The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Petrochemical Age In Context

If you want to do super big picture macrohistory, humans have really had three eras:

1) Hunting/gathering

2) Agriculture

3) Industrial.

To over-summarize, hunter-gatherers, with some exceptions in nutritionally dense areas were generally egalitarian. They had high childhood mortality and a fair bit of violence, but they lived longer lives than any time period before the Industrial era, and were health. In some cases we still haven’t caught up (for example, the width of hips of their women was wider than ours, and that correlates to health and easier childbith.)

Agriculture started out OK-ish for about 2,000 years, but the nature of agriculture creates private surpluses and allows for large elites. It’s easy to appropriate food and service from farmers, because they can’t move away and they can’t hide their take well (crops are harvested at known times, and about how much land produces is also known.) For the vast majority of the population, living in an agricultural civilization sucked. Yes, there were more of us, but we were sicker, died younger and more likely to have a nasty overlord. Violence decreased (though these figures are controversial), but that’s because the lords and masters don’t want other people killing.

Humans in this period were essentially domesticated, and there’s some reason to believe the process weeded out most people who naturally rebel against control. This is little different from how wolves became dogs, and just as degrading.

We know the industrial era, because we live in it, but I want to invite you take the long view: imagine it’s a 1,000 years from now. Or 5,000.

What the industrial age looks like when you zoom out is “the petrochemical age”. We figured out how to harness coal, gas and oil, added in a few other sources of energy, and became clever at hooking machines up to our power sources.

The problem is that in a period of less than 300 years we’ve burned up so many petrochems that we’re overheating the planet thru the mechanism of climate changes gases, and our population is well over the planet’s carrying capacity, leading to a crush in ecosystem diversity and the absolute number of animals, plants and insects.

Since ecosystems + climate are what make the planet habitable for humans, from the long point of view, all the industrial/petrochem era looks like is a massive orgy: a predator species which has overshot the world’s carrying capacity.

If we can’t transition to a technological way of supporting ourselves which doesn’t destroy the world’s carrying capacity, then all this period will be looked back on as is a blip: a brief period of species-wide stupidity, where we exploited technologies and powers we were too foolish and stupid to control the consequences of.

Progress isn’t automatic, and it isn’t one way. When you look at charts of health characteristics in the western world from the stone age, on, one culture stands out: Greek City States. They live longer than anyone else, they are healthier on multiple metrics, and their civilization is destroyed by the Romans, who don’t have nearly as good lives.

The same thing can happen to us. We are not sustainably transitioning to a new way of living. Even when we do some right things like electrification, we don’t build items to endure. We’re dumping valuable minerals into phones and cars and consumer goods we’ll throw out in 5 years or so, and we don’t have the resources to waste. We’ve done nothing to stop climate change. We’re over-fishing. Over 90% of the insects in multiple areas (perhaps world wide) are gone, as anyone over 50 or so can tell you. The birds are gone, too. The big animals. The wild areas. The coral reefs are dying. The Amazon is dying and now a net-emitter of carbon, not a sink.

In theory we could probably still fix this. The technology either exists or is with in sprint to do so, but it’s about more than technology: we’d have to change how we live. Give up our consumption based society; get rid of planned obsolesence and use the same items for decades. Ditch exurbs and suburbs almost entirely, and re-wild or make it so that people who want land have to live by the rule that their presence must increase biodiversity.

The changes are radical, and there is no sign of anyone in power taking them seriously. Instead we build more and more crap, pollute more and more, spew more and more gases into the atmosphere, and salivate over drilling for gas and oil in the arctic, even as we run down or pollute our aquifers.

Our technology was a test: we were given (or gave ourselves) great power, and our task was to use it to benefit ourselves in a way which was beneficial, or at least not catastrophic, for the rest of life on Earth (our ecosystem) and to not destroy a climate which is the only one human civilization has ever known.

We failed in this task, and so the Petrochemical Age is likely to just look like a blip. Perhaps a new technological civilization will arise from our ashes: but if it is to survive and prosper it will  have to do what we didn’t and give at least as much back to nature as it takes out (and rather more, to fix the damage.)

