Signs that the End is Nigh
[edit note: Neigh changed to Nigh! OK, it was late, I was tired... So thanks to those who pointed out the distinction. And my apologies to those who came here looking for something about horse language!]
The boundary conditions for human civilization and, indeed, our species have been identified. Even though economists are loathe to admit it, we are in the throes of resource limitations that thwart any kind of future economic growth, that is growth of real wealth not that phoney debt-based paper stuff. No amount of technological twiddling is going to change the fact that we have used up the most easily accessed critical resources. It would take a technological miracle, probably based on a radical physics discovery (a lot more than the recent announcement of data patterns at CERN compatible with the existence of the Higgs boson!) of a completely new kind of energy source, previously unimagined. With adequate energy it would be feasible in principle to recycle much of our current wasted material resources. We could, for example extract fertilizer nutrients from the runoff water from agriculture, thus preventing soil depletion and dead zones in the oceans. It takes energy to combat entropy. Every time concentrated or configured material wealth is consumed and dissipated we come that much closer to entropy's take over. The material flow through in our economic system is largely one way at present, with only minor amounts of things like aluminum and copper being actually recycled.
The major source of energy for human civilization is that stored in fossil fuels. We are depleting those at the fastest rate possible constrained only by social factors I will discuss below. We have reached the peak of conventional oil extraction (in spite of the recent distortions being reported by the mainstream media and people like George Monbiot, the fact is that we are at peak oil extraction) and combined with the declining energy return on energy invested in both conventional and newer non-conventional fuels, such as shale oil, there is no hope that fossil fuels will provide the energy needed for the future maintenance of civilization, let alone growth.
Indeed it is even worse than that. To a very large degree we have been frittering our inheritance of fossil sunlight away on frivolous pleasures, meaningless toys and gadgets, that provide no real gain to our wealth. Consider how many different versions of iPxxs have been bought and abandoned just because of some new ‘design’ innovation. How many ‘smart’ phones have been thrown into the trash heap because the newest models provide wow features? Actually just consider the whole marketing game. Its about getting people to buy stuff they might enjoy (for a little while) but not something they actually need, or is an investment in their ability to live in the future. And most of this stuff is used up or even thrown away long before it wears out. For what purpose?
Well, in a sense it doesn't really matter if we understand the purpose of human profligacy or not. It is what it is and it doesn't look like there is much chance of changing that before it is too late. In fact, if my calculations are right it is already too late so it is no longer worth fretting about.
That being the case I want to share with you the kinds of things I am watching in the world which will mark events and trends signifying the collapse of our global civilization. I don't expect to be around to see the most severe cataclysmic events (although I must admit that at the rates of change we are seeing in many of these processes I may have to re-assess that assumption). Rather I focus on processes and trends and rates of change. I select these various processes based on their systemic interrelations, particularly the kinds of feedback effects we see that will dampen some kinds of processes (like economic growth) and accelerate other kinds of processes (like methane escape increasing the rate of global warming).
The processes I am watching have all been covered in various forms in my previous blogs. What I will be doing now is simply pointing out when I think I see a significant change or event that may provide us with a better handle on how rapidly the decline is happening. I will also examine the systemic relations between these processes and try to assess how changes in one may affect changes in the others. Call it observational systems science applied to the global human civilization. Should be interesting.
The Systems Viewpoint
The processes that most directly affect daily lives around the globe are economics and politics. Those two are tightly intertwined but not in the ways most people think. Political actions cannot make the economy better, certainly not in any permanent sense. They can only make matters worse, and we are seeing this in action right now. Interestingly a number of pundits are recognizing and saying that the president, for example, really can't do a whole lot about certain economic conditions. The recognition of this realization is amplified in the US political season that we all must endure. Discussions about what either the incumbent president or the challenger could do once the election is done abound with an increasing consensus that promises being made now are probably worthless. Neither the incumbent nor the challenger actually have a science-based model of the economy. They are running on pure party-line ideological beliefs. So even if they somehow managed to get legislation through that was designed to accomplish something, say jobs creation, they would fail miserably (in terms of restoring the income potentials of all those wanting to work). The reason is that the economy is governed by laws neither of the candidates understand or are even aware of. And their respective ideologies are actually counterproductive with respect to what actions might actually work.
