Anticipated vs. Predicted Futures
Strategic Thinking — Looking into the Future
This blog will attempt to take a look into the future in a more holistic way than I have done in the past. I will take the strategic perspective of possible futures as opposed to attempts to prognosticate specific events or states of the world at some specific time in the future. The strategic approach is to generate several possible scenarios that include anticipated futures (given certain starting conditions) and possible interventions or responses that put us in the best possible position as the actual future unrolls. The point is to be proactive rather than merely reactive.
First we need a reasonably solid assessment of the state of the world now. In particular we need to grasp the major and most important factors and their mutually interactive dynamics. We need to assess the threats and opportunities, just as a business strategic planning process would. We also need to understand our strengths and weaknesses in moving into that future in the context of those dynamics. In particular we need to ask if there are actions we should be undertaking now or in the near future to leverage on strengths and mitigate our weaknesses.
All of our tactical, logistical, and operational plans should follow from what we see happening in this strategic view. These have to be flexible and adaptive as the future actually unfolds since we have no certainty that any specific scenario will follow through. Indeed there is always the possibility that some scenarios will blend, as it were, or the world could flip from one scenario to another on some tipping point not accounted for. The key is to have several scenarios worked out as you play ‘What-If’ with the future of the world.
Please recognize that developing scenarios for what will happen in the future is not the same as making predictions. The former are meant to give somewhat holistic visions of the kinds of major things that could happen. The process attempts to use a systems approach, recognizing the interactions between major forces/factors, to anticipate how things are going to evolve over time. Predictions, on the other hand, tend to be very low dimensional projections of what will happen. Frequently they do not take into account a dynamic systems perspective. For example the simplest method of predicting future states of a limited number of variables (or one), is a regression analysis. The assumption is that after taking into account past tendencies, we can predict, within some acceptable confidence level, what the state of that variable will be at some time in the future.
Anticipation is quite different from prediction (though the two are often interchanged in casual conversation). Prediction is meant to tell you what will happen. Anticipation is meant to tell you what might happen if things continue along various trajectories. An anticipation could be equivalent to a prediction in some instances, but the purpose of anticipation is not the same. The reason you want to anticipate future possibilities is to give you a chance to take action before that future arrives to mitigate or prevent bad outcomes or exploit possible good outcomes. In other words, anticipation is meant to change the future. By anticipating what would have happened if there had been no action, the actions we do take end up changing those outcomes. When people make predictions, on the other hand, it is always ceteris paribus — all other things being equal.
The role of time is quite different in anticipation as well. With anticipation you are modeling the dynamics in a generally high dimensional space. Calling out specific dates is not done in the same vein as it is in making predictions. Rather fixing dates to events, as snapshots in that dynamic state flow, is only a way to test various what-if interventions in the time course. It allows us to see some likely future dates when we can look for those events. But it does not mean that with high probability those events will happen on those dates. Besides, if the intent of anticipation is to change the future to our advantage, then dates are actually not very meaningful at all, other than suggesting the points in time when mitigating actions need to be started. So in what follows please do not take dates seriously. They are only provided as an artificial mark off of time passing. As they say, your mileage may vary.
In the scenarios below I assume the same starting conditions and then demonstrate where the difference between a mitigation action and non-action diverge in producing outcomes. In analyzing the starting conditions one thing should be clear. Many mitigating interventions (e.g. lowering carbon emissions) should have been started long ago if they were to have had any effects that would have given us a more reasonable starting state today. They were not. The strategic thinking that had already been applied back in the 1970s (e.g. “Limits to Growth”) were largely ignored by the movers and shakers. So we are already starting in a set of conditions that are highly unfavorable to humanity. Our strategic thinking has to start now with a much harder predicament.
Starting Conditions — The Situation Today
Post-Peak Net Energy
As I have indicated many times in posts about energy matters, we are already past the peak of net energy and are now at the peak of global raw conventional oil extraction (or very near it). Total liquids, which include many non-conventional forms of hydrocarbon liquids may continue to rise in extraction rates for a time, but the very much lower energy return on energy invested (EROI) will eventually show these liquids to be non-economical in the long run. The same is true for extraction in non-conventional locations. While the Arctic circle countries are chaffing at the bit to start exploration and extraction of oil in the now exposed Arctic ocean, the actual costs of doing so have yet to be determined. Given the continuing harshness of the environment, even if ice is absent for part of the year, it is likely that many new engineering problems will be solved only by substantial investments in infrastructure, forcing the EROI of such operations toward the low end. Even now, the EROI of exploration and extraction from really deep water sites is very low. It may turn out (and there is growing evidence this is the case) that the EROI of these non-conventional operations (e.g. also shale oil, tar sands, etc.) are actually below economic viability already and this is being masked by two factors: 1) continuing inputs to the world market of still high EROI conventional oil, e.g. Saudi Arabia, barely keep the average EROI just above the economic viability threshold; 2) the strong momentum in the energy supply markets bolstered by the strong demand from Chindia keep the suppliers believing that there are still potentials for high monetary returns on investment. There are probably other factors as well, but as the ratio of too low EROI to economic EROI liquids goes up (as the latter extraction rates go into serious decline) then the pressure to raise prices will increase and at some point oil producers are going to hit a limit. More on that below.
