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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Tomislav MarkusTomislav Markus works at the Croatian Institute of History, Zagreb, Republic of Croatia. He is the author of "Limits of Spiritual Enlightenment", "Two Roads Diverging: Integral Theory and Contemporary Science", "Twilight in the Integral World: Integral Theory and the Desintegration of Industrial Civilization", "Pitfalls of Wilberian Ecology: A Critical Review of Integral Ecology" and "Paul Shepard and Integral Theory", all published on Integral World.


Integral Theory and the Desintegration
of Industrial Civilization

Tomislav Markus (1969-2010)

The vast majority of people – public, mass media, political and economic elites – are not aware how serious the human predicament is.

In the previous article "Two Roads Diverging" I explained the inadequacy of Integral Theory as a theoretical approach, because of its incongruence with modern science. Here I'll try to show that Integral Theory can't do a good job on the practical side – as spiritual therapy – either. But, first, I have to say something about the contemporary deep crisis of industrial civilization in a historical context, a problem very little mentioned on the pages of Integral World so far.

Hunter-gatherer societies are the only really long-term sustainable society, not because some «nobleness», but because of the human genetic adaptation to this form of social organization. Hunter-gatherers were intervening in the natural world – chiefly with hunting and fire – but it has always remained the wild natural world or our natural evolutionary context. In the worst case, some groups of hunter-gatherers – like in Australia ca. 50.000 years ago or in North America ca 12.000 years ago – could make extinct several species of mega-fauna. We don't know that for sure because of a very poor archeological evidence, but, if true, it didn't have a big ecological significance in the context of several millions of years (20-30 species today disappear in just several hours).

With neolithic domestification begins a continual destruction of wild habitats (especially forests and marshlands) and species, soil erosion, and an ever increasing simplification of bio-diversity. Demographic increase was the main cause of ecological destruction in the agrarian civilization and, in some cases (classic Maya, Sumer, Roman Empire etc.), caused or significantly contributed to the decline and collapse of these complex societies. Demographic expansion and periodical collapse and then expansion again, was a typical characteric of complex agrarian societies.[1]

Wood and labour of living beings (humans and domestic animals) were the chief sources of energy in the agrarian civilizations. So, the vast majority of the population had to live as peasants and in an urban environment – cities and towns – were living only 5-10% of the population. Industrial societies, with mass urbanization and mechanization, in the last 200 years are created by finding and exploiting new energy sources: coal as fundamental mover of the first and oil and gas as movers of the second industrial revolution. Fossil fuels are the main factor in creating an industrial civilization in the 19th and 20th century.[2] Faith in «historical progress» - the fundamental metanarrative of all modern secular ideologies (and typical for Integral Theory as well) – was created due to the discovery of the New World, but became widespread due to new energy sources. All industrial megastructure was building on the fossil fuels.

Energy – and in industrial society this means fossil fuels – is not one aspect of economy or one resource among others, as economists think, but the basis of all economy and the fundamental resource for all others. Oil and other fossil fuels are the life-blood of the industrial economy and for all important activities: manufacturing, transport, agriculture,[3] industrial and mass-production, tourism, military, mining, production of electricity etc. Without them, nothing can work. The golden age of neoliberal globalization, in the 1980s and 1990s and untill recently, was possible only because of the constant flow of cheap energy in the world of trade.

Fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources and there were always warnings about their exhaustion, especially oil, from the 1920s on. But the discovery of new oil-fields were coming up continuously, with a big discovery first in North America in the 1920s and 1930s and then in the Middle East after 1950. The peak of discovery was in 1960s, but, although there were some big findings after that, as in the North Sea in the 1970s, the tempo of discovery was continuously slowing down. American geologist King M. Hubbert predicted in 1956 that peak oil[4] for the USA (lower 48 states) will peak in 1970 – as it did. Hubbert predicted peak oil for world-production in 2000, but nobody listened to him and he died in 1989, forgotten. A first (1973) and second (1979) oil shock clearly showed up the big vulnerability of „advanced“ industrial society on oil import, especially from the Middle East and that dependence was steadily increasing. The USA was importing ca. 30% of its oil in the 1970s, and today imports ca 70%.[5]

The first and second oil shock caused big problems and interruptions of normal fuctioning of Western economies, but their effect did not last for long because they were caused by political factors – the Arabian embargo and Iranian revolution – which change quickly. The discovery and exploitation of a big Western oil field in the North Sea and Alaska from the 1970s on mitigated the situation as well and helped in the overcoming of the energy crisis. But it was an early warning for the future. From 1985 to 2002, the average price of oil was 15-20 d/b: the basis for the so called informational revolution. After 2002, the price was, with minor fluctuations, continuously, rising untill the summer of 2008. In that period the average price of oil was 70 d/b and even more if we take the period 2006-2008. The great oil spike 2007-2008, with a price of 148 d/b in early summer 2008, was partly caused by stock market speculations, but only because of expectations of an ever increasing demand.

In the last 15-20 years there were the last big industrial revolution in China, India and some other „developing“ countries. Demand was growing fast but supply was growing much more slowly, especially after 2004. At the end of 2004, the world production of all liquids (oil, gas, ethanol) was ca. 85 millions of barrel and in the early summer of 2008, when extraction-efforts were at maxium due to very high prices, was ca. 87,2 millions of barrel. This is the so called peak plateau, when world production is more or less flat and can't be significantly increased, no matter how high prices are. Unlike the first and the second oil shock, which were caused by artificial shortage, the third was caused by objective geological limits. The OPEC was controlling oil prices from 1970s to ca. 2002 and Saudi Arabi was a so called swing (crucial) producer, but in the last several years this was not the case anymore.

A big increase in oil price was the main cause of the contemporary economic crisis – the economy can't normaly function without abundant cheap energy – and there is only the question what was the cause for that. Facts tell us that the chief reason was an ever more unfavourble relation between increasing demand and stagnating supply. Some authorities, like the International Energy Agency (IEA) think that the chief reason of the third oil shock was a lack of investment (in tankers, drill-technologies, refineries etc.) due to low oil prices in 1985-2002. That is the opinion of many analysts, especially those working inside the oil industry or some pro-government agencies, like IEA or CERA (Mills 2008, Yergin 2008). But that can't explain the lack of investment after 2002, when oil prices was going up. Oil companies know that available (namely, suitable for extraction with favourable relation or EROEI, "energy returned over energy invested") oil reserves are much smaller than is officially stated and that big investments will not be worth the trouble. In oil business investments can be profitable after ten and more years, but for ten years there will be (much) less oil than now, so – no big investments.

For mainstream economists – only academic intellectuals with some measure of political influence – the basis of the economy is money, not energy. So, their advice to goverments is: pump money into the bank system, give stimulus packages and bail-outs, run strong fiscal politics and the economy will recover. This is, they think, just a „recessic cycle“, one among many, perhaps a bit stronger and longer than usual. These measures can bring some short-term effects, like a very limited revival of economic activity in the middle of this year – but in the long-term it goes nowhere. It only creates new problems, like the great dangers of a dollar-collapse and deficit-bubble which can easily explode and create a fast deepening of the economic crisis.

At this moment in time, we are in the middle of the first (introductory) phase of a mega-crisis, when world oil production is flat. In the next several years we can expect the deepening of the crisis with a further rise of unemployment and a decrease of demand due to high oil prices (ca. 70 d/b is the minimal acceptable price for OPEC). The second phase will begin when production will start to fall from peak plateau, at first slow, then faster, probably after 2012, perhaps even earlier, depending on demand and OPEC's capability to compensate for non-OPEC's continual falling production. This will be the start of a real crisis with an increase of mass unemployment, inflation and prices, regardless of the demand. Mass discontentment, strikes and street unrest are a very real possibility in the next couple of years, because, without the constant supply of cheap (or not too expensive, as now) energy, big cities are casks of gunpowder.

