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Accepting Our Lack of Agency

Accepting Our Lack of Agency

An early morning picture at Black Rock Mountain State Park in Georgia

The last month has been focused on acceptance, and has been building up to the inexorable, immutable, and irrevocable truth that besets us within the confines of the set of predicaments we face. The one thing I constantly see and hear is about all the things that “we” can do to mitigate the situation –  all the ways we can “regenerate” nature – and all the ways we can “save the planet.” While I do think that society is beginning to realize that something is wrong, most people are still following the constant narratives being delivered in an attempt to keep the public calm. George Tsakraklides says it best right here, quote:

The toxic positivity theatre isn’t confined to the corporatocracy. Hope, whether real and justified or morbidly delusional, is an irresistible narcotic for humans.

A hopeful message will always win over bitter truths, and our information machine knows this: news media habitually turn even the most sobering news into fast-consumable entertainment, making a mockery of reality.

It used to be that this was the role of movies: to allow us to experience a funny or terrifying world and entertain ourselves either way, knowing that it is all fake and we are watching from the safety of our sofa. But now the same is done to real, actual news coming from around the world: reality has been gamified, turned into amusement, into a video game in the most morally corrupt, sick, and irresponsible way possible. All of this, in the name of “hope” and “bringing lightness” to our collapse predicament.
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XCII–Ecological Overshoot and Collapse: Rearranging the Deck Chairs On the Titanic

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XCII

January 22, 2023 (original posting date)

Monte Alban, Mexico. (1988) Photo by author.

Ecological Overshoot and Collapse: Rearranging the Deck Chairs On the Titanic

My comments prompted by two recent articles by The Honest Sorcerer (whose writing I highly recommend).

January 13 post:

I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head about the underlying motives behind the geopolitical morass our globe’s ruling elite are creating (and consequential fallout for the hoi polloi): a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Ecological overshoot and peak resources (especially energy) have the socio/psychopathic ruling caste fighting amongst themselves for the vestiges of an ever-shrinking economic pie.

Emboldened and blinded by their ‘successes’ in the past (when there existed much in the way of surplus net energy), they are proceeding full steam ahead with a final blow-off top of resource extraction/exploitation, all-in attempt to consolidate and expand their ‘winnings’; first with the far-off ‘other’, then their domestic political ‘enemies’, and finally with their out-group citizens before they begin to cannibalise their own.

As I have been arguing for some time, the primary motivation of our ruling caste (as has been evidenced throughout pre/history of complex societies) is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating/-extracting systems that provide their revenue streams and thus positions of power and prestige. None of us are safe from the machinations of these people; nor is our environment and the very important ecological systems that serve to support the essentials of life.

Everything will be sacrificed to serve the ends of the ruling caste…bet on it. And things are likely to get much, much worse before the impact of significant diminishing returns — to say little about ecological overshoot — puts a final nail in the coffin of such misguided and insane behaviour.

January 18 post:

It’s most interesting how cyclical human pre/history is. Perhaps that’s because of the truism that those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it; either that, or humans simply don’t learn from their mistakes. We are after all a very intelligent species, just not too wise — despite our self-proclaimed taxonomic nomenclature.

Complex societies, empires, civilisations all come and go. They reach a peak of complexity then invariably ‘collapse’. It may take centuries or it may only take a handful or less of generations for this decline, but it always occurs. As Joseph Tainter points out, a population can actually ‘put up with’ significantly diminishing returns on their ‘investments’ in supporting the-powers-that-be for a long time.

The other point Tainter makes, that I believe is relevant to your narrative here, is the aspect of competing polities in this ‘Grand Chessboard’ of geopolitics.

As he argues, such polities tend to get caught up in spiralling competitive investments as they seek to outmaneuver others and evolve greater complexity together. The polities caught up in this competition increasingly experience declining marginal returns and must invest ever-increasing amounts leading to greater economic weakness.

Withdrawing from this spiral or collapsing is not an option without risking being subsumed by a competitor. It is this trap of competition that will continue to drive the pursuit of complexity regardless of human/environmental costs.

Incentives and economic reserves can support this situation for a lengthy period as witnessed by the Roman and Mayan experiences where centuries of diminishing returns were endured.

Ever-increasing costs and ever-decreasing marginal returns typify peer polities in competition. This ends in either domination by one state and a new energy subsidy or collapse of all.

As he concludes: “Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.”

Dodging The Gator – What Can Be Done?

Dodging The Gator – What Can Be Done?

Photo by Dušan veverkolog on Unsplash

Humanity is in overshoot, and a major correction is already underway, something, which will only accelerate even further. A runaway energy crisis, together with resource depletion, climate change and ecosystems collapse will upend centuries of growth and prosperity. But what does that mean on an individual level? Is there any way to course correct? If not, what are the possible ways of adaption?

The world economy faces a runaway energy crisis, not seen by most commentators. The energy needed to extract the next unit of both oil and minerals increases exponentially due to rich depleted deposits being replaced with ever poorer quality ones. Since energy is the economy, not money, an exponential rise in this area will eventually make further expansion impossible, and lead to a relentless decline. Something, which cannot be stopped, nor financed without bankrupting the economy… In the meantime, both investors and politicians act as if energy were just a cost item, and its supply could expand without any hurdles. What could possibly go wrong?

We are clearly approaching a civilizational tipping point, and there is nothing anyone in power can do about this. The entire process is driven by physics and geology, not wishful thinking and clever humans supposedly inventing their way out if this mess. However, if you were following the logic of how we got here so far, I don’t think it is realistic to say that the passing of this inflection point will suddenly upend civilization, and push everyone, everywhere back into the stone age in a matter of years. Instead, we are about to walk down a long winding road fraught with all sorts of perils, and have to prepare ourselves accordingly.

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XC–A Societal Phase Transition This Way Comes

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XC

January 10, 2023 (original posting date)

Monte Alban, Mexico. (1988) Photo by author.

A Societal Phase Transition This Way Comes

The following contemplation shares my thoughts/response to The Honest Sorcerer’s latest article (another very worthwhile read) regarding the diminishing returns being increasingly encountered by non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (aka ‘renewables’) — and, yes, I am still plugging away at the Energy Series (Part 1; Part 2) I began as I organise a Food Gardening Guild within my local community, the response to which has been great!

The material and environmental ‘blindness’ to the situation you describe so well seems, at least for the masses, mostly due to attempts to reduce the stress of the cognitive dissonance created by the contradictory information we are exposed to — on the one hand we have increasing numbers of ecologists/biologists warning about the perils of our unchecked growth, finite resource use, and the increasingly negative consequences of these practices; while on the other hand, we have our politicians/industrialists/economists weaving stories about salvation and continued prosperity mostly via the shifting of energy sources and associated products (their motivations being self-serving and that I have written about repeatedly).

