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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 LXXXIV–Chasing Perpetual Growth On a Finite Planet

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXIV

December 16, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Chasing Perpetual Growth On a Finite Planet

A very brief contemplation (as I work on some longer ones) that shares my response to the following billboard that was shared on the Degrowth Facebook group I am a member of:

The insanity of such a message on a finite planet should be self-evident to all but sadly this is simply not so. I have found that the overwhelming majority of people actually don’t pause whatsoever to consider how absolutely ridiculous such messages are.

Most (all?) are so caught up in relatively meaningless distractions or real-life personal crises that the ruling caste’s misleading narratives surrounding perpetual growth and our technological ingenuity to bypass hard biogeochemical limits are accepted as gospel truth. And it doesn’t help that humans have a tendency to defer/obey ‘experts/authority’ and participate heartily in groupthink.

Combine these cognitive ‘distortions’ with the fact that the products of growth (e.g., new infrastructure, additional services, etc.) are visibly and quickly perceived yet the negative impacts of our attempts to sustain our exponential growth can be readily externalised and/or take many years to materialise, and it is near impossible to make accurate attributions regarding causal relationships.

But as Meadows et al. argue in The Limits to Growth: when response delays occur in an exponential growth environment, overshooting a system’s capacity to sustain itself is common as well as the collapse that inevitably follows. It’s simply a matter of time and pursuing business-as-usual behaviours…

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXVI–Roadblocks To Our ‘Renewable’ Energy Transition: Debt, Resource Constraints, and Diminishing Returns

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXVI

November 12, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Roadblocks To Our ‘Renewable’ Energy Transition: Debt, Resource Constraints, and Diminishing Returns

Today’s contemplation is a quick rundown of three of the roadblocks I see preventing us from achieving the utopian dream of a seamless ‘clean’ energy transition from dirty fossil fuels, or at least one as marketed by the ruling caste and leveraged by many (most?) businesses to sell their products/services (and virtue-signal their ‘progressive’ nature).

These few items have been percolating in my mind this past week or so with a number of articles I’ve perused during my morning coffee. If readers can add to these in the comments (with appropriate supportive links), I will begin to create a more comprehensive list to share periodically down the road…

Here, in no particular order, are three of the issues I’ve been pondering:

2.5 quadrillion in debt/credit[1]

For all intents and purposes, and by most observable accounts, our financial/monetary/economic systems are Ponzi-type systems requiring constant expansion/growth to keep from collapsing[2]. Many lay the beginnings of this treacherous trend upon Richard Nixon’s abrogation of the Bretton Woods Agreement that hammered the final nail in the coffin of a precious metals-based monetary system[3]. Others point to the introduction of fiat money/currencies as the initiation point, when the ‘constraint’ of physical commodities was removed from money and government/ruling elite solidified their monopoly of its creation/distribution. If one looks back even before modern fiat currencies, however, there is much written about how the Roman ruling elite were engaged in such manipulation of their money[4].

The Ponzi nature of these systems requires that perpetual growth be pursued. That such a pursuit is impossible on a finite planet should be self-evident but as I have highlighted previously we walking, talking apes are story tellers whose imaginations are creative at weaving tales to reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts — such as our ingenuity and technological prowess allows us to ignore/deny/rationalise away physical laws and biological principles and pursue infinite growth despite any bio- and geo-physical limitations.

That we have created and depend significantly upon such increasingly complex and fragile systems should give us pause, but this is rare and typically frowned upon. There seems only three basic means of dealing with such a situation: 1) inflate away the problem[5]; 2) debt jubilees[6]; 3) growth[7]. All of these approaches seem to have been used individually or in combination in history, and yet the endgame tends to be the same every time certain tipping points are reached: rejection of the monetary system of the time.

There’s been a boatload of analyses on what such a repudiation of a society’s currency system means to a people and their society[8]. While a currency ‘collapse’ does not necessarily lead to societal ‘collapse’, it does appear to throw economic systems into chaos for some time and destroy much in the way of societal ‘wealth’ and thus investment capital; and contributes to the eventual fall of a society — especially if there’s no lender-of-last-resort to ride to the rescue.

Such a situation would seem to negate the possibility of achieving the dream of transitioning to some ‘clean/green’ energy-based society given the magnitude of the debt that is currently present, the ‘wealth’ this represents, and the huge investments that would be necessary for a shift from our primary source of energy (fossil fuels).

Perhaps the most significant impediment going forward from a currency collapse would be the general lack of trust in government and financial institutions. And it is ‘trust/confidence’ that keeps these fragile systems from being totally abandoned; when it is lost, there’s no telling how quickly more widespread ‘collapse’ may occur. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues, it is when the economic benefits of participating in a complex society fall below the costs incurred that a populace begins to abandon its support of the various systems and ‘collapse’ can soon follow[9].

Mineral/resource constraints

That we exist upon a finite planet should also give pause to those cheerleading a ‘renewable’ energy transition in that geophysical realities limit what we can physically accomplish in terms of resource extraction and use.

Simon Michaux, Associate Professor Mineral Processing and Geometallurgy at the Geological Survey of Finland, has for some time been highlighting the impossibility of replacing our fossil fuel-based systems with non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHT)[10].

The main hyped-up narrative surrounding the utopian future we are constantly promised by our societal leadership (both political and corporate) is that of a clean-energy future that not only sustains our present-day energetic conveniences, but allows continual expansion, technological progress, and prosperity. Dr. Michaux asserts that this is a pipe-dream because there do not exist the needed minerals to carry out such a transition from fossil fuels. Not even enough to replace and thus sustain the current level of energetic needs, let alone continuing to pursue growth.

Advocates dismiss this inconvenient reality — to say little about the environmental/ecological system damage that would result from the mining and processing of all the minerals and products required — by suggesting this can be overcome by reducing our energetic consumption/needs to a far lower level such that the finite materials can meet our needs, or developing many as-yet-to-be-hatched energy-production chickens. They also raise the arguments that recycling will guarantee perpetual resource requirements failing to understand that this is a very energy-intensive process and not as effective in reducing energy-use and pollutants as marketed[11] and are even being abandoned in many regions due to increasing costs[12].

Diminishing Returns

The human tendency in addressing resource requirements (in fact, to solve most problems) is to utilise the easiest-to-access and cheapest-to-extract ones first, leaving the more expensive and difficult ones to a later time. This, of course, means we must invest greater and greater amounts of labour/energy into extraction and processing as time passes, even to simply maintain current levels. In economic parlance, this reality has become referred to as the law of diminishing returns/productivity.

In energy circles, this tendency has been used to develop the concept of energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI)[13]. Basically, this is the ‘net’ energy that one derives from energy production. The greater the EROEI, the greater the amount of energy that can be used for purposes other than accessing/extracting/producing the energy in the first place. But as EROEI falls, there is less and less energy available for non-energy extraction/production systems.

We have witnessed a significant and precipitous drop in EROEI for fossil fuels[14], and the EROEI for NRREHTs is quite a bit lower than the legacy oil/gas fields that our globalised industrial world has used to grow to its present complexity; in fact, some argue that the EROEI of NRREHT is so low as to be incapable of supporting today’s globalised civilisation at anywhere near the current level of complexities[15].

A Few Other Hurdles to Our ‘Renewable-Energy’ Utopia

Here are a few additional issues that would seem to make the dream of a ‘clean’ energy future anything but doable, especially to the degree some (many? most?) imagine.

1. Current advanced-economy lifestyles require more energy than can be provided by ‘renewables’[16].
2. ‘Renewables’ require significant fossil fuel inputs[17].
3. Significant industrial processes cannot be carried out via ‘renewable’ energies[18].
4. And, perhaps most importantly, both the upstream and downstream industrial processes necessary to create, maintain, and reclaim/dispose of ‘renewables’ wreak havoc on our environment and ecological systems[19].

I could write much more on each of these roadblocks to the idea of our complex global society transitioning to NNREHT. Whether one accepts these as insurmountable or not depends very much on one’s interpretation of the data/evidence — and probably to a greater extent on one’s hopes/wishes (i.e., personal biases).

Keeping at the forefront of one’s thinking the fact that the future is unknowable, unpredictable, and full of unknown unknowns, anything is possible. But I would argue we do ourselves no favours in participating in and believing without full skepticism our various narratives about endless growth and technological ingenuity as the saviours that will make our utopian dreams/wishes of a ‘clean/green’ future come true.

Such magical thinking keeps us on a trajectory that increasingly is looking to be suicidal in nature, or, at the most promising, deeply ‘disappointing’ and broadly chaotic/catastrophic.

Time, of course, will tell…

And please note, as I have had to emphasise with others whom I’ve disagreed with regarding this ‘clean’ energy transition and NRREHTs: “… 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.”

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

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

[3] See this and/or this.

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

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

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

[7] See this and/or this.

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

[9] See this.

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

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

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

[13] See this and/or this.

[14] See this and/or this.

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

[16] See this.

[17] See this and/or this.

[18] See this. It’s imperative to note here that all rationalisations of ‘clean’ industrial processes rely upon as-yet-to-be-hatched chickens such as Carbon Capture and Storage or untenable energy production such as that based upon the use of hydrogen.

[19] See this.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXV–Decoupling Energy Use From Growth: More Bargaining

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXV

November 9, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Decoupling Energy Use From Growth: More Bargaining

Today’s short piece is a comment I shared on an article by Nathan Surendran that highlights a debunking of the idea that energy can be decoupled from growth and thus reduce carbon emissions whilst supporting continued economic expansion. Nathan has a number of great articles to read on our energy conundrum and related topics; if you’re not familiar with his writing, I recommend it.

Great piece, Nathan.

I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that all such narratives (those that argue for the continuation of ‘growth’) are readily accepted by most since they are part and parcel of our denial/bargaining of the bio- and geo-physical limits of existence on a finite planet.

More ‘nefariously’ these stories are simply marketing/propaganda by the ruling caste and its sycophants to support their primary motivation: the control/expansion of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and thus positions of power and prestige. Everything, and I mean everything, is leveraged to meet this overarching goal.

For example, the idea that a massive transition to ‘green/clean’ energy and related industrial products and processes — that are marketed as ‘net zero/carbon-free’ — can alter our climate trajectory completely overlooks the significant environmental/ecological damages that such a shift would entail.

That the ruling elite has created an Overton Window such that most people buy into this tale and cannot think outside the box created is not surprising. Carbon is our enemy and can be overcome via ‘carbon-free’ thinking and products; anyone who points out the flaws in this narrative are climate change deniers or shills for the fossil fuel energy.

Nowhere in the discussion is a realisation that the knock-on effects of the significant industrial processes that are involved or necessary to transition away from fossil fuels are problematic — in the extreme. Or, that land system changes[1] created because of our constant expansion are detrimental to our hydrological systems and thus creating the extreme weather events we are experiencing — perhaps even more so than ‘climate change’[2].

That land system changes are having a significant impact on our weather patterns cannot be considered at all since the idea that we need to stop altering the landscape of our world runs in a diametrically-opposed way from the expansion and growth of our human experiment. And this, of course, undermines the ruling caste’s power base. Better to leverage crises in a way that allows status quo power/wealth structures to be maintained and/or expanded, just as the idea of decoupling does.

The growth imperative must be maintained at all costs and perhaps as importantly the idea/belief that it can be must be adhered to by the significant majority of the population (or, at least, passively accepted) so that there is little to no rejection and thus counter-narratives to it.

For despite the seeming strength of the concept that infinite growth on a finite planet is entirely possible (because of technology and human ingenuity), if a tipping point of the populace comes to understand that our pursuit of growth is what has destroyed vast portions of our planet and other species leading us deeply into ecological overshoot — and subsequently rejects its pursuit — then the entire foundation of the ruling elite crumbles. And we can’t have that!

