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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 CLXXIV–To EV Or Not To EV? One Of Many Questions Regarding Our ‘Clean/Green’ Utopian Future, Part 2.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXXIV

Knossos, Greece (1988). Photo by author.

To EV Or Not To EV? One Of Many Questions Regarding Our ‘Clean/Green’ Utopian Future, Part 2.

In Part 1 of this two-part Contemplation I argue that the recent trumpeting of electric vehicle (EV) car sales as a prologue to their imminent mass adoption and possibly ‘saving of the world’ from our errant carbon emission ways is more a projection of hope than reflective of realities behind some rather opaque curtains. This growth may continue as cheerleaders hope — at least for a bit longer, and thus appearing to support their assertions — but there exist some relatively strong headwinds suggesting it will not. Time of course will tell…

In attempting to peer behind or through the curtains one must consider: the pattern of previous technology bubbles created by intense mass marketing and purchases by early adopters; the evidence for the manipulation of sales growth statistics feeding into the narrative of widespread and growing adoption; and, the need for current growth to continue in light of resource constraints, a lack of infrastructure supports, government subsidy withdrawals, inflation impacts, and the cost concerns of purchasers (see this recent Bloomberg news article that highlights the international car rental agency Hertz Global Holdings unloading 20,000 EVs (about 1/3 of its U.S. EV fleet) due to higher repair costs, low demand, and reinvesting some of the sales dollars into ICE vehicles).

There is also growing skepticism towards the most marketed aspect of EVs: they are significantly better for the planet’s environment and ecological systems[1]. One needs to step well outside the Overton Window created by the marketing propaganda of retailers (and regurgitated by much mainstream media and most politicians) to gain a more balanced view of this widespread assertion. And this is where I begin this Contemplation…

Carbon tunnel vision has created a widely-accepted narrative where the most dominant and for many the only impact of concern surrounding transportation vehicles seems to be what exits the tailpipe of an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle and does not for an EV. This creates a very narrow, keyhole perspective that ignores the embodied energy and a wide variety of ecologically-destructive, hydrocarbon-based industrial processes that are necessary for the production, maintenance, and eventual reclamation/disposal of both types of vehicles.

As I point out in Part 1 of my series of Contemplations on carbon tunnel vision and energy blindness:
“…the following graphic demonstrates (with respect to particular aspects of the issue of ‘sustainability’) this tendency to narrow our perspective can prevent the acknowledgement of so many other aspects of our world — and the graphic only includes some of the many others that could be considered, such as land-system change and biogeochemical flows. Perhaps most relevant is that this tunnel vision keeps many from recognising that humans exist within a world of complex systems that are intertwined and connected in nonlinear ways that the human brain cannot fathom easily, if at all.

[See an expanded version that includes more variables we’re mostly blind to below]

My own bias leads me to the belief that this hyper-focus on carbon emissions is leading many well-intentioned people to overlook the argument that atmospheric overloading is but one symptom predicament of our overarching predicament of ecological overshoot. As a result, they miss all the other symptom predicaments (e.g., biodiversity loss, resource depletion, soil degradation, geopolitical conflicts, etc.) of this overshoot and consequently advocate for ‘solutions’ that are, in fact, exacerbating our situation.

This rather narrowed perspective tends to be along the lines that if we can curtail/eliminate carbon emissions — usually through a shift in our technology to supposed ‘carbon-free’ ones — then we can avoid the negative repercussions that accompany the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, most prominently climate change. For many this is the only (or, at least, the most prominent) issue that needs to be addressed to ensure our species’ transition to a ‘sustainable’ way of living.

So, let’s try for a moment to open up this rather narrow keyhole and take in a wider perspective. Let’s look at how some of the other significant planetary boundaries are being broached.

When one opens the keyhole wider, the concern with carbon emissions/climate change may be seen as an outsized one in comparison to boundaries that appear to have been more significantly broached, such as: novel entities, biosphere integrity, land-system change, biogeochemical flows, and fresh water change.

This is not to say that the boundary of climate change is not important, it’s to try to better understand why a hyper-focus on carbon emissions is problematic: it’s one of several tipping points that need our attention, and not even the worst. The most pressing areas that we appear to have overshot beyond climate change include:
· Biogeochemical flows: agriculture and industry have increased significantly the flow of phosphorous and nitrogen into ecological systems and overloaded natural sinks (e.g., atmosphere and oceans)
· Novel entities: geologically-novel (i.e., human-made) substances that can have large-scale impacts upon Earth system processes (e.g., chemicals, plastics, etc.) have grown exponentially, even to the point of some existing in all global water supplies
· Biosphere integrity: human demand for food, water, and natural resources are decimating ecosystems (clearing land for mining and agriculture, for example, may have the worst impacts)
· Freshwater change: global groundwater levels in particular have been significantly altered by human activity and expansion (especially our drawdown of aquifers that exceed significantly their replenishment)
· Land-system change: human conversion of land systems (e.g., solar farms, agriculture, etc.) has impacts upon several of the other boundaries (i.e., biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, freshwater change) and the significantly important hydrological cycle

Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Wang-Erlandsson et al 2022.

