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Oil, war and the fate of industrial societies

The world teeters on the brink of economic disaster due to energy shortages caused by war. The main oil-producing nations are unable and unwilling to increase output, even though prices are high and threatening to go much higher. The solutions being proposed—electric cars and renewable energy technologies—are coming on line, but not fast enough. Building them to the scale required to maintain current levels of economic activity and societal complexity would require enormous amounts of minerals and metals that are also becoming scarce. We appear to be hurtling toward geopolitical and economic turmoil.

Does anything about this scenario sound familiar? It might. It happens to be almost exactly what I discussed in my book The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, published in 2003. I have no interest in rubbing salt in society’s worsening wounds by saying “I told you so,” but it would be a dereliction of duty for me not to point out the facts.

My book was one of the first to discuss peak oil—the point when supplies of the world’s most economically pivotal resource start to dwindle. Of course, the most pessimistic predictions for the timing of the peak were wrong. Many analysts thought that petroleum production would start to decline in the years between 2005 and 2010. Instead, the rate of global conventional oil extraction flatlined during that period, and is just now beginning to descend from its long plateau. Meanwhile, unconventional oil (tar sands and tight oil produced by fracking and horizontal drilling) enabled new heights of production starting around 2010. The general consensus thereafter was that oil supplies can easily continue to increase for the foreseeable future; all it takes is more investment.

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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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Physical Preps and Tools

This is the article about “stuff” you can buy. 

What we are facing is not going to be short term, and it’s not going to affect one small area. The duration is forever. It will affect literally everything, in progressively compounding ways. First we’ll go through ever-increasing, and unending, scarcity and downscaling. People everywhere are going to be disabused of their previous expectations of abundance within a few months. The decline of globalized industrial civilization will lead to a collapse of the global economy. We are at the cusp of rapid and severely disruptive changes. The infrastructure of our civilization will break down, giving rise to a predicament that will swamp the government’s ability to manage. It will lead to widespread disorientation, anxiety, and social breakdown. Eventually within your area grocery stores won’t exist, hospitals won’t be open, firefighters and police won’t come to your aid, etc. And this decline will happen far faster than people expect.
There will always be a continuum of best practices that give you a higher probability of survival. As I’ve written about before, the realistic absolute best would probably be some intentional community of highly skilled people on a great amount of land (adjoining a national/state park or BLM land on 3 sides maybe) and having the ability to grow enough food for all of those people year-round, as well as provide your own top-notch security. In such a situation (with a lot more expanding of ideas), you’d probably have the best chance of surviving pretty much anything besides all-out nuclear holocaust. On the other end of the spectrum is someone who lives a normal life and has a few extra things they think could be useful in an emergency situation in the garage or the closet, but who hasn’t thought or planned beyond that and has no contingency plans.

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Imperialism in bright green

Imperialism in bright green

Voiced by Amazon Polly

The human ability to disconnect from and deny geopolitical reality lies at the heart of the “green” net-zero project.  Most obviously, those – like the current UK Prime Minister – who claim victories along the road to the Nirvana of net-zero must maintain blindness to the way in which the UK economy is integrated into a global industrial civilisation.  As a result, such measures as closing British coal mines and coal-fired power stations can be translated into lower national carbon emissions figures, even though all that is achieved is the outsourcing of UK emissions to other, less developed states elsewhere on the planet.  Aiding this sleight of hand is the international convention that we do not include emissions from shipping in anyone’s national data, giving the appearance that there is no difference between goods moved tens of miles by truck or train, and goods transported by ship from the other side of the Earth.

Nor is it only governments and politicians that get away with this dubious accounting trick.  Activists simultaneously demand the construction of thousands of wind turbines – manufactured on the other side of the planet – while denying the need for the materials from which wind turbines are made, deployed, and maintained.  Consider, for example, the recent outrage over the decision to extend the Aberpergwm anthracite mine in South Wales and the proposal for a new mine in Cumbria.  Both are intended to supply UK steelworks which, among other things, will produce the steel which is essential to the construction and deployment of thousands of wind turbines.  Activists have reacted as if wind turbines might otherwise magically construct and deploy themselves with the aid of the net-zero fairy, or – even less plausibly…

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Bright Green Lies Torpedoes Greens

Bright Green Lies Torpedoes Greens

Mauna Loa Solar Observatory which has been recording rising CO2 emissions since 1965. Wikimedia Commons.

Bright Green Lies (Monkfish Book Publishing, 2021) grumbles and growls like a rambunctious thunderstorm on an early spring day opening up darkened clouds of acid rain across the world of environmentalism, including celebrated personalities.

According to Bright Green Lies authors Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert: “We are writing this book because we want our environmental movement back.” As such, they charge ahead with daggers drawn, similar to Planet of the Humans (2019-20), nobody spared.

As explained therein, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) brought on the environmental movement as well as the establishment of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. She did not call for “saving civilization,” which is the common rallying cry today (“Civilizations Last Chance” by Bill McKibben or Lester Brown, “The Race to Save Civilization”). Rachel Carson called for “saving nature.”

“Today’s environmental movement stands upon the shoulders of giants, but something has gone terribly wrong… Mainstream environmentalists now overwhelmingly prioritize saving industrial civilization over saving life on the planet.” (pgs 26-27)

Losing the essence of environmentalism is part of the true grit of Bright Green Lies, a smart book that fascinates and teases the mind with solid usage of the “laws of physics” as it drills down into the depths of the nuts and bolts of green energy, renewable devices, and how this dream of Green has gone off track.