Better to double or triple down on the propaganda and censor/ostracise counter-narratives, thus allowing the game to go on just a bit longer…

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

[2] See this.

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 LXXII–Differing Opinions on ‘Renewables’

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXII

October 19, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Differing Opinions on ‘Renewables’

While I work on a longer (perhaps several part) contemplation regarding the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet that infiltrates and dominates many mainstream narratives — especially economic in nature — I thought I would share a back-and-forth conversation I’ve had with professor Ugo Bardi and another person on the Facebook group Dr. Bardi administers called The Seneca Effect regarding ‘renewables’.

It is a good example of the differing opinions regarding complex energy-harvesting technologies and their potential to offset the energy descent we seem to be experiencing.

First, I’d like to share an introductory statement from a relatively recent ‘essay’ by Megan Siebert and William Rees: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”[1]

I am well aware that, for the most part, people believe what they want to believe. We defend our beliefs in various ways such as ignoring/denying opposing information, attacking the presenter of contrarian evidence, or confirming beliefs via selective interpretation of data/’facts’. And I am as guilty of such psychological mechanisms impacting my belief systems as the next person. We all fight hard to reduce the anxiety/stress created from the presence of cognitive dissonance and can be easily manipulated into believing certain narratives.

I have shared in previous contemplations my thoughts about non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies and my increasing belief that they are not the panacea they are being made out to be. You can read some of these here:

And my thoughts on how our beliefs are impacted by various psychological mechanisms:

The post in which the conversation took place shared a media publication[2] regarding a fusion reactor and its potential for providing unlimited, clean energy.


The presentation begins: “Imagine a world where energy was so clean and abundant that it was no longer a limiting factor in the growth of civilization.”

Infinite growth without a need to worry about what is ‘fuelling’ it or our ecological systems. What’s not to love?


My original comment on the link:

Steve Bull
Unlimited, ‘clean’ energy (an oxymoron) may address one ‘problem’ humanity faces (actually, a roadblock to continuation of our chasing of the perpetual growth chalice) , but it would exacerbate the various predicaments we have created — especially ecological overshoot.

Comment by another that kicked off the back-and-forth:

Breton Crellin
Yeah maybe for like a fraction of a second before they run out of fuel.
That’s the biggest hurdle at the moment.
Even if we can figure out how to keep it cool and controlled it still uses up an incredibly rare fuel incredibly fast.
Maybe one day.
But until then it’s a good thing we’ve got renewables.

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
Despite narratives to the contrary, ‘renewables’ are a can-kicking endeavour. They rely upon finite resources in perpetuity, while that reliance draws those resources down more quickly and exacerbates our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot.

Breton Crellin
Steve Bull
and how would you recommend we generate electricity without producing greenhouse gases?
Because ‘we can’t have clean energy since one day in the future we could run out of the resources we used to make it’ is a very poor argument that assumes we will use the same materials with no innovation until we run out and it ignores the damage burning fossil fuels is doing right now.
If we don’t stop burning also fuels we won’t be alive to see the end of any resources used to generate renewable electricity.

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
The laws of physics and biology care not one iota if our species survives. However, humanity survived for millennia without electricity. And, you can’t have non-renewable, renewable-energy harvesting technologies without fossil fuels — and A LOT of it to even come close to replacing what fossil fuels provide…to say little of their import to modern industrial agriculture that supplies our food. This is a predicament without a solution.

Breton Crellin
Steve Bull
Your solution is a non-solution.
I asked you how You would recommend producing clean electricity and your answers to not produce electricity?
You can’t have renewable energy without fossil fuels?
That talking point is straight out of the climate change denial handbook.
Yes I’m well aware that concrete and steel have a carbon footprint and engineers take a gas burning car to work.
But those emissions are only made once and after that it’s decades of clean electricity.
Besides using petroleum products is not the problem. It’s burning them for heat electricity and transportation that is accelerating I possible extinction level event.
A predicament without a solution hey?
Sounds more like a predicament you have where your logic has pushed you in a corner you can’t find your way out of.
Sorry I shouldn’t make this about you.
Seriously though if climate change is a predicament without a solution then what is the harm in using renewable energy if we won’t survive on this planet long enough to use up the materials?

Ugo Bardi
Breton Crellin There is nothing to do, Breton, for some people, denigrating renewable energy is a crusade.

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi
You and I will have to agree to disagree regarding‘ renewables’. And as I have written before in responding to you: “… 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.”

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
You need to recognize the difference between problems with solutions and predicaments without them. 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/…/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/).

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi
Breton Crellin As physics professor Tom Murphy concludes in the piece I link: “Let’s not engineer a nightmare for ourselves in the misguided attempt to realize a poorly considered dream. It starts by recognizing that the vision many hold as “the dream” is itself utterly unsustainable and thus may even accelerate failure, rather than avert it. The predicament has wide boundaries that reach deep foundations of our civilization’s structure. We only succeed by altering our mental models of how we live on this planet — not by finding “superior” substitutes for the very things that have put us in this precarious position — and thus will only dig our hole faster, better, and cheaper.”

Breton Crellin
Steve Bull
strongly disagree that using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels is a poorly realized dream.
And again to repeat myself those material estimations assume innovations or alternative materials between now and when we run out.
What are the timelines until we are expected to run out anyway?
Or do we have less than that?

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
First, you cannot have ‘renewables’ without fossil fuels — from the mineral extraction and processing industries to their maintenance and reclamation/disposal, fossil fuels have no replacements for these industries at scale; plus you require fossil fuels to back up renewable systems because of their intermittency. Note that humanity’s energy demand (including that of fossil fuels) has only increased over the past several decades despite the introduction of ‘renewables’. Renewables are best seen as an extension of fossil fuels, not a replacement. As for the mineral limitation issue, I will defer to Simon Michaux as the geologist who has studied the issue extensively. We need to be powering down significantly (plus reducing our population dramatically), not attempting to replace what fuels our energy-intensive civilisation with complex technologies that require significant drawdown of finite minerals that have for some time been encountering problematic diminishing returns (to say little of the ecological damage such a pursuit entails). Our fundamental predicament is ecological overshoot and chasing replacements for fossil fuels does zero to address it; in fact, it makes it worse leading to an even more difficult reversion to the mean for humanity.

Ugo Bardi
You see? It is a crusade.

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi I view my attempting to point out the deficiencies and issues with renewables no more a ‘crusade’ than yours to push these technologies (and their environmentally-destructive production) as a ‘solution’ to our inevitable energy descent. The repercussions for our planet (and all life) of our continued pursuit of complex technologies are not inconsequential.

Ugo Bardi
Yours is a faith, mine is a scientific investigation based on data

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi Many would argue that the idea that ‘renewables’ are a ‘solution’ to our energy descent as ‘faith-based’. I guess you missed (purposely ignored?) the links I shared of physics professor Tom Murphy and geologist Simon Michaux? We must agree to disagree over this…

Ugo Bardi
Steve, how many papers on renewable energy did you publish in peer-reviewed journals? I published at least three (actually more) during the past few years. For this reason I say that my opinion on renewables is based on data and facts.

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi
Yes, you are arguing based upon an appeal to ‘data’ and ‘facts’, as am I when I refer to the work of fellow academics and ‘experts’ in their fields. Simon Michaux, for example, is a geologist with the Geological Survey of Finland and has performed extensive work on the mineral requirement aspects for a transition to ‘renewables’. Tom Murphy is a practising physicist who looks deeply into the numbers and data. And then there are the countless ecologists who are witnessing horrific biodiversity loss and ecological system collapse from the continuing, and expanding, industrial processes required to pursue complex technologies. I am not basing my perspective on ‘faith’ as you have suggested. I am attempting to balance the ecological concerns (that are almost always ignored or rationalised away) with the human need for energy to sustain our current way of existence. The two seem quite incompatible.

I conclude with the notion that we all believe what we wish to believe; ‘facts’ make little to no difference to that human proclivity. And this is particularly so when one is ‘invested’ significantly in the belief. Dr. Bardi seems well invested in the concept of renewables being capable of replacing fossil fuels. Me…not so much.

Might my concerns for the environment and ecological systems because of our industrial processes and pursuit of increasingly complex technologies be overblown or misplaced? Perhaps. But if they’re not and we continue to chase them in our quest for some holy grail to sustain our current living arrangements, the reversion to the mean for humanity will not be very welcome. Not at all.

[1] https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508

[2] The media publisher is ‘Electric Future’ that offers the following information about itself on its YouTube channel: “Electric Future® is an independent media publisher that presents optimistic but realistic coverage of cutting edge sustainable technology… The operators of Electric Future may have material connection to organizations mentioned in video content.”

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXI–Peak Oil: Not Ready For Mainstream Consumption

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXI

July 29, 2022 (original posting date)

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo taken by author.

Peak Oil: Not Ready For Mainstream Consumption

Today’s contemplation is based upon a post in a Peak Oil Facebook Group I belong to and the suggestion that the idea of Peak Oil is catching on more broadly and making its way into the ‘mainstream’.

I am not so sure that the idea of Peak Oil will catch on more broadly and make its way into the ‘mainstream’ — except perhaps on the margins during times such as we are currently witnessing where issues pertaining to energy and the cost of it dominates our worldview. This is what has occurred in the past, such as in the shadow of The Great Recession when oil reached it historical high in June, 2008. It will certainly receive more play amongst those who are aware of it and the consequences that flow from understanding it but amongst the general public I am not so convinced.

Not only is it likely that such mainstream recognition and discussions regarding Peak Oil will be limited in nature but I personally have to wonder how much the extent of the significant implications for everything in our complex societies will actually penetrate into a broader awareness, for a variety of reasons. The notion may gain more notoriety amongst an increased portion of the public than it currently does, but very likely not the existential consequences of the limits imposed by waning fossil fuel resources on the sociocultural complexities supported by them (i.e., pretty well everything in our complex societies, including but certainly not limited to food production, transportation, economic/financial systems, trade, etc.); nor is the notion likely to stick around for long or be widely discussed by many in the population given the media’s tendency to ignore/deny its more unsightly impacts on their prevalent narratives (e.g., chasing the infinite growth chalice is a great thing and needs to continue).

In addition, one can already see a wide array of alternative interpretations of our energy ‘crisis’ being put forward[1]. Some of these include: conspiracy by the elite to bring about The Great Reset; insufficient funding/capital towards all forms of energy production; a conspiracy to keep fossil fuel prices high (including the notion that ‘fossil’ fuels are limitless in quantity as they are abiotic/abiogenic in nature); geopolitical uncertainty, particularly in regions where fossil fuels are in significant quantities; misguided investment policy such as Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria; and, of course, the ultimate scapegoat for the world’s woes — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While some leakage of the idea of the finiteness of the resource or limits to its extraction has occurred[2], many mainstream pundits have completely ignored the concern as it seems unworthy of consideration, or have questioned the accuracy/validity of the idea and thereby dismissed it.

Some mainstream media has indeed already discussed Peak Oil and some of its implications[3].

Mostly, the topic has seemed to get more attention when fossil fuel prices, especially oil and gas, begin to experience significant increases. But when the prices stabilise (usually at a higher floor) or the media has moved its focus onto some other crisis, the discussion shifts away and it is quickly forgotten.

Why will the concept and implications of Peak Oil be mostly absent from the mainstream conversation and/or dissipate relatively quickly?

Here’s my take. There are two primary reasons that I believe the concept and certainly the significant consequences of Peak Oil are unlikely to penetrate very deeply in to the zeitgeist of our ‘modern’ society, and they are the two main themes I have tended to discuss previously.