Carbon tunnel vision tends to help minimise, or at worst, ignore these other predicaments of our ecological overshoot. In fact, what I sense and what some of my conversations did suggest is that the issue of ecological overshoot itself is completely off the radar for these commenters. One, in fact, admitted he had never read Catton’s book on the subject but in ‘skimming over’ the summary notes I sent a link for he simply saw “a bunch of vague assertions…didn’t learn anything…probably heading towards a hard wall…”. He then added for effect: “I don’t see any solutions from you. I do see almost entirely your focus on smearing renewables with the exact same material the Deniers and carbon pollution people do. Exactly the same.””

Leaving aside the competing narratives regarding whether or not carbon emissions are in reality greatly reduced through the production and use of EVs[2] — perhaps mostly due to the source fuel for creating much of the world’s electricity that is necessary for powering EVs (hint: it’s hydrocarbons[3]) — for most critics of EVs the dominant issue is the massive mining that is required for the materials to construct the battery components for the storage of energy to run EVs[4].

Proponents of EVs tend to ignore the significantly destructive mining that is necessary and/or rationalise it away by arguing that mining can be carried out in a more environmentally-friendly manner[5], can be avoided through recycling[6], and/or future technological breakthroughs will drastically reduce its impact[7]. An example of this type of thinking is shared in a discussion at the end of this Contemplation.

Regardless of such hopefulness about future possibilities, mining is currently one of the most ecologically-destructive industrial processes performed by humans[8], and a lot must be carried out for the finite battery minerals necessary to store the electrical power required to run EVs[9] — to say little regarding all of the finite hydrocarbon inputs needed to carry this out[10] and the negative societal impacts that arise in areas where much of this mining takes place[11]. All of this potential additional mining has raised growing concerns about the ecological systems impacts of supposed ‘clean-energy’ vehicles[12], and in fact this is true for all non-renewable, renewable energy-based technologies (NRREBTs) that have been marketed as ‘green’ and ‘clean’.

Then there’s also how EVs will worsen plastic pollution in our ecological systems[13]. For a variety of reasons, but especially because they are heavier due to the weight of battery packs, the industry has increased significantly the use of plastic components in EVs[14]. Plastics, of course, are derived from petrochemicals. This graphic depicts the vast array of plastic components that help to create an EV. It is estimated that close to 50% of an EV’s volume is composed of plastic.

These hydrocarbon-based components are integral to the production of EVs and the industry argues that it is through the continued and expanded use of these hydrocarbon-based products that EVs will become even more efficient. (Note that the plasticisation of ICE vehicles has also been occurring[15] in an effort to reduce vehicle weight, avoid corrosion, and reduce costs).

Add on top of this aspect that it has been determined that car tire and brake wear of all types of transportation vehicles are the primary cause of microplastic pollution[16]. Since EVs tend to be much heavier than ICE vehicles (due to their battery packs), the wear on these components is increased[17] leading to substantially increased microplastic pollution with EVs compared to ICE vehicles.

This particular petrochemical-based, plastic-pollution aspect is one that is rarely discussed and awareness of it needs to be raised since it appears our broaching of this specific planetary boundary (novel entities) is one of our most problematic (see graphic above), yet greatly ignored[18] — particularly when it comes to evaluating the ecological impact of EVs. EV advocates are quick to counter such issues with a reminder that it’s carbon emissions that is the most significant and/or only problem to be dealt with (e.g., don’t condemn the good looking for the perfect), minimising the harm caused by other aspects — a clear reflection of the carbon tunnel vision problem summarised above.

Further, as the curtain gets drawn aside with regard to the recycling industry and the myths that have surrounded it[19], it has become apparent that: only a portion of products actually get recycled, with a lot impossible to recycle and ending up in landfills; it requires large amounts of energy, perhaps not as much as the original product production but certainly not zero and in some cases more (and then there’s Jevon’s Paradox regarding how ‘efficiency’ savings are negated via increased demands); and, depending on what is being recycled and the processing necessary, there is much in the way of toxic pollutants created.

So, the argument that EVs and all or most of their components can be recycled and thus mining for its production can be significantly minimised falls far, far short of reality — to say little about the second law of thermodynamics and the related concept of entropy. And this is as true for ICE vehicles as it is for EVs; some of the components can be recycled (with associated ‘costs’) but much cannot — and this is particularly true for the hydrocarbon-derived, plastic components[20].

Despite narratives to the contrary, replacing billions of ICE vehicles with EVs will require significant quantities of hydrocarbon extraction, processing, and burning; the opposite of what EV cheerleaders argue is the primary reason for transitioning to them — to say little about all the hydrocarbons necessary to build and maintain/resurface the roadways these vehicles tend to travel upon, be they asphalt or gravel. Often, EV enthusiasts will counter this reality with arguments that the goal is to reduce the number of vehicles (particularly if they are ICE-based) on the road at the same time, thus mitigating the replacement problem.

This is not happening, however. The world is adding more and more vehicles every year[21], and the vast majority are ICE vehicles. EVs are, despite the ‘replacement-theory marketing hype’, becoming additive to our globe’s vehicles, not replacing the ICE fleet. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the same pattern with non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) such as solar panels and wind turbines — they are adding to our energy production, not replacing any of the hydrocarbon-based energy production they are supposedly meant to supplant[22].

In fact, as energy analyst/petroleum geologist Art Berman argues in this article localities that have taken up large number of EVs (e.g., Norway, where 23% of their fleet was composed of EVs in 2022) have witnessed little to no impact on their overall hydrocarbon consumption. Despite repeated assertions that hydrocarbon demand will drop with the adoption of EVs, the data indicates this is simply false. Berman’s conclusion: “If you like EVs, you should buy one but the data don’t support that driving one will do anything to save the planet.”

