Foreword-When Technology Fails

By Richard Heinberg

Technology will fail. You can count on it.

We humans have been making tools for tens of thousands of years. For a similarly long stretch of time we’ve been talking to ourselves and to one another, developing the other strategy that has made us so formidable as a species—languagemaking. Language helped us refine and expand our toolmaking and tool use (imagine trying to produce something as simple as a stone knife if you couldn’t benefit from anyone else’s experience); meanwhile, we invented a range of tools to increase our ability to communicate (writing, printing, the telephone, radio, television, computer networks, and so on). These two strategies—toolmaking and languagemaking—have together made us the most successful large-bodied animal species in planetary history.

Energy always set the rules of the game. All animals obtain their basic biological energy through food (second-hand sunlight), and exert energy through muscles to get what they want and need. Tools helped us leverage muscle energy, and language gave us social power by enabling us to cooperatively strategize, and to diffuse our ideas over distance and time. Both enabled us to appropriate more and more biosphere functions for our own purposes. But always we remained subject to the net energy principle: it takes energy to get energy, and the net marginal profit (from hunting or gardening or farming) was limited and variable, even with the help of bows and arrows, horse collars, and plows.

During the past two centuries, fossil fuels made net energy effectively irrelevant. Suddenly we had access to energy sources produced over geologic time that we could draw down at arbitrarily high rates. The energy required to explore and drill for oil was trivial compared to the energy we could get from burning the stuff. With cheap, high-quality, concentrated fossil energy sources, we could make far more tools than ever before, including mobile ones that carried their energy supply with them. We could make tool networks. We could mechanize production processes. We could free nearly everyone from food-producing routines for other occupations—as factory workers, managers, salespeople, accountants, computer programmers, or advertising artists.

As a result we now live in what French philosopher Jacques Ellul famously called the “technological society”—though he might equally have called it the “fossil-fuel society.” It is a pattern of living so suffused with, and linked by, powered tool and information systems that we have become overwhelming as a species (we’ve taken over about 40 percent of the biological productivity of the planet), but utterly vulnerable as individuals. All that’s necessary to cripple us is for the electricity to go out for a few days.

Indeed, the entire system has failure built into it. It is based on the ever-increasing consumption of depleting, non-renewable energy resources. As we consume the cheapest, most easily accessed of those resources and are forced down the net-energy ladder, the technological systems on which we have come to depend will inevitably shudder and give way.

That’s what I mean when I say technology will fail.

But don’t take my word for it. A recent issue of New Scientist (April 5, 2008) explored the emerging study of how and why complex societies tend to collapse, leading with an article titled, “Why the Demise of Civilization May Be Inevitable.”

Many people think of modern technology as if it were a magical, autonomous entity capable of overcoming our ancient net-energy constraints. In reality, modern technology has merely increased our exposure to collapse. We should stop assuming that just because we’re smarter than the ancient Romans and Mayans, we can’t be brought down by analogous system failures.

Once we begin to come to terms with all of this, what should we do? 

Start by identifying tools that are not dependent on the systems most likely to fail. In other words, find tools you can rely on that don’t require fossil fuels or an operating electricity grid system.

Re-learn the skills that enabled our ancestors to thrive without fossil fuels. Get in touch with others who are similarly interested in surviving collapse, and work with them to create community resilience.

Not all of the tools and skills that are likely to be helpful to us are ancient. A good solar cooker, for example, can enable us to heat food cheaply and conveniently without natural gas or electricity—and the solar cookers available today are far more effective than anything that might have been used by tribal peoples in ages past. In other instances, though, we are likely to find ourselves treading well-worn paths, developing ever more respect for how people in traditional societies intelligently solved life’s persistent problems.

For the most part, simpler technologies are likely to be less environmentally ruinous than the high-powered tool systems on which we have come to rely. Thus any effort we make to return to more reliable and resilient tools will also constitute a giant step toward sustainability and environmentally responsible self-sufficiency.

Clearly, information resources will be enormously helpful in our learning (or re-learning) process. That’s where this book comes in.

When I saw the first edition of When Technology Fails in 2000, I was impressed. Here was a comprehensive review of the tools and skills—and the literature—anyone would need in order to get by as technological society hit the skids.

Now, Matthew Stein has updated his classic text, adding a new chapter on proactive actions for making the shift toward sustainability (both personal and global), and updating all the existing chapters with the latest information, including resource guides. The first edition was written before 9/11, when the term “peak oil” was relatively unknown and “global warming” was still considered a fringe topic. A lot has changed in the world since then.

A single book can’t do everything. There is just too much we need to know. Moreover, many skills need to be learned directly from a teacher (you might be able to learn to operate a fire drill on the basis of diagrams, but for me it took personal interaction with someone who was already good at using one). Nevertheless, When Technology Fails succeeds at just about everything we could realistically hope one book might do to inform us ahead of when technology does falter.

Will technology warn us before it fails? It seems to me that it is doing so now. The price of oil is setting new records almost daily. Electricity grids are straining and buckling in countries around the world. Food prices are skyrocketing and food riots are erupting. All you have to do is turn on your computer and surf the Internet for a few minutes and technology will reveal to you all you need to know about how vulnerable technology is making us.

Get ready. Read this book and follow its suggestions for skills development and further research. Adjust your own oxygen mask before helping others.


Richard Heinberg