Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Peak Wood

This article provides a simple and highly accessible primer on the cyclical rise and fall of complex civilization. In addition, it actually references the Sumerian god of the forest and its conservation "Humbaba".

I'll never forget the first time I went into a supersized grocery store, in New Hampshire I believe, some twenty-odd years ago. It was easily the most impressive collection of food that I had ever personally witnessed. Dumbstruck, I referred to this for me unprecedented phenomenon as "the mighty Humbaba", and that term has stuck ever since. My children know exactly what I'm talking about when I refer to the now somewhat typical big box store or grocery store as "Humbaba".

Humbaba was the lord of the cedar forest - a giant with a face of coiled intestines. Gilgamesh the Sumerian hero fought and killed him and then cut down his cedar trees. The Epic of Gilgamesh is translated in full here;
The importance of oil is not that it provides energy; energy can be had from anything. The importance of oil is that is provides cheap energy. A society's complexity is not a function of the total energy throughput, but the ERoEI--Enery Returned on Energy Invested, or ROI in pure energy economics terms. Since the general problem (if not the specifics) is such a common one, allow me to explain with an example from our own history: the end of the Bronze Age, the beginning of the Iron Age, and a crisis we might today call, "Peak Wood."[...]

Every civilization eventually falls prey to diminishing returns. The problem of Peak Oil--like "Peak Wood"--is just one dimension of this much larger, intractable problem, inherent to the nature of any complex society. What separates extant civilizations from extinct ones is whether or not a less attractive alternative existed, which could become the basic strategy for a new iteration in the cycle of expansion and exploitation. But eventually, miracles run out. Eventually, the deus ex machina leaves us to sink or swim on our own merit. The crisis of Peak Oil is precisely the kind of crisis that has always collapsed civilizations, and if history is any guide, then it seems very likely that we have finally run out of luck, and the time has finally come to pay back 10,000 years of debt.
In addition to being a good and satisfying read on its own, invoking the sacred name of the great Humbaba, it links to the anthropik blog and website, jeffvail, and some other good resource sites, as well.