These denial-/bargaining-based narratives around a ‘green’ energy transition must be overcome to allow us to see/comprehend the fundamental predicament we have on our hands — ecological overshoot — before any ‘progress’ can be made towards mitigating some of the inevitable consequences we will increasingly encounter as various systems break down (both human-contrived and natural). Without seeing and understanding this predicament we will not, except perhaps in some few local and lucky ‘safe havens’, be able to mitigate at least some of the fallout of the coming storm.

The problem with predicaments of course is that they have no solutions, only consequences, and human complex societies tend to be problem-solving organisations (see archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies[1]). And this problem-solving orientation of large, complex societies has served humanity well during its last 10,000 or so years, so it seems next to impossible to counter this ingrained/enculturated belief that we can ‘solve’ any issue thrown down in front of us — most recently by throwing gargantuan amounts of fiat currency and/or complex technology at it. Toss on top of this long-term belief system the tendency of our ruling caste to leverage crises to their personal advantage and our dilemma becomes increasingly ‘wicked’; in fact, it becomes next to impossible to see clearly for a variety of reasons (mostly psychological in nature; e.g., deference to ‘authority’, groupthink, cognitive dissonance reduction).

Perhaps one aspect of the issue is that we tend to interpret the world partially through our perceived position on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[2]. Or at least through a lens that impacts our perceived risk of needs. If we believe our more basic needs are at risk, we focus upon the risk factors located there (e.g., predicament of overshoot, resource scarcity, etc.) whereas those who are in denial of/blind to those risks are concentrating on the needs to be met further along the hierarchy (e.g., achievement, prestige, growth, play, etc.) and hold out that since their basic needs are being met satisfactorily (at least for now) they are not at risk and ‘higher’ needs should be one’s focus.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

As well, It seems next to impossible to counter ruling caste propaganda regarding a renewable energy-based transition to ‘sustainability’ in balance with ecological systems (all while pursuing growth), especially if they serve to instill hope (falsely-based in my opinion) and promises of continuing prosperity/security/etc.. And while some accuse ‘doubters’ of this grand narrative of being fossil fuel-industry shills, ‘doomers’, and/or — God forbid — ‘conspiracy theorists’, the truth of the matter appears to be that we are living during the time of a significant ‘phase transition’[3]. Such eras tend to be a time of competing narratives, confusion, grieving, and even despair for some.

Phase transitions are an interesting phenomenon, particularly in societal settings (an area I think I need to explore further for better understanding). There is growing research/academic study upon them, especially in the realm of transitioning to a ‘sustainable’ society[4]. It seems all of what I read in my brief look into the subject was oriented towards understanding how to shift societal ‘thinking’ towards the acceptance of a ‘sustainable’ future. There is even an entire journal dedicated to this[5]. Of course, the mainstream future being propagated by the ruling caste can be seen in much of this work: technological solutions and the concomitant uptake of new industrial products, and governing shifts that centralise power.

Regardless of the orientation of this research, the important thing to understand about phase transitions is how ‘quickly’ they can occur and how unpredictable they are. My introduction to the topic was during my research for my first novel when I came upon the topic of the Abelian sandpile model[6] and self-organised criticality[7]. Basically, the sandpile model shows why complex systems cannot be predicted and their ‘collapse’ can occur quickly, without warning.

Here are two passages from texts I read while researching for my ‘fictional’ writing that brought this to the forefront of my thinking:

First, from David G. Green’s 2014 book Of Ants and Men: The Unexpected Side Effects of Complexity in Society[8]:

The history of human civilization is, in large measure, a story of the human quest for control. After thousands of years of civilization, we think that we control the environment in which we live. We begin to think that we control the natural world. We might even fool ourselves into thinking that we control human nature. Modern society is built on the assumption of control. Yet, as the terror of the New York blackout shows, chaos all too easily bursts forth, reminding us how flimsy the illusion of control really is.
The root cause of much of the chaos that besets us is complexity, sheer complexity. From complex webs of interactions, chaos emerges. It is complexity that leads to unexpected problems, that turns order into chaos. As much as anything, the New York blackout, like most accidents and breakdowns, was a result of complexity. The power system did have backups and safeguards built in. But no one had anticipated that the network could suffer a cascade of failures of the kind that occurred. Nor could anyone anticipate the mayhem that would ensue when power failed on such a large scale for such a long period. This does not mean that the planners were incompetent; there are just so many possible ways that the system could behave, it is not possible to anticipate and plan for all contingencies.

Second, from a 2003 Corey Lofdahl paper, On the Confounding of Overshoot and Collapse Predictions by Economic Dynamics[9]:

The ability to predict when a system will ‘collapse’ is possible if it is understood when the underlying, foundational resources will exhaust themselves…The best that can be said…is that entropy decreases as the system moves towards its natural limit. The system becomes more likely to collapse, but it is impossible to say exactly when…the larger the resource base, the larger the overshoot and the more postponed the collapse…
[G]rowth can continue for far longer than seems possible to somebody who recognizes the systems’ eventual unsustainability and foresees limitation and collapse…The strongest statement that can be made is that as growth continues, the likelihood of system limitation and collapse increases. For the individual, the growth dynamic can prove so overwhelming that the possibility of collapse begins to seem unlikely and remote as naysayers are continually proven wrong…[However,] the actual likelihood of collapse grows ever larger, while for those under its thrall, the possibility of collapse grows ever more distant. When the system eventually collapses, it does so suddenly, dramatically, and unexpectedly.

The evidence is accumulating that a phase transition is fast approaching for the human species. When it occurs and how quickly it completes its shift is completely unpredictable, which is why it will be a Black Swan event[10] for the vast majority of people. The best preparation for this transition that cannot be avoided will not be to put the remainder of our diminishing resources — especially energy — towards more technologies and complexities, but the exact opposite. We need to be pursuing a ‘Great Simplification’[11], decommissioning those complexities that pose great risk for future generations, abandoning our cherished dreams of infinite growth on a finite planet, and accepting that the future is not going to be one as laid out by our ‘leaders’ and such fictional narratives as Star Trek — not even close.

Attempting to relocalise all those truly important resources (potable water procurement, food production, shelter needs for the local climate) as much as is possible is where I will be putting my energy and resources…as well as getting my community to try and do the same.

[1] See this.

[2] See this.

[3] See this.

[4] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[5] See this.

[6] See this.

[7] See this.

[8] See this.

[9] See this.

[10] See this.

[11] See this.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXIX–We’re Knee Deep In Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXIX

January 3, 2023 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

We’re Knee Deep In Ecological Overshoot

Another brief contemplation this morning that I put together in response to a post that appeared on a Facebook Group I help to administer. One of our moderators works diligently within the ‘system’ in an attempt to persuade some of the ruling caste to embrace degrowth strategies. While a very noble endeavour, we disagree on the ability of this to bring about meaningful changes.

