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Will Civilization’s Response to COVID-19 Lead to a More Sustainable, Equitable World?

Will Civilization’s Response to COVID-19 Lead to a More Sustainable, Equitable World?

What better time to shift our thinking and actions away from a hyperconsumptive, inequality-widening, environmentally-detrimental era than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Having been shaken to our collective core by the COVID19 pandemic, can we muster the will to make major changes in how we rebuild our systems, to truly transform how we function as a society for the betterment of Earth and her inhabitants? What cause is more just, fair, and wise? And what time is better to shift our thinking away from a hyperconsumptive, inequality-widening, environmentally-detrimental era in which we find ourselves – the Anthropocene – than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the 22nd of April 2020?

A proposition has been coalescing in my mind for years, but drew strength from recent essays by notable thinkers, which I’ll briefly mention for context.

Humanizing Capitalism

Meghan Kallman pleads that “Crises require a radical form of solidarity.” as she questions whether a capitalist system can address the looming threats of climate change, and more importantly prioritize social relationships above the search for wealth. Her perspectives on how these relationships germinate best at the community level are encouraging.

Darren Walker summarizes the August 2019 statement emanating from 181 CEOs of the Business Roundtable:  “…leading the way toward a more equitable, humane, and democratic economic system…” (because in the U.S.) “…the three richest Americans collectively own about as much as the bottom half of the population combined…” This group is attempting to redefine the purpose of a corporation, committing to “…lead[ing] their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.”

Nate Hagens writes that COVID-19 “exposes economic, cultural, environmental fallacies” of our existence, suggesting we all become more compassionate in our work, play, and interactions. I applaud his many suggestions for individual action.

Reallocating Resources

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How sand transformed civilization

How sand transformed civilization

Preface. No wonder we’re reaching peak sand. We use more of this natural resource than of any other except water. Civilization consumes nearly 50 billion tons of sand & gravel a year, enough to build a concrete wall 88 feet (27 m) high and 88 feet wide right around the equator.    

* * *

Vince Beiser. 2018. The World in a Grain. The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization. Riverhead Books.

Riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare of their precious grains. Farmlands and forests are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand.

In 1950, some 746 million people—less than one-third of the world’s population—lived in cities. Today, the number is almost 4 billion,

The overwhelming bulk of it goes to make concrete, by far the world’s most important building material. In a typical year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world uses enough concrete to build a wall 88 feet high and 88 feet wide right around the equator.    

There is such intense need for certain types of construction sand that places like Dubai, which sits on the edge of an enormous desert in the Arabian Peninsula, are importing sand from Australia.

Sand mining tears up wildlife habitat, fouls rivers, and destroys farmland.

Thieves in Jamaica made off with 1,300 feet of white sand from one of the island’s finest beaches in 2008. Smaller-scale beach-sand looting is ongoing in Morocco, Algeria, Russia, and many other places around the world.

The damage being done to beaches is only one facet, and not even the most dangerous one, of the damage being done by sand mining around the world. Sand miners have completely obliterated at least two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005. Hauled off boatload by boatload, the sediment forming those islands ended up mostly in Singapore, which needs titanic amounts of sand to continue its program of artificially adding territory by reclaiming land from the sea.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Plague and Civilization

Plague and Civilization

The plague is a disease that raises its devouring and catastrophic head every so many decades and centuries, especially when humans violently disturb the natural world.

The 2020 plague is one of a variety of pandemic diseases that have afflicted humans for millennia, not necessarily with the same intensity or virulence.

The historical record of plagues is muddled. Like us, past societies under the existential stress of pandemics, failed to keep records, much less accurate records. In many instances, past and present, rulers, medical bureaucrats, and journalists subvert the truth. Political and economic oligarchs fight for survival and supremacy. The picture that survives death is distorted, exactly like the story victors tell after war.

The Plague Among the Greeks

The case of the plague in Greek history may still give us pose for reflection.

The Greeks gave diseases precise names. They called plague loimos (pestilence), nosos (disease, sorrow, suffering), and phthora (destruction, decay, mortality, death).

The plague made its first appearance among the Greeks as a weapon of divine wrath. God Apollo used the pestilence to punish the Greeks for offending his priest.