In the further future, after 2020, we can expect a real desintegration of industrial societies and processes of demographic (decrease of population) and social (decrease of political, technological and economic complexity) collapse. In 2030 the world oil production will be half of the 2008-level, with ca. 8,5 billions humans, not a rosy prospect in any case. This is not apocalypse or doomsday thinking, but a new case of collapse of complex societies, one among many in recent human history and a frequent topic of scientific study.[6] Peak oil means also peak population, which will grow for the next several years, little bit above 7 billion, and then start to fall. The recent drop of oil prices is payed for future supply crunch (shortage of oil in the next 3-4 years) because many projects of discovery of oil fields and investments are cancelled. Economic activity can rebound a little (as in the summer of 2009) in the short-term because of governement's fiscal politics (bail-outs, stimulus packages etc.) but a long-term and real recovery can't be attained without a return of the era of abundant cheap energy. But from what can this energy come?

The vast majority of people – public, mass media, political and economic elites – are not aware how serious the human predicament is. There is a widespread hope that either oil reserves are huge, or we can develop alternative energy sources, just on time «to leave oil before oil leaves us». New American president Barack Obama's program for «clean energy» and «clean technologies» has very wide support and popularity inside and outside the USA. So called transition towns in New Zealand, USA and several other countries are part of these wishes and programs. But this is a big illusion and a symptom of faith in technological miracles, very often a phenomenon in industrial society. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as «alternatives».

So called alternatives – nuclear power, solar, wind, geothermal etc. – are just technologies for electric energy production. Technology is not energy and «alternatives» are really just derivatives of fossil fuels. That means, we must have vast amounts of cheap oil and gas for the development of alternative technologies, but, because of peak oil, we haven't. It takes «oil energy» to make «alternative energy». In the post-peak oil world development of «alternatives» will mean a big increase of demand for oil and gas, price will go up and the economy will either crash or retreat into an even deeper recession. Development of «alternatives» is possible only by constant economic growth, but the fundamental precondition for it is cheap energy – and the circle is closed.

«Alternative» forms of energy simply can't replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil (the problem of «net energy»). There are other problems with «alternatives» as hard collecting, because sun, wind or water are not simply in the ground, as oil, gas and coal are, but they are not always available and depend much on (fast changing) climate. Nuclear power, which only can produce bigger quantities of electricity, is too expensive and dangerous (terrorism, weapons, waste). Second, there is simply no time for such massive energy transition. The first oil shock (1973) was a good (but wasted) opportunity for the beginning of the energy transition, because it takes ca. 30-50 years. The increasing supply gap in the next 20 years or so can't be closed by all other energy sources combined. Investing in «alternatives» means a waste of money.[7] So, the era of cheap energy will not return and without it there will be no long-term recovery. Mainstream economists simply can't understand that because for them resource shortage is not possible. If prices go up either production will be increased or alternatives will be found quickly. But today neither is possible.

The contemporary crisis of industrial civilization and the process of its gradual disintegration has very serious implications for Integral Theory. Basically, Integral Theory can be explained as a defense of some «enlightened» or «spiritual» version of neoliberal globalization and global industrial civilization. That is, integral theorists are surely not apologetics for mass consumer society,[8] rampant capitalism and free-market fundamentalism, military adventures, fanatical (religious and secular) ideologies, intolerance toward other nations or races or any other similar collective pathology.

