yoghurt from scratch? What accommodation shall I build for guinea pigs? What options are there for adding a trailer to my bicycle? The web is a high-tech instrument to answer some fairly low-tech questions. Before the web we got this information from books (that’s my childhood). Previous to this skills and knowledge were passed from generation to generation and maintained through local tradition. On a recent trip to the Black Forest in Germany I was happy to see that this is still the case in some places. Do you remember those days when we used to actually talk to each other?
Transition communities talk about the need to adapt to an increasingly volatile environment and depleting resource base. These communities intend to build local resilience and one of the key pillars is reskilling. Many of the skills we previously had locally now need to be relearned – think about cooking, sowing, vegetable gardening, woodworking, metalworking, and so on… All these things have become commercialised and globalised services in the last 50 – 100 years.
One key driver for building such local resilience is peak oil, the idea that the depleting oil supply under continued increasing demand will lead to rising fuel costs and impact on – well – everything we buy. However, oil is still a relatively abundant substance – we had such a large supply in the first place. If we look at some of the materials we need for our modern high technology – lithium for batteries, gallium for LEDs and solar cells, indium for LCDs, hafnium and germanium for semiconductors – we find that these rare earth metals are in much shorter supply and running out very quickly. The Chinese are obviously onto this as they appear to either have or be purchasing the world supplies on these types of materials.
Now the astute reader will point out that the market will take care of this – as materials become expensive, alternative technologies will be developed to take their place. Additionally, as the price of raw materials goes up, it becomes more economically viable to recycle. These are all great and I don’t believe that technical progress will go backwards at any point soon. But at some point on a finite planet with finite reserves, growth will stop and prices will rise, putting the technology out of our reach. When the rules of thermodynamics re-establish their dominance over the rules of globalised free market economics we may then be in for an interesting ride.
At some time in the future we may well find ourselves in a very strange situation. Ubiquitous technology may become too expensive to use for everyday things like Google searches on making yoghurt. Supply may be interrupted by natural disasters and may not be able to recommence in a timely fashion. And because of the natural tendancy of humans to not act until the last possible moment, we may well be using the remnants of our technological abundance to rebuild local skills, knowledge and sustainable solutions.