She posted the following introduction to the image below:

“This is a quote from a friend with an exceptionally high IQ, he has encouraged me ever since I started my Degrowth divining efforts. His Twitter feed is both fascinating and thought provoking, look for JamesCMorrow; he is an expert in Nudge theory and he assures me that the paradigm shift to a united aspiration for altruistic Degrowth is already well underway. Your feedback on the idea expressed in the image below is invited.”

My feedback:

While a lovely sentiment that many will certainly grasp onto and embrace in their attempts to reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts, the harsh reality is that we are probably far too deeply into ecological overshoot that even if we reach a tipping point in the population whereby a cooperative (and agreed upon — the truly difficult (unachievable?) part) mentality sweeps the planet — and not one the ruling caste develops/implements since their plans are always simply a leveraging of crises to control/expand their positions of power and prestige, despite the constant propaganda/marketing that what they do is for the benefits of the hoi polloi — the fact is we are in a predicament that can only be mitigated, not solved (not even, as some argue, if we were to experience an even more drastic population reduction than the 50% as was Thanos’s plan in the Marvel Comics Universe movies).

We have painted ourselves into a corner from which there appears no escape (as I would argue most evidence suggests). Rather than focus our energies (and resources) on unattainable ‘enlightenment’, I’d prefer to see — while we have the quickly diminishing resources — a decommissioning of the dangerous complexities we’ve created (e.g., nuclear power plants and their waste products; biosafety labs and their pathogens; chemical production and storage facilities and their toxins; armament factories and their weapons; etc.) and a concerted effort to push self-sufficiency based upon local and truly renewable resources for as many as possible to help them weather the coming storm. Unfortunately, I no more see this coming down the pike than global cooperation — apart from a few small communities pursuing self-reliance.

Whether any of humanity makes it out the other side of the ecological bottleneck we’ve created is in all likelihood well out of our hands for the biogeochemical limits, physical laws, and biological principles will always, in the end, trump human ‘ingenuity’, ‘technology’, and ‘cooperation’ — especially if the last 10,000 years of our existence is any indication. Human societies grow, increase in complexity, over-exploit their surroundings, encounter significant diminishing returns on their investments in complexity, then eventually (and always) decline and perish. This time, however, this recurrent phenomenon is global in nature — thank you fossil fuels.

We do not and have never stood apart from, outside of, or above the biosphere and its biophysical nature (especially the limits imposed by a finite planet), no matter how much we would like to believe or wish otherwise. For as Guy McPherson has argued: Nature bats last. And nature’s method for rebalancing a species that has shot well past its natural environmental carrying capacity and the waste products produced from its expansion and existence cannot, no matter how much we’d like, be avoided or put off indefinitely. The piper must always and eventually be paid, and s/he is getting ever closer…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXVI–Energy Future, Part 2: Competing Polities and Geopolitical Stress

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXVI

December 28, 2022 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

Energy Future, Part 2: Competing Polities and Geopolitical Stress

Part 2 of my multi-part contemplation on our energy future.

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
-various attributions (e.g., Niels Bohr, Samuel Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Mark Twain, Nostradamus)

As I argued in Part 1, energy underpins everything including human societal complexities. And the more energy humans have at their disposal, the greater the complexities and their concomitant ‘quality of life’ (not for all, but for those with greatest access/exposure)[1]. Being a ‘finite’ resource, the difficulty (impossibility?) in sustaining this ‘prosperity’ is self-evident — or at least it should be[2].

As walking, talking apes that communicate via stories we have weaved many tales of how we will sustain our complex living arrangements and the energy ‘slaves’ that make this possible[3]. In our quest to reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts we have, for the most part, ignored/denied the implications of dwindling resources — especially energy — and the implications of this for our future[4].

The more dominant and mainstream narratives argue we can or will transition to low-/zero-carbon technologies with nary a hiccup[5]. Our ingenuity guarantees this — or at least the snake oil salesmen marketing their wares and standing to profit handsomely from these tales do[6].

While I believe we will indeed attempt this (primarily because the ruling caste that guides/influences the narratives that we tend to believe in and allocates our society’s resources towards actions/efforts that helps to meet their overarching goal — the control/expansion of the wealth-/extraction-generating systems that provide their revenue streams and thus positions of power/prestige — will make it so), all it will likely accomplish (besides creating some comforting stories to share and huge profits for our already insanely wealthy few) will be the exacerbation of our fundamental predicament: ecological overshoot[7].

This means the speeding up of the drawdown of our resources (both ‘non-renewable’ and ‘renewable’) and the magnification of the concomitant ecological systems destruction[8] — more on this in a future post.

Speeding up the drawdown of resources (especially some that are only or primarily found in far-off locations from the sociopolitical centres that ‘require’ them to support their complexities, and ‘controlled’ by others) feeds into another unfortunate propensity of human complex societies: competition between polities.

In their detailed computer analyses of how a species that pursues growth on a finite planet might fair in a future of biogeochemical limitations, Meadows et al. highlight that two of the symptoms of overshooting the natural environmental carrying capacity are increasing conflicts over resources/sinks and declining respect for government as it uses its ‘power’ to maintain/increase the share of declining ‘wealth’ for the ruling elite — primarily by disproportionately allocating resources towards its military and industry, and away from the majority of its citizens[9].

And while his focus is upon pre/historical sociopolitical collapse, as opposed to ecological systems collapse (although ecological breakdown certainly has contributed to past societal collapses), archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues in his text The Collapse of Complex Societies that past collapses have occurred in two different political situations: a dominant state in isolation or as part of a cluster of peer polities[10]. With global travel and communication, the isolated dominant state has disappeared and only competitive peer polities now exist.

Such polities tend to get caught up in spiralling competitive investments as they seek to outmaneuver each other in their quest for control/influence and evolve greater complexity together. The polities caught up in this competition increasingly experience declining marginal returns on their investments in this strategy and must divert ever-increasing amounts of energy/resources leading to increasing economic weakness — especially for those outside of the ruling caste.

Withdrawing from this spiral or collapsing is not an option without risking being subsumed by a competitor. It is this trap of competition that will continue to drive the pursuit of complexity regardless of human/environmental costs and the impact upon dwindling resources. Incentives and economic reserves can support this situation for a lengthy period, as witnessed by the Roman and Mayan experiences where centuries of diminishing returns were endured, but not forever.

Ever-increasing costs and ever-decreasing marginal returns typify peer polities in competition. This ends in either domination by one state and a new energy subsidy, or collapse of all. As Tainter concludes:

“Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.” (p. 214)

It would seem one of the consequences of our diminished energy future will be increased tension between competing polities. And this competition will be primarily about energy/resource reserves. In fact, a number of analysts have predicted that the globe is heading for (or is already engaged in) significant geopolitical stressors, if not resource wars[11].

William Catton Jr. also discusses this trajectory towards increasing geopolitical tension in Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change[12]. He argues that we are fated to continue our self-destructive proclivities as long as we fail to understand them. While we have learned to be civil over the centuries, particularly since the leveraging of fossil fuels began and net surplus energy has led to an explosion of growth and ‘wealth’, the concomitant population irruption and the pressure compounded by technology have led to a degradation of these relationships and have become increasingly competitive.