Integral Theory has much to say about these and other problematic behaviours of contemporary industrial societies. The ideal of Integral Theory is some «new civilization» or an „integral global village“ without war, ecological destruction, big inequality and with peace, stability, prosperity and equality among and within nations. In this new civilization prosperity and wellbeing will not be identified with mindless consumption but with some «spiritual enlightenment» and a «higher level of consciousness». „Moderate“ modernism should preserve the „positive aspects“ of „modernity“ plus „enlightened“ values of the „New Paradigm“. There is presumbly some hope that we are entering into a new (informational?) age.[9] This is the main reason why Wilber's theory, and Integral Theory in general, can easily attract many followers: it offers criticism of many bad phenomena in contemporary society (not Fukuyama's «end of history»-like apology), but a maintance of faith in the fundamental modern narrative: history has meaning after all, it's not just a meaningless struggle of civilized humans with anthropogenic problems.

Historical, social and technological progress + personal spiritual enlightenment: who can argue against that? But, unfortunately, science doesn't recognize wishfull thinking and personal wishes.

Here we can ignore the question: is Integral Theory a realistic option and is there some hope of «spiritual enlightenment» of typical middle class members of urban-industrial society? (the answer is, of course, negative on both questions). The fundamental problem is something else. In one previous article (Markus 2009) I wrote about the «limits of spiritual enlightenment» but there the continual existence of industrial society was presupposed. But what if this society has no future at all? Integral theorists take the maintenance of industrial civilization for granted[10] and urge for a «progress of consciousness» among it's citizens (chiefly members of the urban middle class). Satisfaction of basic material needs of the majority of members of „advanced“ societies is taken for granted. If the above mentioned scenarios – about the collapse of industrial mega-structures in the near future – are correct, Integral Theory has no sense and it's goals lead nowhere. If the lack of connection with natural and social sciences means the failure of Integral Theory as scientific effort, then the collapse of industrial society means its failure as practical effort. Integral Theory is, in that regard, just another idealistic effort to correct problems which are founded in material – ecological/geological, but also biological (lack of genetic adaptation, see my previous article, "Two Roads Diverging") – circumstances.[11]

In other words, Integral Theory doesn't specially matter how high a «level of consciousness» or «spiritual enlightenment» members of industrial societies can achieve if their whole way of life is not sustainable. No matter how «enlightened» and «rational», men and women remain members of an outdated urban-industrial mega-structure, dependent on a fossil-fuels economy. The message of Integral Theory can be attractive for well-educated members of industrial society when – and only when – this society is still relatively stable and secure, with an ever growing economy inside and a constant import of vital resources outside. But this era is more or less at the end. Of course, integral theorists can think that the thesis of the collapse of industrial society is just wrong «doomday thinking» and «hysteria» - in fact, even if wrong, it's a legitimate scientific problem – but they can't ignore this problematic and relevant literature.

There was not a single article in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (14 issues so far) about the energy crisis and peak oil. In general, it is amazing how little the majority of integral theorists – M. Zimmerman and S. Esbjoern-Hargens are laudable exceptions – have to say about the so called ecological crisis, from climate change to the sixth great extinction. But, so far at least, they said nothing about the most important event (peak oil, the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels) and process (the end of the era of fossil fuels and desintegration of industrial civilization) of our time. The energy question is completly alien for them. One big book, Integral Ecology, which was published in spring 2009, has, in its index, no entry for „energy“, „fossil fuels“ or „peak oil“ at all. (Esbjoern-Hargens-Zimmerman 2009). Obviously, these are not important topics for „integral ecology“.

Probably, integral theorists think that the main cause of our mega-crisis is «greed» or «lack of enlightenment», but that can't explain why a system is in good condition in one time, and then in big trouble in the other (greed is always here, and banks and stock markets are always making profit, but, in good times, it is called «success»). Some integral theorists can mention the vulnerability and fragility of market economies, but without a mentioning of peak oil or any other energy constraints (McIntosh 2007).[12] Integral theorists would probably be enthusiasts for «alternatives», especially renewable ones, but, as we saw, it's not a realistic option. They usually think that technology is neutral and that its correct use depends on human moral and spiritual abilities or «level of consciousness».[13]

In the near future, there is a room for integral theorists but only if they abandon their progressivistic and idealistic, increasingly outdated visions about „enlightened“ industrial civilization, global governance, „progressive evolution“ etc. In the post-peak oil world – or in the second phase of fossil fuel's era – true enlightenment can mean only the acknowledgment of the „perfect storm“ (the end of the fossil fuel era + a climate change, lack of water and other relatively minor problems) in which industrial civilization will disappear.