So I expect to see a lot of mismanagement ensuing in the not-too-distant future. It doesn't even matter which party gets control of the White House. They will both screw things up equally badly, just trying different approaches. We know that the incumbent will do so because he already has, with his views on the financial system favoring bankers and Wall Street. He is in their pockets by all accounts. And the Wall Street bankers and investment houses are guaranteed to steal from the rest of society (of course it isn't limited to Wall Street; Barclay's Bank showed us that it is a global phenomenon so Wall Street is just a symbol for the general condition). Even worse than merely stealing real wealth, bankers create money out of thin air and pay themselves huge bonuses for doing so. They happily create debt and gambling bubbles that are guaranteed to implode on everybody else and pay themselves huge bonuses for doing so. And as our current president has demonstrated, they can do this with impunity because when the defecant hits the fan, the government will willingly bail them out so they can do it again. Dodd-Frank? Give me a break!
The economy is governed by energy flow. So I continue to watch that very carefully. While a lot of analytic focus continues to be placed on peak oil as a critical phenomenon, as I have said the real issue is net energy available to do useful work per capita. That is the limiting factor. I will continue to try and piece together the combined effects of declining EROI and peak or declining fossil fuel extraction as they relate to declining net energy. It would be nice to have some kind of direct measure of net energy, instead of just looking at oil extraction, but that doesn't seem to be technically feasible given our current accounting systems. The only thing we can do is estimate it based on the physical amount of fossil fuels we have and our best estimates for EROI. Still I think we should get some warning signs by that effort.
The major belief structure operating in the world today is that a capitalistic, market-based, consumer-oriented economy is the BEST approach to creating wealth. We have to give credit where credit is due. Once upon a time that was really true, at least before the emphasis started to shift toward the consumeristic aspects. Profit motive, entrepreneurism, competition to drive down prices, and all of the mechanisms that are entailed in this kind of economy did indeed produce enormous wealth for a segment of humanity. But the whole premise is based on continuous growth (for profits to grow) and that required the shift to consumption orientation. In order to keep the engine going you needed to have ever expanding purchasing of stuff and services even if that stuff and services did not contribute one bit to fulfilling lifestyles. Today the capitalist economies are trapped needing growth to maintain investment opportunities against a loss of the very basis of wealth creation — energy. Without the latter capitalism will die.
Watching the political process in this country is like watching the clown act in a circus. All chaos and loud noises. Everybody trying to squeeze into one of two (or three) tiny vehicles that aren't going anywhere anyway. The clowns batter each other with outsized plastic baseball bats just to get the crowd to laugh. Only the general crowd in the US doesn't get the joke. They take everything the clowns do seriously. They think it really means something. Candidates saying outrageous things just to get attention. It is just ridiculous.
The only justification for watching this spectacle is what it can tell you about the human society's likely responses to the traumas that are descending. The Republicans are still denying global warming (though they are starting to come around on the fact of climate change). George Will, today on one of the talking head shows, proclaimed the cause of the massive heat spell covering most of the country was (get ready for this) summer! The depth of stupidity here is mind boggling. Just what kind of evidence do you need to get you realizing that something important is happening, let alone what is causing it? Moreover, at what rate do you need to see these changes taking effect before you admit that there is something different about this time. Democrats, unfortunately, are really not much better in regard to their responses. They acknowledge the science of global warming, for example, but then turn around and ignore hard science when it comes to wishful thinking about “going green”. They continue to spout off about how, if only we would subsidize solar or wind, all of our problems will be solved by technology. And, they think, with no real evidence to go on, that that shift to “green” will create wonderful new, high paying jobs. They are no more realists than the Republicans. And the Libertarians are so completely out of touch with reality that I don't have anything else to say about them.
Then there is the biophysical realities of climate conditions, water over-consumption, soil degradation, food production declines, and biodiversity loss. These are all symptoms of what is ailing us. As with all symptoms we need to monitor them just to understand the progression of the disease. Environmentalist have never gotten past the point of worrying about what humans have done to the environment as being THE number one problem. They won't touch population issues and they are equally guilty of counting on technological solutions as the Democrats, politically. Of course there is a lot of overlap between environmentalists and Democrats so this isn't surprising. Their purposes were well intentioned but the diverted attention from the real underlying causes of our plight. They put undo weight on one of the many symptoms and in doing so alienated a number of people who might have otherwise taken a look at the underlying systemic problem.