The dynamics of fossil fuel extraction are governed by a few interacting (feedback loops) variables. The amount of work that is needed to extract and refine the usable products increases as the resource becomes depleted. More work means more energy being consumed getting usable energy. And that, in turn, means less net energy from the same flow rate of energy products to the economy. Couple that with the fact that peak oil is upon us means that we are extracting even less gross energy so it compounds with the declining net per unit of gross (EROI again) to make the total decline of useful work greater. Another factor is the financial system's impact on fossil fuel extraction rates.
Gasoline and diesel are finished products that help power the transportation subsystem in our economy. They are derived from oil so the costs for doing so are in part based on the cost of the raw oil. As the latter rises, due to depletion effects as described above, the price of the finished product rises proportionally by the cost factor for the raw product. The refiners pass on their increased costs to the end consumer. As that happens, the price elasticity of these products may be high compared with some other economic goods (certainly lower than for food), but it is not that high because a fair amount of consumption is still largely discretionary. We drive our gas-guzzling vehicles long distance because we always could. Limiting driving (as just one example) to just necessary trips reduces the demand on gasoline and diesel, which eventually feeds back to the refiners who may reduce prices, but at the expense of profits. If profits go too low, the refiners will reduce their demand for oil, and so it works its way back to the extractors. Prices will float downward to seek some new equilibrium where the volume allows a sufficient profit and a sustainable cash flow. But the cost of extraction can never go down, it will always go up (save for the occasional new technology which might make it appear to go down for a short time). Thus there is a sort of physical limit to how low the price of crude oil can go before the profitability suffers. Investors, start to look for alternatives that will have better margins for their money and the extractors start to fold.
That doesn't happen immediately, however, because we have a financial infrastructure that creates monetary assets out of debt (e.g. fractional reserve banking). Companies borrow to compensate for reducing investments (e.g. lower stock prices) so that they can continue to operate in the short run. Borrowing is only feasible when the total real assets that will be produced in the future exceed the total that would have been produced without the borrowing and some additional to take care of asset decay/loss. Then there is also the interest payment to compensate the lender for the risk they took (and opportunity costs of not using the capital in other ways). All told, this financial system can only work when the total amount of real work is increasing over time, that is the real economy is growing.
Here too we have a problem with momentum carrying us forward into dangerous conditions. We are still trying to operate on this debt-compensation model even though we have now entered a period when real growth is no longer even possible. This is what causes bubbles to inflate. Housing was our most recent good example of this phenomenon. We want to believe that there will be more in the future (say more people putting pressure on demand for scarce housing). So buyers are willing to borrow more to pay for what they perceive to be more expensive houses. Sellers and owners similarly believe the value of their abodes are going up so they demand higher prices or refinance to extract what they think is true equity but is really just fluff, using the cash to buy other goods, like boats.
Now we have a real problem that will be self-propelling into the future. We have a belief deeply engrained in our culture and our psyches that the best economic system ever is capitalism driven by the profit motive. We both believe that profits, measured in monetary units of course, can be whatever we can wrangle, either by charging a price far in excess of the real costs, or complaining about paying too much in taxes, and believe that capitalism promotes the good life. We equate the products of the capitalist societies with happiness and status. And with those beliefs so deeply entrenched in our minds, we also accept that growth is the only condition under which that good life can go on and on. It comes as a shock then when our incomes decline even as costs continue to climb. But this is the only possible outcome in a system that ultimately depends on high-power content fuels to do the real work needed to create real assets.
Eventually the stopper for oil and other fossil fuel extraction will not be so much the low EROI as it will be the low monetary return on investments. And if the financial system collapses (it is a debt-based house of cards after all) it will hasten that point in time. Companies will be unable to get loans to pay for energy. Extractors will not be able to borrow or attract investment to be able to pull resources out of the ground that they have to sell at a loss.
The physical limit model of fossil fuel extraction that I have developed shows that the drop-off rate of extraction mediated strictly by the overall physics of the process will be much greater than many modelers have assumed (see: Economic Dynamics and the Real Danger). Rather than a reverse logistic curve, e.g. the Hubbert model, my model suggests a very steep decline. This is due to the rapidly diminishing EROI due to higher energy costs of extracting non-conventional resources. With the addition of financial system factors my suspicion is that the extraction rate will actually simply drop straight down at some point where that system no longer sees fossil fuels as economical/profitable. Nations may panic and nationalize fossil fuel extraction, if they actually have any reserves. They could continue to extract without profit but also with hidden costs eventually affecting other parts of the economy (i.e. net energy greater reductions).