Humans have reacted in pressure-increasing ways that has created a further diminishing of carrying capacity making our overshoot situation even worse. War-like rhetoric has increased as population pressures have. Wars are a useful leverage point for the ruling caste to target the ‘other’ as redundant, as opposed to ourselves who ‘deserve’ our energy-intensive way of life and the resources required to maintain it.

“In a habitat that was not growing any larger, the continuing increase in either our numbers, our activities, or our equipment would ultimately induce more and more antagonism. Our routine pursuit of legitimate aspirations as individual human beings, as breathing, eating, drinking, traveling, working, playing and reproducing organisms, would increasingly entail mutual interference.” (p. 224)

Here we have competition over finite resources that is leading to a quickening of the drawdown of these resources. These diminishing resources are being allocated to this spiralling pursuit of competition while the consequences — both economic deterioration for the majority of humans and ecological destruction of the planet — are ignored/denied and/or rationalised away by way of narratives that argue the very instruments of our demise (increasingly complex and resource-dependent technologies) must be pursued with all the expediency we can muster.

Our conundrum is becoming ever-more wicked in its complexity.

In Part 3 I will explore some of the issues for human societies of this increasing geopolitical competition.

[1] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[2] Fossil fuels are finite in the sense that the flow from the existing stocks in the form of extraction far, far exceeds their replenishment rate which is estimated at millions of years. See this.

[3] See this, this, and/or this.

[4] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[5] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[6] See this, this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[7] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[8] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[9] See this and/or this.

[10] See this and/or this.

[11] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[12] See this and/or this.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXV–Energy Future, Part 1

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXV

December 21, 2022 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

Energy Future, Part 1

A short introductory contemplation to a multipart one on our energy future[1].

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
-various attributions (e.g., Niels Bohr, Yogi Berra, Mark Twain)

Energy[2]. It is the fundamental component necessary for all physical, chemical, and biological processes. So life…hell, the universe appears impossible without it[3].

While all forms of energy are ultimately important to human life, it is the bioenergetic and food energy aspects that are perhaps most salient[4]. For human complex societies that require energy inputs to ‘power’/support the organisational structures that help to create and sustain our varied and numerous complexities, it is the transformation of various energy sources into ‘usable’ forms that is vital[5].

As Vaclav Smil writes at the beginning of his 2017 text, Energy and Civilization: A History:

“Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done. Universal manifestations of these transformations range from the enormous rotations of galaxies to thermo- nuclear reactions in stars. On Earth they range from the terra-forming forces of plate tectonics that part ocean floors and raise new mountain ranges to the cumulative erosive impacts of tiny raindrops (as the Romans knew, gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo — A drop of water hollows a stone not by force but by continually dripping). Life on Earth — despite decades of attempts to catch a meaningful extraterrestrial signal, still the only life in the universe we know of — would be impossible without the photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into phytomass (plant biomass). Humans depend on this transformation for their survival, and on many more energy flows for their civilized existence. As Richard Adams (1982, 27) put it,

We can think thoughts wildly, but if we do not have the wherewithal to convert them into action, they will remain thoughts. … History acts in unpredictable ways. Events in history, however, necessarily take on a structure or organization that must accord with their energetic components.

The evolution of human societies has resulted in larger populations, a growing complexity of social and productive arrangements, and a higher quality of life for a growing number of people. From a fundamental biophysical perspective, both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them, in more affordable ways at lower costs and with higher efficiencies, into heat, light, and motion.”

In this energy-transforming quest, fossil fuels have become the most critical and fundamental energy source to our modern, industrialised and exceedingly complex global society. As can be seen in the graph below, it is estimated that fossil fuel-based energy (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas) is responsible for 80+% of our current energy needs that support our many varied complexities from transportation and food production to industrial production and communications.

Evidence suggests there is no current substitute — at density or scale — for the energy provided by fossil fuels[6]. We continue to be exposed to countless promises and potential technological ‘breakthroughs’ to replace them (especially when it comes to ‘clean/green’ energy sources, or should I say non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies), but the cold hard fact is that our dependence upon fossil fuels continues and is actually increasing, even when one zooms in on the past twenty years when ‘renewables’ have been pursued with ‘gusto’ as shown in the following graph (although not as much fervor as some would like and argue for — ignoring/rationalising away the ecological systems destruction that would accompany such a ‘war effort-like’ push).

All of the ‘renewables’ we have adopted have been additive to our fossil fuel dependency. They have not supplanted any — or at least minimally — fossil fuel extraction or use[7]. In fact, it could be argued that they have increased it due to their dependency upon fossil fuel-based industrial processes[8].

Add to this that there is convincing evidence that we have encountered significant diminishing returns in our extraction of fossil fuels[9]. This can be seen in our need to increase continually the energy and resource inputs towards accessing and extracting these fuels (e.g., deep sea drilling, hydraulic fracturing, bitumen refinement).

This necessity necessarily has an impact on the net energy that we have for supporting our complexities. We are increasingly having to put more and more energy/resources into fossil fuel extraction and refinement resulting in less and less energy/resources leftover to maintain our complex systems, let alone have any leftover to pursue growth as we have the past century or more[10].

So, we have a finite resource that is requiring greater energy/resource inputs to access and retrieve but that we depend significantly upon with no comparable replacement — to say little about the ecological systems destruction accompanying all of this (‘renewables’ and fossil fuels alike).

This is an obvious conundrum. Where do we go from here is what a number of people want to know…and I will explore this further in Part 2.

[1] Please note that I am not an ‘expert/academic/researcher/etc.’ in the topics discussed but an avid ‘student’ of them as I try to make sense of how and why events are unfolding the way they are. This is why I have included quite a number of references (to those who may be considered ‘experts) to my thoughts. Declaring this, I am also wary of the term ‘expert’ in light of criticisms such as those expressed by Philip Tetlock, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, and others: see this, this, this, this, and/or this. The views expressed, therefore, are part of my personal journey of understanding; they could be accurate but they might not be…in the end, I believe we all believe what we want to believe.

[2] See this.

[3] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[4] See this and this.

[5] See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[6] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[7] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[8] See this, this, and/or this.

[9] See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[10] See this, this, this, this, this, this, and/or this.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXIX–Non-Renewable Renewable Energy-Harvesting Technologies (NRREHT): A Paradox For Our Times?

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXIX

November 24, 2022 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

Non-Renewable Renewable Energy-Harvesting Technologies (NRREHT): A Paradox For Our Times?

A short contemplation after reading Richard Heinberg’s latest article and the apparent paradox that is evident in the musings of a number of writers in the energy-ecology nexus.

Paradox: “…having qualities that seem to be opposites” (Reference)

In his latest post, that highlights the failings of the ‘renewable’ energy transition, Richard Heinberg seems to be arguing in terms of contradictory assertions, and ones which I am not sure can be overcome — at least, not without exacerbating our primary predicament of ecological overshoot[1].

