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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Peakfrogging

Leapfrogging is a term I learned from Jamais Cascio, which posits that at least sometimes the lack of industrial infrastructure in the overexploited regions of the so-called "developing world" might represent more of an advantage than a disadvantage as new post-industrial forms of media, information, communications, and decentralized energy provision come to define the technodevelopmental state of the art. Inertial lock-in to top-heavy, elite, capital-investment intensive, expensively-maintained, energy-input-intensive, inflexible, hierarchical, industrial models that once represented the prestige and conspicuous advantage of colonizing and postcolonial powers could well come to represent the anchors stymieing such powers in the storm churn of twenty-first century technoscientific change.

Before I say another word I want very quickly to interrupt the flow of this argument to say that there are two things that make me rather nervous talking in these terms in the first place: First, to talk this way seems to me to nudge the conversation about technodevelopmental struggle almost entirely into the frame that prioritizes "innovation" and "competition" unduly and in ways that usually privilege certain kinds of values and institutions over others -- and usually not at all the values and institutions that are the most progressive ones or the most relevant ones to anybody but incumbent corporate-militarist interests. Second, since it certainly is not always the case that the lack of conventional infrastructure and support provides benefits to societies unencumbered by industrial formations in a post-industrializing world (and, frankly, the jury is very much out as to whether any of the assumptions driving these intuitions will bear out in fact in any case), the idea that sometimes such lack might provide a developmental leg up should not solace the beneficiaries of centuries of brutal imperialism, colonialism, and neoliberalism, nor provide us a rationale to justify our offering up remediation and restitution on the cheap now to terribly vulnerable people of the world incumbent interests have continued to treat as anything but peers in a world that will soon be peer-to-peer through and through.

Be all that as it may, I had the idle thought this afternoon that Leapfrogging in this sense might have an intriguing complement if writers like David Holmgren and Howard Kunstler are right about what is likely to happen to complex industrial societies that have grown to rely on the easy energy of a petro-bubble mistaken for manifest destiny if energy descent (or "Peak Oil") ever comes to re-arrange their assumptions.

Just as Leapfrogging proposes that the USA (among others) might be encumbered compared to many of the regions and societies we have long exploited by the very industrial formations that empowered us to so exploit them, so too Peakfrogging proposes that the USA might be encumbered compared to many of the regions and societies of Europe (among others) that rose to power and prominence before the arrival of the petro-bubble and hence retain the infrastructural legacies and intelligence of that epoch as the USA -- continental sprawl of malls and freeways and petro fertilized and irrigated deserts blooming briefly into lawns and wheat fields -- almost entirely the prodigious child of the petro-bubble, does not. The United States of North America is not a nation ready to privilege walking distances, permacultural and localist practices that will best suit any bursting of the petro-bubble (and one need not indulge in the more hyperbolic variations of "Peak Oil" discourses for the impacts of energy descent to register deep impacts), in the ways that even major European cities will often manage to do.

Whether leapfrogged by post-industrial p2p democratization or peakfrogged by post-petrochemical permaculture (quite apart from the usual idiotic imperial overreaching of military adventurers and social conservatives squandering the treasury and looting the creative and infrastructural commons for parochial ends and quick profits) it is not difficult to see the writing on the wall for the world's last remaining petro-industrial "superpower." Fortunately, our fortunes are written in books and in collaboration quite as much as it is written on walls, and there are plenty of ways for a post hegemonic USA to flourish and contribute to the greater flourishing of a planet that needs all the help it can get.

17 comments:

Greg in Portland said...

My feeling is that US is in for some very scary times indeed if the mounting consensus about Peak Oil is correct. This could indeed be the thing that dissolves the union itself. Red states may dig into the "American Dream" with ever more ferocity while the blue islands like your own SF or my Portland set themselves up as city-states that follow a European model. This will lead to irreconcilable differences over everything from tax structure to foreign policy. As the redder areas get poorer owing to their overdependence on car infrastructure and cheap oil they may get ever more and more radical in their policies both foreign and domestic, seeking scapegoats everywhere but the obvious places.