I will not entertain a discussion on alternative, green, and supposedly renewable (sustainable) energy sources replacing fossil fuels. I have written extensively about this and have even modelled a WWII-level marshalling (crash program to build solar and wind generators) and its potential effect on the decline rate of fossil fuels (see my last bioecon post: Net Energy and the Economy: Biophysical Economics Meeting, 2011). So believers that this route will somehow save the world need not tell me that it will. Unless you bring evidence (not hypotheticals) of scaling ability, collection and conversion efficiencies, and how the built infrastructure can be evolved quickly enough to use the electricity, I will rest with the evidence and physics that scream loudly that they will not provide even one tenth of BAU-OECD-level lifestyles let alone provide a soft landing pathway to sustainability. So what we are left with is the rapid loss of high-power energy to do economic work, to build real (useful) assets and provide sufficient food, in the foreseeable future. Unless there is some kind of incredible breakthrough, say in the arena of cold fusion, where the capture and conversion equipment is so cheap and easy to manufacture (see also: Robert Bussard's work — where I still see the slightest glimmer of hope), we are looking at a cataclysmic power down within the next twenty-five to one hundred years.
Dramatic and catastrophic climate change is already under way due to human induced global warming. We are already past the tipping point to cause a chaotic reorganization of climate with increasing variation in temperatures and precipitation as well as increasing severity of storms, hurricanes, etc. This is already happening and there can be no mitigation even if societies tried, which, of course, they won't do effectively. The only remaining question is how much more CO2 are we going to add to the atmosphere to push these effects even further into chaos.
What is alarming is the empirical (field measurement) data that shows warming effects such as glacier melt rates and Arctic ice extent retreat are accelerating faster than the worst case models had predicted. Some of these effects include positive feedback loops such as the darkening of the Arctic ocean leading to increased heat absorption and melting of tundra and release of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas in the short run, as compared with CO2. It is believed that release of larger volumes of this gas will significantly increase the effects of global warming and thus more drastic climate changes.
Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is the result of burning fossil fuels. Thus the two phenomena are linked. On one level we might think that the decline of fossil fuel burning due to peak oil and the other fuels would help reduce the worst case scenario for AGW. Unfortunately it isn't that simple or linear. The bulk of fossil fuels have been burnt in the short period of several hundred years. This is releasing as much carbon as had been sequestered below the ground over millions of years in a veritable instant in geological time. It has hit the atmosphere like a gigantic pulse that will take thousands of years to be removed. The predicament now is not can we act in time to mitigate the effects of global warming but how much do we need to adapt to forces that are already unleashed.
The atmosphere is not the only subsystem of Earth to be negatively effected. Carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water turning into carbonic acid and thus lowering the pH (raising the acidity) of the water. This will have (is already having) negative effects on organisms, like corals, that have shells of calcium carbonate. An acidic environment will cause the calcium carbonate shells to dissolve faster than the animals can secrete them, putting extreme stress on them. Additionally, the oceans are sinks for the accumulating heat. They have actually helped damp the atmospheric heating effect in this regard. Nevertheless, the rise in temperature in the surface waters is extremely problematic. Not only does this stress life in the oceans, it also contributes to increased evaporation rates (more severe rains) and supplying excess power to hurricanes.
In addition, the heating has caused the volume of water in the oceans to expand! The melting of land-based ice is contributing to sea level rise as well. The rates of rise, and the extent that we should expect is looking worse every year. There have already been catastrophic impacts on low lying land and some islands. Salt water is starting to invade further into ground water in these areas.
The climate change, sea level rise, and oceanic acidification are all coming on faster than we thought would happen just a few years ago. There are many reasons to believe that these rates will accelerate more in the near future. The predicament is how do we adapt to these changes? We can't stop them. We don't really know how bad it is going to get. But we can project some reasonable expectations given what we do know now. And those projections suggest that adaptation is going take a lot of work. Once again, the phenomena of global warming and oil depletion are linked. Just as we will need much more energy to do this work of adaptation, we will not have any extra with which to do the work. What energy we will have will have to be taken away from other economic work thus making everyone even more poor than they would have been with just the depletion of fossil fuels.
Depleted Natural Resources
The Green Revolution solved a major problem for humanity, while creating an even bigger, more complicated predicament. By synthesizing artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and using diesel powered large machines for working the land, farmers could at last produce enough food to feed the world. Or at least feed that part of the world to which the food could be transported. Indeed, they could produce excess food. So much food that the costs of eating became a very low fraction of family incomes throughout the 1940s and the next several decades. Surpluses from OECD countries could be shipped to developing countries to help feed the populations that could not afford the investments in industrial scale farming so as to produce their own. And, as a result, allowed the global population to continue to expand exponentially. Today there are nearly seven billion individuals alive with millions more coming into the world each day. Thanks also to medical advances, more people are living longer so that the dynamics of population support growth, even as in some parts of the world fertility rates are seeming to drop.Agriculture depends on supplementing soils with fertilizers. The plants take the fertilizers and other minerals out of the soil. The food portion of the plants is extracted and shipped away. Organic matter is constantly being exported from the soils leaving them increasingly dependent on artificial inputs to keep the yield up. Using huge mechanical devices to till and work the soil is contributing to further degradation. Monoculture, which is the necessary planting pattern needed to make this industrial process work, contributes further to the degradation.
Runoff from the farms carries many chemicals, excess fertilizers and pesticides, into streams and rivers. These enter the various freshwater ecosystems and eventually marine ecosystems affecting life. In the worst cases we are seeing huge dead zones created by these chemicals triggering large algae blooms. When the blooms are done, the algae die and their decomposition extracts oxygen from the water, killing other marine life.
