Intermission: The Machine Stops?
'I have seen the hills of Wessex.'
“The Machine,” they exclaimed, “feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.”
- E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops, 1909
Samhain, in old Ireland, was one of two annual festivals (the other was Beltaine, in May) in which the veil between the world of humans and the otherworld of the Aos sí - the ‘fairies’ in modern parlance - was said to be thin. Fires were lit, and the burial mounds were opened to allow the dead to move freely between the worlds. Some of the neolithic tombs here have portals which are aligned with the rising of the sun on the eve of Samhain - the 31st of October.
Neopagans still take Samhain fairly seriously, but in today’s Ireland the tradition has been almost entirely subsumed by the modern American festival of Halloween. As across much of the Western world, Halloween has moved far from its origins in either Samhain or the Christian festival of All Hallows, and has mutated into a month-long deluge of consumer crap, built around a few Hollywood horror franchises and aimed at getting children to buy as many sweets, pumpkins, plastic witches’ hats, Harry Potter Quidditch broomsticks, inflatable ghost toys and zombie-themed biscuit selections as humanly possible.
Not this year, though. This year, you couldn’t find a cheap, Chinese-made plastic vampire mask in the shops around here for love or money. You couldn’t find much at all, in fact. Usually whole supermarket aisles are decked out with disposable junk destined for the North Pacific gyre, but this year it was mostly noticeable by its absence. This was both strange and uplifting, as if the old spirits had come back to breathe some sanity into what we have made of ourselves.
This absence of Halloween tat is only the most visible instance of the sudden collapse in the availability of stuff that is hitting large areas of the world right now. Examples are legion. In Britain recently, petrol shortages led to long queues at garages and violent scuffles at the pumps. Here in Ireland, we are being warned of possible power outages throughout the winter. Supermarket shelves from Spain to Brazil are running short on basics. And workers are suddenly, mysteriously, in short supply worldwide. In a country of nearly 70 million people, the UK government can’t find enough people to drive lorries, despite offering to pay them as much as some doctors. Container ships are queueing up at ports in America because not enough dockers are available to unload them.
Most intriguingly of all, given the interconnected nature of the technological matrix we live in, there is a global shortage of semiconductors, the silicon chips which power every digital device. Given that a modern car contains between 1500 and 3000 of these - and that with even one of them unavailable, production will be halted or delayed - the disaster for the automobile industry alone is plain to see. It has led already to enforced plant shutdowns, with associated unemployment and government spending, as well as lines of half-built cars so big that they can be seen from space. This chip shortage, which is affecting everything from Internet connectivity to the production of gaming consoles, is projected to last for years.
What is going on here? The answer depends on who you listen to. The global supply chain crisis is usually attributed to lockdowns and just-in-time delivery systems. The semiconductor shortage is variously blamed on the same lockdowns, an over-concentration of production in a few key regions (Taiwan apparently produces 50% of all the world’s silicon chips), lots of people working from home and ordering new gadgets, and even storms and fires hitting manufacturing plants. The worldwide worker shortage is sometimes blamed on vaccine mandates, though it is also happening in places where mandates are not in use.
Sometimes the explanations are more localised. The problems with both supply and delivery in Britain are commonly blamed on Brexit, especially by those who always opposed it, but this fails to explain the existence of the same problems in the US or France. Where I live, the Irish government recently told us, with a straight face, that their inability to supply a mere five million people with regular electricity - a problem that might normally be associated with a ‘developing’ country - is due to some power plants being closed for maintenance as winter approaches.
There might be truth in all of these explanations, but it seems to me that there is something fishy about them too. The overall message is that once these weirdly simultaneous and yet temporary problems are ironed out, everything will get back to ‘normal’ in perhaps a couple of years. Given that this argument is being made by the same people who told us that mass vaccination would put an end to the covid pandemic, it is hard to put a lot of faith in it. The events of the last several years have put a huge hole in public trust in authority on all sides of the fence, and plenty of people have stopped believing the official explanations for anything much. Suspicion, fear and mistrust: this is the grim zeitgeist of the 2020s.
But if there is something else going on, what could it be? Well, one possibility is that something which has been long-predicted is beginning to make itself known. It is that what we are seeing is not a temporary glitch, but the beginning of the end of the ‘global economy’, which will see it shrink and begin to fall in the years and decades to come.
There is nothing new about this idea. In fact, not only has it been long predicted, but it has shown up pretty much on schedule. Take a look at this simple little graph:
This projection is half a century old: it’s from the Limits To Growth report, published in 1972, which used early computer modelling to lay out three possible scenarios for the future of industrial civilisation. Those scenarios were ‘Business As Usual’ (BAU) - continuing with the growth-led model of extraction and consumption - or two other paths, both involving different degrees of willingness to cut down consumption, innovate technologically and create different social models that placed less strain on the Earth’s resources.
The graph above is the report’s projection of what would happen if the BAU path were followed - which it was. The story can be seen by following the lines in the graph. Under the BAU scenario, industrial output was projected to begin a steep decline between approximately 2020 and 2030, due to a combination of resource decline (including the peaking of oil supplies), increased demand, rising pollution and the growing expense of extracting increasingly scarce resources. That decline in industrial production would then create a knock-on effect which would begin to dissolve the growth-led economy, gumming up and closing down networks of supply and demand, and leading ultimately to a reduction in human population numbers. By the year 2100, growth would be over.