In the beginning of the first book of the Iliad of Homer, Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greek troops in the Trojan War, insulted the priest of Apollo by refusing to give back his daughter, whom he had captured in a raid. The priest knelt in front of Agamemnon and begged him to release his daughter. But Agamemnon told the priest to get out of his sight as quickly as he could, lest he lost his patience. The frighten priest run away from the Greek camp and went home. He immediately prayed to Apollo to punish the Greeks. He reminded the god he had built a temple to honor and worship him, offering him rich sacrifices. Make the Greeks pay for my tears, he appealed to Apollo.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Energy storage and our unpredictable future

Energy storage and our unpredictable future

March 4, 2020

A review of Energy Storage and Civilization

It’s a fine spring day and you decide on a whim to go camping. By early afternoon you’ve reached a sheltered clearing in the woods, the sky is clear, and you relax against a tree trunk rejoicing that “The best things in life are free!” as you soak up the abundant warmth of the sun. As the sun goes down, though, the temperature drops to near freezing, you shiver through a long night, and you resolve to be better prepared the next night.

And so by the time the sun sets again you’ve invested in a good down sleeping bag, you sleep through the long night in comfort due to your own carefully retained heat, and then you greet the cold dawn by cheerfully striking a match to the pile of dry sticks you had gathered and stacked the day before.

In this little excursion you’ve coped with variable energy flows, using technologies that allowed you to store energy for use at a later time. In short, you’ve faced the problems that Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd identify as critical challenges in all human civilizations – and especially in our own future.

Their new book Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach (Springer, February 2020) is an important contribution to biophysical economics – marvelously clear, deep and detailed where necessary, and remarkably thorough for a work of just over 150 pages.

The most widely appreciated insight of biophysical economics is the concept of Energy Return On Investment – the need for energy technologies to yield significantly more energy than the energy that must be invested in these activities. (If it takes more energy to drill an oil well than the resulting barrels of oil can produce, that project is a bust.) While in no way minimizing the importance of EROI, Palmer and Floyd lay out their book’s purpose succinctly:

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

“Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons” – Interview with Michel Bauwens

“Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons” – Interview with Michel Bauwens

The commons are nothing new. Historically citizens always came together to pool resources and manage them collectively and autonomously. It is the responsibility of cities and states to identify, connect and support them. Today the commons appear as a choice of society in a world at the end of its lifespan. A society where economic and productive systems will finally be compatible with the major planetary balances.

We increasingly speak of commons. “Common goods”, “creative commons”, “commonalities”…  What exactly are the commons about?

Michel Bauwens: The commons are three things at the same time: a resource (shared), a community (which maintains them) and precise principles of autonomous governance (to regulate them). These are very concrete things, which do not exist naturally but are the result of alliances between several parties. “There is no commons without commoning”. Examples are renewable energy cooperatives,  shared mobility projects, entities of shared knowledge, food cooperatives… 

In fact, we all have and create commons without knowing it, and have always done so… following more or less intense cycles of mutualization.

In fact, we all have and create commons without knowing it, and have always done so… following more or less intense cycles of mutualization.

If commoning follows cycles, where are we today?

M. B. : There are long, civilizational cycles and short, economic cycles. Regarding the former, every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons. Because when class societies disintegrate, when resources are overexploited and run out, pooling resources makes more and more sense. Today, we face a global environmental crisis that is giving rise to a resurgence of the commons. Yesterday it was the end of the Roman Empire, the crisis in Japan in the 12th century or in China in the 15th century… 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The West Fades. The Center Quietly Returns: The New Silk Road

The West Fades. The Center Quietly Returns: The New Silk Road

An image from the workshop on desalination and mineral extraction from seawater organized by Sharif University in Teheran this week. In the photo, you can see people from Oman (3), Iran (3), South Africa (1), India (1), and Bangladesh (1). It was not only a multi-ethnical group but also a Eurasia-centered one. It gave me some impression of the shifting balance of power in the world, from the West to the Center, and inspired this post.  

If you think about that, it is funny that we tend to define ourselves as “Westerners.” Most civilizations and cultures in history have tended to see themselves as the center of the world, just think of China: it is supposed to be “the Middle Kingdom”. This idea that we are on an edge is something that we’ve probably inherited from the ancient Greeks, when everything west of them was seen as a land of mystery, peopled with savages, monsters, and Gods. 