It’s perhaps important at this juncture to recall the opening passage from an article authored by Dr. Bill Rees and Meigan Siebert critical of the entire mainstream energy transition narrative:

“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.”

The construct that EVs are ‘green/clean’ and an important component of a global energy transition has been with us for the past couple of decades. It took a strong foothold as earlier emissions standards for an array of pollutants from vehicles and industry, as well as greater fuel efficiency, drove research[23] and subsequent narratives. With the realisation that there were technological limits to fuel efficiency improvements, it was suggested that the most ‘efficient’ engine would be the one that didn’t require traditional hydrocarbon fuel due to energy storage batteries as the ‘fuel’. An added ‘benefit’ would be the elimination of exhaust emissions (ignoring, of course, all the emissions created in the manufacture of the batteries, and/or the electricity to charge them). Thus, through the magic of mass marketing, was born the story that EVs were ‘clean’ and ‘green’.

There has been a concerted effort to spread this notion of EV ‘cleanliness’ far and wide, especially trumpeting the lack of tailpipe emissions. A majority of the ‘positive-outlook’ articles that arose in the wake of this have been from publications that are heavily slanted towards encouraging NRREBTs and/or the financing of/investing in them. These are, for the most part, individuals/businesses significantly ‘invested’ in seeing the rapid and widespread adoption of EVs and other ‘green/clean’ technologies. Their rhetoric is purposely slanted towards placing EVs in a positive light and then leveraging that perspective towards purchasers who may wish to ‘do the right thing’ where ‘the right thing’ is buying an NRREBT such as an EV.

This is Marketing 101: grow business revenue through the expansion of market share by getting the product front and centre for potential customers, particularly via the highlighting of features and/or benefits[24]. And when multiple billions (perhaps trillions) of dollars are up for grabs, multiple millions (perhaps billions) will be ‘invested’ in managing/guiding the narrative via all sorts of avenues — to say little about the mainstream media’s dependence upon funding in the way of advertising dollars, regardless of the ‘accuracy’ of what is being marketed via their product.

The massive and significant marketing propaganda we are constantly exposed to[25] about EVs and their ‘great-for-the-planet’ attributes have convinced a lot of people. The majority of these accept without question the positive aspects highlighted in commercial advertising or preached by EV cheerleaders. The illusory truth effect explains a lot of the power of this propaganda/advertising on beliefs: repeated exposure to information regardless of its validity/reliability comes to be perceived as truthful, primarily because familiarity overpowers rationality. This is why many hundreds of billions (perhaps trillions when one includes ‘public relations’ work/agencies/departments for corporations and governments) of dollars are ‘invested’ annually in advertising and narrative management — it works to impact belief systems and thus behaviour[26].

I would argue that consumers are additionally more prone to such narratives to help alleviate and/or reduce the cognitive dissonance that arises from a growing awareness that industrial civilisation is unsustainable and destructive to ecological systems (i.e., infinite growth — that we are continuing to pursue/experience — is impossible on a finite planet and has significant negative repercussions) yet wishing to also believe that human ingenuity and our technological prowess can overcome and ‘solve’ the predicament of human ecological overshoot and/or its symptom predicaments (e.g., biodiversity loss, resource depletion/scarcity, etc.)[27].

A part of me additionally believes that the narrative that EVs can be part of some grand ‘solution’ to our ecological overshoot predicament and its various symptom predicaments is the mind’s attempt to not only reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts but cling to the notion that we all have agency in/control over a very uncertain future[28]. We story-telling apes are creating tales to support such belief systems and reduce our anxiety. Perhaps buying an EV is subsequently not really about addressing environmental concerns; it’s about telling ourselves a comforting tale and engaging in some virtue-signalling to others to help us maintain our self-image as thoughtful, caring beings with agency over our future[29].

Personally, I view technocornucopian perspectives as delusional in a world of significant human ecological overshoot where the surplus energy to continue pursuing growth and such complex technologies is quickly disappearing[30] (if not already exhausted). We have for some time been pulling growth from the future via financial/monetary machinations and supported by geo/political gamesmanship (i.e., wars over resources and market control)[31].

That governments are not only complicit but encouraging the deception about EVs and NRREBTs being ‘green’ perhaps says a lot about their stake in the narrative. And what is a government’s incentive? Aside from the need in a debt-/credit-based economic system to chase perpetual growth to avoid ‘collapse’, this may be just another racket being perpetrated on the masses as U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler suggested war is.

For myself, I tend to gravitate towards the entire energy transition narrative (of which EVs are but one component) being another in a wide array of profiteering rackets, leveraging the growing evidence and recognition that Homo sapiens are having a profoundly negative impact on the planet’s ecological systems. And those that are benefitting from this story will disseminate and protect it vociferously. Others, well, they’re caught up in the narrative/propaganda.

Given the Ponzi-type nature of our monetary/financial/economic systems, geopolitical stressors, resource constraints, and ecological concerns, one has to wonder just how far and how long the uptake of these NRREBTs can or will continue. In fact, some are arguing that the wheels have already fallen off with increasing numbers of planned projects being paused/cancelled[32]. And despite all the marketing and shouting from rooftops that the EV market is exploding, the sheen appears to be coming off the EV narrative.