Soils are the most important natural resource we have (except also see comments about water below). It is absolutely necessary for growing food. And we have reached a point at which continued production of food depends critically on the continued flow of high powered energy and fossil fuels as chemical feedstocks for fertilizers and pesticides. Thus the interaction between peak oil and agriculture is poised to become a negative one. When the oil flow diminishes, so will the food production.
Unfortunately, because we have ignored the soil conditions for so long, it won't even be possible to return to a labor intensive form of agriculture in too many areas. Armies of people with hoes, shovels, and oxen won't be able to coax high yields from dead soils.
Agriculture is the single largest consuming process for fresh water. In many parts of the world this water is supplied by irrigation (using much power) from rivers and aquifers. Potable water to support households and industry come from the same sources. Wastage in all of these uses is rampant due to the fact that the water infrastructure was designed for cheap construction and operation at a time when there seemed to be more than ample sources relative to the population's needs. Today we are facing a water crises just about everywhere. To see what the outcome of this looks like one need look no further than Sub-Saharan Africa where a major drought along with population expansion has resulted in obtaining water becoming one of the most time consuming efforts in many households. Watch Phoenix, AZ and Las Vegas NV for models of what we can expect to see in the USA.
When we think of peak oil it is easy to overlook another situation that is rapidly ensuing. We are at or past the peak production of a number of minerals and ores that are the basis of our industrial civilization. It is possible to recycle many metals and some other disposed materials, it is true. But this requires energy to accomplish. So it is going to become increasingly difficult to do this as we move deeper into declining net energy. Many minerals cannot actually be recycled, however, making their peak of extraction rates similar to that of fossil fuels. For example, phosphorous, needed to make artificial fertilizers, is not recoverable once used. It leaches from the fields into the streams and is carried downstream to the rivers and ocean where it helps create those dead zones. And extracting new phosphorous from the earth is taking much more energy as the richer sources deplete.
Another factor that should be mentioned is public and private health non-maintenance in a world of dwindling resources and skyrocketing costs. The current public health system in the US and many OECD countries are already starting to suffer strains. Some of this is currently due to the massive immigrations from the south, where public health systems in the receiving nations are obligated to be concerned with the conditions of poor people in order to catch and prevent the spread of diseases. Some of it comes from the increasing number of new diseases transferred from animals. Some of it from disease vectors that have expanded their territories due to changing climate.
The cost of private medical care is also soaring. In part this is due to the increased use of elaborate technology to diagnose and treat diseases. Part is due to the increasing costs of drugs, in part a response to the diminishing returns on drug research but also due to the nature of capitalism's effects on the drug markets.
The pressure on the health care system will continue to rise and the aging of the population will exacerbate the situation even more. At some point this system will decline to a point where it can no longer work to prevent pandemics or treat the patients when the hospitals and clinics are overloaded with them.
These are some of the major factors that pose serious threats to humanity over the next twenty-five to fifty years. By that I mean that the confluence of these factors, within that time frame, will seriously disrupt civilization and lead to freezing or heat exhaustion, starvation and dehydration for many.
Hard to Find!
In such a dismal landscape as painted above, it is hard to find anything that could be called opportunities. One normally thinks of opportunities as being conditions that, if exploited, could lead to growth and prosperity. In our future world, given the confluence of the above factors, our opportunities will look more like conditions we can exploit to survive.
This would not ordinarily be considered a hopeful message. Our hopes and aspirations were formed and conditioned at a time when net energy was growing, which was pretty much the totality of human history. Entering a phase in which net energy is declining, yet having the mind set formed in those earlier times, it will be excruciatingly hard to reform our aspirations toward mere survival. I suspect many will not ever consider such as aspirational at all.
Nevertheless, we must examine our assets and our liabilities as a people, in order to ascertain if our assets can be exploited to our survival advantage, and whether our liabilities present particular challenges to that survival. To be clear, we are talking about the survival of our species, not survival of the entire population.
Our greatest strengths involve our intelligence, creativity, and the considerable storehouse of knowledge about nature and how things work. Even as we descend the power levels toward conditions known to our pre-fossil fuel predecessors we take with us all the knowledge that higher energy flows and cleverness bought us. We are neither stupid nor ignorant. Additionally, we have crossed a threshold in the evolution toward organizing ourselves on the basis of cooperation more so than competition. Even though capitalism seems to emphasize competition as the main driving force toward innovation, the fact is that we are more cooperators than competitors when it comes to exploiting our discoveries and inventions. This is due to the evolution of whatever level of sapience we have achieved. In-group cooperation and between-group competition has been selected for by nature. And as our capacity to redefine what the in-group means (expand the definition of who is in), we have been able to produce extensive cultures far beyond the ancient tribal limits (around 200 individuals ± ~50). Commerce would not be possible without this tendency.
We have many kinds of tools that do not require external energy (hand tools) and a wealth of built assets in the world. Many of those long-term assets, buildings and houses, will continue to serve long into the future. Many assets such as automobiles and cargo ships will cease to be assets for operations and become assets of aggregated materials. Even with the use of wood-fueled fires we may be able to reuse some of the metals now residing in those machines and buildings. Other materials, such as bricks and wood may be retrievable as well.