On the one hand he points out the significant failings, limitations, and negative consequences of NRREHT, but on the other argues for our pursuing them at great haste so as to attain a ‘soft landing’ for our species’ inevitable energy descent.

For example:
1) Greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase despite an increase in NRREHT (in other words, their distribution/use is supplementing continued economic growth/consumption);
2) NRREHT require continued and increased use/extraction of non-renewable resources that are already demonstrating declining marginal returns (i.e., their scarcity is already apparent);
3) There is competing evidence/data regarding the availability of materials/minerals as to whether even a single generation of NRREHT can be produced to substitute for fossil fuel energy;
4) The energy costs of recycling suggests even in a best-case scenario NRREHT simply kicks-the-can-down-the-road for industrial civilisation;
5) NRREHT continue to require industrial production processes that degrade the environment and destroy ecological systems — perhaps just at a slightly less intensive rate.

While he does also argue for a significant powering-down of our energy-intensive ways — perhaps the easiest and most straightforward means of slowing down the speed of our destruction — I fear the concerted push for NNREHT he also argues for does little but, via A LOT of denial and bargaining, simply kicks-the-can-down-the-road in terms of confronting our predicament (especially as it pertains to significant and necessary fossil fuel inputs as well as the negative impacts upon ecological systems and mineral resource communities/regions).

My sense is that despite all the obvious pitfalls of NNREHT and significant negative consequences (particularly ecological) they will continue to be pursued with this strategy sold/marketed as the ‘solution’ to transitioning from fossil fuels.

This will not be the first time that our ruling caste and profiteers have leveraged a ‘crisis’ to enrich themselves…but it may well be the last.

A handful of other views/comments within the energy-ecology nexus regarding ‘renewables’ (in no particular order and all have some great insights/arguments):
Gail Tverbergthisthisthis, and/or this.
Simon Michauxthisthisthis, and/or this.
Ugo Bardithisthisthis, and/or this.
Alice Friedemannthisthisthis, and/or this.
Peak Prosperity (Chris Martenson/Adam Taggert): thisthisthis, and/or this.
The Honest Sorcererthisthisthis, and/or this.
Erik Michaelsthisthisthis, and/or this.
Raúl Ilargi Meijerthisthisthis, and/or this.
Rob Mielcarskithisthisthis, and/or this.
John Michael Greerthisthisthis, and/or this.
Tim Watkinsthisthisthis, and/or this.
Tim Morganthisthisthis, and/or this.
Kurt Cobbthisthisthis, and/or this.
Mike Stassethisthisthis, and/or this.
Charles Hugh Smiththisthisthis, and/or this.
Nate Hagensthisthisthis, and/or this.

Another view on Heinberg’s article can be found here.

[1] See thisthisthisthis, and/or this.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXVII–It’s Too Late For Managed Degrowth

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXVII

November 15, 2022 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

It’s Too Late For Managed Degrowth

This contemplation is a ‘short’ comment I shared on an article by Martin Tye that showed up on my Medium feed and I read this morning. It asks an important question in whether the ‘action’ being called for by various groups/individuals to address climate issues are framed by an understanding of our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot. He argues that with a proper framing of the issue the appropriate response is one of ‘degrowth’.

Yes, the evidence is accumulating quickly that we are significantly into ecological overshoot. And, yes, degrowing our ways (and totally rejecting the growth agenda being foisted upon humanity) seems the only means of addressing the core cause (exponential growth of population and its drain on resources and overloading of sinks — especially in so-called ‘advanced’ economies).

I understand the ‘merit’ of ‘softening the tone’ on the messaging of our dilemma, however, I fear that the degrowth movement, for the most part, continues to frame the predicament in too soft a way (in other words, still an awful lot of denial and bargaining by many degrowth advocates). An approach that may have been ‘achievable’ for more broad-based ‘success’ several decades ago but not nowadays given how much further we have travelled down the path of unsustainability and planetary damage we have caused. To say little about the momentum of this ever-enlarging avalanche we’ve set off.

It seems increasingly unlikely that we can ‘save’ everyone or everything. And while holding our sociopathic ruling caste’s feet-to-the-fire is a necessary action (if for no other reason than to get the message out to a wider audience), I’m leaning towards the notion that the best we can do is to attempt to make one’s local community as self-sufficient and resilient as possible for the exceedingly difficult journey ahead. Given we are sure to experience an increasing breakdown of the various complexities we’ve come to rely upon for our lifestyles, this approach is getting well past the critical stage of ‘necessity for survival’.

Potable water. Food. Shelter needs for the climate. Ensuring these basics are at the forefront of a community’s time and energy may help local peoples to get through the bottleneck we have led ourselves into.

On the other hand, the rest of the planet’s species may be hoping for us not be successful in this endeavour given how pre/history suggests for the last ten or so millennia pockets of humanity keep following this same suicidal path…only with the help of a one-time cache of relatively easy-to-access and readily-transportable energy we’ve encompassed the entire planet in this destructive tendency.

Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong?

Why Are We Not Talking About Ecological Overshoot?

Editor’s Note: We cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Something that should be a part of common sense is somehow lost in meaning among policymakers. In this piece, Elisabeth Robson explains the concept of overshoot to explain just that. She also delves into how the major policy makers have ignored it in favor of focusing on climate change and proposing “solutions” of renewable energy. Finally, she ends with three presentations on the same topic.

By Elisabeth Robson / Medium
Ecological Overshoot

Bill Rees spent a good part of his career developing a tool called the ecological footprint analysis — a measurement of our collective footprint in terms of the natural resources humans use each year and the waste products we put back into the environment. His analysis showed that humanity is well into overshoot — meaning, we are using far more resources than can be regenerated by Earth, and producing far more waste than the Earth can assimilate.

Overshoot is like having a checking account and a savings account and using not only all the money in our checking account each year, but also drawing down our savings account. Everyone knows if we spend down our savings account, eventually we’ll run out of money. In ecological terms, eventually we’ll run out of easily-extractable resources and do so much damage from the pollution we’ve created, life-as-we-know-it will cease to exist.

I don’t like using the word “resources” to describe the natural world, but it is a handy word to describe all the stuff we humans use from the natural world to keep ourselves alive and to maintain industrial civilization: whether that’s oil, trees, water, broccoli, cows, lithium, phosphorus, or the countless other materials and living beings we kill, extract, process, refine, and consume to get through each and every day and keep the global economy humming. Please know that I wince each time I write “resources” to represent living beings, ecosystems, and natural communities.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXI–The Pursuit Of ‘Renewables’: Putting Us Further Into Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXI

October 10, 2022 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

The Pursuit Of ‘Renewables’: Putting Us Further Into Ecological Overshoot

Today’s very brief contemplation has been prompted by a couple of recent articles/posts (see links below) by thinkers/writers whose works/ideas I have followed for some time and respect greatly — but disagree with when it comes to non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies.