Michael Shedlock begins this article with: “The market for used EVs is plummeting. What will car rental companies do with the used ones? Problems started in China but have spread to Europe and the US.” Citing a Bloomberg article, he highlights that “A subsidy-fueled boom helped build China into an electric-car giant but left weed-infested lots across the nation brimming with unwanted battery-powered vehicles.”

In this article economist Stephen Moore is quoted as stating: “The Edsel was one of the great flops of all time. I’m here to tell you, if these trends continue, we’re going to see the EV market become the next big flop because car buyers don’t want them.”

Let’s dispense with the binary narrative that is often on display and be perfectly clear and honest for a moment. Both EVs and ICE vehicles — along with all the infrastructure supports necessary for their production and use — are detrimental to our significantly important ecological systems. The continuing production and use of one, the other, or both simply exacerbates the human ecological overshoot predicament.

Once again, while the future cannot be predicted with much accuracy, the current reality is much, much different than the bargaining being carried out by those wishing to see a shift from ICE vehicles to EVs — particularly given that the environmental advantages cheerleaders crow on about are mostly founded upon as-yet-to-be-hatched-technologically-improved-and-massively-scaled-up chickens. These potential breakthroughs/improvements may or may not come to fruition. Most likely they will not make it much beyond a research lab or marginal prototype use, and believing otherwise is akin to faith/hope/wishful thinking; it is certainly not reflective of current realities.

We are being convinced by growth profiteers and their narrative managers that ‘smart’ or ‘green’ or the ridiculously oxymoronic notion of ‘sustainable’ growth is the way to maintain ‘progress’ and that human ingenuity, especially where technology is concerned, will extricate us from any and all issues we encounter along this inevitable path. We are not abiding by the precautionary principle and erring on the side of caution, however; not even close. We are travelling full-steam ahead and creating rationalisations/justifications in our story-telling manner to make us feel good about our suicidal behaviour and actions, thereby reducing our cognitive dissonance.

Without a significant, and likely expedient, reduction of both types of vehicles (that we are very unlikely to do voluntarily), there is little point in bargaining ploys to keep the status quo from continuing for as long as possible which seems to be what the narrative around an energy ‘transition’ and the adoption of NRREBTs is.

I had written a suggestive path forward on this issue that might provide some mitigation by avoiding the exacerbation of our destructive tendencies but in reflection see little point in sharing it. Given the human proclivity to pursue the business-as-usual scenario painted by Meadow’s et al. in The Limits to Growth over the past handful of decades[33], I’m certain any guideline would not be pursued and it would simply be cathartic for me.

While most want ‘solutions’ to our overshoot predicament, this demonstrates a weak understanding of not only what a predicament is (it has no ‘solution’) but also displays energy/resource blindness and denial of the ongoing ecological systems destruction that accompanies all complex technological ‘solutions’. The best mitigation any of us can pursue is a dramatic reduction in our consumptive and excessive tendencies.

The best vehicle in terms of reducing damage to our planet is the one not produced, regardless of type. If reducing one’s dependency upon and/or use of a well-maintained ICE vehicle can help to prevent the production of a new vehicle (of either type), then the negative ecological systems damage that accompanies the creation of transportation vehicles is reduced dramatically. Reducing dependence upon and/or use of an ICE vehicle (to zero if at all possible) will likely go much further than purchasing an EV.

You are not a progressive steward of the environment with your purchase or heralding of an EV (or related NRREBTs). That is a narrative we story-telling apes have weaved in order to avoid reality and reduce our anxieties, engaging in denial and massive magical thinking/bargaining along the way. As I’ve said numerous times, we are an intelligent species just not very wise.

The bottom line is as I commented on a recent FB post regarding supposed misinformation about EV battery ‘facts’: Substituting one resource-intensive and complex (and thus environmentally destructive) technology for another fully and completely overlooks humanity’s fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot, and is more about reducing one’s cognitive dissonance than anything else.

[H/T Schuyler Hupp]

A handful of other ecological variables that could be added: land system changes, resource depletion, food scarcity, biosphere integrity, climate change, novel entities, stratospheric ozone depletion. Then add on top of this massive ecological complexity all the socioeconomic and sociopolitical systems that Homo sapiens have created that exacerbate our ecological overshoot.

Here is the discussion that I referred to above that demonstrates the magical thinking some engage in regarding the energy transition being touted by many. It was in response to this posted article.

Me: It would seem we need to destroy our ecological systems to save them…hmmmmmm.

UB: I am always in favor of creative disruption. It is the very concept of “Seneca Cliff,” normally followed by a “Seneca Rebound”

D: With a sad caveat the Good Doctor has pointed at: it must be not that much fun to be creatively disrupted ?

Me: The one aspect of this energy ‘transition’ that seems to be invariably left out of the equation is the massive and significant destruction that would and is being wrought on the planet (and a planet with already very overloaded sinks). The scale of the mining and processing that is being considered (and requiring a gargantuan pulse of fossil fuel extraction and burning) would surely put us over (if it hasn’t already) any tipping point from which our planet could recover from (let alone Homo sapiens survive, or many other species for that matter). I’ve not seen anywhere a detailed consideration or analysis of this particular perspective; except to mostly dismiss it via omission of the issue.