But the fact that we call ourselves Westerners doesn’t mean we think we are a periphery of the world, not at all. Most Westerners seem to cherish the idea that we are the real center, the most advanced, enlightened, and powerful area of the world. The rest of is, well, it is mostly inhabited by turban-wearing barbarians, savage tribes, or, at best, ancient and decadent empires on their way to dissolution. These Non-Westerners need our guidance if they have to attain the nirvana as defined here: democracy and economic liberism.

But the world is vast and things change. Empires are born, reach their pinnacle of greatness and then collapse while still claiming that they will last forever. That may be the destiny of that great world empire, the “Western Empire,” that started with the British and continues with the Americans.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The History Of The World, In One Video

The History Of The World, In One Video

Throughout the history of the world, many civilizations have risen and fallen.

You may be familiar with the achievements of prominent societies like the Romans, Mongols, or Babylonians, but, as Visual Capitalist’s Jeff Desjardins explains belowhow do all of their stories intertwine over time and geography?

Visualizing the History of the World

Today’s video comes to us from Ollie Bye, and it attempts to integrate the histories of all major civilizations known by historians into a single, epic video.

Similar to the Histomap, it’s pretty much impossible for a video like this to be perfect due to biases and a general lack of data. However, it’s still a compelling attempt at showing global history in a short and sweet fashion.

Let’s look at some specific moments on the video that particularly stand out.

750 AD: The Umayyad Caliphate

One of the largest empires in history, the Umayyad Caliphate peaked sometime around 750 AD.

Conquering most of North Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe (including modern-day Spain, Portugal, and France), the Umayyads commanded a formidable territory with an area of 11,100,000 km² (4,300,000 sq. mi) and encompassing 33 million people.

1279: Mongol Dominance

No history of the world is complete without a mention of the Mongols.

Nearby societies have always been on edge when nomadic tribes in the Eurasian Steppe entered into organized confederations. Similar to the Huns or various Turk federations, the Mongols were known for their proficiency with horses, bows, and tactics like the feigned retreat.

Under the leadership of Temüjin ⁠— also known as Genghis Khan ⁠— the Mongols conquered one of the largest empires by land.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How to Destroy a Civilization

How to Destroy a Civilization

There are lots of ways to kill off a civilization. Wars, politics, economic collapse. But what are the actual mechanics? It might be a useful thing to know whether or not we are killing ourselves off.

Ancient Rome is a good place to start. They had an advanced civilization. They had running water, sewers, flush toilets, concrete, roads, bridges, dams, an international highway system, mechanical reapers, water-powered mills, public baths, soap, banking, commerce, free trade, a legal code, a court system, science, literature, and a republican system of government. And a strong army to enforce stability and peace (Pax Romana). It wasn’t perfect, but they were on their way to modernity.

One of my favorite quotes is from Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator and writer (106-43 BCE):

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.

If that isn’t a mark of a civilized society I don’t know what is.

But Rome collapsed. I often wonder what would have happened if it hadn’t. Could we have avoided a thousand years of the Dark Ages. Could we have been flying airplanes and driving cars in the year 1000?

What the hell happened to Rome?

Dictators. After 500 years, the famous Roman Republic ended with the dictator Julius Caesar taking power. Four hundred years later his progeny and usurpers ran the Empire into the ground and Rome fell to invading barbarians.

The standard explanation for Rome’s decline and fall is that they devolved into dictatorships (true, but not the cause of their fall). Or they became decadent and corrupt (true, but not the cause of their fall). They fell to barbarian invasions (true, but not the cause of their fall).

Rome fell because the dictators ruined the Roman economy and the institutions that had made it prosperous. Rome was falling apart before the barbarian invasions.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Part 2. How long do civilizations last on average? 336 years

Part 2. How long do civilizations last on average? 336 years

I stopped trying to find out why each civilization failed in Wiki because it’s not always clear and historians bicker over it, though it’s clear drought, invasions, civil wars, and famines played a role in most of them.  Yet what’s seldom mentioned is that deforestation (Perlin “A forest journey”) and topsoil erosion (Montgomery “Dirt: the erosion of civilization”) were often the main or one of the key reasons for collapse. 

But what’s clear is that societies always collapse, and our civilization will fail as well, since it depends on a one-time only supply of fossil fuels.

Kemp, L. 2019. Are we on the road to civilization collapse? Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening. BBC

In the graphic below, I have compared the lifespan of various civilizations, which I define as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilizations, but not all civilizations are empires.