I continue to be dismayed that many (most?) analyses of humanity’s predicament(s) seem devoid of the bio- and geo-physical constraints that exist on a finite planet and suggest quite strongly that the energy ‘transition’ argued for is, for all intents and purposes, dead on arrival — to say little about our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot.

Not only is there increasing data/evidence to point out that there exists nowhere near the mineral/material resources to achieve the ‘transition’ many desire (see this: https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/episode/19-simon-michaux), but that the ecological system and environmental fallout from pursuing such a shift would be catastrophic (see this: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2022/09/a-climate-love-story/).

And please note, it is not that I ‘hate’ renewables or am a shill for the fossil fuel industry (the two typical accusations lobbed at me); I simply recognise their limitations, negative impacts, and that they are no panacea.

Our pursuit and leveraging of complex technologies, amongst a few sociocultural practices, is what has led us into ecological overshoot. The evidence appears to be accumulating that they are not likely to help us out of this predicament and pursuing them to the degree their cheerleaders suggest (many of whom stand to profit handsomely from during such a shift) would compound significantly the negative consequences of their production and distribution.



What It Means To Be “Collapse-Aware”

What It Means To Be “Collapse-Aware”

Becoming collapse-aware can make you feel like you’re going insane. You’d be crazy if it didn’t.

I became collapse-aware a few years ago, and it completely changed my life.

Collapse-aware is a term that has become much more popular in recent years, especially among climate activists. Some people prefer the term doomer or collapsnik or eco-pessimist, but I think collapse-aware is the best term to describe someone like me.

But before I can tell you what it means to be collapse-aware, I have to tell you what “collapse-aware” means. If you’re collapse-aware, it means you’ve learned enough about climate change, pollution, resource depletion, and biodiversity loss to conclude that civilization is unsustainable and will eventually collapse.

Whether the collapse happens suddenly or takes several decades, and whether it happens soon or in the distant future, is up for debate. But the end result is the same: a pre-industrial world with a much smaller population.

It could be a world where nearly everyone works from sunup to sundown to put food on the table. It could be a world where people have to hunt and gather for survival, constantly moving in search of food and resources. Or it could be a world where humans, along with most other creatures, have gone extinct.

One thing is certain: It’s all downhill from here. Living standards will decline, shortages will increase, and war will become widespread as countries fight over the last remaining resources. Looking at the world today, one could easily make the case that the collapse has already begun.

That’s the conclusion I came to back in 2020. I watched, dumbfounded, as people debated the effectiveness of facemasks and whether vaccines are safe. Things that were once common knowledge were being debated again. Facts no longer mattered.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Ignorance, Hubris, and Stupidity

Ignorance, Hubris, and Stupidity

Artwork from Ken Avidor

As I frequently point out, we face a series of predicaments all brought to us as a result of our own behavior of using technology, which has produced the predicament of ecological overshoot. When a species goes into overshoot, it always faces the same outcome: collapse. There is quite literally no way to avoid this; it is baked into cake, so to speak. I frequently hear people talk about avoiding collapse to which I can only chuckle and explain that attempting to avoid collapse and extend civilization is a fool’s errand because all this does is steepen the Seneca Cliff once the ability to extend civilization dries up. Civilization exists upon the surplus energy provided by technology use such as that furnished through agriculture; this then provides the ability of humans to develop permanent settlements which is the beginning of a civilization. Sadly, civilizations are unsustainable and each one that has ever come into being has also collapsed. Today’s civilization is no different and there will never be a sustainable civilization. Talk of such ideas is no different than “sustainable” development or “green” growth (see greenwashing).

I genuinely want people to understand the truth about where we are within these systems and predicaments and what can and cannot be done about them. Most people’s responses are fueled by a desire to “fight” one of the symptom predicaments such as climate change or energy and resource decline. Sadly, a considerable number of those folks read or hear something about stopping or reversing climate change or emissions or any other symptom predicament and get the incorrect idea that this is actually possible…

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXVI–Surplus Energy From Hydrocarbons: Another Predicament Catalyst

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXVI

Tulum, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

Surplus Energy From Hydrocarbons: Another Predicament Catalyst

Today’s contemplation is in response to an article posted on the site Zerohedge, the orientation of many of the comments in response to that article (and increasingly by Zerohedge readers/commenters[1]), and a conversation I had with friends recently on the apparent trajectory of our world and its foundational roots.

As seems typical of our mainstream narratives, events in our human world are typically (always?) the result of human sociopolitical and/or socioeconomic behaviour. Things tend to go well or fall apart because of human political and/or economic decisions/policies. Physical and/or biological aspects/constraints are rarely considered.

If you happen to support the government of the day (or believe their propaganda/marketing), positive events are the result of their actions while negative ones are not; alternatively, if you don’t support them, your interpretation of the world is the opposite. One’s interpretive paradigm/worldview greatly influences our beliefs and understandings of the world, as do the psychological mechanisms that ‘steer’ our beliefs such as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance reduction, deference to authority, groupthink, etc.[1].

While it is clear that some events are the direct result of human action, believing we have significant agency causes us to tend to view almost everything that occurs to us as a result of our actions. ‘Acts of God’, such as weather events, are often viewed as happenstance — although that too is changing for some (many?).

Human ‘progress’, however, is most certainly the direct result of actions/responses such as our adaptive abilities, technological inventiveness, and efforts towards economic freedom, political transparency, and accountability. Globalisation, democracy, rising equality, human health and longevity have been the outcome of centuries of exploration, struggle against overwhelming odds, experimentation, and tenacity.

We are a ‘wise’ species and our ingenuity has brought us to achieve as near to utopia as we’ve ever been. Just look around you at all the poverty reduction we’ve achieved, healthcare miracles, and technological wonders. There are a large number of humans experiencing living standards and freedoms that few before them ever achieved, including past royalty.

Rarely, if ever, are our interpretations of goings on based upon or include biological, ecological, and/or biogeochemical perspectives.

I am increasingly coming to see that we tend to give ourselves ‘credit’ where none should be given; or, at least, where our behaviour is secondary or tertiary to the physical aspects of our world that have provided ‘temporary’ conditions for such ‘progress’ to arise. As William Catton, Jr. argues at the start of his text on ecological overshoot: “All the evidence suggests that we have consistently exaggerated the contributions of technological genius and underestimated the contribution of natural resources.”[2]

As I have repeatedly argued, energy is everything. Without it, humanity could not exist as it does. And it’s not just the energy of the sun, wind, and water that has allowed our complex societies to reach their current zenith. It is the leveraging of a one-time cache of ancient carbon-based energy stored in a relatively easy-to-access and easily-transportable form.