First, the elite, as they invariably tend to do, will attempt to leverage the impending crisis (as they have been for some time) to meet their primary motivation — maintenance/expansion of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and thus power/prestige/privileged positions. The status quo power and wealth structures that arise within the organisational imperatives required in a complex society must be preserved!

Since the elite also ‘control’ the mainstream media, and political and education systems, I expect them to keep doing (perhaps with an even hardier push) what they’ve been doing: sell/market the hopium-laced narrative that human ingenuity and our technological prowess can ‘save’ us from the environmental horrors (i.e., global warming/climate change) of burning fossil fuels. It’s no coincidence that they happen to ‘own’ the industrial processes and financial institutions necessary for such an endeavour.

One need only read the majority of ‘news’ or opinions about Peak Oil and it becomes clear that the ‘solution’ is always to transition to ‘green/clean’ energy and to electrify everything.

Second, the psychological mechanisms that impact/influence human beliefs and attitudes will also kick into gear as stress/disorder increases due to the negative consequences of Peak Oil, especially those aspects that lead our thinking/beliefs astray by attempting to: avoid pain and seek pleasure; reduce our cognitive dissonance; lead us to defer to/obey authority; have us go along to get along (i.e., the need to belong to a group); and, perhaps most significantly, the heuristics and biases that simplify complex issues and confirm misplaced beliefs. Basically we tend to gravitate towards the simple narratives offered by our ‘leaders’ and alter our beliefs to avoid painful thoughts.

And all the above doesn’t even touch upon the overwhelming evidence that fossil fuels (and the concomitant leveraging of technology to expedite our drawdown of a number of finite resources) have been the primary impetus leading to our significant overshooting of the globe’s natural carrying capacity for the human species.

What seems to be completely absent in virtually every ‘mainstream’ discussion about Peak Oil is the importance of fossil fuels in supporting virtually all of our complexities.

There are fossil fuel inputs into everything but especially modern industrial agriculture and transportation. These cannot be replaced by non-fossil fuel energy to any significant extent, if at all. Without relocalising food production in particular, we are setting ourselves up for significant food shortages.

Naïve, then, seems the call to abandon fossil fuels forthwith[4]. There appears zero comprehension of the consequences of that for the very dangerous complexities we have created. But it is also a marketing ploy to shift capital towards non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (that depend significantly on fossil fuels). It is increasingly obvious that it is quite counterproductive to continue to chase the perpetual growth chalice (that is one of our greatest challenges that needs confronting) while cheerleading a reduction in fossil fuels.

We have hit significant diminishing returns on our extraction of fossil fuels. This is extremely problematic not only because they support virtually all of the complexities necessary for our very survival but because we continue to be beholden to systems that perpetuate the predicament, especially the pursuit of the infinite growth chalice.

If we do not prepare ourselves adequately and do not abandon our pursuit of growth, we risk massive negative consequences. In fact, it may already be too late to avoid most (all?) of such negative impacts given how far we are likely into ecological overshoot — a predicament I haven’t really touched upon in this contemplation.

A summary of my thoughts is clear from a response I shared this morning on an excellent article by The Honest Sorcerer, entitled Peak Oil Is Back With A Vengeance:

While everything you state is factual and based upon solid data and geological evidence [regarding the reality of Peak Oil], I fear our penchant to deny reality (especially if it is ‘painful’ in nature), reduce our cognitive dissonance (to alleviate stressful thoughts/beliefs), and defer to authority (that we give all too willingly to our ‘elite’) — as well as a potpourri of other psychological mechanisms that impact our beliefs — will once again see Peak Oil discussions/awareness/understanding be sustained/grow only on the margins of society.

Previous bouts of ‘awareness’ have arisen during similar times of stress, especially with regard to energy, but for the most part get lost in the alternative narratives that drown out the clarion calls about Peak Resources and seem directed to distract us from the ugly underside of ecological overshoot and its implications for our misbeliefs about humanity’s future and the magical thinking required to hold that more of what has caused our overshoot — namely technology — will somehow ameliorate/solve our errant ways and existential crises.

The vast, vast majority of people will either choose to ignore/deny the reality of Peak Oil (and especially its implications for our complex societies that completely depend upon fossil fuels for existence) or acknowledge it and then hold on to the rope being dangled by the elite that our ingenuity and technological prowess will ‘solve’ our issues (and, of course, it’s no coincidence that the push by our elite is primarily because they own the industries and institutions that are offered as saviours and stand to profit handsomely from the capital flowing into them).

Even if the concept and some of its significant implications do re-enter the mainstream and actually stick or becomes a common concern, I have to wonder how it will be manipulated by the narrative control managers for the elite. Somehow things are bound to get even more distorted than they are currently, especially given the psychological mechanisms that help to mislead our beliefs (recency, optimism, and confirmation biases particularly).

As with all things, however, time will tell how this plays out…I’m guessing not very well.

[1] A few examples: https://internationalman.com/articles/david-stockman-on-the-all-out-commitment-to-destroy-fossil-fuels-will-it-succeed/; https://www.statista.com/chart/27807/european-gdp-output-losses-twelve-months-after-a-russian-gas-supply-shut-off/; https://www.zerohedge.com/markets/putin-turns-screws-gazprom-unexpectedly-halts-another-more-nord-stream-turbine-european-gas; https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Refinery-Shuts-Down-Due-To-Lack-Of-Crude.html; https://mises.org/library/trouble-oil; https://www.amazon.com/Myths-Lies-Wars-William-Engdahl/dp/3981326369/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=myths+lies+and+oil+wars&qid=1578501116&sr=8-1;

[2] https://www.reuters.com/world/macron-tells-biden-that-uea-saudi-can-barely-raise-oil-output-2022-06-27/; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-27/macron-tells-biden-that-uae-and-saudi-pumping-near-oil-limits; https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/UAE-Saudi-Arabia-Pumping-Oil-Near-Limits-Macron.html; https://www.worldoil.com/news/2022/6/27/france-s-macron-tells-biden-that-uae-saudi-pumping-near-oil-limits/;

[3] Examples from my country’s national news institution, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/peak-oil-problems-and-possibilities-1.845183; https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/ex-premier-slams-province-over-peak-oil-1.1038638l; https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/record-gas-prices-blamed-on-peak-oil-1.1039028; https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/ihs-iea-electric-autonomous-ride-hailing-1.3983818;

[4] https://www.timesnownews.com/mirror-now/in-focus/world-must-abandon-fossil-fuels-urgently-say-scientists-as-they-prepare-to-present-landmark-ipcc-report-article-90642366; https://www.chesterstandard.co.uk/news/national/19621587.fuel-crisis-good-lesson-need-abandon-fossil-fuels-says-minister/; https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/opinion/local-view-abandon-fossil-fuels-to-avoid-climate-catastrophe; https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/08/can-world-economy-survive-without-fossil-fuels; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/18/climate/climate-change-emissions-IEA.html

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LX–Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part Two

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LX

July 19, 2022 (original posting date)

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

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

This is Part Two of a contemplation regarding what humanity’s future path ‘may’ look like. Part One can be found here.

Based on the evidence found in our pre/history and our biological proclivities (both of which I touched upon in Part One), it would appear we are likely to experience a variety of crises as we increasingly encounter diminishing returns on our investments in complexity and go through the withdrawal of surplus energy[1] that has fed our ‘growth’ and supported our organisational ‘problem solving’ abilities, but also because we have created and come to rely significantly upon systems that require such growth to keep from collapsing (for example, our increasingly debt-based financial/economic/monetary systems that, in turn, support our expanding energy-averaging systems and ensuring overexploited regions can be ‘maintained’ — i.e. globalised trade).

Throw on top of this the overshoot predicament and one should realise that the future is sure to not be the one painted by the techno-cornucopians who optimistically envision more of a Star Trek future than a Mad Max or The Road one.

I, personally, am of the opinion that ‘collapse’ of some type is imminent[2] primarily due to our overwhelming reliance upon important finite resources (especially fossil fuels) that we are now experiencing significant diminishing returns upon (and, yes, it’s an opinion; as is every other view of the future no matter how much ‘science’ is behind it or how sophisticated the model used to project the trends going forward — some are better than others but only the passage of time can ultimately decide which, in retrospect, were accurate).

At the same time we are going to be increasingly impacted by environmental/ecological crises brought about by our ecological overshoot and its concomitant overwhelming of the planetary sinks that previously helped cleanse the waste products of our expansion and technological creations[3] — to say little regarding the impacts that are going to be experienced around diminishing returns on food production and its very real reliance upon fossil fuels. Whether it be increasing frequency of extreme weather events and/or toxic environments leading to physical/physiological consequences for its inhabitants, including humans, the repercussions of our expansion appear to be growing in nature and impact.

How we view ‘collapse’ depends very much on our interpretation of it. It may be ‘the end of the world as we know it’ but that does not mean it will be dark and dreary. That perspective may be one that has been widely propagated in order to ‘scare’ people into believing the status quo economic and power structures need to continue and be supported at all costs. They do not.

‘Collapse’ seems scary because it is mostly about uncertainty, something humans abhor. We don’t know what the future holds and it reduces our cognitive dissonance greatly to cling to some certain future, even if completely and utterly wrong.

I’ve shared before what Tainter says about ‘collapse’ and it’s not all that bad depending upon one’s point of view:

“Collapse…is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity…[It manifests itself] as:
· a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation;
· less economic and occupational specialization, of individuals, groups, and territories;
· less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites;
· less behavioural control and regimentation; less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of ‘civilization’: monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like;
· less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery;
· less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources;
· less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups;
· a smaller territory within a single political unit.”[4]

Some (most?) of these consequences may actually be welcomed by some, especially those who rail against what appears to be a growing tyranny of the ruling elite as we creep further into the banquet of consequences of our overshoot and diminishing returns on investments in complexity.

However, the ‘collapse’ that may accompany overshoot — a massive ‘die-off’ — seems a tad bit more cataclysmic depending upon how quickly such population reduction occurs. A relatively short recalibration of our population would, for all intents and purposes, appear truly calamitous to those experiencing it and most certainly would create a chaotic disintegration of the complexities we have come to rely upon for our survival. We have recently experienced the knock-on effects of shutting down world trade/economies over the fears associated with a relatively mild novel coronavirus[5]; the disruption of something far more impactful would make this seem very tame in comparison.

It seems clear to me that we have predicaments creating a vice on our continuation of any type of complex society. And my thinking about how this might all unfold has led me to review more closely John Michael Greer’s thesis that attempts to develop an ecological model of ‘collapse’. This ‘catabolic collapse’ suggests, at least in my interpretation, that we will see ‘crises’ that lead to more ‘simplified’ levels of society that then later experience more ‘crises’ resulting in another step down to an even simpler state and so on due to the fact that “production fails to meet maintenance requirements for existing capital…[and as a result get caught up in] a self-reinforcing cycle of contraction converting most capital to waste.”[6]

Given the increasing likelihood of ‘collapse’, it would seem we have two stark choices/strategies (very similar to what Greer argues regarding Catabolic Collapse). Continue on attempting to sustain unsustainable systems, virtually guaranteeing an overshoot die-off of gargantuan proportions. Or, attempt to ‘manage’ our ‘collapse’ as it unfolds by being pre-emptive via purposeful downsizing[7], degrowing[8], and simplifying[9].

What this second option looks like depends almost entirely on those agreeing with this approach. In fact, I sense a growing bifurcation of opinions even within the ‘degrowth’ movement with some arguing for a very slow transition and movement towards ‘green/clean’ technologies and others countering that such an approach is far too late and much more radical shifts need to be made if we are to have any ‘hope’ of making it thru the bottleneck we have created for our species (and others).