Climate change, while merely symptomatic, may be one of the most critical factors to keep an eye on. Radical weather anomalies and general shifts in climate parameters will provide some of the worst kinds of stresses on societies. Populations will be displaced, or more likely due to the rapid onset we might see they will simply expire in place. The energetic (and hence financial) costs of mitigation and adaptation will be prohibitive given the decline in net energy. Thus I suspect there will be little real large-scale adaptation attempted. All one has to do is look at the failures of our governments to simply maintain critical infrastructure now! Where will they get the resources to pay for mitigation and adaptation if the climate chaos is as bad as some climate scientists now claim it is likely to be? We will not only have to suffer political failure but failure of governance in general. Our system of governance is so brittle (and I don't just mean that in the US) that it cannot possibly adapt itself to the rapidly changing needs. Rather we may witness many revolutions not unlike what we saw in Egypt, and likely with similar, though more bloody, outcomes. This is as true for the United States as it is for any other country. The revolutionaries will not be able to do any better and so there could be waves of revolutions as long as there is some energy to drive the effort. But those revolutions will likely destroy the very capabilities of extracting energy and so counteract their own continuance.
I consider the twin (Siamese) predicaments of energy decline and climate change stresses (with all of their ramifications in terms of other vital resource availabilities) to provide the greatest forces driving collapse. So I will keep an especially sensitive eye on developments there.
From a systems viewpoint it appears that the real “cause” of our dilemma is our own mental weaknesses. We are not truly rational creatures. We are subject to thinking guided more by heuristics and producing biases that we nevertheless mistake for rationality (when in fact it is rationalization). Our brains are simply not evolved enough to allow us to override limbic influences and use knowledge-based judgments in guiding decisions. This weakness extends to everything from decisions to buy a hot looking car because a hot looking babe was in the advertisement to choosing a science career because the subject happens to be the hot topic de jour. For that matter it probably guides an awful lot of decisions about what sorts of experiments to do and how to frame the results to put the scientist in the best possible light. None of us is immune from insufficient sapience (except for those rare few), not even the supposed brightest among us. Science, thank the stars, works not because individual scientists are objective, rational beings, but because the process produces self-correction when false understandings prevail. And then there are the financial wizards and bankers — the capitalists who truly believe that their creation of paper assets based on smoke is doing God's work. They just cannot help themselves letting limbic drives take over. Anyone who has spent time in a trading pit knows the meaning of animal spirits.
So I will be watching people. I will continue to observe how people in general react to the various events that portend decay, decline, and collapse. They are in the news on a daily basis at present. But most people go about looking at each debacle as isolated and independent events. I've even talked to people who, even though they think things in general are bad and maybe are going to get worse, still think the main cause is just a string of bad luck events, e.g. the housing bubble/sub-prime market and the gasoline price spike were coincident and the bursting of that bubble just caught Wall Street off guard. Once the housing market bottoms out, we'll get back on track for economic growth again — you know, the normal way. But the truth is that these events are connected at a deep level. My past blogs have attempted to demonstrate that all of these events are rooted in the same basic phenomenon, our imprudent reliance on finite fossil fuels, our imprudent extraction as if there were no tomorrow, and the resulting bursting of the biggest bubble of all, the energy bubble. We are imprudent in all that we do to use that energy, including and especially expanding our populations and profligate consumption of junk just for the sake of consuming. We have no consciousness of the long-term consequences because our brains are incapable, on average, to compute those models.
I think it will ultimately come down to how people react to contraction once it sets in in earnest and the pain simply cannot be ignored. To be honest I have no idea how people will generally react. We've speculated on various scenarios in the blogs and comments, but how could we really know what to expect from a truly unprecedented phenomenon. It is true that other civilizations have collapsed and different cultures have produced different reactions. But in all of those cases the civilizations were fairly localized yet there was knowledge of a world beyond the civilization. People had other examples to look at and other places to go when the going got hard. In a global collapse there are no other examples and no other places to run and hide. Everything and everyone will be subject to similar conditions. And given that the dominant culture of the day is greedy capitalism I suspect strongly that the predominant reaction will be violence, both in terms of attempts to take away and attempts to protect what people possess.
But we will just have to see what happens.