Hierarchy creates great empires, large corporations, huge displays of its capability to command coordinated action. Hierarchy, however, is also an inefficient mode of organization. It depends on surplus energy. As small-scale hierarchies emerged at the dawn of written history, this surplus energy was obtained from hydraulic projects (irrigation systems), harnessing animal energy, cutting down the forests of Europe for firewood or developing new technologies like crop rotation to better free the energy of rich soils. Surplus energy is measured as a ratio of calories made available per calorie of human energy expended. Return:Investment. The higher the ratio, the more hierarchal the resulting government. The Nile provided a great surplus energy, and resulted in the hierarchal systems of the Egyptian pharoes. Constant warfare brought a constant source of slaves to the Roman empire to fuel the surplus from its great North African wheat plantations (latifundia). Coal and colonies provided the surplus energy for the rise of the British Empire. Today's hierarchies are are in turn dependent on the greatest source of surplus energy ever to be tapped by human civilization: oil. Oil produces more available calories of energy per calorie of human input than any other energy source available. It is, quite literally, the most concentrated form of solar energy available on the planet. The result of this great energy surplus has been great hierarchy: the empires and wars of the last hundred years have been defined by this phenomena.
What will happen when this source of surplus runs out? It may take 5 years or 100 years, but there is no doubt that this great surplus is draining away. Optimists (perhaps an inappropriate title) always state that we will surely find another--perhaps even greater--source of energy surplus. The facts belie the rhetoric, however: Hydrogen needs surplus energy to be produced. Oil shale provides a far smaller surplus ratio than the Gahwar fields of Saudi Arabia. Nuclear energy has never provided a surplus ratio without the subsidy of the military-industrial complex. There simply is no replacement for the surplus energy of oil.
As this surplus fades away, the era of hierarchy will slowly--if fitfully--fade with it. It not be likely to go quietly into that good night--as we may already be witnessing in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia today. Only societies and economies not dependent on this surplus ratio will survive--societies that are capable of existing on just the real-time solar energy hitting the earth. Such energy patterns will demand a rhizome mode of organization. The greatest question is: can we demonstrate the foresight to utilize some of our surplus now to lay the foundation for a zero-surplus society in the future? Or will we squander our fast-dwindling resources in an attempt to hold on in the face of inevitable change, only to lose our one chance at setting up a sustainable but advanced society? Many peak oil theorists think that our planet--that every planet--only gets one shot at setting up a sustainable society before their resources run out, and that if they miss, then they will fade into the obscurity of nature from which they came. Perhaps that won't be such a bad thing, but it strikes me that a middle ground--a sustainable, ontogenetically compatible, interconnected and informed society--may be possible. I think that is something to shoot for.