As for us, it seems unlikely most of our civilization will make it. Doubtless hi-tech enclaves will continue to exist, but ecosystem collapse, water shortages and climate change make it unlikely our civilization as a whole will survive another century. It may not even make it 50 years.

And looked at from afar, it’ll be a 4 century mistake, in which some people lived very well, but the near permanent ability of Earth to support life was damaged, making every future human poorer in a very real sense.




Standing With the Good Samaritan Against So Many “Christians”


How Big Is The Chinese Economy Compared to The West?


  1. Joan

    I’ll know we’re finally starting to get somewhere when Americans willingly give up their cars.

  2. Astrid

    Every time I stand in a forest in North America I want to lie face down in a puddle and die. Even in “protected” areas, the impoverishment of plant and animal life (from imported diseases and pests, climate change, and development) is so obvious that it hurts to think about it. Even compared to things 20-30 years ago, there evident impoverishment, inequality, depletion of mind and spirit.

    Sometimes I want to shake my contemporaries and elders and ask how they can not see all that. Of course, I never do. What’s the point? I wouldn’t change anyone’s mind and just be deprived of company of people who I otherwise like and respect. Let’s hope they’re more right than me.

    Even if all humans blink out in the next day, the damage we do will take tens of millions of years to fully undo. The world will not be the same after us.

  3. Astrid

    Americans can’t give up their cars. 90% live where they need cars to function and we don’t even have basic infrastructure like usable bus routes or walkable neighborhood markets. I paid a huge premium to live in a series of one bedroom apartments in walkable neighborhoods with subway connections to work, more than (and this was way before the great Covid rent hike) I pay in mortgage for my nice 5 bedroom suburban home.

    The biggest chunk of our GDP is over stuff that don’t sustain us or make us happy – mortgages and student loan payments, health insurance and prescriptions, utility bills for our massive and poorly built houses. Maybe the top 10% can manage a couple nice vacations to destress from their soul killing jobs.

    Makes me wonder if the “middle income trap” is an actual development ceiling or a decision by the native populace to resist greater neoliberal capture.

  4. capelin

    “As for us, it seems unlikely most of our civilization will make it. Doubtless hi-tech enclaves will continue to exist, but ecosystem collapse, water shortages and climate change make it unlikely our civilization as a whole will survive another century. It may not even make it 50 years.”

    Exactly. It’s been gamed out, and we are in the midst of the elite’s big play to cleave away and thin out the rest of us domesticated drones. The constipation in Shanghai of world-wide shipping and thus goods, and thus food production, and thus societal disarray, on top of two years of broad-spectrum shock, are not simply unforeseen effects of incompetence. From a wide-lens perspective, who does it benefit? The same players as have benefited during the last two years. Look where the power is concentrating. Up, up, up.

    We’re getting knocked on our asses, so we’re terrified, absent of what traditionally centered and healed us (family, community, Faith, connection to nature, our own immune system, autonomy, etc), and thus we’ll accept whatever.

    Stuff like the following;

    “The World Economic Forum (WEF) has been associated by some analysts with the COVID-19 event and in 2020 Klaus Schwab, its founder, published a co-authored book titled COVID-19: The Great Reset. Schwab declared: ‘The Pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, re-imagine, and reset our world’. One key component of the political-economic vision promoted by the WEF is ‘stakeholder capitalism’ (Global Public-Private Partnerships, GPPP) involving the integration of government, business and civil society actors with respect to the provision of services. Another key component involves harnessing ‘the innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, especially the exploitation of developments in artificial intelligence, computing and robotics, in order to radically transform society toward a digitized model. Slogans now frequently associated with these visions include ‘you will own nothing and be happy’, ‘smart cities’ and ‘build back better’.