E: Sorry Steve Bull — but mining for the energy transition will NOT destroy the biosphere. The “Energy Transitions Commission” is a huge global think tank. They estimated the entire energy cost to mine and build the entire Energy Transition over the next decades. The total thing will release about 4.5 to 9 months of today’s global annual emissions. Once. Fossil fuel emissions will have stopped forever. (Figures here — but I converted to months equivalent CO2 emissions for ease of comparison.)


But it will create too much mining?

From the link above: “Between 2022–2050, the energy transition could require the production of 6.5 billion tonnes of end-use materials, 95% of which would be steel, copper and aluminium which the energy transition will require,”

Again — fossil fuels are 14 billion tons EVERY year.

What about all the raw rock and ore crunched to extract all those metals? It’s still not as bad as fossil fuels. https://www.sustainabilitybynumbers.com/p/energy-transition-materials

Me: We will have to agree to disagree.

Sure, a ‘think tank’ composed of people with very vested (financial) interests and focused on economic growth is guaranteed to be providing objective opinions based on very sound research and models.

It’s a great (cognitive dissonance-reducing) narrative but given how far into ecological overshoot the human species has travelled, whether it is death by a 1000 cuts or 999 or even 900 is truly moot. Both are ultimately suicidal when sustaining ‘growth’ is the fundamental driver (even if it’s not, maintaining the status quo is equally problematic given the amount of resource drawdown it requires).

The most appropriate path would be to attempt to reduce (significantly) all our complex technologies (along with other things like population) rather than attempt to carry on with business as usual via non-renewable, renewable energy-based industrial products.

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website or the link below — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers).

Attempting a new payment system as I am contemplating shutting down my site in the future (given the ever-increasing costs to keep it running).

If you are interested in purchasing any of the 3 books individually or the trilogy, please try the link below indicating which book(s) you are purchasing.

Costs (Canadian dollars):
Book 1: $2.99
Book 2: $3.89
Book 3: $3.89
Trilogy: $9.99

Feel free to throw in a ‘tip’ on top of the base cost if you wish; perhaps by paying in U.S. dollars instead of Canadian. Every few cents/dollars helps…


If you do not hear from me within 48 hours or you are having trouble with the system, please email me: olduvaitrilogy@gmail.com.

You can also find a variety of resources, particularly my summary notes for a handful of texts, especially Catton’s Overshoot and Tainter’s Collapse: see here.

It Bears Repeating: Best Of…Volume 1

A compilation of writers focused on the nexus of limits to growth, energy, and ecological overshoot.

With a Foreword and Afterword by Michael Dowd, authors include: Max Wilbert; Tim Watkins; Mike Stasse; Dr. Bill Rees; Dr. Tim Morgan; Rob Mielcarski; Dr. Simon Michaux; Erik Michaels; Just Collapse’s Tristan Sykes & Dr. Kate Booth; Kevin Hester; Alice Friedemann; David Casey; and, Steve Bull.

The document is not a guided narrative towards a singular or overarching message; except, perhaps, that we are in a predicament of our own making with a far more chaotic future ahead of us than most imagine–and most certainly than what mainstream media/politics would have us believe.

Click here to access the document as a PDF file, free to download.

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

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

[3] See this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] See this.

[14] See this and/or this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[23] See this.

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

[25] It’s hilarious, in a very sad way, that the advertisements that flood my Facebook feed are almost entirely focused upon non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (e.g., wind turbines, solar panels) and electric vehicles. This is perhaps because I occasionally comment on these posts. What the FB algorithms seem to be missing, however, is that my comments are quite critical of the assertions being made in the ads.

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

[27] See this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXVII–The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXVII

Tulum, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Today’s Contemplation is my brief comment on an article posted on Facebook by Tristan Sykes of Just Collapse.

The article in question (short and concise) is an update of the World3 model used in creating the various scenarios in the 1972 The Limits to Growth study using the most recent empirical data.

While the authors make clear the uncertainty involved in a data’s trendline after it reaches its ‘tipping point’ (although one could argue there exists great uncertainty in any such modelling beyond the present; complex systems with their nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena are impossible to map out with ‘perfect’ accuracy), the interesting — but not surprising — thing to note is that virtually all of these projections exhibit not just shifts of their peaks into the future but ‘higher highs’ followed by temporally-contracted declines (i.e., a quicker ‘collapse’) resulting in ‘lower lows’.

‘Deniers’ will argue this highlights the fallibility of ‘doom-based’ narratives’ and ‘bargainers’ will likely suggest this buys humanity more time to ‘mitigate/manage’ our predicament. But, perhaps, this merely points out how non-linear system-feedback loops behave.

As Donella Meadows argued in Thinking in Systems: A Primer: “…Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long. Overlong delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse.”

The delays in these peaks that are projected are looking to allow us to go further into overshoot — providing fodder for those rationalising away our predicament — and most likely result in a ‘correction’ that will most certainly ‘dampen’ adaptive responses as the time to do so will be shorter. Such a situation may also possibly feed into further negative feedback loops as attempted adaptations could be quite maladaptive (as many (most? all?) have been the past few decades given the influence and direction of our societies’ wealth-extractors who are leveraging our predicament at every turn).

While it is indeed difficult to make predictions, especially if they’re about the future, overshoot and collapse remains the predicted ‘conclusion’ of this business-as-usual scenario, despite the uncertainty painted by the authors.

As the saying goes, the future ain’t what it used to be; it seems to be getting worse by the day…

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.

