There's an Energy Crisis Coming, and It's Not What You Think

It's not peak oil, or nuclear, or renewables. No, the real looming energy crisis is a crisis in personal energy. In the amount of energy, the amount of excess, free, personal energy, the individual has. And what's driving this crisis?

Progress and productivity.

Yeah, this?  Apparently, it's a pretty big problem.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it's not. The hours a person works, per day, per week, per year, have been steadily coming down since the Industrial Revolution started up. But at the same time, the amount of stuff we can make, whether it's food or clothes or houses or iPods, has shot up into the stratosphere. More people now make more stuff, in less time, than at any other point in human history. And there's no indication that this is a trend that's going to change any time soon. People are working on serious, potentially useable prototypes for things like the replicators of Star Trek's Federation, and even if they never rise to the magic levels of those seen on the show, the ability to buy a device which can produce plastic objects or foodstuffs in the home will raise productivity and drop individual effort through the floor. The age of massive factories, eating up the labour and energy and time and, yes, even lives of hundreds and thousands of workers are over. Factories are smaller than they've ever been, even as mass production allows for greater productivity, and they're going to get smaller still. It would not, in the least, surprise me to live to see an age where there simply are no factories, anywhere, producing anything.

Now, here's the thing. People like to work, at least to some extent, and at the moment people need the wages of work. So what will happen to society when there is no work, and no source of wages that can meet the needs of people? What does a society do when nobody has to put in more than a few hours or work a week, or even can? What do workers do when employers don't need them for more than an hour or two a week, or a month, or a year? What happens to a capitalist society when nobody has any money, and nothing costs anything anyway?

"They give up using pockets?"
"Ooh, good try, chief!"

Science fiction has tried to answer this, in various ways and various media. Perhaps nobody has done it better than Iain M. Banks, in his Culture novels. Banks does a good job, or at least as good a job as possible, at visualizing the organization of a society in which there is no need for labour, and thus no source of money, and thus no functional economy as we could understand it. But of course, the problem is that Banks is one of us, and if we can't really understand it, neither can he.

The most fundamental problem, however, is not that we have no model for the next major stage of social development. We have dozens, hundreds even. The absolute most basic issue, instead, is that nobody seems to have any idea of how to get there from here. The period between late-stage capitalism and early post-scarcity is pretty much a white space marked with 'Here There Be Dragons' on the map that is science fiction. And that's a problem, because outside of deathly dry academic texts, science fiction is pretty much the only format that's going to address this issue with any hope of depth or scope. There aren't really any other cultural platforms that can, because nothing else is really set up to approach fundamentally changed visions of the future; heck, even science fiction is, more often than not, just the past with more chrome and lens flare. But it doesn't have to be, and it's pretty much the only thing for which that can be said.

I'm not saying it has to lead us by the hand through the coming turmoil. But make no mistake, that turmoil is absolutely coming. And it wouldn't hurt to have, if not a map, at least a few decent second-hand directions to help us find our way through it.

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