Our greatest asset will prove to be our understanding of permaculture-based food production. Going beyond mere organic or biodynamic gardening, permaculture is the application of systems science (and in particular principles from systems ecology) to maximizing sustainable yields of foods for human consumption. It is also the basis of other basic sustainable living practices (e.g. shelter and clothing for starters).
What is proving to be our undoing is our egos and our lack of sapience to control our misuse of cleverness and knowledge. We, as a species, cannot help ourselves. Our drives are still based on primitive urges that we evolved as animals operating in an environment of scarcity. In spite of having passed some threshold in terms of utilizing knowledge judgment to override pure instinctive impulses, we simply haven't evolved sufficiently past those thresholds to do an adequate job of modulating our behaviors to our own long-term good.
Homo sapiens evolved a dramatic capacity for sapience, tied in with our higher levels of consciousness and capacity to use symbolic representations and rule-base manipulations for communications and organizing our thoughts. This capacity has been sufficient to set mankind apart from the other animals at least quantitatively if not qualitatively. Sapience was the beginning of the exploitation of a brand new ecological niche, the niche in which the animal doesn't so much adapt to an environment as adapts an environment to suit its own needs and desires. Such an evolutionary strategy, however, carries tremendous risks in the long run. There has to be a balance between adapting and environment and adapting to an environment. Humans never discovered that balance in an intentional way. Only of late, after we begin to see the negative impacts of insisting on changing the world to fit our impulses, do we come to understand the need for that balance. And that understanding is only possessed by a very few individuals who are not able to bring others to the same awareness.
In spite of my earlier comments regarding our abilities to cooperate slightly dominating our competitive urges, our liabilities include the fact that under stress we revert all too eagerly to competition and in the extreme dehumanizing those we classify as others. This latter psychological weakness then allows us to commit atrocities in the name of doing good for our own kind. Since humans have routinely been under some kind of stress as they continually try to adapt to cultural and, sometimes, ecological conditions, they have produced a deep history of conflict and war. As the stresses of diminishing resources build, we should expect to see this instinctive behavior amplified. I would suggest that a lot of the xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment we are seeing growing in the United States and Northern Europe is quite natural and powered by this mentality.
In one sense this might prove to be a local asset to protect and defend local resources from potential destruction by, for example, climate refugees. But those seeking refuge will fight and so will those protecting their turf. The violence and subsequent death tolls will prove an overall liability in terms of destroying what capacity we might have developed to cooperate.
Many people have come to recognize one of our biggest liabilities now is the sheer size of the global population. As I mentioned above, we are near seven billion and growing on a planet that may only be able to sustain a meager half a billion when natural energy flows are just the real-time solar inputs. So as we descend the energy flow rate curve, we will be faced with an unprecedented problem of too many mouths to feed and no possible way to change that. In our misguided attempts to find what we have thought of as morally acceptable solutions, we will end up causing more misery in terms of the total number of people that will face starvation, etc. without reprieve. Every day that we permit more pregnancies to ensue we are creating more people to suffer in the not-too-distant future. This conundrum will prove to be the hardest moral dilemma of all.
In the end, our predicament has been caused by a lack of adequate sapience to manage our over-exuberant cleverness and lust for profits. So a lack of adequate sapience is the root or causal liability. Just as once long ago sapience was the root of our success, given the disparity in rates of cultural evolution compared with biological evolution it has turned into a weakness. A major weakness. Perhaps the ultimate weakness.
What Can We Expect?
Let us examine two scenarios that play out from the above starting conditions. We will look also at the relative likelihood for each and the consequences that ensue from each.
I have chosen these two scenarios (both of which discount any miracle breakthrough in energy production) to contrast the effects on humanity of a bottleneck condition. That is, in both of these scenarios humans go through an evolutionary bottleneck that reduces the population to a very small fraction of the current level. One bottleneck results from humans continuing to act as they do now (the so-called business as usual attempt), don't take any anticipatory action, and basically let nature take its course. The other scenario assumes a specific intervention taken early enough to make a difference in the quality of life lived as we go through the bottleneck. In the former case the bottleneck will be steep and rapid in culling the unfit. In the second case, the bottleneck, which is inevitable, is engineered so as to minimize suffering as much as possible. A bottleneck cannot be avoided in any case. The population of humans cannot be sustained at anything like current levels even if we were to discover a reasonably cheap energy source. We are doing irreparable damage to the planet just by virtue of our numbers and the rate at which we produce wastes. Something has to give, and that something will be us (and likely countless other species as well).
This being the case, we have to make a choice. Do we do nothing and go out hard, or do we do something to make our reductions in numbers the least painful possible?
Most Likely — Scenario 1
I also think of this as the pain and suffering scenario.
The majority of humans, if they perceive anything being wrong in the world believe they are living in a bad dream and hold onto the belief that they will wake up (things will eventually return to ‘normal’). With this belief driving their judgments they will fail to act in any kind of timely way. They will not anticipate the future and will suffer the consequences. The lucky ones will succumb quickly, perhaps from some early violence or a pandemic disease. But many will survive past the early cataclysmic events to face lives of hardship and grueling subsistence.