True enlightenment can mean to help people prepare for a demographic and social collapse in the next 20-40 years and contribute to a less painful social transition to a post-industrial society. This is not a small and insignificant thing. Integral theorists – and other independent and critical thinkers – can criticize the official ideology of industrial society which identifies consumerism and wellbeing, technological inovations and progress, medicine and health, standard of living and quality of living etc. In this way, the collapse of industrial society will not seem to people as great a tragedy and catastrophe, just a disappearance of one unnatural order and an opportunity for building not an utopia, but a more natural society, more in touch with evolved human nature and its fundamental needs.


[1] There is a huge literature about ecological (environmental) history. See: Hughes 1975, 2001, 2006, Redman 1999, McNeill 2000, Chew 2001, 2006, Diamond 2008, Ponting 2007. About ecological history of human societies I wrote one extensive article in Croatian ( Wilber and other integral theorists knew nothing about this imporatant problematic. Wilber has often suggested that the so called ecological crisis is something modern, a consequence of „industrial ontology“ or the dominance of „flatland“. But what about the dismal ecological state (and countless other anthropogenic problems) of agrarian civilizations where there was no „flatland“ or modern science? In these societies the dominant approach in the „high culture“ was the perennial tradition, something completely different from modern science, but the fundamental anthropogenic problems were more or less the same. This is not suprising if we accept the theory of bio-social discontinuity. Ecological and other anthropogenic problems are the main feature of all complex societies, because civilization is an unnatural order, without roots in our deep evolutionary past.

[2] In the world as a whole, the main energy source in 19th century was still wood and in the 20th century coal.

[3] In essence, the so called green revolution – the basis of the demographic explosion in the last 100 years – was nothing else than the invention of a way to turn petroleum and gas into food. Traditional organic agriculture can feed only 1-1,5 billions of people at the most and probably, because of climate change, lack of water, soil erosion, desertification and other problems, much less in the near future.

[4] Peak oil means the maxium quantity of extracted oil ever or approximately 50 % of all existing oil in some region, country or in whole world. For example, peak oil for the North Sea was in 1999 and for Russia (2007) and Saudi Arabia (2005) – two of the biggest exporting countries in the world – it was in the last several years. All concrete data can be found in relevant Internet-sites, especially and and in some books with good overviews (Heinberg 2005, Catton 2009, Rubin 2009). The first half of extracted oil was the best quality and easily to extract. Peak oil means the end of the first (ascending) phase of the fossil fuel's era and now we are at the beginning of the second (descending) phase. Peak oil is just the most important event of our time as the end of fossil fuel's era is the most important process. Here I can't talk about many other big problems of contemporary civilization, like climate change (a much slower effect with many uncertainties), lack of fresh water, soil erosion, the sixth great extinciton, new diseases etc. (the much publicized «terrorism» is just a little disturbance, not much important). Richard Heinberg (2007, 2009b), says that peak oil is «the leading edge of Peak Everything».

[5] About the energy history of human societies and modern utilization of fossil fuels see: Price 1995, Heinberg 2004, 2005, Crosby 2006, Kunstler 2006, Homer-Dixon 2006, Dekaniæ 2007, Greer 2008, Engdahl 2008.

[6] Tainter 1988, Caldararo 2004, Diamond 2008, McAnany-Yoffee 2009. About possible scenarios and the future of industrial societies see: Heinberg 2004, Kunstler 2006, Greer 2008, Smil 2008, Holmgren 2009, Catton 2009, Rubin 2009. A big advantage of peak oil theory is its testability and refutability, because even future scenarios belong to very near future.