Unfortunately, given the lack of consensus, the psychological processes that lead to significant denial and bargaining (to reduce cognitive dissonance)[10], and the fact that the ruling elite will likely fight with all their ‘tools’ to avoid the elimination of their control/expansion of the wealth-generation/extraction systems that provide their revenue streams (their primary motivation), it is most probable we will go with the first option above: attempt to sustain the unsustainable (probably via ‘green’ technology), which will then lead to mother nature choosing how the planet is rebalanced — and our wishes and concerns will be null and void in this scenario.

In addition, given our current geopolitics and the frequency at which a society’s ruling elite choose war during times of stress, rather than diplomacy, I very much see the possibility of a global conflagration of conflict occurring — that could, of course, go nuclear.

As a result of all the above, I am increasingly leaning towards our future being far more dystopian in nature than utopian. The version of dystopia is still very much up to us I believe depending on what we do from this point onwards (my hope is that we make ‘good’ choices but my fear, as I admit above, is that doing so is beyond our capability because of the nature of our society’s power structures and protection of them by those who leverage crises to their benefit; along with the human tendencies to defer to authority and the need to ‘belong’).

Is there a way out of this conundrum? I personally waffle between ‘hope’ (something I wish for but really have no agency in) and despair (see image below).

My ‘hope’ is that we will come to realise that our pursuit of the perpetual growth chalice is taking us to a dark place where few of us survive (and that would be many species, not just homo sapiens) and reverse our trajectory; what can referred to as ‘degrowth’: a purposeful cessation of our current path and ‘deconstruction’ of almost all our socioeconomic and sociopolitical excesses until we reach a standard of living and population level that is ‘sustainable’.

My despair is that we will refuse to do this for a variety of reasons both psychological and biological in nature, but especially because if it is to have any positive impact we likely need to do it deeply and quickly. Instead, we will likely do everything we can to kick-the-growth-can-down-the-road to delay the inevitable and ultimately make the ‘correction’ all the more colossal in its size and scope; especially if, as Catton argues, we will have to undershoot our ‘natural’ carrying capacity by quite a bit given that everything we have done has reduced it significantly[11].

So, basically I believe that if we continue to hold that more technology[12] and money will address our issues, then I tend to think we will drift towards the darker dystopian path. If, however, we begin to ‘collapse’ on our own terms by degrowing, downsizing, and simplifying our societies we might be able to steer our future towards the lighter dystopian future where relatively small, local communities live within their region’s carrying capacity and are in ‘sync’ with the ecological systems within which they live and depend upon. We cannot and should not continue to believe that humans exist above and beyond these systems. Frankly, without them we are destined to disappear as well.

This ‘light dystopian’ vision, if you will, may appear calamitous to many because it is void of most of the technological ‘conveniences’ (what some have termed ‘energy slaves’) we currently embrace and is sure to involve much more manual labour and expose us to many of nature’s uncertainties that we have come to believe we can tame and avoid. But as nature so often reminds us, although we are reluctant to admit it, it always bats last and has the final say.

Given the evidence and my personal inclinations, more and more I’m leaning towards the realisation that it is the ‘scarier’ dystopian future that we, or at least future generations, will experience.

Of course only time will tell since making predictions is difficult, particularly if they’re about the future…

The following image was posted recently by someone on Facebook and I find it is frighteningly apropos to my personal reflections about our predicament:

[1] See Dr. Tim Murphy’s blog for more on this: https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/professional-area/

[2] By ‘imminent’ I mean it’s a matter of when, not if. It could be a relatively long-lasting decline as painted by John Michael Greer (https://newsociety.com/books/l/the-long-descent-pdf?sitedomain=row) and James Howard Kunstler (https://www.amazon.ca/Long-Emergency-Converging-Catastrophes-Twenty-First/dp/0802142494); or a relatively quick one as suggested by Jared Diamond for Easter Islanders (https://www.amazon.ca/Collapse-Societies-Choose-Succeed-Revised/dp/0143117009). Also note that I do not ‘wish’ for this outcome; while the ‘effort justification’ aspects of my mind would love to be proven right — given all the ‘energy’ I’ve put into the ‘collapse’ narrative — I have children whom I do NOT want to experience a ‘declining’ world constantly in crisis and with significant uncertainty.

[3] See this for evidence of our breaching of various planetary limits: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html

[4] Tainter, J. The Collapse of Complex Societies. P. 4.

[5] Regardless of one’s perspective on Covid-19 and its political roots and/or implications, the millions of deaths attributed to it are but a fraction of several historical pandemics. The mortality rate for Covid has been relatively low compared to other ‘plagues’ that have spread through human populations and resulted in much more significant ‘die-offs’, such as the Black Death (1347–1351), Spanish Flu (1918–1919), Plague of Justinian (541–542), Third Plague Pandemic (1855–1960). https://www.publichealthonline.org/worst-global-pandemics-in-history/

[6] https://www.ecosophia.net/civilizations-fall-theory-catabolic-collapse/

[7] See this (https://justcollapse.org/) for one version of how to do this in a ‘just’ manner.

[8] See https://degrowth.info/degrowth for one version of degrowth.

[9] Nate Hagens’s podcast series provides some great insight into this approach: https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/.

[10] My second university degree was focused on psychology and anthropology (Honours Diploma, 1987, Western University). An Honours Diploma is equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree but Canadian universities do not give out second B.A.s to the same student and instead give these. At least that was the case during my 1980s post-secondary years. I also have a Bachelor of Education which is the field in which I spent my formal employment (Brock University, 1989, St. Catharines, Ontario); 10 years as a classroom teacher, 15 as an administrator.

[11] Catton, Jr., W.R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 978–0–252–00988–4)

[12] See Erik Michaels’s https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/ for some insight into why technology is perhaps our undoing, not some ingenious ‘saviour’ for humanity.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX–Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX

July 13, 2022 (original posting date)

Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

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

Today’s contemplation (a two-parter) was begun a few months ago but I’m just now getting around to completing and posting it. As often happens with me and my ADHD, I get thinking about/reflecting upon a topic or idea, record some thoughts while having my morning coffee and the ideas are flowing, and then move on to something else before finishing the task completely (this habit, unfortunately, also impacts my various house ‘projects’ and drives my wife crazy…but after 36 years together she’s aware I just need the ‘occasional’ reminder about the unfinished work — I had forgotten about this writing until coming across it as I was cleaning up some computer files due to ‘extra’ time on my hands given the loss of Internet with the several-day shut-down of one of Canada’s largest providers recently; a blessing, really, as it reduced my screen-time).

A question posed to me recently was: “What does the path forward look like when we say we have to live within our means on a finite planet?”

The answer to such a question is as varied as the people answering it[1]. I am hesitant to provide a definitive answer about what the transition to ‘sustainable’ circumstances might look like given the uncertainty that abounds. I am inclined to believe that any ‘guess’ about the future[2], regardless of the amount of data/evidence one has or the sophistication of the model or the computing power used, is probably about as accurate as reading tea leaves or a bird’s entrails. Not one of us has a clear picture as to what will unfold in the future, for as a few people have been credited with stating (including physicist Niels Bohr, writer Mark Twain, and baseballer Yogi Berra): “Prediction is hard, especially if it’s about the future.”

I’ve long held that complex systems can neither be controlled nor predicted with their non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena[3], so predicting complex systems with any degree of ‘certainty’ is a fools’ errand — especially once human actions/behaviours are involved. On top of this, no matter how sincere our attempts at objectivity in such prognostications, personal biases always impact our processing of information as does the paradigm[4] through which we interpret events and project into the future (and we tend to do so linearly since non-linear systems befuddle our primate brains); and, then, of course there are the Black Swans[5] that are persistently circling overhead — those unknown, unknowns that we can’t even contemplate because they’re outside of our personally-confining and -blinding worldview.

When we read about the future we are confronted with a potpourri of thoughts about how it might unfold — most of them, of course, presented with ‘certitude’. We tend to cling to some over others even if the one we tend to gravitate towards holds little in common with observed reality or experience. For as Dan Gardner argues in Future Babble[6], humans do not like uncertainty and despite so-called ‘experts’ being horrible at predicting the future, human psychology compels us to listen and take them seriously — even if we know the prognosticator to have been wrong on countless occasions (I still look at the long-range weather forecasts even though I know quite well that any outside of about 12–24 hours are bound to be incorrect, some drastically so — something that drives me ‘mad’ when my food gardens are in desperate need of rain and the weather forecasters are calling for rain right up until that actual day/hour it is supposed to rain and then change the prediction to no rain, and I am forced to spend a few hours watering my beds — a tendency that seems to be increasing in frequency the past couple of growing seasons; this year, April and May were great for precipitation in my area north of Toronto but as has been happening, it seems, June and so far in July has been way too dry and the 4000 litres of rainwater I have collected in my 20 rain barrels was getting precariously low up until a very recent overnight rain).

I like what Gardner states near the end of his book about discussing the future:

It is informed by the past, it is revealing about the present, and it surveys a wide array of futures. It is infused with metacognition…It offers hopeful visions of what could be; it warns against dangers that also could be. It explores our values by asking us what we want to happen and what we don’t. And it goes no further. It raises issues, questions, and choices, and it suggests possibilities and probabilities. But it does not peddle certainties, and it does not predict.[7]

Where are we on our path into the future given such uncertainty? Well, we have our choice of competing narratives to believe in.

There are some who argue that it matters little or not at all what we do with respect to the existential predicaments we face, for the future is one where we are all FUBAR. For example, 5–10 degrees of average global temperature increase is quite certainly baked into the cake and will in all likelihood lead to the extinction of most species on the planet, perhaps all with the end result being a ‘hothouse’ Earth with an environment similar to Venus. Responses to this eventuality then also range, mostly dependent on whether one holds that the impact will be sudden or drag itself out over millennia. Dystopia, even widespread extinction, is on the horizon and there is no avoiding it.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe strongly that we can transition somewhat seamlessly to ‘alternative’ forms of energy (or just continue extracting fossil fuels whose ‘scarcity’ is a concerted psy-ops by the ‘powers-that-be’) to keep-on-keeping-on with our status quo complexities and energy-intensive living standards. For most ‘clean/green’ energy aficionados, nuclear fusion or some other as-yet-to-be-discovered technology will provide us with cheap, safe energy; and/or we can mine passing asteroids for any needed finite resources we’ve exhausted, including water. In fact, one day we are bound to leave this over-used rock and colonise other worlds. Perhaps a little bit of tweaking here or there might be needed but given human ingenuity and technological prowess we will solve any and everything thrown our way so there is no need to worry about any ecological system breakdown or resource scarcity ‘problems’ for very long at all. The future is one of unlimited possibilities and utopian dreams, especially if we also redistribute all the wealth tied up in the off-shore bank accounts of the world’s billionaires and slay that evil monster capitalism; then, without a doubt, all eight billion (or much more) of us can live happily-ever-after, holding hands, and singing Kumbayah around the ‘carbon-free’ campfire.

These are perhaps the two extremes of the gamut of possibilities for our future. Where each of us ends up on this continuum of beliefs depends on the worldview we hold and how we process information through that narrow keyhole we necessarily each peer through. And I would argue that what we believe also very much relies upon our personal biases and what we wish to happen, not necessarily upon any ‘factual’ evidence. We are constantly seeking out confirmatory evidence for our beliefs and ignoring or denying counterfactual data or rationalising it to fit into our preconceived notions. There exist very strong psychological mechanisms to ensure ‘facts’ seldom, if ever, alter firmly held beliefs.