By twenty-twenty the effects of depleting net energy will be clear to those who understand its relation to economic work. The first effects will be seen (are even now being seen) in the food supply to poor people. The cost of food produced in industrial agriculture will continue to climb through the decade. The floor cost will be established by declining oil products (or the costs of those products as scarcity increases). The fluctuations above the floor will be caused by weather and climate shifts, draught, floods, etc. making monoculture fail more frequently.
Within twenty-five years net energy available to do useful work could be less than ten percent of what it is today. That means we will be producing ten percent less wealth and/or failing to maintain what physical wealth we have now. Almost certainly within this time frame the financial system, which depends entirely on the hope that real wealth production (backing with real assets) will resume will have collapsed. I would think it likely that the fiat currencies of nations, especially the United States, will have failed and there will be a massive reversion to some kind of barter/local currency-effected trading commerce.
An early response to this failure of the financial system will be very rapid closure of business everywhere. That will mean loss of jobs and incomes (with money that is no good anyway). By twenty-thirty we will see a massive attempt at relocalization restructuring in the OECD countries. Naturally, the dates will vary depending on what sorts of local conditions and resources prevail. For example Japan has little in the way of local natural resources, certainly no energy sources, so we could expect Japan to undergo paroxysmal reorganization as the internal powers seek some new kind of equilibrium. It will be more pronounced for an island nation than a continentally-based one.
Relocalization is the only available response in light of diminishing supplies of energy for transportation. However it has many serious flaws. Its success depends entirely on the local resources available, and things such as climate stability and local population sizes. Unless a locality has the benefits of good soils, mild climate and sufficient growing season, reachable forests, etc. it will not provide a sustainable base for residents. And then, too, if the local population is quite large relative to the local resources, that spells disaster. I see many discussions about transition towns and relocalization that assumes an adaptation of an existing locale to local-only food and necessities production is feasible. Some have argued that the lawns of suburbia might be converted into crop lands, for example. That thinking is grossly naíve. Most residential lawns are possible only because grasses have shallow root systems and require copious helpings of fertilizers and water to stay green. The underlying soils are generally pretty poor and in no condition to grow food crops in any kind of quantity.
Much as I hate to say this, most of the people who attempt to relocalize in their current neighborhoods are going to die in situ from malnutrition or dehydration. The amount of food crops needed to provide an annual caloric input per person is far greater than most weekend and patio container gardeners can imagine. Most would-be farmers have no idea what crop mixes to plant to achieve a balanced diet, especially providing for the essential amino acids that our bodies do not manufacture. Indeed how many people even know what those amino acids are?
And then there is climate change. Try to imagine the folk in New Orleans eeking out a bare minimum living raising okra in their back yards to have another Cat 5 hurricane swipe across their relocalized homesteads. Or consider, over a longer time scale, admittedly, the folk in southern Florida trying to keep their oranges growing as the sea infiltrates their water table and eventually their land.
By twenty-fifty I am seeing most transportation coming to a standstill. The dreams of an electrified transportation system powered by wind and some solar will be dashed as the transportation necessary to service the wind turbines in remote locations cannot be sustained with diesel prices in the stratosphere. What is happening now that will aggravate this situation is a sudden turn to electric vehicles and things like high-speed rail systems. The latter are truly boondoggles. They are meant to make a show of doing something proactive for political gain, and to perpetuate the myth that there is a technological solution to every problem. These high-speed rail proposals that Obama is touting are nothing more than his version of Ronald Reagan's Sunrise in America theme (the one that temporarily blinded me in one of my lesser sapient periods!) Considering the overall scale (running between a few cities where the major ridership will be financial types anxious to get to the next ‘deal’), compared with the scale of trying to fix the standard rail system that actually carries supplies between regions that have and those that don't, this is blatant window dressing (these sentiments have been expressed by James Howard Kunstler, perhaps using similar rhetoric, though much more eloquent that I can muster!)
The climate impacts on regions of the world where many people are going to be literally stranded will begin to take their toll within the next few decades. As I said above, the first to suffer will be those in poorer regions. When the cost of a boat trip across the Gibraltar Straits or across the Arizona desert gets to be unaffordable, refugees will be stranded (we will likely see a resurgence of indentured servitude and outright slavery for a while as long as someone can afford the fuel to make the trips). Far more will be left in this condition than will get out. And those that do can expect nothing but hostilities from otherwise host countries.
Even people in the developed world where climate change will be drastic will suffer the same basic fate. The American eastern and western south lands are incredibly vulnerable to drought and increased average temperatures. The southwest is already arid, but supports a huge population due to imports of drinking water from northern regions, like the San Francisco Bay area or the Colorado River. Even now these sources are under severe stress and not likely to hold out beyond twenty-thirty or twenty-forty. Something has to give. It seems more likely that Americans living in these areas are going to be somewhat able to pack up and leave for northern realms more readily than peoples in the global south (or Mexico). But what will be the effects of massive migrations north on the communities struggling to relocalize? For the US, the south will not rise again. It will find itself begging the north for shelter. And I make no bets on how generous the northerners will be.