[7] Many authors wrote about problems with «alternatives». See: Heinberg 2005, Kunstler 2006, Burr 2008, Greer 2008, Catton 2009, and many Internet-articles.

[8] The critique of consumerism, widespread among thinkers of very different opinions, always had several internal problems, like: what about the many jobs which depend on mass consumption?, or: what will people get instead of a high standard of living? But now, these are obsolete problems, because the consumer society – another product of the era of abundant cheap energy - can't survive peak oil for a long time. Peak oil – or, seen wider, the end of the fossil fuel era – will cause a disapperance of mass-consumerism, not «spiritual enlightenment» or «perennial wisdom».

[9] Wilber 2000, 2006, Hollick 2006, Laszlo 2006, 2008, Reynolds 2006, McIntosh 2007. In fact, the «new civilization» is not so new, it's just a more «enlightened» version of contemporary industrial society or neoliberal global civilization without it's big social and ecological problems. Some kind of New Age utopia, in other words.

[10] Steve McIntosh says – and that is the opinion of the majority of integral theorists – that „integral consciousness“ or a „higher level of civilization“ depend on healthy market economies with security, mobility and other convenience for well-to-do members of the middle-class (McIntosh 2007). But today, just 1-2 years later, market economies are in deep trouble, with no end of trouble in sight. Integral theorists can only hope that this is a temporary crisis, but it isn't a very realistic position. We will know the truth very soon.

[11] A leading integral thinker says, for example, that the main problem is not resource depletion or overpopulation, but a «lack of mutual understanding in the noosphere» (Wilber 2000:285). In other words, all depends on human decisions, there is no objective ecological (geological, climate etc.) constraints on human actions. This is an extreme form of humanistic voluntarism and a typical idealization of contemporary liberal democracy. Integral theorists think that relative prosperity and tranquillity in these societies are the product of «interior moral/spiritual/intellectual development». But this is much more the product of short-term favourable material conditions. When there is abundant and cheap energy, ethnically, racially and religiously diverse populations can live harmoniusly with one another and governments can be relatively tolerant. But when energy and goods become scarce and expensive ethnic tensions surface, criminallity and violence increase and governments become authoritarian. We saw all these tendencies in the last few years in the USA, Great Britain and other «advanced» countries (especially the increasing restrictions of civil liberties) and we will see it much more in the coming years. No «interior development» of «enlightened» citizenry can be of much help when industrial societies begin to lose crucial preconditions for their normal fuctioning. Ironically, especially much violence can be expected in the USA – because of very heterogenous populations and a rapid decrease of the high standard of living - the home of the most integral thinkers.

[12] Many thinkers – Mumford, P. Ehrlich, Hardin, Heilbroner, Taylor, Ophuls, Bookchin, Shepard, S. Diamond etc. – were talking about the instability and unsustainability of industrial societies in the 1960s and 1970s and William Catton was the first explaining, in book-form, the Achilles' heel of industrial society, namely the unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels (Catton 1980). So, it's no great achievement to talk today about the „fragility“ and „vulnerability“ of market economies in abstracto.Today, we can see concrete processes of desintegration of the industrial civilization and that must be explained.

[13] Many thinkers (especially Heidegger and J. Ellul) were criticizing the thesis of neutrality of technology, but not for good reasons (they knew nothing about the theory of bio-social discontinuity). If technology is neutral, so is society and then – every society is as good as any other: it can't be the anthropogenic problems at all. But for the theory of bio-social discontinuity only one society is natural and only very simple technology, typical for a hunter-gatherer society, is optimal for the human animal. Complex industrial technology is an integral part of industrial society and inevitably increases anthropogenic problems. It doesn't matter very much how «enlightened» or «moral» people are, they can't be successfully adapted to «advanced» technology because their psychology and physiology belong to quite different social and ecological conditions.


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