So, before I lay out my personal thoughts on what our future may or may not look like (and I am in no way ‘certain’ about any of this, although I do lean towards the more ‘dystopian’ possibilities), let me provide some cognitive context for why I believe what I believe. The paradigm through which I view the world, as it were, and necessarily impacts my perception of this crazy and totally unpredictable world.

I find that pre/history demonstrates pretty clearly that every complex sociopolitical organisation (i.e., complex society) before us has eventually ‘declined’ to a point that it can no longer be considered a ‘society’[8]. The social fabric that held the population together became frayed and people opted out, leading to its eventual ‘collapse’.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies[9] archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues that a human society is a problem-solving organisation. This organisation requires energy inputs for its maintenance with increasing complexity necessitating increased energy inputs. These inputs eventually encounter the law of marginal utility or diminishing returns because the solutions we adopt in dealing with problems that arise tend to be the easiest-to-implement and cheapest-to-maintain, but eventually more difficult and costly approaches must be pursued as the ‘easy’ ones have been exhausted. People are attracted to participating in a sociopolitical organisation (i.e., society) so long as the benefits accrued are at least — but preferably better — than the costs incurred. Once the costs exceed the perceived benefits, people choose to withdraw their participation. When a tipping point of participants have opted out, the organisational structures that have held complexities in place ‘collapses’.

It’s obviously much more difficult to abandon the sociopolitical sphere and organisational structures one is born into today than it was in the past. There is not only limited to no space left to flee to as every portion of the planet has been claimed by some nation state or another, but the vast majority of people lack the skills/knowledge to survive without their society’s supports. Self-sufficiency has been ‘bred’ out of us in just a few generations as we have embraced a future based upon different imperatives but especially complex centralised-systems and technology.

This shift has been afforded us by our leveraging of a one-time, finite cache of fossil fuel energy; a cache that has encountered significant and world-altering diminishing returns.

On top of this leveraging of fossil fuel energy and the paradigm shift it has led to in how we perceive the world — and create organisational structures and knowledge within in — we have the very real prospect that we are in the midst of ecological overshoot because we have significantly surpassed the planet’s human carrying capacity[10].

In the past we could overcome carrying capacity limits by migrating to a region as yet unexploited or underexploited by others (wars and colonisation are pretty well always about resources/economics; see U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler’s essay War is a Racket[11] for more on this perspective). When we pushed up against or exceeded the biophysical limits imposed by our environment in the past, this ‘takeover method’ (taking over from other species and eventually other humans) allowed us to expand for many millennia. We spread into virtually every niche across the globe.

More recently, however, we have depended upon a different means of procuring our needed resources termed the ‘drawdown method’, where we have extracted finite resources to supplement our existence. We have pushed human carrying capacity well past its natural limit by relying upon various resources drawn from our environment. The past couple of centuries has seen this approach focused primarily upon limited resources that have been extracted far, far faster than their renewal rate. Such use could only be limited in scope and temporary in time.

As William Catton argues in Overshoot[12], any species that overshoots its carrying capacity experiences a ‘rebalancing’ of its population eventually. Where the takeover method is precluded, a loss of necessary resources (usually food) results in a massive die-off to bring population numbers down to a level where the environment can recover. Sometimes a species experiences physiological changes that reduces fertility. Either way, population is reduced dramatically from its peak and often to a level far below the natural upper limit of ‘sustainability’ because of the damage to the environment that overshoot has caused.

Given our reliance upon fossil fuels, their finite nature, and the diminishing returns we have encountered because of this — and the way in which their use and the industrial processes they have ‘powered’ have overwhelmed the various planetary sinks that normally help to filter and purify the waste products we produce — it is increasingly clear that we have overshot our carrying capacity and have but the negative consequence of that to experience (or as many argue, are already experiencing).

In Part Two of this ‘essay’ I will paint a somewhat blurry picture of our possible future…

[1] Here I am reminded of a statement by a visiting psychology professor at a lecture on human ‘intelligence’ I attended at Western University when I was an undergrad. During his introductory remarks, with a goal of defining what we would be discussing, he stated (and I am paraphrasing given it’s been about 40 years): “Ask a hundred psychologists the definition of intelligence and you are bound to get a hundred different answers, perhaps more.”

[2] See this recent article by Charles Hugh Smith on the difference between a forecast and a guess: https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjun22/forecast-guess6-22.html.

[3] I highly recommend some reading on complexity and complex systems. A good beginning text is Donella Meadows’s Thinking In Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. (ISBN 978–1–60358–055–7).

[4] For an introduction to the concept of paradigms see Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962. (ISBN 978–0–22645–811–3)

[5] See Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Improbable. Random House, 2010/2007. (ISBN 978–0–8129–7381–5)

[6] Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail–And Why We Believe Them Anyway. McClelland & Stewart, 2010. (ISBN 978–0–7710–3513–5)

[7] Ibid. p. 266–267.

[8] My graduate degree was concentrated in archaeology (Master of Arts, 1988, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario).

[9] The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1988. (ISBN 978–0–521–38673–9)

[10] Note that my first university degree was primarily concentrated in biology/physiology (Bachelor of Arts, 1984, Western University, London, Ontario).

[11] War is a Racket. https://ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.pdf

[12] Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 978–0–252–00988–4)

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLI–More Bargaining: Doughnut Economics

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLI

February 22, 2022

Teotihuacan, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

More Bargaining: Doughnut Economics

The following ‘contemplation’ was prompted by an article that was shared to a Facebook group I am a member of regarding ‘Doughnut Economics’ and its possible role in addressing our ecological overshoot.

While I have not read extensively the argument/theory regarding ‘Doughnut Economics’[1] it seems to me, on initial perception, to be another in a growing line of rationalisations that attempt to support and extend the resource-intensive processes that provide for our complex societies. While it incorporates a lot of the concepts around ideas of sustainability and ecological overshoot, it bases most of its argument around the redefinition of ‘progress’ or ‘sustainable development’ in a way that makes it appear less environmentally-/ecologically-destructive (not too dissimilar to the ‘net zero’ narrative that ‘shifts’ numbers around to look compelling). When one scratches at the surface of the proposal, however, it looks just as resource dependent — especially with respect to energy — as our status quo system; it simply redistributes/redirects those resources in an attempt to bring all of humanity up to a ‘preferred’, and supposedly ‘sustainable’, level.

It’s almost as if the theory employs the fallacy of the straw man by initially establishing that the current economic system employed by humanity is the sole/primary cause of our existential crises because of its propensity to chase the infinite growth chalice. It then highlights the inequitable nature of ‘capitalism’. Having set up this straw man, it concludes by arguing we can continue to ‘grow’ if we just dismantle this problematic economic system and employ a different one that defines ‘growth’ in a way that allows us to keep our cake and eat it too[2]. This is all established, however, while ignoring the pre/historical examples of complex societies failing/collapsing as a result of overexploiting their natural environment despite having very different economic systems.

There is a compelling argument to be made that every experiment in complex societies to date has failed eventually because of the diminishing returns they encountered as they expanded and eventually ran out of places to extract resources from to support their growth and increasing complexities[3]. Technology at the time simply didn’t allow societies to control ever-larger areas of land and shuffle resources back to their sociopolitical centre for more than a few centuries, at best (a couple of exceptions dragged on longer but they too eventually succumbed to overextension and diminishing returns). And when the benefits of being part of the society fell below the costs, members opted out and ‘collapse’ ensued. Every time.

The takeover method of expanding one’s environmental reach from which to draw resources and support growth shifted eventually to the drawdown method of resource extraction. This occurred at a time most/all niches were occupied and expansion into unexploited regions became ever more problematic. The energy provided by a one-time cache of ancient fossil energy has allowed the human experiment to grow to unprecedented levels, well beyond the ‘natural’ capacity of the planet to sustain us[4].

The evidence is becoming clearer that we are encountering significant issues not necessarily because of the economic system we are currently employing but because the fundamental resource we have grown extremely dependent upon (fossil fuels) has encountered very problematic diminishing returns — to say little about the negative consequences of this use on our planet’s environment/ecological systems. We are now stumbling around attempting to ‘solve’ a predicament without ‘solutions’, pointing our fingers at all sorts of ‘culprits’, and many gravitate towards the clear disparity between our elite ruling class who seem to be doing just fine, thank you, and everyone else because of a ‘natural’ tendency to seek a ‘fair and just’ world (see the non-human primate studies on justice and fairness).

So, if we were to redefine ‘progress’ and ‘sustainable development’ in a way that doesn’t impinge upon our environment, as Doughnut Economics seems to aim to do, we could continue to ‘grow’. This thinking, however, appears to ignore all the resource inputs that go into virtually everything we do, regardless of how one defines it. So-called ‘service’ industries, for example, still require significant resources (especially energy) to be sustained[5]. How does one extract these resources from the environment without requiring significant resources in the first place? Especially when all the easy-to-retrieve and cheap-to-extract resources have already been used up, and remaining ones require ever-more energy/resource inputs to access and recover what’s left. Even recycling of products, as beneficial as that process is, demands significant resource inputs[6].

Perhaps the problem is not primarily the economic system employed (although that could exacerbate certain negative aspects) but, as Erik Michaels argues at Problems, Predicaments, and Technology[7], our complex societies themselves with their resource demands. And this is especially true as we approach eight billion resource-dependent humans at a time of significant diminishing returns on all the resources we have come to rely upon for our existence. Sure, we could curtail the overconsumption of ‘advanced’ economies and direct the associated resources into more ‘equitable’ avenues, but the pressure on resources and the environment remain when we are looking at billions of humans.

If we are not discussing a purposeful and likely significant contraction of our current experiment (and this is especially true for so-called advanced economies that are responsible for the lion’s share of resource demands and their negative impacts), then I fear we are simply attempting to rationalise a continuation of it to avoid the chaos of the unmitigated collapse that always accompanies a species that has overshot its environment’s natural carrying capacity.

The fundamental flaw I see in Doughnut Economics is that it proposes a ‘solution’ that is entirely the opposite of what we need to be doing. We need to be contracting our complexities and the resource-demands they place upon our planet. We can’t be seeking to bring the vast majority of ‘un/under-developed’ humans up to ‘advanced’ economy standards. We need to be lowering significantly the standards and size of the advanced economies that are very much responsible for much of our plight — perhaps even disbanding large, complex societies completely (and how many of us would survive that given the loss of skills/knowledge to be self-sufficient?). And could this even be done in an ‘equitable’ manner? I have my doubts.

Will such a radical shift even happen? Unlikely, for as writer Robert Heinlein observed we are rationalising creatures, not rational ones. And we employ all sorts of magical thinking to make sense of our ‘world’ and ensure its continuation. As long as we have ‘magic’ (i.e., complex technologies) at our disposal to kick-the-can-down-the-road, we will continue to employ it; we are after all genetically predisposed to avoid pain and seek out pleasure; and collapse, even on our own terms, will be quite ‘painful’.

As I implied in my last ‘contemplation’, we have to be on the lookout for taking the wrong path as we attempt to address our existential predicament of ecological overshoot because it will simply expedite our overshoot and bring about the collapse that always accompanies such a trajectory more quickly and ensure there is little we can do about how it unfolds[8]. A circular economy that extracts resources and recycles them at a pace that doesn’t break through planetary limits might have been tenable a couple of centuries (millennia?) ago, but not in today’s world where we seem to be already sliding down the Seneca Cliff of energy availability for an ever-larger population.