Even if many people from the negatively impacted climate zones make it to milder climes, they will contribute to the further increase in population density exactly at a time when health services will be in rapid decline. The opportunities for huge pandemics will increase and there will be little in the way of prevention of the spread, or treatment of the afflicted. It has happened before (Black Plague) and it would be foolish to suggest it couldn't happen again. Indeed under the conditions I envision, it almost certainly must happen again.
Under the dynamics of this scenario I am thinking that by 2075 more than three quarters of the world's population today will be dead, most from traumatic causes. By 2100 the population may be down to little more than a few million individuals scattered among the last regions that have some level of climate stability. The bottleneck event will have transpired. After this time almost anything can happen. With a radical enough change in the living conditions of the Earth, humans may go extinct. The bottleneck could be as severe as the last one supported by some evidence. We could go down to a mere several hundred individuals! Then what?
There are many well intentioned people today who do see the problems arising and who are trying their best to offer possible solutions. They are to be commended for their sincerity and efforts, but condemned for their inability to see this whole situation systemically. They offer false hope and only exacerbate the situation with respect to getting other people to take any kind of realistic action by reinforcing in them the hope that something will be done and therefore they don't need to do anything differently. As long as someone is taking care of the problem they are content to do nothing. As a result, this ‘do nothing’ action plan will be the most likely to be followed. I don't really blame anyone. This is just our human nature with minimal sapience. But it still sucks.
Least Likely — Scenario 2
Suppose the above scenario represents a reality that will obtain if we do nothing now. This is what we could anticipate by taking no action. We could say these are predictions of what will happen because we don't attempt to alter the future with preemptive actions now. Then the question should be, what if we do take some action now? Would that alter the outcomes in some favorable way? And if so, what actions should we take?
I feel this is the least likely scenario because it requires humans to exercise a level of sapience I doubt that they possess. It would require a level of unprecedented cooperation that I suspect we cannot muster. But I cannot help but wonder, ‘What If?’
The objective of intervention cannot be to prevent a bottleneck. We are in population overshoot and there simply will not be enough resources, especially energy, to do that. Instead, the objective needs to be to minimize the pain and suffering of going through such a bottleneck (without of course simply everyone committing suicide which would be the easy way out). Along these lines, the objective is to extend over a longer period of time the reduction of population by virtue of allowing a natural death rate to exceed (considerably) the birth rate. In other words, we would undertake an engineered population reduction that would achieve getting that population down to a sustainable level in a short enough time scale that would allow the preservation of at least some natural resources for future generations to build upon.
The population reduction rate has to be fast enough to prevent total depletion of resources such that future generations might not be able to have anything to power anything like what we might call a civilization. What rate might that be? It is determined by the depletion level of fossil fuels, the rate of change in climate impacts, and the depletion levels of all of the other resources mentioned above. If we had evidence that there would be adequate resources for the next hundred years, it would be reasonable to think that we could come up with a planned reduction with a population halving every hundred years or so. That would translate to an intervention that would affect only a fraction (about one fifth) of the world's people in each generation time period over that several hundred years. Of course we would have to target those in the areas currently suffering the largest population growth rates, which is a political quagmire, as in politically incorrect since it would also be viewed as targeting specific racial or ethnic groups. This would be repugnant to liberals and progressives.
Unfortunately, certainly as far as energy is concerned, our evidence suggests something more radical is called for. We don't have several hundred years. We have, at best, forty or so years before the depletion rate exceeds any possible potential for mitigation by engineered (as opposed to violent) population reduction. This is based on my model (mentioned above) which suggests that the energy decline curve will be much more severe than most others now think likely. If I am wrong, hurrah. If I am right...
Using a pretty standard population dynamics model I estimate that something like ninety percent of the current child-bearing population would need to be sterilized in order to force the population size down sufficiently fast to avoid the worst scenario (above). That is admittedly extremely radical, I do not deny it. The model could be wrong. But what if it isn't? We are playing what if after all. What if I am right?
Suppose we did engineer a radical reduction in the population over the next fifty years. Would that be sufficient? Unfortunately no. This would only be a basic action that we could take to assure a managed bottleneck. In addition we would have to make provisions for how to handle an aging population. There would be no new young people to take over the farms and relocalized manufacturing. What we would gain from the reduction is a conservation of energy and material resources that would allow us to stretch out the time scale of reduction. Instead of a catastrophic reduction in, say, ten years, we could have the same percentage reduction stretched over twenty to thirty years or more. The key would be how many reproducing adults were still in the population.
It is feasible that if we do manage to conserve resources we could redirect some of them to developing technologies that would compensate for not having young workers to replace aging ones. I think we are very close to producing workable robots that could take over the more physical tasks directed at producing just the assets we actually need to live reasonably comfortably, not in luxury. Those robots would be used to assist the aging population until the last sterile individual succumbed to old age (or disease). Robots would need to be powered, of course. So their practicality requires that the remaining flows of energy (especially, say, from wind, solar, and hydroelectric) be used to run them and maintain them in working order. The latter task might be taken on by the non-sterile remaining people forming the breeding population.