The energy, and most importantly surplus energy[3], we have been able to extract and leverage to our advantage has ‘fuelled’ our current world to unbelievable heights of ‘prosperity’ — let’s be honest, though, this is only true for some on this planet; the vast majority of humans do not enjoy the levels of ‘wealth’ and ‘energy slaves’ that a minority do. Some have recognised the importance of fossil fuel energy to humanity but then used that observation to rationalise/justify their continued, in fact infinite, extraction/use[4].

I found a statement in article quite telling as to the general trend in such narratives: “Fossil fuels power innovation. Fossil fuels power economic growth. Fossil fuels power our education system, our transportation system, our health care system, and our military. Fossil fuels are key to generating all the wealth that pays for every government program we have. Before we try to eliminate fossil fuels, we need to make sure that we do not also eliminate all the benefits that have come from their use.”[5]

While the connection between our ‘growth’ and fossil fuels is hard (impossible?) to dispute, it seems somewhat amusing, if not naïve, to forward the idea that we will actually have some control or say in ‘eliminating’ fossil fuels, as if the biophysical reality of them being a finite resource is moot should we desire to keep using them — they will become increasingly uneconomic to extract as diminishing returns intensify, regardless of our wants and desires.

I think there should be little argument regarding the observation that fossil fuels have led to the shift away from the human and domesticated animal labour inputs necessary for many (most?) human activities and processes but also, more importantly, human food production (that has been accompanied by an explosion in population). This has not only freed up vast numbers of our population to pursue employment in other areas but allowed for significant increase in the number of people developing and expanding the pursuits that ‘improve’ the social conditions for a larger portion of humanity than might have been possible in the past — this is especially so for so-called ‘advanced’ economies that have leveraged the lion’s share of energy and mineral resources.

And we have enjoyed the benefits of this leveraging for several generations resulting in a zeitgeist that, for the most part, is blind to the finite energy and resource inputs that underpin it all[6]. Just as fish are unaware of the water they exist within and cannot live without[7], most humans are blind to the finite resources we depend upon for our many complexities. It’s notable that many of the stories we’ve created during this epoch of human expansion serve to either keep us in ignorance or, perhaps more alarmingly, to deny/dismiss the physical realities that exist and clearly place the benefits we have achieved directly upon our shoulders.

The result, I would argue, is that humanity has constructed a complex global and industrialised society but believes, for the most part, that the primary underpinning of its development is human-based, as opposed to resource-based. Many have come to believe our ingenuity and technological prowess have been the foundational root of our sociopolitical and socioeconomic complexities. They have rationalised away the finite energy/resources we have leveraged to our advantage and propelled our growth and technology.

We’ve confused a correlation of socio-political/-economic and technological shifts with ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, identifying us as the cause when it has been the leveraging of surplus energy derived from a one-time cache of carbon-based energy that has provided the underpinning of it (and put us well into ecological overshoot).

Now that our energy and material resources have encountered the hard biogeochemical limits of existence on a finite planet, and are experiencing significant diminishing returns on our investments in them — to say little of the negative environmental and ecological consequences of this — we are flailing about blaming our political and economic systems rather than recognising the actual physical limits that exist. Yes, our social systems have exacerbated our predicament but it seems as a result of our reality blindness we are likely to continue misdiagnosing our predicament and chase maladaptive ‘solutions’ (the narratives around ‘green/clean’ energy are a perfect example).

It’s increasingly appearing that we are not the ‘wise’ apes we believe ourselves to be. We are something very different, but not so different to other species that we can forgo the physical and biological limits of existing on a finite planet.

[1] Refer to my short series of contemplations on some of these: https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-l-fcb81eb216be).

[2] Catton, Jr., William R., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 0–252–00818–9). p. XV. Catton’s book provides a wonderfully detailed synopsis of this idea that we have discounted our physical world in creating narratives to explain our perceived ‘progress’.–

[3] See Tim Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics for a great overview and ongoing discussion about this very important issue: https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/.

[4] https://industrialprogress.com/fossil-fuels-make-the-planet-more-productive/; https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/pope-ignores-fossil-fuels-essential-role-in-human-flourishing; https://www.pressreader.com/usa/las-vegas-review-journal/20151130/281809987817471; https://www.humanprogress.org/celebrate-the-industrial-revolution-and-the-fossil-fuels-which-drove-it/.

[5] https://frompovertytoprogress.com/2022/01/10/the-five-keys-to-progress-part-6-fossil-fuels/

[6] See Nate Hagens’s Reality Blind: https://read.realityblind.world/view/975731937/8/).

[7] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_Water).

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXV–Capitalism: One of Several Predicament Catalysts

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXV

Tulum, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

Capitalism: One of Several Predicament Catalysts

Today’s contemplation is prompted by an article posted recently in a Degrowth Facebook group I am a member of. The author presents the argument that capitalism and the greed it inspires is the root of our inability to address climate change appropriately. While I don’t agree fully with the perspective presented, it is a great article that goes into much detail far beyond climate concerns and I recommend reading it.

Where I found myself reflecting on its content were the assertions that it is primarily, if not solely, the fault of capitalism for our existential crisis of climate change and the suggestion that it’s possible through degrowth strategies to achieve a utopian-like world with “…universal education and healthcare, and at least 5,000–15,000 km of mobility in various modes per person per year. It offers fairer and better lives for the vast majority of people…” (perhaps up to 10 billion) should the world have the wherewithal to ensure the ‘right’ things be done — particularly the idea that we need to avoid elite panic in responding to our crises (that leads to leveraging of situations to protect their ‘booty’) and adopt the non-elite tendency to ‘sacrifice’ for one’s community.

While I have great respect for the degrowth movement and its underlying philosophy that holds humanity needs to live within the biophysical limits of a finite planet[1], the bargaining/denial I sense from many that support it is where I diverge a tad in my thinking about our plight and future ‘potential’.

While I have come to the firm belief that our ruling elite are primarily driven by a desire to control/expand the wealth-generating/-extracting systems that provide their revenue streams and thus wealth/power/prestige/privilege (leading them to encourage/cheerlead the chasing of the perpetual growth chalice that supports the power/wealth structures inherent in any complex society, and certainly leverage crises to their advantage to help meet their motivation), I’m not so convinced that capitalism’s role in our predicament (ecological overshoot) is much more than a leverage-point (of several) in perhaps speeding up the pre/historical and biological/ecological processes which will eventually bring our global, industrial society to its knees.

Long before ‘capitalism’ took hold of our elite, there were complex societies that ‘collapsed’ due to what archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues are diminishing returns on investments in complexity[2]. Our human societies’ problem-solving proclivity to exploit/extract the easy-to-retrieve and cheap-to-access resources first leads to eventual ‘cost’ increases (particularly in terms of energy) that require the use of society’s surpluses/reserves to maintain/sustain political, economic, and organisational structures (as well as technologies) that serve as our ‘solutions’ to perceived ‘problems’.