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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XL–The Road Not Taken

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XL

February 19, 2022

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, 1915

While reportedly written as a joke by Frost for his hiking companion, Edward Thomas, who often struggled to pick a path among diverging ones when they were out on walks together, this poem has been commonly interpreted as a narrative about our choices and how these shape our future. The decision to take the road ‘less traveled’ versus the one ‘not taken’ speaks to the meaningful impact this seemingly innocuous choice can have upon subsequent events[1].

I was reminded of Frost’s poem and the general interpretation of it as I contemplated the request to post for a wider audience a comment I had made regarding an article someone added to a Facebook group I am a member of. In composing this ‘contemplation’ I reflected upon this request, my thoughts regarding humanity’s choices as we consider how best to deal with our existential predicament of ecological overshoot, and some of the conversations I’ve engaged in with others over the past week or so.

Given my belief that we are well into ecological overshoot having surpassed safe limits in a number of planetary boundaries[2] there are, similar to the hiker in Frost’s poem, several paths from which to choose — with slight variations to each. While the decision tree ahead of us is not entirely binary in nature, I will paint it as such for the purposes of this contemplation.

We can continue, for the most part, with business as usual: expanding our footprint on the planet with ever greater numbers and complexities. Alternatively, we can abandon this path and take a significantly different one: purposeful contraction of humanity and its complex systems.

I see the first ‘choice’ as the one we have been upon for some millennia, and one that took a dramatic shift towards a significantly greater global population and associated complex social arrangements with our leveraging of a one-time cache of finite, ancient fossil energy. When viewed over the past 12,000 years, the increase in population[3] has been nothing short of vertiginous in nature since we began employing fossil fuels, especially oil, to ‘fuel’ our growth[4]. Concomitant with this population growth has been a huge expansion of complexities to support humanity: agricultural, sociopolitical, technological, socioeconomic, scientific, etc..

It is increasingly obvious (at least to many but not all, since there are still some that completely deny the following self-evident reality) that this path is ‘problematic’ in the sense that infinite growth cannot continue for long on a finite planet, be it in the number of humans and/or the complex systems that require physical resources to support them. Call me a ‘doomer’, but I’m not buying the argument by some I’ve discussed this predicament with that we’ll just mine passing asteroids for their resources[5], including ice for water, or leave this planet to ‘colonise’ some distant ‘goldilocks’ planet just waiting for this walking, talking primate to bring ‘sustainable development/progress’ to it[6]. The ‘bargaining’ inherent is these views is simply staggering to me. Of course, I cannot predict the future any better than the next person but such beliefs leave me shaking my head at times primarily because of the magical thinking that must be employed to believe in them.

I also see this first path as the one being marketed and cheerlead by the ruling class[7], but with a slight twist: continue to pursue our current lifestyles and complexities but support them by way of a ‘new’ energy source — non-renewable renewables that are not only ‘clean/green’ but fully sustainable (while the natural phenomena that contain the energy we want to harvest are renewable — wind, solar, wave — the technologies needed to harness this energy are non-renewable since they rely upon finite resources — especially fossil fuels — for every step of their production, maintenance, and after-life disposal/reclamation).

I believe this is being sold as the best choice for a few reasons not least of which is the very real fact that it is in the best interests of those who tend to sit atop our power and wealth structures to keep the current systems in place. Because, after all, they tend to own/control/have financial stakes in the industries that stand to profit from this path. To say little about the increasing Ponzi-like structure of our economic/financial/monetary systems that require this ‘growth’ to keep from collapsing.

So, the option that increasingly appears to be being pushed by the ruling class and their narrative control managers (especially governments and mainstream media) is this ‘green/clean’ energy transition one. This is not because it actually will do what the overhyped marketing bellows constantly, but because it is the ruling class that stands to profit handsomely from the endeavour. As they always do, they are leveraging a situation to their advantage while selling a story that it is in the best interests of the masses; because, after all, the ruling class cares deeply for the people and their welfare (#sarcasm).

That many in the environmental movement have embraced such a narrative speaks to both the power of the propaganda/greenwashing/bright green lies of the ‘green/clean’ storyline but also the well-intended desire of people to act in the face of a ‘problem’. The issue I see is choosing, regardless of the best intentions, the wrong path to travel down. Yes, this is the path of least resistance as it, for the most part, supports the notion that we can transition seamlessly to a world not unlike our current one with all its energy-intensive technologies and conveniences, but with environmental ‘awareness’ and ‘cleanliness’. We’re having our energy cake and saving the planet at the same time (#sarcasm, again).

I have to call bullshit on that narrative. There are no ‘sustainable’ technologies (at least none that could support anywhere near the current world population) and there are certainly no ‘clean/green’ energy technologies[8].

For me at least, the choice of which path we need to follow is obvious: purposeful contraction of humanity and its complex systems. It needs to be purposeful if we are to have any say in how it proceeds. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion, however, given everything I have discussed above, that the path I advocate will be ‘The Road Not Taken’; at least not until nature forces us upon it and then we won’t have any say in how it unfolds.

Anyways, without further ado, here is the comment that prompted this contemplation based upon the linked article:

This author begins with a premise that indeed many still fail to grasp: climate change is but one of the existential issues the planet faces (and I would add probably not even the most pressing, with biodiversity loss and pollution loading having far surpassed safe ‘limits’ some time ago). Unfortunately, I believe the author then misses the fundamental ‘cause’ of these predicaments; rather than seeing them as symptoms of humanity overshooting the natural carrying capacity of the planet, economic and political systems are fingered as the ultimate culprit.

This misattribution then leads him to the conclusion that with the abandonment or tweaking of these systems, our various issues can be resolved. But if the real cause has been overlooked, then the shift in human systems he suggests will not resolve the issues he seeks to address.

In fact, many of those who argue along a similar line actually end up cheerleading the pursuit of changes that actually exacerbate our overshoot. They ignore the pre/historical evidence that complexity in the form of large social units (e.g., civilisations, empires, nation states, city states, etc.) and their energy and resource demands are unsustainable regardless of the economic and/or political systems employed; that all of our previous experiments with complex societies have failed because they expand and overexploit their environments, requiring them to disband or takeover un- or under-exploited regions to sustain themselves.

With the human expansion and exploitation experiment we are now entrapped within and having reached its zenith (significantly intensified by our extraction and leveraging of ancient fossil fuel energy), there is but one viable path: a dismantling of our expansion and the complexities that support it through radical degrowth. We cannot even begin to mitigate our predicament if we have identified the wrong culprits. In our motivation to ‘do something’ we are simply making the hole we are in ever deeper.

[1] https://blog.prepscholar.com/robert-frost-the-road-not-taken-meaning

[2] https://stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

[3] https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth

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

[5] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160103-the-truth-about-asteroid-mining

[6] https://www.howcast.com/videos/459203-how-to-colonize-a-new-planet

[7] To clarify, I use the catch-all ‘ruling class’ to help define a loose grouping of individuals/families/institutions that sit atop the power/wealth structures that have existed in every complex society throughout pre/history. With the division of labour and need for organisational structures to help coordinate them in complex societies, differences in access to power/wealth/influence developed. As our societies grew larger and more complex, so did these structures and the ‘power’ of those that occupied the upper tiers. I believe that the primary motivation of those that reside atop these structures grew to be (or perhaps always was) the continued control and/or expansion of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and power/prestige. Everything they do is in service of this. Everything. Whether this ‘class’ of people actually plans anything in concert with one another is certainly open for debate and interpretation, but they are certainly driven to maintain their privileged positions and all that entails.

[8] https://energyskeptic.com; https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com; https://www.realgnd.org; https://www.brightgreenlies.com; https://planetofthehumans.com;

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIII–Overlooking Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIII

November 25, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Overlooking Ecological Overshoot

Today’s thought was prompted by an Andrew Nikiforuk article in The Tyee and my recent rereading of William Catton Jr.’s Overshoot.

I just finished rereading William Catton’s Overshoot. One of the things I’m coming to better appreciate is Catton’s idea that the ‘Age of Exuberance’ (a time created by human expansion in almost all its forms and mostly facilitated by our extraction of fossil fuels) has so infiltrated our thinking that we tend to view the world through almost exclusively human-created institutional lenses, especially economic and political ones. We have come to think of ourselves as completely removed from nature: we sit above and beyond our natural environment with the ability to both control and predict it; primarily due to our ‘ingenuity’ and ‘technological prowess’.

This non-ecological worldview is still very much entrenched in our thinking and comes through quite clearly in mainstream narratives regarding our various predicaments. Usually it goes like this: our ingenuity and technological prowess can ‘solve’ anything thrown our way so we can continue business-as-usual; in fact, we can continue expanding our presence and increase our standard of living to infinity and beyond (apologies to Buzz Lightyear).

What are by now increasingly looking to be insoluble problems appear to have been solved in the past by two different approaches that Catton describes: the takeover method (move into a different area via migration or military expansion) or the drawdown method (depend upon non-renewable and finite resources that have been laid down millennia ago). On a finite planet, there are limits to both of these approaches.

But because of our tendency towards cornucopian thinking, most analyses overlook the idea of resource depletion or overloaded sinks that can help to cleanse our waste products that accompany growth on a finite planet. It’s all about economics, politics, technology, etc..

Our traditional ‘solutions’, however, have probably surpassed any sustainable limits and instead of being able to rely upon our ‘savings’ we have to shift towards relying exclusively upon our ‘income’ which, unfortunately, doesn’t come close to being able to sustain so many of us. To better appreciate the increasing need to do this we also need to shift our interpretive paradigm towards one that puts us back within and an intricate part of ecological systems. Ecological considerations, especially that we’ve overshot our natural carrying capacity, are missing in action from most people’s thinking.

The first thing one must do when found in a hole you want to extricate yourself from is to stop digging. Until and unless we can both individually and as a collective stop pursuing the infinite growth chalice, we travel further and further into the black hole that is ecological overshoot with an eventual rebalancing (i.e., collapse) that we cannot control nor mitigate. Our ingenuity can’t do it. Our technology can’t do it (in fact, there’s a good argument to be made that pursuing technological ‘solutions’ actually exacerbates our overshoot).

It is increasingly likely that a ‘solution’ at this point is completely out of our grasp. We’ve pursued business-as-usual despite repeated warnings because we’ve viewed and interpreted our predicament through the wrong paradigm and put ourselves in a corner. It is likely that one’s energies/efforts may be best focused going forward upon local community resilience and self-sufficiency. Relocalising as much as possible but especially procurement of potable water, appropriate shelter needs (for regional climate), and food should be a priority. Continuing to expand and depend upon diminishing resources that come to us via complex, fragile, and centralised supply chains is a sure recipe for mass disaster.

Today’s Contemplation: CLX–Solace Will Not Be Found Within Our Sociopolitical Systems — Biogeophysical Limitations Cannot Be Overcome By Way Of Policy

Today’s Contemplation: CLX

Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Solace Will Not Be Found Within Our Sociopolitical Systems — Biogeophysical Limitations Cannot Be Overcome By Way Of Policy

The following Contemplation is composed of some thoughts I had as I read through and reflected upon an article that was posted on the website Zerohedge. It argues that the policies being pursued by our political systems to address climate change are likely to result in greater human suffering and what is needed is better policy by governments.

While there are some pertinent points made (such as highlighting the abuses imposed upon some local populations where resources for non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies are being extracted from), my very first thought when I finished the article was “Why, that’s so cute that you still believe we live in a ‘democracy’ that ‘serves’ the citizens it purports to and is responsive to and cares about those citizens.”

This, however, is the default believe system for a very significant portion of a nation’s population and particularly those of the West that claim to live in ‘representative democracies’. It is one of the overarching narratives that people are exposed to from a very young age and it’s hard for any to see behind the curtain that has been erected by our socialisation/enculturation and the massive propaganda that is a part of that. The denial/bargaining/rationalising others engage in when this particular core belief is challenged is breathtaking to behold at times. Very, very few wish to view critically the notion that our political systems are ‘representative’ or ‘responsive’. They accept it as a given and do not wish their illusions to be destroyed lest cognitive dissonance overwhelm them.