Civilization [Duration in years]

  1. Ancient Egypt, Old Kingdom [505]  The power of pharaoh gradually weakened in favor of powerful nomarchs (regional governors)…. The country slipped into civil wars mere decades after the close of Pepi II’s reign.  The final blow was the 22nd century BC drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation. For at least some years between 2200 and 2150 BC, this prevented the normal flooding of the Nile. The collapse of the Old Kingdom was followed by decades of famine and strife.
  • Ancient Egypt, Middle Kingdom [405]   
  • Ancient Egypt, New Kingdom [501]  Egypt was increasingly beset by droughts, below-normal flooding of the Nilefamine, civil unrest and official corruption

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Arrest of Julian Assange is an Attack on Journalism, Liberty, Self-Government and Civilization Itself

Arrest of Julian Assange is an Attack on Journalism, Liberty, Self-Government and Civilization Itself

Without an unfettered press, without liberty of speech, all of the outward forms and structures of free institutions are a sham, a pretense – the sheerest mockery. If the press is not free; if speech is not independent and untrammeled; if the mind is shackled or made impotent through fear, it makes no difference under what form of government you live, you are a subject and not a citizen.

– William Edgar Borah

Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilization.  

– Oscar Wilde

The glimpse of Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorean embassy in London is an emblem of the times. Might against right. Muscle against the law. Indecency against courage. Six policemen manhandled a sick journalist.

– John Pilger: Assange Arrest a Warning from History

I was born 80 years ago in a country called the United States of America, and now I live in a Homeland — an expression we haven’t heard since Hitler.

– Gore Vidal

The only thing I’ve been able to think about for the last few days is the mugging of Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This post could go in many different directions, but given all the excellent articles already written on the topic, what seems most necessary is an explanation of what this means in the big picture of freedom in the Western world and civilization in general.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Book review of Dirt: the erosion of civilization

Book review of Dirt: the erosion of civilization

Preface.  On average civilizations collapsed between 800 to 2,000 years before ruining their soil. Industrial agriculture is doing this far faster – in most of the United States half of the original topsoil is gone and industrial farming techniques erode and compact the land much more than men and horses in the past, further aggravated by large monoculture crops and business owned farmland leased out to farmers who want to make money far more than preserving the land, since they can’t leave the farm to their children.

The bedrock of any civilization is food and water.  So you’d think the top priority of nations throughout history would be ensuring farmers were taking good care of the land right now because this history of erosion is well-known and has been for centuries.

The typical pattern is that at first, only be best soil in the valley bottomland is farmed, then population grows so the slopes are farmed, but the soil washes away into the valley.  Now the bottom land is even more intensely cultivated, which uses the soil up as it keeps growing thinner and depleted of nutrition from continuous farming. And in the end, civilization declines and fails.

Related article: “Peak soil: Industrial agriculture destroys ecosystems and civilizations. Biofuels make it worse“.

***

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.  University of California Press.

Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson commented on how poorly American farmers treated their land.  Washington attributed it to ignorance, Jefferson to greed.  Since the principles of good land management were known for hundreds of years previously in Europe, Jefferson’s harsher view is no doubt the correct one.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason

Modern urban-industrial man is given to the raping of anything and everything natural on which he can fasten his talons.  He rapes the sea; he rapes the soil; the natural resources of the earth.  He rapes the atmosphere.  He rapes the future of his own civilization.  Instead of living off of nature’s surplus, which he ought to do, he lives off its substance. He would not need to do this were he less numerous, and were he content to live a more simple life.  But he is prepared neither to reduce his numbers nor to lead a simpler and more healthful life.  So he goes on destroying his own environment, like a vast horde of locusts.  And he must be expected, persisting blindly as he does in this depraved process,to put an end to his own existence within the next century.  The years 2000 to 2050 should witness, in fact, the end of the great Western civilization.  The Chinese, more prudent and less spoiled, no less given to over-population but prepared to be more ruthless in the control of its effects, may inherent the ruins.

– George Kennan, diary entry, March 21, 1977

But as I grow older I realize how limited a part reason plays in the conduct of men.  They believe what they want to—and although liable to shipwreck they generally get off with a hole in the bottom of their boat and stick an old coat into that.

– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (to Harold Laski), December 26, 1917

We all see what’s happening, we read it in the headlines every day, but seeing isn’t believing and believing isn’t accepting.

– Roy Scranton, We’re Doomed. Now What?