Dale Carrico said...

It will indeed be an amusing thing when all the vegetarian lesbian communes and guerrilla gardeners and permaculture enthusiasts who've been ridiculed and denigrated since the sixties by dot-eyed Randroids and Young Republican types -- driven by little beyond their hunger for a quick fraudulent buck and their terror at the prospect of Allen Ginsberg making a pass at them apparently -- will end up being the very ones who have the skills without which communities cannot possibly survive in an energy descent epoch. Here's hoping p2p networks will enable cheap collaborative permaculture practices and appropriate technology knowledges to spread beyond blue islands like ours, when people really need them, whether blue staters or red or whatever.

De Thezier said...

greg in portland said:

My feeling is that US is in for some very scary times indeed if the mounting consensus about Peak Oil is correct. This could indeed be the thing that dissolves the union itself.

In his new book, The Untied States of America, American businessman, bestselling author and former Harvard academic Juan Enriquez warns of the coming disintegration of the United States and explores how that will affect the nation's status as the unparalleled superpower.

From AlterNet: "This is a challenging, controversial subject at a time in history when American power around the world appears supreme. The Soviet Union no longer stands as a military, political or economic rival now that capitalism has triumphed over communism. While America is increasingly affected by the fast economic rise of China, this challenge doesn't appear to threaten America's leadership in global politics. Americans dominate the world community today in the same way as the British did a century ago. But that comparison also contains a warning.

In the beginning of his book, Enriquez presents readers with an experiment. Imagine you're a member of the British cabinet in 1905. A world map hangs on the wall of the elegant conference room in Number 10 Downing Street delineating the greatest empire that has ever existed: an area encompassing nearly 30 million square kilometres (11.5 million square miles), 20 percent of the world's land and nearly one-quarter of the total human population. The question is: How will the world look in 50 years -- in 1955?

What would you have thought? Would Britain's territory expand? Stay the same size? Would there have been someone who could have conceived that the British Empire would completely fall apart between 1905 and 1955? That British territory would only comprise some 250,000 square kilometres (97,000 square miles) in 1955?

Imagine asking George W. Bush the same question now, in 2006. How will the United States look in 50 years? How many stars will the American flag have? Still 50? The chances of finding a prominent politician in Washington today who could imagine the disintegration of the United States seem miniscule. But readers of Enriquez's book realize it is in fact quite probable that America in 2056 will not be the same powerful country it is today. Based on a great deal of historical, financial, political and cultural data, Enriquez convincingly demonstrates that the future does not augur well for the unity of the United States."

Greg in Portland said...

That's interesting DT. I wasn't aware of that book. My analysis isn't based on any great scholarship, just a sort of gut feeling. That feeling being that the US has really always been a nation of great internal hatreds. Well we even went to a very bloody war with ourselves once. The cultural fault lines that caused the Civil War never did disappear either and the reconciliation afterwards was badly botched and let the southern whites recreate slavery in all but name. During the 20th century economic growth driven by the accidents of huge natural resources, world wars and technology gave everybody a reason to pretend they liked each other. Successful plunder smooths away much anger. Well, the natural resources have been plundered and globalization seems to drain off the benefits of any new technologies (I suppose we can "hope" that Bush may yet start WWIII). If the economy truly goes into Kunstler's "long emergency" mode due to declining energy supplies I suspect people will start to remember all the things they don't like about each other.

giulio said...

Re: "city-states that follow a European model"

Greg, there is no such a thing as a European model. There a different model in each nation. The fun thing is that those of us who, like me, are in favor of fragmentation of nation states and much more local autonomy, advocate a "US model" within each nation state with a common decision making structure for "big issues" but much more independent decision making power for regions. Make that "Swiss model" if you prefer, it is more or less the same.

Dale Carrico said...