I have written numerous times about this and won’t dwell on these points except to share links to a handful of those Contemplations:
Collapse Cometh X (Who Do ‘Representative’ Governments Truly Represent)
Collapse Cometh CXII (Our Banking System: Government vs. Private Control, Part 1)
Collapse Cometh CXIX (Local Community Resiliency and Political Systems)
Collapse Cometh CXXX (Only Local Leadership Can Help Communities Now)
Collapse Cometh CXXXVII (Local Self-Resilience Is Imperative to Pursue In Light Of Ecological Overshoot)

In addition, just as problematic (perhaps more so) in the rhetoric of the authors is their blindness to the limitations of what is being proposed and the bargaining and magical thinking that this entails. Yes, the policies being pursued by our governments are going to increase human suffering; but ultimately not in the way that the authors believe — they are going to exacerbate our ecological overshoot predicament and cause Nature’s reversion to the mean all the more chaotic and widespread.

While the sociopaths in our world leverage each and every worry/risk (e.g., climate change/global warming, war, economy, the ‘other’, etc.) to meet their primary goal of control/expansion of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and thus power/influence/prestige, such analyses as presented here are as guilty of leveraging magical thinking to argue for something as profoundly misguided: the continuation of perpetual growth/progress on a finite planet through improved political policies. For example, they suggest implementing ‘responsible mining’ and ‘domestic production of complex technologies’ to avoid human suffering.

Such an approach appears blind to the energy/resource limits on a planet with biogeophysical constraints, and what can/cannot be accomplished with respect to ongoing growth and ‘progress’. Exponential growth of any species beyond the natural carrying capacity of its environment always leads to ecological overshoot and eventually collapse of the population. And there is ample evidence that humans are well into overshoot and have been for some time eating our seed corn (and creating self-congratulatory narratives) to avoid this truth.

Homo sapiens are no different from any other species in this regard. Except that we have a ruling caste that is leveraging the various symptom predicaments of overshoot (via ‘solutions’ to predicaments that have none, or to justify/rationalise invasion and occupation of resource-rich lands) in order to keep padding their offshore bank accounts and control their respective populations; and all the while they are helping to expedite the collapse of our complex societies and ecological systems in the process — mostly by drawing down finite resources to keep the mythos of perpetual growth/progress alive just a bit longer.

Yes, the vast majority of ‘solutions’ being marketed to address ‘climate change’ are mostly (if not totally) rackets being perpetrated upon society (e.g., ‘green/clean’ energy production, carbon capture and storage, Net Zero, electrification of everything) and the threats of our overarching predicament of overshoot (i.e., biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, atmospheric overloading, chemical pollutants, etc.) are getting lost in the kerfuffle — mostly through denial and bargaining.

And, yes, as diminishing returns on our investments continues to pick up speed with our exponential drawing down of resources, it is likely that the threat of ‘climate change’ or ‘war’ will be used to rationalise the need for massive ‘austerity’ (except of course for the ‘privileged’ minority) as our ruling caste attempts to protect and insulate themselves.

In fact, there’s a good argument that this approach has actually been occurring for a century+ and reality has simply been ‘papered over’ through massive currency devaluation and debt (hundreds of trillions of interest-bearing debt to date), and the increase of resource theft from regions outside the centre and not already overexploited (especially of hydrocarbons, the lifeblood of our societal complexities — there’s a reason the Middle East has been a quagmire for decades and the dominant nation coming out of World War 2 created the Petrodollar System).

But as William Yeats reminded us in The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”. The fall/decline of complex societies is a recurrent theme in human pre/history regardless of the policies of the ruling caste and the best technologies of the time. Diminishing returns on investments in complexity along with the predicament of ecological overshoot is resulting in this cyclical phenomenon shifting from regional collapse to being global in nature.

How this proceeds exactly this time around is anyone’s guess, but the process cannot be avoided…and without recognising the actual predicament of overshoot and its inevitable consequences our approaches to what is unfolding will continue to be misguided and simply make Nature’s correction all the more devastating.

And our political systems and ruling caste members are likely the very last place we should be looking for guidance on all of this given their primary motivation/goal requires doing the exact opposite of what our species needs to be pursuing: rapid and significant degrowth.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXVI–Is it Too Late For Pessimism?

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXVI

Knossos, Greece (1993), Photo by author

Is it Too Late For Pessimism?

Today’s ‘contemplation’ has been prompted by a question posed to me by a fellow commenter, puppyg, via an article we were both commenting upon. Taking advantage of a rainy day, I have prepared a rather extensive answer.

Question: Tonight I watched a stunning 12-yr.-old documentary (HOME) on the impact of human enterprise on Earth — the horrific toll on nature, fossil-fuel insanity, ticking food and population time-bombs, climate change, sea-level rise imperilling billions, extinction rates to the sky, all with gorgeous photography (and with an extraordinary array of financial backers). It ended on the notes, “It is too late for pessimism” and “We have ten years to…”, along with beautiful panoramas of our planet and a sampler account of projects that offer solutions and hope.

Finally, there was the invitation to, “Come and join us” at www.ourgoodplanet.org. I went there, but found… “Site cannot be reached”.

So, is it too late for pessimism? What do you think?

Response: The statement that “It is too late to for pessimism” has been attributed to motivational speaker Les Brown and implies that we need optimism rather than pessimism. That we need ‘solutions’ not more talk about the ‘problems’. That if we try hard enough, we can accomplish anything regardless of limitations.

I am not so convinced these motivational thoughts are true or relevant for the challenges humanity is increasingly having to confront due to life on a finite planet. Imagining a ‘better’ world is much, much easier than actually creating one, especially if there are biophysical limits to what can be accomplished or that have been vastly breached — let alone reaching ‘consensus’ on what is ‘better’. The ‘positive’ thoughts such hopeful beliefs can instil may lead people to feel better but they can also lead to inaction or clinging to misleading ‘solutions’; both of which I would argue are occurring to some extent and perhaps holding us back from discussing more appropriate responses that may result in ‘better’ outcomes.

I would suggest there are two other perspectives in viewing our impending dilemmas that need to be considered. First, perhaps what we are facing are not problems that have solutions but predicaments that we cannot avoid and the best we can do is mitigate to a certain extent the consequences of. Second, if these are problems with solutions, it becomes even more problematic if the solutions we pursue are wrong or misguided for our solutions may be painting us further into a corner we cannot extricate ourselves from and then end up as predicaments without solutions.

Given these alternatives there is no simple answer to your question as there are so many complexities and intertwined issues that could be raised and I could certainly respond with a very long essay, which this may end up being. I will try to be relatively concise in my response, although I’m sure to go off on a variety of tangents. It’s taken some time to respond as I wanted to watch the documentary first (and it helps that it’s raining and I can avoid getting to some outdoor work in my gardens; I typically just spend an hour or two first thing in the morning on my computer as I’m enjoying a couple of cups of coffee before moving into my ‘chores’, and then occasionally sit back down for a few moments here and there through the day to give my aging body a bit of a rest from the physical labour of maintaining and expanding our fruit/vegetable gardens and, unfortunately, I am not getting any younger).

While I don’t disagree with the vast majority of the analyses regarding humanity’s dilemmas presented in the documentary, there are some issues in its conclusion that I will elaborate on below. There is certainly much to be pessimistic about given its content, but one could just as easily be optimistic depending on one’s focus and interpretation so let’s try to avoid such ‘emotional’ descriptors for now and focus on what’s ‘real’ as much as I’m loathe to use such a term for what is ‘real’ to one person is not necessarily to another and almost everything is open to debate.

The assertion that humanity has no more than ten years to reverse the trend of runaway global warming (with the release of methane locked in northern permafrost) due to carbon emissions so we have to abandon fossil fuels posthaste seems to have been an ill-advised one to make. The timeline presented has passed so given we have not halted such emissions but seen them expand (see here) as humanity’s energy demands have continued to increase, and outpaced any energy so-called non-carbon emitting sources can provide, one could say it is too late to be pessimistic but also too late to be optimistic; we are in deep trouble as we missed the window of opportunity to correct our behaviour if that assertion is correct.

These type of catastrophic predictions are I believe somewhat problematic as it provides opportunities for critics to highlight faulty assertions when the timeline passes. Could it be runaway global warming will take place sometime in the future due to positive feedback loops? Sure, maybe. Only time will allow us to say for sure, and only in retrospect. More general and probabilistic ‘warnings’ or even various possible scenarios as presented in The Limits to Growth might be better at persuading people to alter behaviour; I don’t know, although it doesn’t appear either approach has been overly effective in slowing our exploitation of fossil fuels or any other finite resource for that matter.

What I do believe, however, is that no one, absolutely no one can predict the future with any accuracy. The significant trends being discussed may possibly continue but life has a way of going sideways sometimes so projecting patterns forward and providing such timelines almost always end up being quite wrong. Complex systems with their nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena can neither be predicted or controlled, and just the tiniest error in underlying assumptions can result in significantly different pathways being followed and eventual outcomes being quite changed from predictions.

After more than an hour and twenty minutes (the vast majority of the film) of laying out the dilemmas humanity faces due to its expansion and overexploitation of limited and finite resources, the documentary presents its ‘solutions’. Many are cherry-picked examples of small scale shifts that ignore the significant countervailing forces and system momentum that limit their widespread application. Some are experimental approaches with little to no chance of adoption due to their economic/resource ‘costs’ with little benefit, if any, in return.

The most problematic one, I would contend, is the idea that fossil fuels can be replaced by ‘alternatives’ that are misleadingly termed ‘renewable’ and, for the most part, business as usual can proceed — especially for so-called ‘advanced’ societies. Sure, some minor tweaks here and there by ‘thinking’ about what is consumed but little else.

This energetic shift ignores the hard biophysical limits that exist on a finite planet and the negative consequences of ‘renewable’ energy production, maintenance, and after-use disposal issues — to say little about the energy storage issues. It’s one thing to suggest we simply transition from fossil fuels to ‘renewables’, it’s quite another to acknowledge the: dependency of such ‘renewables’ on fossil fuels in perpetuity (especially the mining and industrial processes required) and other finite resources (particularly rare-earth minerals); energy storage limits; ecological destruction generated in the construction/storage/disposal processes; intermittency of power produced and thus need for fossil fuel or nuclear backup systems; significantly lower energy-return-on-energy-invested; etc.. ‘Renewables’, in my opinion, are no solution and their use as one is primarily a comforting story that conveniently avoids the difficulties (impossibilities?) of their widespread adoption.

In fact, I find it immensely interesting that the documentary lays out a great argument for our fundamental dilemma, ecological overshoot, and the most probable best ‘solution’, degrowth, but fails to raise either issue at all. Instead it focuses its proposed ‘solutions’ on human ingenuity, creativity, education, and technology — the mainstream ‘answers’ that I would argue are wrong because these tend to be or are significantly dependent upon energy-intensive processes and finite resources (especially the technological ones). And I’m tending to believe these ‘solutions’ are pursued because they promise little disruption, provide hope (which people prefer over despair, even if it’s false hope), and serve to enrich those that control the resources, production processes, and the financial capital that would be required to fund them.

Despite there being limits to projecting trends into the future with much if any accuracy, there are some patterns to human complex societies that do seem recurrent; at least with all the experiments in them for the past 10 millennia or so. All our complex societies to date have blossomed in complexity, peaked, and then reverted to a far more simple form (what some would call ‘collapse’).