    It is also apparent that the WEF, as an organizing force, has considerable reach. It has been involved with training and educating individuals – through its Young Global Leaders Programme and its predecessor, Global Leaders for Tomorrow – who have subsequently moved into positions of considerable power. It has also been noted that many national leaders (e.g. Merkel, Macron, Trudeau, Ardern, Putin, and Kurz) are WEF Forum of Young Global Leaders graduates or members and have ‘played prominent roles, typically promoting zero-covid strategies, lockdowns, mask mandates, and ‘vaccine passports’. In 2017 Schwab boasted:

    When I mention our names like Mrs Merkel, even Vladimir Putin and so on, they all have been Young Global Leaders of the World Economic forum. But what we are very proud of now is the young generation like prime minister Trudeau, president of Argentina and so on. So we penetrate the cabinets. So yesterday I was at a reception for prime minister Trudeau and I will know that half of this cabinet or even more half of this cabinet are actually young global leaders of the World Economic Forum …. that’s true in Argentina, and it’s true in France now with the president a Young Global Leader.

    Corporate members of the WEF’s Forum of Young Global Leaders includes Mark Zuckerberg whilst ‘Global Leaders for Tomorrow’ included Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.”

    Here’s Schawb saying it: “We have penetrated half of Trudeau’s cabinet”

    And here’s how it goes down in the HoP when the question gets asked:
    Today in emergency debate. MP on Zoom asks about Schwab boasting of penetrating half of Canada’s cabinet. Speaker interrupts. “Sorry man, audio bad. Good question, though! Moving on… ” Charlie Angus point of order: “Mr Speaker the member was promoting open disinformation…”

  5. Al Coovert

    The invention of the privately owned automobile (POV) is man’s greatest mistake. The POV is corporate capitalism’s most important commodity and it rose up in tandem with the fossil fuel industry when Henry Ford perfected the factory assembly line in 1903. Everyone talks about the evil of the fossil fuel industry but it is the great taboo to speak truth about modern man’s diseased, addictive and deadly obsession with the POV.

  6. bruce wilder

    There have been crashes before. It is a bit sketchy, but it seems like those first neolithic farmers set off a population explosion that ended in a prolonged miserable but possibly egalitarian precarity near the peak of surportable population, followed after some centuries by a population crash, followed by growth to a lower equilibrium than before.

    We do not know why civilization collapsed again around 1200 bce. When the Mediterreanean world revived around 800 bce, the model was the Greek City State and as Ian notes they were remarkably healthy as humans go. Greek population increased 10x over the course of four centuries or so, and they had imitators, including the Romans, who mastered many of the practical engineering arts of an urban civilization.

    What the Romans did not master was agriculture and particularly the problems of congestion and depletion. They extracted an agricultural surplus to feed soldiers, artisans, citizens and trade by slave labor on vast latifundia. By the second century of the ce, the extraction was leaving the farmers and farming slaves undernourished and the soil depleted. Redoubling effort had diminishing returns and trade began its slow decline, a decline too slow to inhibit plagues alongside famines. Barbarians came to the gates, ready to pillage the cities and repopulate the land. A Dark Age ensued in which life was nasty, brutish and short even for the richest Europeans.
    A slow agricultural and maritime revolution in Europe made possible a revival of cities and trade in artisanal products as agricultural surplus again appeared to feed the soldiers, citizens and artisans. We do not seem yet to have in our form of eusocialty a capacity to constrain our appetites or our progeny.

  7. Steve Ruis

    The egalitarian nature of primitive societies has been over sold. In any case, re “Agriculture started out OK-ish for about 2,000 years, but the nature of agriculture creates private surpluses and allows for large elites.” What is often swept under the rug is that after the first period and cities began to develop, large scale agriculture, creating the large scale surpluses you refer to and the larger elite populations led invariably to large scale slavery. Slavery was not unknown to us human beings but it was piecemeal, a worker here, a mate there. But the labor demands, fat more than hunter-gatherers were used to, created a propensity to acquire labor the easy way, by raiding small nearby villages for workers, which of course, required more elites in the form of guards. (I define elites is anyone who didn’t work to create their own sustenance).