Once these surpluses/reserves are unavailable due to their exhaustion and ‘society’ can no longer provide the benefits of participation in it, people ‘opt out’ and withdraw their support — usually by packing up and leaving. This ‘abandonment’ by increasing numbers of people undermines the necessary human, and thus material, inputs that support the structures that hold a complex society together and it eventually ‘collapses’.

Obviously, such a withdrawal of support is virtually impossible in today’s world for a variety of reasons; not least of which are the inability to ‘escape’ the elite’s reach in most nation states — at least for the time being — and a lack of skills/knowledge to survive for very long without the energy slaves/conveniences of ‘modern’ society, keeping people virtually trapped and incapable of opting out. In addition, the ruling elite need their citizens for labour and/or taxes and will go to virtually any length to prevent such withdrawal from the various entrapments of today’s world.

This is not to ignore the knock-on effects of ways in which ‘support’ is being undermined by political, social, and economic policies of the ruling elite. More and more people are questioning the directives issued from upon high and challenging them.

For example, there seems to be growing concern that the gargantuan expansion of credit/debt is quite problematic. For some this is an approach that expedites the drawing down of fundamental resources (especially energy) — ‘stealing from the future’ for lack of a better term. A good argument can also be made that much (most?) of this debt/credit is being created to fund geopolitical competition and siphon wealth from national treasuries into the ‘holdings’ of the elite. This is not to dismiss that a portion is being directed to the population, but I would contend that this is to help provide cover for the inequity that is resulting from the massive expansion of fiat currency — particularly in that ‘hidden tax’ of price inflation that always impacts the disadvantaged disproportionately to the wealthy elite — and to sustain the Ponzi scheme that our economic/financial/monetary systems have become.

I sense we are likely to experience (already are experiencing?) a doubling-down of efforts to control the hoi polloi by our ‘leaders’ as our systems begin to decline in perceived benefits. Tyranny comes in many guises, from narrative management and mass surveillance to incarceration and violence.

Our fundamental predicament is unfortunately overlooked in the somewhat reductionist approach that focuses exclusively on capitalism and climate change/carbon emissions. The following graphic illustrates this perspective with respect to the simplification that can occur when one focuses upon a single variable when complex systems necessarily consist of many intertwined ones with nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena.

Carbon Tunnel Vision

Eliminating capitalism has become the clarion call for many but I’m viewing this increasingly as part of the denial/bargaining that is expanding in our ‘hope’ to find a ‘solution’ to our various crises. In relatively simplistic terms, the view holds that if we eliminate the greed inherent in capitalism and the waste it leads to, humanity can continue to have a technological, global-spanning society where everyone can live happily-ever-after — for example, we could direct our ‘wealth’ to the ‘right’ technology (think ‘green/clean’ energy production and electrified gadgets) and thus sustain our complexities with nary a hiccup.

Unfortunately, I would argue, such rhetoric is not only dividing some very well-intentioned groups/individuals, but causing our fundamental predicament to be overlooked and thus any possible mitigation of it to be mostly dismissed — primarily because the issue is exceedingly complex and in all likelihood has no simple and all-encompassing ‘solution’, but rather a difficult and unnerving shift in thinking and approaches where perhaps just a handful of humans carry on in a ‘sustainable’ fashion[3].

This appears to be even worse than a ‘wicked problem’[4], for these still hold out ‘hope’ for a ‘solution’ should every variable line up ‘correctly’ to help ‘solve’ it. This possibility, as remote as it is for wicked problems, opens the door to all sorts of denial and bargaining — a strong human tendency to help avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts.

I’m increasingly leaning towards the conclusion that the ecological bottleneck our human experiment has created by its vast overshooting of the planet’s natural carrying capacity is far too small for the growing number of us to get through. No amount of denial or bargaining (elimination of capitalism; wealth redistribution; ‘green/clean’ energy) is likely to change that[5].

And then there’s the issue of peak resources, most problematic being that of oil. The ideas promulgated in the article and by supporters of degrowth seem to be somewhat energy/resource blind[6]. The significant (and I mean VERY significant) role played by oil and other fossil fuels in creating an explosion in human resource exploitation and population cannot be stressed enough. It has not only allowed us to access previously inaccessible resources to support our growth but has done so to the point where many of these supportive materials have now encountered significant diminishing returns and, for some, begun to encounter increasing scarcity placing continued use more in the rear-view mirror than some techno-cornucopian future[7].

I continue to believe that personal/group attempts to relocalise as much as possible the fundamentals of living can increase the probability of a region getting through to the other side of the coming transition. Potable water, food production, and shelter needs for the climate should be a focus; not bargaining with our sociopolitical and socioeconomic systems since this can unnecessarily divert energy and resources from the actions that will probably foster greater self-sufficiency and -resiliency — perhaps enough to get through the impending ecological bottleneck.

I believe we have never lived in an ideal world, nor ever will. The constant and repetitive rise and fall of complex societies has demonstrated our experimentations have failed, despite having the best technologies and thinkers of the time. We cannot help ourselves, it would seem. We keep making the same mistakes again and again and again…only this time we have leveraged a one-time cache of ancient carbon energy to create a globalised, industrial world and put the entire species into ecological overshoot while destroying many of any competing species and much of the planet in the process.

The likelihood of everything going ‘just right’ for us, as the ‘bargainers’ hope, is probably even more remote than this Canadian senior ending up playing in the National Hockey League (a childhood fantasy[8]) in the not too distant future.

This article was brought to my attention yesterday and is also well worth the read. It echoes many of my own thoughts about our plight.

[1] See: https://degrowth.info/degrowth

[2] Tainter, J.. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1988. (ISBN 978–0–521–38673–9). There are competing theories as to why and how complex societies decline/collapse, but I have found Tainter’s to be the most compelling.

[3] In no way am I advocating a sudden ‘die-off’ to achieve this; such an event is increasingly looking to happen via the ‘natural’ collapse that accompanies a species overshooting its environmental carrying capacity, regardless of our wishes otherwise.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem

[5] I realise that stating ‘likely’ also opens the door to such bargaining but I attempt to be careful in declarations that suggest certitude. Few, if any, of our stories about our understanding of the world and prognostications about its future are certain — some just more probable than others.

[6] See Nate Hagens animated series: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLdc087VsWiC7xAS3YTykoRRi1gmNtGZVG

[7] See the work of Geological Survey of Finland’s Simon Michaux, especially:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/354067356_Assessment_of_the_Extra_Capacity_Required_of_Alternative_Energy_Electrical_Power_Systems_to_Completely_Replace_Fossil_Fuels; a

[8] As a Canadian born at the start of the 1960s in a relatively smallish city (182,000 the year I was born), I was introduced to playing hockey at age four. I have played almost every year since (took a few years off when my children were young) and continue to play regularly. I have played alongside some who have been drafted by NHL teams but never made the next step, and I can attest to the fact that despite my wishes my skill set has never been even close to being capable of playing professionally. I am still struggling to pull off a ‘saucer pass’ or ‘toe drag’ regularly and continue to practise them almost every time I play.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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