What will life be like when our growing economy overshoots its carrying capacity, degrades its resource base, and collapses? A gripping description of this more-likely-than-not outcome is included in a British government report about Intelligent Infrastructure Futures. Andrew Curry and colleagues developed four contrasting scenarios of life in 2050, one of which is called Tribal Trading. “After a sharp and savage energy shock, the global economic system is severely damaged. Infrastructure is falling into disrepair. Long distance travel is a luxury few can enjoy. For most people, the world has shrunk to their own community. Cities have declined, and local food production and services have increased. Local transport is typically by bike and horse”. There are local conflicts over resources, and lawlessness is high. But less energy means there is more physical work to be done, so people are fitter. And it’s not as if life becomes non-tech. Electricity is available from ‘microgrids’ – small community networks that integrate wind and solar power. And there’s still an internet: It’s based on wireless mesh networks whose servers are maintained by a new breed of scavenger-nerds who scour the old world’s electronic detritus for re-usable circuit boards and memory. Tribal Trading was regarded as the worst case of four scenarios developed by the report’s small army of technocrats. But Tribal Trading sounds preferable, to me, to the high-speed, perpetual motion, Always On scenario which is where we’re headed now.
If the report has a weakness, it is in describing as hypothetical futures, changes that are happening now. For example, it speculates that “perhaps in 50 years there could be a Department of Intelligent Infrastructure’ – but in FedEx and DHL, we have just such organisations today – they’re just private. Another section refers to “growing resistance in 2040 to 24/7 working patterns”. But massive disaffection with that lifestyle is recorded in numerous happiness surveys of present times. It’s only because we need to service massive personal debts that we keep working – and the money system, too, is tottering. Although Tribal Trading is not inevitable – some combination of the four scenarios is the likely outcome – one footnote does state that “The overshoot scenario is the most likely. Our system is inherently structured for overshoot and collapse”. But maybe it won’t be so bad.