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Golden Renaissance – Precious Metals Supply & Demand 

A major theme of my work — and raison d’etre of Monetary Metals — is fighting to prevent collapse. Civilization is under assault on all fronts.

Battling the barbarians at the gate… [PT]

There is the freedom of speech battle, with the forces of darkness advancing all over. For example, in Pakistan, there are killings of journalists. Saudi Arabia apparently had journalist Khashoggi killed. New Zealand now can force travelers to provide the password to their phones so the government can go through all your data, presumably including your gmail, Onedrive, Evernote, and WhatsApp.

China is now developing a “social credit” system, to centrally plan the economy and control citizen behavior. Canada has made it a crime to call someone by the wrong gender pronoun. Even in the US, whose First Amendment has (mostly) stood as a bulwark against censorship now has a president who threatens antitrust action against Amazon, because its CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which prints things he does not like.

On college campuses, professors are harassed if they say one thing that the professional sensitives are sensitive to. If a controversial speaker is invited, he risks an angry mob coming to disrupt his talk (or worse).

Sacrifices on the road to Utopia. [PT]

Then, there is the nearly-over war against patients’ rights to purchase health care services from the provider of their own choosing, and health care professionals’ right to sell services to patients at a price they prefer. In the US, insurance companies are still forced (as under Obamacare) to provide insurance to anyone who applies, even those who have pre-existing conditions. This would be like forcing home insurance companies to issue policies to people whose houses are currently on fire. It is not insurance, but an unfunded welfare program.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Climate catastrophe: The median is NOT the message

Climate catastrophe: The median is NOT the message

Anyone who has followed the climate change issue in the last 30 years knows that official forecasts provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are quickly upended by developments and have often been obsolete before they were issued.

The latest report from the IPCC is the first, however, to abandon the measured tone of its previous ones and foretell what it considers a climate catastrophe for human civilization unless the world makes an abrupt U-turn and begins dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions almost immediately.

And yet, even this forecast is probably too conservative in its pronouncements. That’s according to Michael Mann, a climate researcher whose famous “hockey stick” graph has been central to understanding the rise in global temperatures and has been replicated again and again using other measures of historical worldwide temperatures.

What is little understood by the public is that humans have been underestimating the pace and impact of climate change since Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first suggested in 1896 that the globe was warming due to emissions of carbon dioxide.

Which brings me to a broader point: The public tends to hear most often about the median values or middle-of-the road scenarios in any forecast, sometimes called the reference case. (Very little emphasis is put on the range of possibilities. For example, the IPCC in 2000 forecast that global average temperature could be 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Centigrade higher than the 1990 level by 2100.)

Today, we find ourselves fretting that going beyond a 1.5-degree increase from pre-industrial times will spell catastrophe involving global agriculture, severe weather, sea-level rise, and disease epidemics. Previously, 2 degrees was thought to be the threshold for severe irretrievable consequences resulting from climate change.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Western Civilization 101

Western Civilization 101

Notwithstanding the fears of Samuel Huntington and the more overtly violent demonstrations of self-described Western chauvinists such as the Proud Boys, the term “Western Civilization” is of only relatively recent creation. Advanced following the First World War, the concept, along with other inventions such as “Great Books” series, was designed to uphold the merit of a project that had just culminated in an unprecedented industrial bloodbath. That the idea was promulgated merely decades before an even larger industrial bloodbath suggests that its promoters ought to have taken a humbler approach in their attempt to salvage, in fact construct, Western European history. After all, insofar as it even constitutes a coherent and quantifiable entity, Western Civilization advanced not because of any intrinsic superiority but because of fortuitous geographic circumstances and no small portion of simple freak luck.

It has been noted that if an informed observer had been standing atop the world in 1500 CE and was asked to predict which power – among Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan, India, or Russia — would become dominant over the following centuries, it would have been unlikely that he or she would have chosen what had until recently been the Western European backwater. It would have been far more sensible to instead opt for, say, Ming China or the Ottoman Empire, which was in possession of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Greece, and Hungary and continually menaced, and periodically invaded, lands further west.

Yet, as we know, Western Europe did become dominant over the next four centuries — though not necessarily evenly or without setbacks; the so-called Sick Man of Europe defeated Britain in battle as late as 1916. Nevertheless, by WWI, Europe directly or indirectly controlled a full eighty percent of the world’s landmass, an unprecedented degree of global domination. So how do we explain this extraordinary growth?

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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