    I saw one estimate that in the year 1800, half of all human beings existed in some form of slavery (chattel, debt bondage, serfdom, etc.). This would make the rise of agriculture as much a curse as anything else.

  8. Carborundum

    A couple of comments:

    1) Complex hunter gatherer societies (i.e., those towards the less egalitarian end of the spectrum and more predisposed to things like sedentism and accumulation of surplus) were probably more the norm than the exception during the run-ups to agriculture. One of the challenges with hunter-gatherer studies is that most of the best ones were conducted in more marginal areas where agriculturalists / industrialists hadn’t managed to predominate. These tend to involve hunter gatherer cultures on the more egalitarian end of the spectrum.

    2) There were many agricultures and many transitions to agriculture. To speak of this as a unilinear transition is not a great practice. Some trajectories went relatively rapidly to fairly complex and integrated states while others had much more gentle transitions, never rising above the level of localized chiefdoms. All sorts of things had an impact on these trajectories, not least the particulars of the agricultural subsistence economy. (Even talking about trajectories like this is probably triggering for those specializing in this area.)

    3) If one goes down to the source material, I think you’ll find there’s much less evidence for violence among hunter gatherers and early agriculturalists than there is among later agriculturalists and particularly early state societies. Multiple lines of evidence point to this, from osteological to iconographic. The rise in indicators of violence is pronounced enough that it’s not infrequently cited as a characteristic of the rise of the state. The key interpretative challenge here is there’s not many researchers who work both hunter gatherer and state societies; one can definitely find evidence of violence at both ends of the spectrum, but the scale of what constitutes a little or a lot is not uniformly applied.

    4) One can make a cogent argument that many health indicators declined among agriculturalists, but it’s not quite a slam dunk case. A lot of these same indicators also show up among complex hunter gatherers. The key driver is probably sedentism and, at least in the case of a number of the skeletal pathologies, the types of activities (e.g., grinding and other forms of food processing, textile production, etc.) required to underwrite it. The interesting thing is that while we may think that tradeoff sucked they likely didn’t – quite commonly one sees pronounced increases in the production of material culture complexes related to ritual with the arrival of sedentism.

  9. Lex

    The further back we go, the harder it is to ascertain specific cause and effect. But if we stick to roughly the industrial revolution forward (and it’s not hard to include the age of empires that directly preceded and overlapped the industrial revolution), the situation is relatively clear. The core problem is finance capitalism.

    We can’t address the pressing concerns of middle and low income populations or climate change without reducing the profits of finance capitalism, which is not allowed because finance capitalism controls the levers of power, as is required by the system of finance capitalism. I have no idea whether a system of productive capitalism would have better outcomes, mostly because it seems unlikely that productive capitalism would not evolve into finance capitalism.

    The whole WEF conspiracy is a distraction about individual names. It is simply a lever of finance capitalism. “You’ll own nothing and be happy.” Is a statement that you will use but your use of whatever will be a source of rent extraction for the profit of finance capitalism. Everything else is a symptom. How to extricate ourselves, individually or collectively, from finance capitalism is a difficult question. But if we don’t, we have no other destination than Dimitrov’s definition that fascism is the political expression of finance capitalism.

  10. Tallifer

    I grew up learning all about environmental stewardship and Christian self-sacrifice in the 1970s. When I taught in Korea for twenty years, I met hundreds of young teachers from the next generation, born between 1990-2000, and they ALL had zero regard for stewardship or self-sacrifice. They love to blame Trump, big corporations and Karens, but figure their own disposable consumeristic lifestyle is a small indulgence: that real sacrifice is weird and uncool. They consider David Suzuki senile and Greta Thunberg a freak. I have despaired of (the majority of ) our youth and therefore their future.

  11. Blueberry Hill

    I would submit we are now in a new era and this new era is the Virtual Era. Who can argue with that? As such, Capitalism is no longer exclusively tied to industrial output and instead is increasingly tied to illusive and opaque investment abstractions.