Your point's well taken, Giulio, of course, but I'm sure Greg was making a general distinction of the kind you find in, say, Rifkin's own distinction of an "American Dream" from a "European Dream." At that level of generality, with no pretensions to fine-grained analysis, I think it is a useful thing to distinguish American from European institutional intelligence, governance assumptions, and so on. It seems to me the Euroskeptics are the ones more wedded to the economic assumptions and ethnic prejudices I would associate with a "US model" (neoliberal Anglo-Americanism) -- I'm assuming you're for a dem-fed EU?

Anonymous said...

The Economist had a couple of articles on leapfrogging in their Feb. 7th issue, based on a report from the World Bank. Cell phones gained wide acceptance because they used existing radio infrastructure, and there are some other examples but the many technologies don't leapfrog countries develop intermediate technology.

I agree the technology impetus drives for certain market driven values and institutions.

Dale Carrico said...

Cell phones gained wide acceptance because they used existing radio infrastructure, and there are some other examples but the many technologies don't leapfrog countries develop intermediate technology.

Quite right and important, on all counts.

I agree the technology impetus drives for certain market driven values and institutions.

I would like to think we can complicate the notion of "the technology impetus" and distinguish what passes for "technology" in techno-utopian and incumbent market naturalist discourses from contrary tendencies available in, for example, some discourses of appropriate technology, some discourses of sustainable, renewable tech and permaculture practice, insistently democratizing variations of p2p discourse, and the idea of self-determination through informed consensual recourse to alternate reproductive techs (and prostheses available for the differently enabled).

If you respond to this suggestion by pointing out these are all deeply vulnerable to appropriation by prevailing neoliberal development discourses that preferentially benefit incumbent corporate-militarist interests to the ruin of us all, I will admit that I agree with you.

Greg in Portland said...

Greg, there is no such a thing as a European model.

There certainly is such a model in the context in which I was speaking, mainly energy and urban planning. The European model: dense cities, lots of public transportation, extensive government support for transition to sustainable energy; the US model: sprawl on an apocalyptic scale, stupid giant houses, stupid giant cars, ideologically hamstrung governments on all levels that regards public transport as "communism" and waits endlessly for the market to provide answers to energy descent. Add to that a populace that wallows in ignorance about the most basic physical facts of the universe and thinks it is entitled to all the above forever and ever, thank you Jesus Amen. You can obviously guess which model I prefer.

On the cultural level there is also a clear European model that obsesses less over material things and values free time and learning more highly. This divide exists within the US as well and is a part of the Red-Blue dichotomy about which so much hype is generated.

Dale Carrico said...

What Greg said.

I really do want to put in a plug for Rifkin's book The European Dream for those who might not be aware of it. It covers a lot of this ground well.

Greg in Portland said...

Thanks Dale, I was indeed thinking a little of Rifkin's book but did not reference it since I've not read it and only know a little about his thesis in that book. It seems from the synopses I've read to be similar to what I was saying though. Rifkin is an interesting writer even though sometimes a bit of a crackpot (he's gone on the warpath in other books against evolution though not from the usual fundy Xtian angle).

giulio said...

Re: "I'm assuming you're for a dem-fed EU?"

More or less, something like that. As a European who has spent time working for EU institution I know that Europe is basically a joke, where nobody in power really wants "Europe" and the only important thing is protecting the interests and power structures of nation states. If I had had the chance I would have voten NO to the EU constitution proposal (like teh French and the Dutch) because it was for a EU of nation states, not for a EU of the citizens. This is one of the things Rifkin does not get.

I want a EU where decisions that impact all EU citizens are taken at central level. But I also want a EU (and a world) where decision that impact only citizens in a region are taken at regional level. Call it "glocalization". And I want a world where decision that only impact a minority are taken by the minority concerned. That is why I tend to be very sympathetic of most regional autonomy and independence movements. Which, of course, are seen as a dander from all established power structures in nation states. By "US model" I mean granularity of power, not neoliberal Anglo-Americanism.