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues this is primarily due to the economic phenomenon of diminishing returns on investments in complexity. As problem-solving organisations, complex societies address problems via increasing investments in complexity that are supported via resource surpluses. But resources, being finite in nature, encounter diminishing returns themselves on their procurement; that is, more and more ‘investment’ (in terms of energy, labour, and resources) must be made to increase or sustain them because of our tendency to access and exploit the easiest-to-retrieve and easiest-to-transport ones first, moving one to the harder-to-retrieve and transport ones later. As the resources become more difficult to procure, surpluses begin to shrink and are increasingly needed to meet everyday needs. If surpluses disappear, their lack of availability and support during a time of stress, that might otherwise have been dealt with quite well, can overwhelm a society and lead to its ‘collapse’ (an economic choice by its people to stop supporting its complexities, especially in the sociopolitical realm, and choose a more simple lifestyle due to the cost/benefit ratio dropping significantly).

It may indeed be ‘pessimistic’ to take this thesis and apply it to today’s global, industrial complex society that is almost entirely dependent upon fossil fuels. Combine this idea with the concept of ecological overshoot (which is really at the root of all our dilemmas) and one can’t help but feel despondent.

I have come to believe the only ‘solution’ to these dilemmas is to embrace degrowth as quickly as we can. A return to ‘simpler’ living ways that do not depend on long distance supply chains and are far, far less energy intensive is very likely in the books for us regardless of whether we wish it or not. So, rather than attempt to waste what remaining resources we have in what I would argue are cognitive dissonance-reducing narratives that serve primarily to comfort us and keep us in denial, and would probably be a final blow-off top of finite resource exploitation pushing us completely over the impending cliff, we should dedicate our labour and resources to relocalising the most important things: potable water procurement, food production, and shelter needs. And we need to do it in a way that makes our local communities resilient and minimises (to zero if possible) the necessity of long distance supply chains and finite resources.

The fact that our lifestyle would require significant sacrifices (especially for those of us in so-called ‘advanced’ economies) of the many technological conveniences we currently have and much more manual labour is probably why most people rail against it, either via denial (the first stage of grief) or crafting of more comforting narratives such as transitioning to alternative forms of energy to support our current ways (the third stage of grief, bargaining). What we need is a tipping point of people to move through the grief stages as quickly as possible to the final one, acceptance, and embrace the idea that we need a whole new approach to how we live. And that approach, as far as I can see, is to embrace a more simple living arrangement as soon as possible, especially for ‘advanced’ economies whose relatively small populations consume and depend upon the vast majority of finite resources, and become as self-sufficient as possible (the ideal would be complete self-sufficiency).

Again, this interpretation of our complexities may be viewed as pessimistic by those who would rather cling to the hope of humanity being able to solve our dilemmas. We are a relatively ‘smart’ and ‘creative’ species but all of pre/history would suggest there are hard limits to what we can do. Having constructed an intertwined and global complex society almost exclusively dependent upon a finite resource that has encountered increasing diminishing returns, and having no true replacement that can address some of the knock-on, negative consequences of our burgeoning expansion and exploitation, I would contend we cannot ‘science’ our way out of this. Believing otherwise is, in my opinion, about our predisposition to avoid ‘pain’ and seek ‘pleasure’. We don’t want to confront the difficulties (pain) ahead so we craft narratives that paint a more ‘pleasurable’ outcome and people are far more likely to cling to the ‘optimistic’ story (even if it’s wrong/misleading) than the ‘pessimistic’ one as a result.

Do I know what is going to happen in the future? Absolutely not.

From where I sit ‘collapse’ would seem to be virtually guaranteed sometime in the future. This return to simpler ways of living may be just around the corner or it could be decades/centuries from now; no one knows, certainly not me. And how it all unfolds is anybody’s guess, but when it occurs it may do so relatively quickly especially if our power grids fail and our technologies become virtually useless.

And I haven’t even delved into the economic aspects of our upside down world. The hundreds of trillions of dollars of leveraged bets and debt bouncing around the Ponzi-type structure of our economic/financial/monetary systems. The fact that most of the ‘growth’ of the past few decades has been built almost entirely on debt which could be viewed as ‘borrowing’ from the future; a future with highly uncertain prospects and certainly less resources to pay back this debt. Or the geopolitical instabilities that seem to be increasing as nation states compete for control over limited and dwindling resources and remaining market share wealth.

I know a lot of people believe they can affect positive change via our political systems but I am not one of them. I have no faith in the systems nor hold the view that citizens have any real agency via the ballot box. Pre/history suggests to me that our sociopolitical systems, that tend to always reflect what the ‘ruling class/elite’ want, are part and parcel of the problem. The ‘elite’ of any society are primarily motivated by a wish to control/expand the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams. Their attempts to solve social problems always put their primary motivation at the forefront. All other concerns are at best secondary/tertiary.

Pessimistic? Maybe, but like most I like to believe I am being ‘realistic’. I spend more and more of my time and energies building resiliency and self-sufficiency into my living arrangements so that as society’s ‘solutions’ to problems falter (and likely make things worse), my family (and hopefully community — but I’m not holding out much hope for my town as its council has been chasing and continues to chase the perpetual growth chalice with increasing fervour it would seem, having increased its population and footprint some 300% in the 25 years I have lived here — growing from 18,000 to almost 50,000 and still going) will be able to weather the coming ‘disruptions’.

I interpret my approach as actually somewhat ‘optimistic’ and focused on what I personally can control because if we are being honest with ourselves, most of what is occurring is well beyond our personal control, and probably even collective control. And if we’re dealing with ‘emotional’ responses to our social and physical environments, the only thing we can control is our reaction. Ultimately we all see what we want to see, we all hear what we want to hear, and we all believe what we want to believe.

Although we like to believe otherwise, ‘facts’ (if we can even agree on what these are) rarely, if ever, play a role. And even though I often phrase my comments/thoughts as definitive assertions, I, like everyone else, really don’t know what the future holds. I can only guess based on the evidence before me and through all the biases I carry with me that impact my interpretation/processing of it. Mine is a story/narrative like any other that serves to try to make sense of an exceedingly complex universe and world. So, don’t necessarily take my word for what is occurring or what might happen in the next few years/decades/centuries but do your own research and evaluation of the evidence.

There is more I could ramble on about but this is already much longer than I intended as I warned might happen.

Here are a handful of useful sites/blogs/books/notes to peruse (presented in alphabetical order of link title):

Mike Stasse’s Damn the Matrix
Alice Friedemann’s Energy Skeptic
Dan Gardner’s Future Babble
Charles Hugh Smith’s Of Two Minds
Gail Tverberg’s Our Finite World
Dr. William Catton Jr.’s Overshoot
Dr. Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity
Erik Michaels’ Problems, Predicaments, and Technology
Kurt Cobb’s Resource Insights
Dr. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies
Dr. Ugo Bardi’s The Seneca Effect
Dr. Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems
Cognitive Dissonance’s Two Ice Floes

You can get many more links to resources and sites via my own website: Olduvai.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXV–More Greenwashing: ‘Sustainable’ Development

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXV

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

More Greenwashing: ‘Sustainable’ Development

This contemplation was prompted by an article regarding an ‘independent’ think tank’s report that presented the argument that government funding of the oil and gas industry needed to be shifted towards ‘green/clean’ alternatives. I’ve included a few hyperlinks to sites that expand upon the concepts/issues discussed.

Context, it’s always important. This ‘independent’ think tank, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, is part and parcel of the corporate/business ‘greenwashing’ of our world and ‘solutions’ to its various dilemmas. It’s primary mission is ‘sustainable’ development/growth, a gargantuan oxymoron on a finite planet. Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, the perpetuation of this continued pursuit of perpetual growth is seen quite clearly in the absence of any discussion about curtailing our growth but rather finding ways to ‘sustain’ it, and the misuse of language (that has become endemic in the environmental movement) and the simplified ‘solution’ offered by arguing that government funds need to be directed away from the climate change-causing oil and gas industry and towards the ‘clean’ energy alternatives of ‘renewables’.

Left out of this discussion to shift funds to what the think tank argues is more ‘sustainable’ (and one has to wonder how much funding is derived for the think tank’s activities from individuals and businesses seeking to profit from increased funding for widespread adoption of alternative energy) is the increasing evidence that ‘green’ alternatives to fossil fuels are neither ‘green’ (because of their ongoing dependence on fossil fuels and environmentally-destructive upstream industrial processes and downstream waste disposal issues) nor actually ‘renewable’ (because of their ongoing dependence upon finite resources, especially fossil fuels and rare-earth minerals). These are, of course, quite inconvenient facts regarding all energy sources: they are ecologically destructive and depend upon finite resources. The only source that is truly ‘renewable’ is biomass but it would be required in such massive quantities for our current world population and global complexities that it must be considered finite and environmentally problematic.

Nowhere is the non-mainstream idea of degrowth proposed. Instead, we are led to believe that business as usual (continued growth) is entirely feasible and infinitely sustainable by adjusting where our resources in terms of money and labour are directed: away from the oil and gas industry and towards energy alternatives. Devastating climate change will then be averted (as well as all the other negative consequences of exploiting and using fossil fuels) and life can continue uninterrupted as we all live happily ever after.

Until and unless we confront the very idea of continued growth and, in almost all cases, reverse this trend there is zero chance of us stopping, let alone mitigating, the various existential dilemmas we have created as a consequence of our expansion and its concomitant exploitation of finite resources. I believe it’s fair to argue we have significantly overshot the planet’s natural environmental carrying capacity, have blown past several important biophysical limits that exist on a finite planet, and have just the collapse that always accompanies such situations to experience in the future.

Many will continue to deny this predicament we find ourselves in. They will firmly believe in the comforting and cognitive dissonance-reducing narratives that individuals and groups, like the International Institute for Sustainable Development, are leveraging to direct resources to particular industries. This is quite normal for anyone beginning to grieve a significant loss which is what we are facing: the imminent demise of our globalised, industrial world and its many complexities and conveniences. We (particularly those in so-called ‘advanced’ economies that consume the vast majority of finite resources and rely upon the exploitative industries that leverage these resources to create the many conveniences to feed and house us) would rather believe in fantasies, myths, and fairy tales than recognise and confront the impending challenges of a life without most (all?) of our complex and energy-intensive tools.

Life without these conveniences is fast approaching it would appear. We have encountered diminishing returns on our investments in such complexities. We have soiled vast regions of our planet with the waste products of our expansion and exploitive endeavours. We have very likely reached a peak in global complexity and will begin our reversion to the norm of much more simplified ways.

Some of the negative consequences of our expansion and increasing complexity have been acknowledged. Instead of slowing our march towards the cliff ahead, however, the vast majority (all?) of our ‘ruling class’ (whose primary motivation, I would argue, is the control and expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams), as they so often (always?) do is leverage the increasingly obvious crises to enrich themselves. They use narrative control mechanisms (particularly their influence over the mainstream media and governments) to craft stories extolling solutions and salvation that not only preserve their revenue streams but expand them in a kind of final blow off top of resource extraction and use; ignoring, of course, the environmental fallout of this.

The more obvious ‘solution’ of reversing the growth imperative is avoided at all costs. Marketing ‘sustainable’ growth via ‘green/clean’ energy alternatives is preferred. Humanity cannot only have its cake and eat it, but it can do so in a vastly improved world of technological wizardry and infinite improvements. Ignore that pesky fact about living on a finite planet over there, it’s a distraction from our ingenuity and creativity. Do not raise skepticism about our ability to overcome challenges. Life is much more happily viewed from inside the Matrix.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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