  12. anon

    I love good and safe public transit but I would never give up my car in the USA because there is no such thing as good and safe public transit here. I doubt there ever will be in my lifetime. I would give up my car if I lived in Asia where almost every major and secondary city has reliable and fast public transit whether it is high speed rail, subways, or buses.

  13. anon y'mouse

    the elusive and the virtual rely upon a vast network of extraction and energy “production” and slavery and environmental rapine.

    just because it looks illusory (bitcoins, nfts etc) doesn’t mean it does not involve what we’re talking about.

    old scams just dressed up in new packaging.

  14. Mark Pontin

    Blueberry: “I would submit we are now in a new era and this new era is the Virtual Era … Capitalism is no longer exclusively tied to industrial output and instead is increasingly tied to illusive and opaque investment abstractions.’

    IMO, a better term — because more descriptive — than the ‘Virtual Era’ or ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ or anything else I’ve seen is MacKenzie Wark’s the ‘Vectoralist (over)class.’

    “Named for their control over vectors (i.e. various pathways and networks over which information flows), the vectoralist class are the modern day dotcom corporate giants, the transnational turbo-capitalist regime, who own the means of production and thus monopolize abstractions. ”

    Financial payment systems — banks and credit card networks — are very much in this category, obviously. So in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine proxy war, for instance, the Empire’s main instrument of global aggression against Russia has been its control of the SWIFT payment system.

    See also —

    Or see the last half of this NLR review of several books, where the reviewer considers Wark’s book CAPITALISM IS DEAD; IS THIS SOMETHING WORSE?

  15. Willy

    If I’ve learned anything about life, it’s that when you own a big house, drive a big car, wear the big clothes… that nobody cares. Well, except for maybe your mama. But all the people she’s bragging to with her family Christmas newsletter won’t care.

    What they care about is their own car, house and clothes.

    I used to think that my many nieces and nephews would admire all my displays of self-reliance after reached adulthood. Find some of those skills useful in their own lives. But now they’ve grown, as far as they’re concerned, they be vulgar displays of self-reliance.

    Who even fixes all their own stuff anymore? And why is it so old? Doesn’t everybody just fucking finance it?

    What’s an obvious cultural insecurity inculcated by clever mass marketers and their advertiser henchmen, to try and make anybody who doesn’t live (and also does live) like the beautiful 30-something constant-consumers seen in their commercials, batshit neurotic, these nieces and nephews see as perfectly normal. Brainwashing complete.

    I think our descendants will be caring just enough about our big houses, cars and clothes to be pissing on our graves. But I think that’s been said already. Never mind.

  16. different clue


    Were these hundreds of young teachers that you met American in particular? Or EuroWestern in general? Or Korean? Or a mix of those?

  17. different clue

    @Blueberry Hill,

    That is only true as long as there is real-world analog material resources to build the machines which keep track of the illusive and opaque investment abstractions and real-world analog power to run the programs and the data on the machines. And real-world analog food, water and air to keep physically alive the people who are psychomentally invested in their involvement with the illusive and opaque investment abstractions.

    Food will get you through times of no illusive and opaque investment abstractions better than illusive and opaque investment abstractions will get you through times of no food.

    As the Wise Old Indian once said . . . . “When the last can of cat food is gone from the last shelf of the last Walmart, the White Man will learn he can’t eat money.”

  18. Blueberry Hill

    old scams just dressed up in new packaging.

    Fair enough, but the same can be said about distinguishing between Industrial and Agriculture and each respectively getting their own era. It’s all Civilization and Civilization is what is killing us. The Walking Dead. How people can watch that series without passing out from a massive overload of ironic cognitive dissonance beggars belief.

  19. Alan Coovert

    In America, I ride my bike/take the bus instead of owning a car even though it takes me 10x longer to get anywhere. I say that’s a small price to pay for salvation.

  20. Trinity

    “The Walking Dead”

    Loved that show, but had to stop watching it. I thought it was (perhaps still is) an excellent portrait of modern life. I’m still not sure exactly why I stopped, maybe because the main group became fragmented.

