[LINK] PostCarbon ICT

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Thu Jun 12 19:03:20 AEST 2008

> Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2008 21:02:30 -0700 (PDT)
> From: h w <misterwarwick at yahoo.com>
> To: list at fibreculture.org

I recently spoke at the first International Peak Oil, Climate Change and
Sustainability Conference a few weeks ago in Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

My topic? PostCarbon ICT.

It points DIRECTLY at some major issues going on, and it is a focus of my
present research.

Basically, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is, in its
present configuration, completely dependent on fossil fuels. IF this
configuration is not changed to one more coherent to the new realities,
there will be no PostCarbon ICT, period.

However, and sadly, dependence on a certain energy quality is only the
first hurdle. The second hurdle is exotic materials. ICT, in its present
configuration, is completely dependent on extremely exotic materials:
indium, gallium, gold, silver, tungsten, as well as a plethora of
materials derived from fossil fuels. Furthermore, the devices that dig
said materials out of the ground run on (you guessed it) fossil fuels.

So, even if we run the machines on solar / solar thermal / wind / tide /
geothermal / hydroelectric, we then have to make them out of materials
that are more abundant and recyclable than the collection of elements
from groups 6 - 14 of the periodic table that we presently depend on,
and have to be assembled with the energy generated by the above
mentioned repeatable energy systems

And then there's an equally insane hurdle to clear (as if those two aren't
enough of a problem...): distribution and transportation of materials. Why
is this a problem?

Peak Oil == Peak Asphalt.

The roads will become increasingly hard to keep paved with Asphalt. 

Already, many localities are cutting back on road maintenance due to the
xpense of the materials.

Bitumen can be processed into crude oil, viz, Alberta and Venezuela's Tar
Sands, thusly, the cost of Asphalt.

In April 2008, the cost of Emulsified Asphalt was 45 cents per litre. In
December 2006, it was 37 cents per litre, an increase of 21%, and is 3 -
4x as much as it averaged for most of the 1990s.


Concrete will work for a while until the materials for it also become
difficult to unearth. Also, concrete is very energy intensive and a
significant source of Green House Gases (GHG) in its production, a fact
admitted by its producers.


Once the roads decay, the only transportation will be railroad.

Given that in its present configuration it mostly runs off diesel, the
prospects for it are also poor. Also, one would still have to get the
materials TO the train, which would require an extensive road system.

Europe has an extensively electrified rail system. However, its
configuration is primarily passenger, and Europe only moves (IIRC) about
10 - 15% of its freight by rail. In the USA & Canada it is more like 50%.
They will have to change the ratio of their rolling stock a great deal in
the next few decades. The US and Canada ship much more by rail, but both
are deeply dependent on the trucking industry for its retail distribution
system (the warehouse on wheels system as practiced by WalMart, KMart,
Costco, FutureShop, BestBuy, etc), which is deeply fossil fuel dependent.

I'm going into WAY too much detail right here...

Back up a layer or two...

There is cause for some hope for PostCarbon ICT, but such hope must be
tempered by the political reality of resurgent authoritarianism, in the
centralised Chinese flavour, and the corporatist OECD flavour. This was
also true at the dawn of the ICT age, with the development of the
telegraph - the USA's transcontinental system was developed in 1860 and
1861 to connect NYC's Wall Street and the Wash DC gov't with info from the
Gold Fields in California. The gold was a source of a great deal of money
being made in speculation on Wall Street, and was necesary for the
prosecution for the Civil War, as the gold allowed the central government
to print more money and finance the Civil War it was embroiled in.

The internet began with DARPA - a part of the Pentagon - and so it should
come as no surprise when just such centralised socio-political/economic
domains go to appropriate and dominate it as resources tighten.

I'm not very cheerful about any of this.

In short, what needs to happen seems almost impossible:

1. ICT needs to run off of localised energy resources of significant
density for some fundamental operations (viz. Google building massive data
centres near hydroelectric dams) and less density for others (personal
data devices that run off solar panels or are charged from a wind/solar/
hydro grid). Luckily, there is some motion in that direction.

2. ICT must be made of common materials that are easy to acquire and
simple to produce. This will be a much more difficult job. There is some
motion in this direction (carbon nanotubes instead of silicon / gallium /
copper / germanium materials), but it is weak and under-invested.

3. ICT devices must be made locally from local materials as much as
possible, given the difficulty and expense of shipping things in a system
with decaying roadways and declining fossil fuel and bitumen output.

4. Data creation and transmission must be kept as democratic as possible.
There is significant incentive in a resource constrained world for the
exact opposite to occur.

My Conclusion:

1. worst case: we do nothing. ICT ends in the 2050s, as machines cease
operating, energy disappears, resource wars become global, and the
political situation destablises into warring localised territories
fighting for the last of it. The world enters a permanent dark age.

2. medium bad case: we make feeble attempts at a late date. The last
devices are built to last, but the declining global situation removes a
number of critical resources, and it all falls apart in the early 22nd
century, resulting in a dark age for a century or so, and then the
development of localised systems, some democratic, others tyrannical,
based along technology of the late 18th century.

3. medium case: We make significant inroads on repeatable energy
production, peaceful and honourable population reduction, and implement
a number of technologies to keep some portions of industrialism going. ICT
as we understand it fails in the early 22nd century, but is replaced by
other systems that may not have glowing screens, but allow for
significant long distance data transmission. Eventually, that society
will also fail, due to materials failures and ecological problems, but
not collapse like scenario 1. ICT disappears completely in the 23rd or
perhaps 24th century.

4. best case: we enter an ecotechnic age. Population is peacefully and
honourably reduced to sustainable levels (500 million - 1 billion) and the
invisible hand of Thermodynamics and resource depletion removes ICT at
some unspecified date.

My real guess? Some mix of the above - some places will go ecotechnic,
others will collapse into suicidal anarchy. The ones that prepare the most
and the fastest and the soonest will be the ones to survive the best. The
ones that put it off to the last minute will suffer horribly, but not as
badly as those who are so poor and bereft of energy and resources (or will
and vision) that they can do nothing to prepare themselves and simply
starve to death or die in resource wars.

. We can claim as many rights as we want, but if the resources to support
such rights are unavailable, they will not be exercised or protected. I
think that may prove to be one of the greatest challenges. Everything else
is "engineering" and someone may well cook up solar powered servers made
of twigs and dirt. That's an obvious exaggeration, but you get my point -
engineering is a problem/solution practice, and therefore has fairly
strict parameters and therefore richer gradients of success.

Social factors are much more unpredictable, and given that the ICT
infrastructure is in private/corporate hands (viz USA), and when not in
private hands is in the hands of a government that May Not Be Very Nice To
Free Speech (viz China), the matter of rights and other social norms as
applied to ICT may become difficult to maintain.

Vigilance and resistance are the necessary practice, but given the past
few decades of a very successful Bread and Circuses campaign that has
resulted in a stultified public discourse, as the resources make bread
and circuses more expensive and spotty, the reaction may not be a positive
one. Again: an opportunity...

I'm tired. Off to bed. I hope you find something worthwhile in my

best regards,

Henry Warwick
asst prof, Ryerson University
Toronto, ON


Cheers Henry
Stephen Loosley
Member, Victorian
Institute of Teaching

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