Last week PG&E, the major utility company in northern California, preemptively shut down electrical service to around 87,000 customers in 12 counties. They did this because high winds were forecast. These winds could cause tree branches to fall on power lines, which, in turn, could start devastating wild fires, such as we saw last year.
Here we have a glimpse of the future. Consider some of the factors that came into play.
- PG&E has not invested sufficient funds over the years to maintain the integrity of its systems.
- California law imposes a high degree of liability on utility companies if their equipment does cause a disaster such as a major wildfire. Maybe the law is excessively onerous — nevertheless, it is what it is.
- The company’s communications with its customers, including those who depend on the availability of power to keep life-support systems operating, was inadequate. In particular, their web site crashed at critical times because so many people were trying to find out what was going on.
- Large numbers of people had no contingency plans in place, nor did they have emergency supplies of food, water and batteries. They were caught by surprise.
In other words, the situation was a muddle.
In 1 Corinthians we read,
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
What this passage is telling us is that even the Apostle Paul, with all of his intellectual and spiritual gifts, could not see the future in detail. But he could see an outline.
The PG&E shutdown does provide us with such an outline, a glimpse as to what the future holds; it will be confusing, uncertain and will have both ups and downs (but with more downs than ups).
In his 2005 paper – How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse – John Michael Greer says,
. . . the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.
We in our times have built up a tremendously complex society; in order to keep that society functioning, we will need to devote more and more of our resources to maintenance. This means that there will be less net energy (money) available for everything else that we want to do such as alternative energy projects. (This problem will be exacerbated by the fact that our ERoEI, Energy Returned on Energy Invested, is also moving inexorably downwards. This means that we need to use more and more of our available energy just to find and extract new sources of energy.)
Society will therefore experience a slow but relentless stepwise decline. We will spend more and more of our resources on maintaining the systems we have built, but those systems will continue to decay. Eventually we will hit bottom and a rebuild process can start.
What lessons can modern-day Christians take from these insights?
- The Bible talks of an apocalypse followed by sudden end times. We may need to recognize that events will often happen gradually and in no particular order. The word “sudden” may not apply.
- We need to prepare for difficult times. How this is to be done is a huge topic. But it mostly boils down to living a simpler life and using less energy.
- We need to be humble. Like Paul, the best we can do is see through a glass darkly.
- We need to be ready to help others. For example, during a power outage people on life-support systems may only live if we can provide them with our portable electricity generator.