An interesting possibility for work that people would be engaged in during this time of contraction is dismantling the human built infrastructure and preserving the reusable resources, steel, copper, etc. for future generations. This would be meaningful work. Granted it isn't meaningful in the same sense as building the world. It would be meaningful as a contribution to future generations of humans who will need these resources but won't have the fossil fuels needed to extract them on their own. Spending time now, dismantling the buildings and machines no longer needed and aggregating those resources would serve humanity in the future. It would be a worthy legacy not unlike a fortune's bequeathal to an heir.
Of course the majority of able bodied will initially be needed in the food production industry because it will become increasingly labor intensive. By drastically reducing the population size it should be feasible to find productive land in spite of the depletion of soil quality throughout the industrial agriculture world. Many folk could be put to meaningful (though hard) work restoring additional soils to permaculture standards. As the population declines, the robots, mentioned above would replace the aging workers in this most necessary work.
An engineered bottleneck would have the advantage of reducing the pain and suffering of starvation, etc. but it would have the obvious negative effects of mental trauma from a denial of childbearing. Which is worse? Moreover, it cannot eliminate all physical suffering because that is already underway and would carry forward no matter what we did. It is really a matter of choosing the least painful alternative. There is no way to avoid some pain.
Survivors of the Bottleneck
This leads us to a consideration of the nature of survival of the bottleneck event. In scenario 1 I have already indicated that there is a non-zero probability that any survivors would eventually succumb and the human species would be finished forever. There is some chance that some survivors would remain and find ways to procreate, but starting from the genetic pool of today, it is problematic as to what form evolution would take after that. My guess is devolution toward primitivation rather than advancement. Of course this may just be the natural course of things after all so what would it matter?
In scenario 2 we have something of an option. An engineered bottleneck allows us an opportunity to choose the characteristics of our species' progeny. And if we did that (wisely) we might seed a future evolutionary process with a gene pool that promotes those very best characteristics of our kind. My vote goes for high sapience.
Yes Virginia this is eugenics! I admit it. But what else would we do? We might choose higher intelligence, but we already know what high intelligence without higher wisdom produces. Better capitalists! And better capitalists rape the world faster than less bright capitalists.
I realize that very many people will question the genetic basis of sapience and wonder if there isn't some kind of education that could prepare the selected survivors. Then we could just use a lottery system for choosing and our only real action would be to set up that educational system. This amounts to asking are people educable to wisdom. Certainly, to some degree, some aspects of wisdom could be instilled in anyone. But only some aspects. One might as well ask if people with IQs of 75 might not be trained to do calculus. They are certainly capable of being taught intuitions about rates of change (going faster vs. going slower). But this isn't exactly the same thing as doing calculus is it? Holistic wisdom comes from a native ability to learn veridical tacit knowledge and having the facilities for using that knowledge for judgment in decision making. This is a rare capacity in we humans.
Fortunately we are developing the very tools we would need to answer this question and a basis for making selection decisions if we collectively decided that this would be the better route to take (see: Overpopulation: Here is the Solution).
If we selected high sapient individuals of breeding age (please bear in mind I am not of breeding age!) and provided protections for them, as well as resources to nurture their establishment, they would survive an engineered bottleneck and have a much better chance of surviving the future changes in the environment due to climate change and massive ecosystems alterations. We could bequeath them the fruits of our civilization (the appropriate technologies and knowledge) with the hope that they will succeed in preserving the genetic heritage of our genus into the distant future.
How likely is scenario 2? Not very, I'm afraid. Not only do we lack, as a species, the wisdom to act appropriately, we lack the intestinal fortitude to practice the kind of triage that would be necessary. Our political structures, at least in the West, do not even allow the subject to come up let alone make necessary decisions.
The feasibility of determining something like sapience level as a selection criterion is, I think, relatively high given our access to information about the brain functions, brain development, and genetic basis for development. Our understanding of judgment is now high and growing, so the possibility of developing psychological probes that would discriminate sapient judgment from mere intellectual decision making is quite high.
But, we won't even try it. We are, collectively, cowards. We won't even face up to the consequences of what we have wrought until it is too late. Moreover, I expect the majority of people to panic when those consequences start to be felt in earnest. Look at how many people are already reacting to high fuel prices. Instead of seeking information and education on the situation, instead of thinking through the various causes and seeing the naturalness of the effect, what do people do? They complain that they can't consume more. They whine about how hard life is for them. Wait until it really starts to get hard. Then let's see how they react.
So once again I offer this as little more than an intellectual exercise knowing full well that my species will be unable to deal with the forces at hand. Which leaves us with scenario 1, the pain and suffering scenario. Now my only hope is that somewhere out there a few really sapient individuals will be thinking clearly and planning ahead, anticipating the worst and preparing for it. Older individuals such as myself can only try to make younger high sapient people aware and trust to their level of sapience that they will be able to make the right choices. This is a hit and miss proposition. No guarantees. Younger people, even with high sapience, have not accumulated the wisdom of experience. Their sapience can only help them obtain that experience. But then hit and miss always was the nature of evolution! The ultimate question will be whether such a process will produce viable survivors with the right qualities to provide a basis for progress in the development of our genus.