Re: "The European model: dense cities, lots of public transportation, extensive government support for transition to sustainable energy"

I think this is just due to the fact that European cities were built much earlier. The extensive government support for transition to sustainable energy is a urban legend: try to get support in most of EU, and you will find that you are supposed to spend 1000 euros in paperwork to get a subsidy of 500 euro months or years later.

Re: "a clear European model that obsesses less over material things and values free time and learning more highly"

I think this is mainly due to the fact that over (most of) EU the unions managed to become part of the power structure. I am sure you guys like free time and learning as much as we do.

In summary, as some German political theorist with a big beard said, it is all about the money. One important difference is that in EU we do not take authority seriously, know in our guts that political power is just another means to make money at the expense of gullible people like us, and develop alternative power and support structures for when things get difficult.

Greg in Portland said...

The extensive government support for transition to sustainable energy is a urban legend: try to get support in most of EU, and you will find that you are supposed to spend 1000 euros in paperwork to get a subsidy of 500 euro months or years later.

Really now, I'd love to see evidence of this given everything I've read about Europe's support for alternative energy. Most of the American right wing is incensed that Euros would dare tamper with the sacred MARKET in this way in fact. Are you telling me that Rush Limbaugh has lied to me?

I am sure you guys like free time and learning as much as we do.

No. No. No. No, we don't. We luvs Jebus. Jebus tells us to werk reel hard for our god ordained crapitalist masters and that them sciency books is of the Devil. Seriously, no we don't love free time or learning. Everyone is supposed to be working ALL THE TIME. Even students who would do better to mind their books. Even they are supposed to have some shitty job flipping Soylent Green for overweight tourists.

You're an Italian right. So am I. The only thing my ancestors worked hard at was crime. I admit it's hard to get into the Protestant work ethic. I have trouble with it myself unless I have chemical assistance. But it really does dominate life here and no - there's no life outside work.

giulio said...

Re: "We luvs Jebus"

This is another interesting difference indeed. Compared to most Americans, most Europeans do not really care about religion - we are happy to see nice old churches in old cities, but only as long as they don't interfere with our lives. Religion is not a significant factor for (most of) us, and of course I think this is good.

At the same right I recognize that this taliban-like religious drive (flames expected) and some kind of religion-enabled "manifest destiny" feeling (more flames expected) has helped you Americans achieving the world dominance you currently enjoy. I often wonder if there is any way to combine the best of the two approaches, purpose and drive without talibanism.

Re: "The only thing my ancestors worked hard at was crime"

That is how they built America, isn't it?

Re: "everything I've read about Europe's support for alternative energy"

Take it from me. We have politicians who pay lip service to alternative energy, children care, education, entrepreneurship, civil rights, disabled and senior citizens... and claim there are easily available subsidies for all that. But try to get some in practice, and you will begin to swim in paperwork. The subsidies are there in theory all right, but just too hard to get in practice unless you can hire a law firm to do the paperwork for you and still wait years. Of course if you could afford that you would not need the subsidies in the first place.

giulio said...

One more thing about subsidies: of course it is easy to get one if you know someone in the right place, and of course you are expected to show some kind of gratitude. This is how it works.

Greg in Portland said...

Of course if you could afford that you would not need the subsidies in the first place.

Actually if the lawyers are cheaper than doing without the subsidy you would hire the lawyers. The people who build wind farms are not poor. Here's a link on German energy for example http://www.globalchange.umd.edu/energytrends/germany/

I guess its possible that this is really just the actions of the Invisible Magic Fist of the Market and the EU subsidies had no role, but I doubt it. I mean the German Establishment is whining "Germany’s gas, coal, and electric power industries have objected to mandates for the purchase of more expensive renewable power and to the subsidies granted to renewable producers.". That's always a good sign.

Anonymous said...

D.C.:"If you respond to this suggestion by pointing out these are all deeply vulnerable to appropriation..." Of course I have and would again. One thing that's of fascination to me lately is to pay attention just to the use of the word "technology" by politicians, dispatched at regular intervals to inevitable nods and smiles for all sorts of disarming agendas.