Futurus Interruptus

Futurus Interruptus

Most of the time, in writing these essays, I try to treat the decline of industrial society with the seriousness that it deserves. Sometimes, though, the plain raw absurdity of our current situation rises to a point that only raucous laughter can address. I ran into another of those points a few days back, while reading an article on Yahoo News sent to me by a longtime reader and commenter—tip of the hat to David By The Lake. The article is by Hasan Chowdhury, and its title is “Humanity is on the brink of major scientific breakthroughs, but nobody seems to care.” You can read it here.

Chowdhury’s article points out that recent news stories about the latest heavily promoted claims of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research, and the much-hyped announcement by two South Korean researchers that a room-temperature superconductor had been discovered, didn’t get the response the media expected.  By and large, people yawned. To Chowdhury, this is appalling, and he argues that two factors are responsible.  The first is that people in the hard sciences need to be better at publicity. The second is that too many people out there suffer from an irrational fear of progress, and simply need to be convinced that the latest gosh-wow technologies will surely benefit them sometime very soon.

Yeah, that was when I started laughing too.

Let’s start by talking about the two supposed breakthroughs Chowdhury talks about. The first is the claim that yet another team of fusion researchers has achieved net energy gain—the point at which the energy coming out of a fusion reaction is more than the energy put into it…

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Future Headline: White House Prepares to Block Out the Sun

In a world full of unimaginable absurdity, we spend a lot of time thinking about the future… and to where all of this insanity leads.

“Future Headline Friday” is our satirical take of where the world is going if it remains on its current path. While our satire may be humorous and exaggerated, rest assured that everything we write is based on actual events, news stories, personalities, and pending legislation.

July 14, 2027: White House Prepares to Block Out the Sun

It has been four years since President Biden announced the “possible deployment” of Solar Radiation Modification back in 2023.

Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) is a way to partially block out the sun by flooding the earth’s atmosphere with special particles which reflect the sun’s rays, and therefore mitigate global warming.

The Biden administration approved funding to create the SRM in early 2024; and after more than three years of development, the system is now ready.

The 2023 White House report did state that “Gaps remain in our understanding of how SRM deployments might irreversibly alter the Earth’s climate system.”

However Acting President Kamala Harris says that she now understands everything she needs to know about deploying sun-blocking particles.

“We have to be thinking about what we think about, when we are thinking about the sun, and we think about the heat of the sun,” she recently explained. “That heat gets where it needs to go, and right now that’s the Earth. And that’s why global warming. It’s that basic.”

One reporter asked whether blocking out the sun would damage crop yields and agriculture, acting President Harris snapped back that cows are a major contributor to global warming, and their eradication through the SRM would force better dietary choices.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

A Deep Dive Into the Future

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Thinking more than a couple of days ahead is not one of humankind’s greatest strengths, especially not beyond the scale and scope of our immediate surroundings. In the rare occasion when thinking of this type does happen, however, it usually takes two directions: the future will either be just like the past, perhaps even better, or an immediate and inevitable catastrophe will remove us all from existence, one day to another of course. Funny, but both visions have equal merit, and are equally true. There is a great caveat though: timescale.

Common wisdom suggests that tomorrow will most probably not be tremendously different from today, unless a sudden disaster hits. Based on this pattern of thinking, reinforced again and again by past experience, and by the myth that we have „defused” so many catastrophes in the past, many of us think that things will go on as usual forever, and human progress will march on inevitably. Indeed, it seems, at least on the short run, the optimists have the upper hand. On the long run, though, we see a thousand potential disasters still waiting to happen from climate change to novel viruses, or from AI to nuclear war… and the list goes on. Is it possible that our world is headed towards a sudden apocalypse after all?

Perhaps one reason why we think only in these two terms is that we often find it hard to reunite our personal perspective with the grand scheme of things, and to think on a much broader scale than our selves…

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Our hunter-gatherer future: Climate change, agriculture and uncivilization

Our hunter-gatherer future: Climate change, agriculture and uncivilization


The stable climate of the Holocene made agriculture and civilization possible. The unstable Pleistocene climate made it impossible before then.

Human societies after agriculture were characterized by overshoot and collapse. Climate change frequently drove these collapses.

Business-as-usual estimates indicate that the climate will warm by 3°C-4 °C by 2100 and by as much as 8°–10 °C after that.

Future climate change will return planet Earth to the unstable climatic conditions of the Pleistocene and agriculture will be impossible.

Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.


For most of human history, about 300,000 years, we lived as hunter gatherers in sustainable, egalitarian communities of a few dozen people. Human life on Earth, and our place within the planet’s biophysical systems, changed dramatically with the Holocene, a geological epoch that began about 12,000 years ago. An unprecedented combination of climate stability and warm temperatures made possible a greater dependence on wild grains in several parts of the world. Over the next several thousand years, this dependence led to agriculture and large-scale state societies. These societies show a common pattern of expansion and collapse. Industrial civilization began a few hundred years ago when fossil fuel propelled the human economy to a new level of size and complexity. This change brought many benefits, but it also gave us the existential crisis of global climate change. Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible. Policies could be enacted to make the transition away from industrial civilization less devastating and improve the prospects of our hunter-gatherer descendants. These include aggressive policies to reduce the long-run extremes of climate change, aggressive population reduction policies, rewilding, and protecting the world’s remaining indigenous cultures.

