One of the most consistently interesting thinkers online about the long-term future of industrial society is John Michael Greer, who takes an impressively long-term and wide ranging (if also pessimistic) view of civilizational change. In his recent post Back Up The Rabbit Hole, he speculated on the way in which the ‘ultra cheap energy’ of the 1980s and 1990s had shaped US technology development – in particular the shape of the internet.

I’m just going to pull out a couple of quotes here (he writes better than I’ll summarise), but the starting position is that a set of short-term and expedient political and economic choices kept the price of oil below $10 a barrel – “around 24 cents a gallon, in other words, for the industrial world’s most precious natural resource.”

‘The results of this disastrous collective choice have not, I think, been adequately measured even by most thinkers in the peak oil community. For a quarter of a century, from 1980 to 2005, petroleum could be had throughout the industrial world at prices so low it might as well have been free. Other energy costs dropped accordingly, as cheap oil competed with other resources for market share while simultaneously cutting the production and distribution costs of its competitors. The economic, infrastructural, and cultural initiatives that emerged during those years all embodied the assumption that “can we afford the energy cost?” was not a question anybody in the industrial world ever needed to ask.”

One outcome was that global distribution costs fell rapidly – spawning the current cycle of globalisation. A second was the “throwaway” consumer culture, and the end of repair. And a third was rapid growth of the internet.

The explosive spread of the internet, finally, was also a product of the era of ultracheap energy. The hardware of the internet, with its worldwide connections, its vast server farms, and its billions of interlinked home and business computers, probably counts as the largest infrastructure project ever created and deployed in a two-decade period in human history. The sheer amount of energy that has had to be invested to create and sustain today’s internet, along with its economic and cultural support systems, beggars the imagination.

Could it have been done at all if energy stayed as expensive as it was in the 1970s? It’s hard to see how such a question could be answered, but the growth of the internet certainly would have been a much slower process; it might have moved in directions involving much less energy use; and some of the more energy-intensive aspects of the internet might never have emerged at all. It remains to be seen whether a system adapted to a hothouse climate of nearly free energy can cope with the harsher weather of rising energy costs in a postpeak world.

One of the comments on the post notes that the pre-web UUCP Usenet system, which older readers may recall, used little capacity and little bandwidth while enabling people to share content. It certainly suggests that some of the ubiquitous assumptions about ubiquitous technology and the semantic web may be open to some doubt. There’s a wider point here too – that we haven’t really started to imagine how the world would change if energy were significantly expensive – beyond realising that we’d probably travel a bit less and maybe buy a little less.

Thanks to John Thackara for the pointer towards The Archdruid Report.