    I would lump agriculture and the Industrial Age together, as we are still farming and staying in place, just with bigger everything: machinery; soil, air, and water degradation and pollution; landfills; nutrient depletion, etc. Not my discipline, so take this with a grain of salt.

    These days I think about entropy, the degree of disorder or randomness in the system. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases with time, leading to a lack of order or predictability in the system, amid a gradual decline into disorder.

    For example, I don’t want to be around when our sun’s energy processes begin to become disorderly, but we have several billion years before that happens. Call it a phase change, or a collapse, or what have you, but systems do eventually run down, and become something else.

    Increasing disorder is what I’m observing these days, mostly at work because that’s where I spend most of my time, but also in my interactions with the rest of the outside world. Efforts to make order out of what is increasingly chaotic is seeming to become more and more difficult to achieve. I hear the stress in peoples voices on the phone or in meetings. Take care, everyone. Now is the best time to take the best care of yourself that you can.

  21. Ché Pasa

    As the Wise Old Indian once said . . . . “When the last can of cat food is gone from the last shelf of the last Walmart, the White Man will learn he can’t eat money.”

    Smile. 😉

    More truth than we know.

  22. Willy

    I would’ve stuck around with a more inspirational version of the Walking Dead, a Gene Roddenberry version if you will. In that one the living would try to go where no zombie has gone before, while blasting the occasional zombie, maybe losing the occasional crewman number six or two, with a valuable lesson learned by the end of each episode.

    Trinity implies entropy. The concept of anacyclosis has been discussed here before: the theory that brave new ethical worlds always give way to corrupt cronyism, before some kind of crash and the cycle repeats, again and again, to seemingly be the human way. I’ve seen it happening in companies I worked at during my gig economy days. So maybe it’s a scalable thing.

    I like the Critical Drinker. He explains why today’s movies suck, going well beyond dissing that asshole JJ Abrams. I think he ultimately blames the MBAs running Hollywood and their marketing and advertising henchmen. But I’ve already said that. Maybe the day will arrive when entertainment is good again.

  23. different clue

    @Ché Pasa,

    Like that country song verse goes . . . ” catfood will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no catfood.”

  24. Gone with the wind

    It was the Furry Freak Brothers who said pot will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no pot, but am guessing the majority of the readership here is too young to remember when those were words of wisdom.

  25. Blueberry Hill

    Willy, there are still a few gems here and there, but they are the exceptions to the rule you mention. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are both excellent in every way. Both series provide great fodder for endless intellectual philosophical discussions and yet both series also appeal to a substantial percentage of people who are more superficial and visceral-centric and couldn’t care less about philosophy and certainly could never be described as “intellectual.” If nothing else, both series redefine heroism and what it means to be a hero. In fact, I’d say both series obliterate the “conventional” notion of heroism and heroes. The writing and the acting is so superb, it fools you into cheering for severely flawed slugs to win the day. I know I shouldn’t like Walt, but I do. I know I shouldn’t like Saul, but I do. I know I shouldn’t like Gus, but I do. Brilliant.

  26. Recon

    The Chumash once lived the good life from SLO to Malibu. Great spot for the post-climate-apocalypse-hunter-fisher-gatherer.
    “a people who at that time were among the most advanced hunter-gatherer societies in the world.”

  27. Tallifer

    @ different clue

    American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, British, Irish, South African …. a broad mix. Perhaps European youth is more environmentally conscious, but I think it is more about the Total Depravity of Man.

  28. different clue

    @Gone with the wind,

    I didn’t know the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers well enough to have found that saying. But it is a good saying.

    I do remember Fat Freddy’s Cat.

    I also remember Wonder Warthog.;_ylt=AwrJ7JZWp2Fi5x4AKzRXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZANMT0NVSTAzOF8xBHNlYwNzYw–?p=wonder+warthog+images&fr=sfp

  29. different clue

    Here is an interesting article about coastal Indian hunter-gathering of seafood in a long-term sustainable way as determined by archeologists.

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