On its publication, the New York Times summarised the report’s findings like this:
Either civilization or growth must end, and soon. Continued population and industrial growth will exhaust the world’s minerals and bathe the biosphere in fatal levels of pollution. As the authors summarize, “if the present growth trends… continue unchanged, the limits of growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next hundred years.”
Predictably, the report was met with widespread scorn on its publication. Equally predictably, once the scorn had melted away the projections began to be quietly met. Forty years on, Australian physicist Graham Turner compared the report’s projections with the actuality between 1970 and 2000. The result looked like this:
That was nine years ago. Then, last year, another update was published by Gaya Herrington, a director at the corporate consultants KPMG, an institution not known for its Luddite asceticism. Comparing fifty years of reality to the original BAU projections, Herrington wrote:
I found that the scenarios aligned closely with observed global data, which is a testament to the LtG work done decades ago. The two scenarios aligning most closely indicate a halt in growth over the next decade or so, which puts into question the usability of continuous growth as humanity’s goal in the 21st century.
Or, to quote Herrington’s dry conclusion:
Results indicate a slowdown and eventual halt in growth within the next decade or so but leave open whether the subsequent decline will constitute a collapse.
In his fascinating blog Surplus Energy Economics, the economist Tim Morgan suggests that this slowdown in growth is precisely what is leading to the results we can see all around us today. Though the covid pandemic has acted as an accelerant, it is not the ultimate cause: that cause is that the increasing costs of extracting energy are not paying for themselves.
Morgan argues that the economy is not a financial system but an energy system. The global economy runs on fossil fuels, but the rising costs of extraction mean that those fuels are no longer economical - and that’s even leaving aside the fact that they are altering the planet’s climate. ‘Renewable’ energy sources, meanwhile, are nowhere near efficient or effective enough to power the global economy. The likely outcome in the short term, according to Morgan, will be a financial crisis that dwarfs the crash of 2008. The likely outcome in the longer-term will be precisely the one that Limits to Growth predicted - the looming and permanent end of economic growth.
Well, Halloween is supposed to be frightening.
This is all heavy, and heady, stuff. I have been talking here in a language I don’t normally use; a language I only imperfectly understand - the language of graphs, economics, projections, measurements. They have their place, but only if they aid in the telling of a story. So what is the story they tell here? What is the story being told by the shortage of silicon chips and Halloween costumes and petrol and HGV drivers? What is the story being told by the Great Gumming Up of the 2020s?
Perhaps it is simply that this Machine I have been tracking here for six months is not immortal. If any of these people are right, it is already beginning to visibly break down, and we can expect this process to accelerate. Is this good news? Is it bad news? Is it both? As ever, it depends on which point you enter the story from.
My own personal projections - though I have no graphs to back them up - are a short-term future of both Breakdown and Clampdown, as those who are tasked with keeping the Machine running resort to ever more draconian measures to keep it on the rails. I expect a deepening of the current demonisation of dissent, and an acceleration of surveillance and control by the authorities, even as shelves empty and oceans warm. At the same time I expect an acceleration of the rhetoric of progress-’n’-growth, and a noisy focus on the promised transhuman/intergalactic/hyperreal future as a way out of the mess. As we hit limits on all sides, we can expect to see, at least for a while, an even more furious denial that they exist.
This could be what we soon have to live with. But in the longer term? Well, after all this heaviness, let me end on a different note. Let me leave you not in the bowels of the Machine but on a green hill, under an English sky.
Long before anyone was thinking much about limits of any kind, the novelist E. M. Forster wrote a short story called The Machine Stops. Published in 1909, it’s quite unlike anything else he ever wrote, and it predicted our world as well as any graph or computer model. In fact, we might hold it up as an example of the prophetic power of art. I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that its characters live in a world entirely dominated by the Machine - so much so that, when it begins to shudder, they can barely conceptualise a world without it. In this world, ‘the Machine is stopping’ is not even a comprehensible sentence. As one character demands of those whose alliegance to it has blinded them to the world beyond:
“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”
In Forster’s story, the character who makes this passionate argument against the Machine is driven by the fact that he escaped it, wandering the green hills of Wessex for years while his friends stayed symbolically underground talking into their screens, oblivious to the coming breakdown. He recognises, even as he speaks, that he has nothing to offer them in its place; nothing other than that vision of the hills, and the promise that they hold. But he knows, too, that what lies outside, however small or humble, is enough, if they want it to be - and that it will outlast them all:
“You, who have just crossed the Roof of the World, will not want to hear an account of the little hills that I saw — low colourless hills. But to me they were living and the turf that covered them was a skin, under which their muscles rippled, and I felt that those hills had called with incalculable force to men in the past, and that men had loved them. Now they sleep — perhaps for ever. They commune with humanity in dreams. Happy the man, happy the woman, who awakes the hills of Wessex. For though they sleep, they will never die.”