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How the modern fantasy of an eternal civilization warps our view of technology

How the modern fantasy of an eternal civilization warps our view of technology

What historians call the Golden Age of Greece—which ran from about 500 to 300 BC—spawned the foundational Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle; mathematicians such as Euclid whose geometry is still taught in schools today; classical Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays are performed even now; an architecture so grand that it has been imitated in our own time, especially in government buildings; and the practice of democracy, a form of governance that would go into eclipse for over 2,000 years until the American and French revolutions.

What most people don’t know is that the ancient Greeks who lived through that era did not think of themselves as being in a golden age. Instead, they thought of their society as a much degraded version of the heroic age that preceded it, an age described in such works as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Works and DaysHow utterly difficult it is for most people living today to imagine a society whose members believed that the future would only bring further degradation and decline perhaps until civilization itself disappeared. History was to them cyclical with dark and golden ages—golden ages that start out with great vigor and hope and then grind down to dark eras that destroy the progress of the past.

Today, most modern people think of time as linear and history as merely a story of the gradual and now rapid rise of technological, social, political and cultural progress. Since time is linear, the trajectory is always forward and expected to be up. We humans will never again fall prey to the civilization-ending mistakes of the past. Our technology has no equal. Humans have decoupled from the limits nature previously imposed on them…

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You’re Not a Fearmonger. You Have Sentinel Intelligence.

You’re Not a Fearmonger. You Have Sentinel Intelligence.

Some of us are cursed to hear the future.

You’ve probably heard about Helen of Troy. She’s blamed for starting the Trojan War. Not many people remember Cassandra.

She predicted it.

In Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon, you get Cassandra’s full story. In some ways, the Trojan War is really about a bunch of dudes who don’t listen to a woman, and it leads straight to the collapse of their civilization.

In later retellings, they ignore her twice.


Cassandra doesn’t exactly ask for the gift of prophecy. The Greek god Apollo falls in love with her. He puts her under a spell in one of his temples. Then he tells his pet snakes to go lick her ears. When she wakes up, she can hear the future. Apollo tries to seduce Cassandra, but she’s just not that into him. He has a meltdown. Zeus tells him no backsies on divine gifts, so he finds a loophole.

He curses her.

Now when Cassandra hears the future, nobody believes it. If you want to drive someone insane, that’s a good start.

Now get this:

Not only does Cassandra predict the Trojan war, but she also scoops everyone on the Trojan horse. She tries to warn the city that a bunch of Greek soldiers are hiding inside it, waiting to sneak out and unlock the gates after they go to bed. Once again, nobody listens to her. They start calling her names. She tries to smash the horse open with an axe and gets dragged away screaming. A giant wooden horse full of our enemies? What nonsense!

You know the rest.

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Wrong Again: 50 Years of Failed Eco-pocalyptic Predictions

Photo Credit: Getty

Thanks go to Tony Heller, who first collected many of these news clips and posted them on RealClimateScience.


Modern doomsayers have been predicting climate and environmental disaster since the 1960s. They continue to do so today.

None of the apocalyptic predictions with due dates as of today have come true.

What follows is a collection of notably wild predictions from notable people in government and science.

More than merely spotlighting the failed predictions, this collection shows that the makers of failed apocalyptic predictions often are individuals holding respected positions in government and science.

While such predictions have been and continue to be enthusiastically reported by a media eager for sensational headlines, the failures are typically not revisited.

1967: ‘Dire famine by 1975.’

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, November 17, 1967

1969: ‘Everyone will disappear in a cloud of blue steam by 1989.’

Source: New York Times, August 10 1969

1970: Ice age by 2000

Source: Boston Globe, April 16, 1970

1970: ‘America subject to water rationing by 1974 and food rationing by 1980.’

Source: Redlands Daily Facts, October 6, 1970

1971: ‘New Ice Age Coming’

Source: Washington Post, July 9, 1971

1972: New ice age by 2070

Source: NOAA, October 2015

1974: ‘New Ice Age Coming Fast’

Source: The Guardian, January 29, 1974

1974: ‘Another Ice Age?’

Source: TIME, June 24, 1974

1974: Ozone Depletion a ‘Great Peril to Life’

But no such ‘great peril to life’ has been observed as the so-called ‘ozone hole’ remains:


Sources: Headline

NASA Data | Graph

1976: ‘The Cooling’

Source: New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1976

1980: ‘Acid Rain Kills Life in Lakes’

Noblesville Ledger (Noblesville, IN) April 9, 1980

But 10 years later, the US government program formed to study acid rain concluded:

Associated Press, September 6, 1990

1978: ‘No End in Sight’ to 30-Year Cooling Trend

Source: New York Times, January 5, 1978

But according to NASA satellite data there is a slight warming trend since 1979.

Source: DrRoySpencer.com

1988: James Hansen forecasts increase regional drought in 1990s

Futures That Work

Futures That Work

Among the most curious features of the current predicament of industrial society is that so much of it was set out in great detail so many decades ago. Just at the moment I’m not thinking of the extensive literature on resource depletion that started appearing in the 1950s, which set out in painstaking detail the mess we’re in right now. I’m thinking of those writers who explored the decline and fall of past civilizations, in the vain hope that ours might manage to avoid making all the usual mistakes.  In particular, I’m thinking of Arnold Toynbee.

Toynbee’s all but forgotten these days, but three quarters of a century ago his was a name to conjure with. His gargantuan 12-volume work A Study of History set out to trace the histories of all known civilizations and, from that data set, determine the factors that drove the rise and fall of human societies. One- and two-volume abridgements leaving out most of the supporting data were widely available back in the day—my parents, who were not exactly highbrow East Coast intellectuals, had a copy on a bookshelf in the family room when my age was still in single digits. Plenty of academic historians denounced Toynbee, but a great many people read his work and saw the value in it.

Those days are of course long past, but there’s an interesting twist to the disappearance of his ideas from the collective dialogue of our time. Those ideas weren’t rejected because they turned out to be wrong. They were rejected because Toynbee was right.

To summarize an immense body of erudite historical analysis far too briefly, Toynbee argued that new human societies emerge when a human society is faced with a challenge it can’t meet using its previous habits of thought and action…

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Micro utopias for an inclusive future

When Gijsbert Huijink, a Dutch national living in Banyoles, in the Catalan province of Girona, set out to install solar panels in his home he stumbled upon a legal labyrinth that criminalized energy self-consumption. “If I wanted to connect to the grid to recharge my batteries and supply my excess, I had to pay a fortune,” Gijsbert Huijink said in an interview.1 Huijink then hatched a plan to exact sweet collective revenge: he founded Som Energia,2 Spain’s first power cooperative. With the help of his wife, his university students, and some friends, Gijsbert laid the foundations to effect a change in the Spanish energy market. Som Energia has since grown from an initial 150 contracts in 2010 to 125,589 in March 2021,3 and it is currently the fastest growing energy cooperative in Europe. Hundreds of city governments have hired its services and dozens of new energy cooperatives are replicating the model.

Som Energia has a characteristic that sets it apart from most environmentalist efforts. It is not a project that merely reacts: it proposes. It does not focus on protesting, but on action. It does not stop at defending certain ideals, but puts those ideals into practice. It goes beyond criticizing an economic model based on fossil fuels: it sets a new model in motion. It does not just denounce the injustice of certain regulations, but goes on to experiment with new forms of democracy. It does not focus on the individual: it aims for sustainability with community and networked solutions.

Som Energia was one of the thirty-two initiatives that participated in the first edition of the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award and the Atlas of Utopias, the unique coopetition4 launched by the Transnational Institute (TNI) in 2018. Having completed a total of three editions,5 it perfectly embodies the spirit that infuses all those initiatives…

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Is the Future Already Written?

Image credit: Emile Guillemot

Generally speaking the future is impossible to tell. The story of us could take many different paths branching into ever different versions of its current self. There are an infinite number futures, which we shape and select every day, every hour, every minute with our conscious decisions, our actions and deeds. We make our choices based on free will and select the right or wrong path ahead of us based on morals and ethics.

The bad news is, that this is only a myth, incompatible with the laws of physics.

Living in an illusion

Having self-consciousness comes with certain limitations and a good deal of illusions to help us disregard those limits. Through what appears to be a cause and effect relationship however— like having a desire to eat an apple, then grabbing one from the kitchen table — it makes us believe that it is us who are making conscious decisions resulting in deliberate action.

The hard truth is that there is neither ‘you’ or ‘I’, ‘us’ or ‘them’ in this story, nor there was a ‘conscious decision’ in the first place. There is no need for those. We’ve lived without these concepts for many millennia just fine, so do our fellow animal companions we share this planet with. Pronouns are mere artifacts of our language accidentally ‘invented’ together with the story of an ‘independent self’. One, which is free to decide what to do, where to go, whom to talk to. One, which has a free will to do so. The problem is that this idea is fully incompatible with the laws of nature and physics — and thus can safely be called an illusion.

Sorry to disappoint you, but you neither have free will — and as you will see — nor a separate independent self.

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Collapse: a Decadal Scenario

Collapse: a Decadal Scenario

The “Nineties”

Three generations after the collapse, most folks are illiterate and animistic.  They gaze in wonder at the vast ruins of dead and decaying cities:  “Who built these places?  How did they do it?  Where did they go?  We hear stories, but truly, they must be gods.”

Food and energy remain scarce in 2090, but with reduced threat of armed conflict, communities are finally able to settle peacefully in agricultural lands around the world.  With scavenged materials they build self-sufficient towns, villages, and hamlets near waterways and important crossroads.

Settlements are resource limited, and socially cautious, averaging 150 people – “Dunbar’s number”.  For survival requires reliable families, dependable friends, and trustworthy neighbors.  These bonds minimize conflict and allow consensus to guide group action.

With careful and intensive community management, healthy soils slowly return.  Cover crop, rotation, fallow, and herd grazing practices are strictly followed.  Old cultivars when found are highly prized, while new ones are developed and exchanged with other regional growers.

Forest and woodlot management is rigorously enforced and culturally defined and imprinted.  The “woods” are a valued resource, heavily guarded and protected to insure future energy supplies, provide construction material, and create habitat for remaining biodiversity.

Communities are proud of their forests and woodlots, land and soil, seeds and crops.  They are proud of their people who with determination and against all odds, survived the “dark passage” of war and brutal hardship.  And they are proud of their strong children who will replace them in the home, shop, and field.  And so they hold yearly spring rituals to encourage good growth, summer celebrations to bring good weather, and fall festivals to show thanks for a good harvest.

Farmers and craftsmen from these communities provide surplus grain and goods to hub cities – some with several thousand citizens – all dependent on the productivity of rural agriculture…

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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