Bright Green Lies is a very controversial book within the environmental community because it is “deep green” in the sense that their argument leaves almost no room for modern-day civilization, and it is overly critical of today’s brand of environmentalists.

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The Long Descent — Decline and Fall of Industrial Society

The title of this piece is borrowed from John Michael Greer’s 2008 book The Long Descent, the central thesis of which is threefold. Firstly, the industrial civilisation we take for granted is unsustainable and is in decline. The evidence for this is all around us but many choose to downplay or ignore the evidence. Secondly, “The roots of the crisis lie in the cultural stories that shape the way we understand the world.” Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we simply told ourselves a story, created a modern myth, weaved the narrative that endless progress and increasing prosperity were inevitable. Despite a few little bumps on the road, the only way was up. Lastly, it is too late for industrialisation and technology to solve the problems that industrialisation and technology have created. And when we say ‘problems’, we should more correctly say ‘predicament’. Problems have solutions, predicaments have outcomes. We can respond to a predicament, but it cannot be ‘solved’, and our predicament is this: There is simply not enough easily accessible, affordable energy remaining to maintain industrial civilisation as we know it. In general, we are referring here to fossil fuels; the coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil shales, bitumens, tar sands etc. on which industrial civilisation depends. Equally, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be impossible to replace these energy sources with either so-called renewables, or nuclear. Although fossil fuels continue to form within the Earth, only the most trivial use of them could ever have been deemed ‘sustainable’. As things stand, most of the high grade, easily accessible deposits have been extracted, so even using fossil fuels as a way to transition to an enduring and genuinely renewable energy base is no longer possible…

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Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse

Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse

shellrig

Shell’s Arctic drilling rig. Photo: Greenpeace.

When the apocalypse arrived no one knew it could be so seductive. In the Pacific Northwest global warming has meant winter days fit for lounging outside in t-shirts. Wildfires feeding on drought-stricken forests are producing surreal tangerine-orange sunlight. The heat has wreaked havoc on everything from snowpack to marine estuaries, but it is also resulting in a longer growing season and greater crop diversification.

This is not to put smiley faces on the four horseman. Humanity, after taking over the driver’s seat of evolution, has crashed it into the brick wall of industrial civilization.

Nonetheless, the apocalyptic world is what we make of it. We are now in a salvage operation where our goals are to recuperate and regenerate the disappearing world.

Blame cannot be spread equally. The culprits, the states, corporations, and institutions, are so few they can be named. For decades they have worked feverishly to block any meaningful transition away from a fossil-fuel economy. In 2015 atmospheric carbon dioxide blew past400 parts per million, the highest level in the last 23 million years, and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. The old world, formed over hundreds of millions of years, is ending because of the sixth great extinction, deforestation, collapse of fisheries, pollution, sea-level rise, wildfires, invasive species, and coral-reef die-offs.

 

The new world is the “anthropocene biosphere.” Some scientists say our impact is so profound humans have initiated just the third stage of evolution in 3.8 billion years. This includes mass loss of biodiversity and homogenization of what remains. Carried on the arteries of commerce, “neobiota” like cats, rats, and mussels are so prolific they’ll be immortalized in the fossil record. We’ve broken the “photosynthetic energy barrier” with oil coal and natural gas. We have colonized or modified every ecological niche. We have reset evolution through industrial and monoculture farming, pollution, breeding, genetic technologies, and emerging synthetic biology. 

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UK Government-backed scientific model flags risk of civilisation’s collapse by 2040

UK Government-backed scientific model flags risk of civilisation’s collapse by 2040

New scientific models supported by the British government’s Foreign Office show that if we don’t change course, in less than three decades industrial civilisation will essentially collapse due to catastrophic food shortages, triggered by a combination of climate change, water scarcity, energy crisis, and political instability.

Before you panic, the good news is that the scientists behind the model don’t believe it’s predictive. The model does not account for the reality that people will react to escalating crises by changing behavior and policies.

But even so, it’s a sobering wake-up call, which shows that business-as-usual guarantees the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it: our current way of life is not sustainable.

The new models are being developed at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI), through a project called the ‘Global Resource Observatory’ (GRO).

The GRO is chiefly funded by the Dawe Charitable Trust, but its partners include the British government’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO); British bank, Lloyds of London; the Aldersgate Group, the environment coalition of leaders from business, politics and civil society; the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries; Africa Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the University of Wisconsin.

 

Disruption risk

This week, Lloyds released a report for the insurance industry assessing the risk of a near-term “acute disruption to the global food supply.” Research for the project was led by Anglia Ruskin University’s GSI, and based on its GRO modelling initiative.

The report explores the scenario of a near-term global food supply disruption, considered plausible on the basis of past events, especially in relation to future climate trends. The global food system, the authors find, is “under chronic pressure to meet an ever-rising demand, and its vulnerability to acute disruptions is compounded by factors such as climate change, water stress, ongoing globalisation and heightening political instability.”

Three steps from crisis

Lloyd’s scenario analysis shows that food production across the planet could be significantly undermined due to a combination of just three catastrophic weather events, leading to shortfalls in the production of staple crops, and ensuing price spikes.

 

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The Era of Pretense

The Era of Pretense

I’ve mentioned in previous posts here on The Archdruid Report the educational value of the comments I receive from readers in the wake of each week’s essay. My post two weeks ago on the death of the internet was unusually productive along those lines.  One of the comments I got in response to that post gave me the theme for last week’s essay, but there was at least one other comment calling for the same treatment. Like the one that sparked last week’s post, it appeared on one of the many other internet forums on which The Archdruid Report, and it unintentionally pointed up a common and crucial failure of imagination that shapes, or rather misshapes, the conventional wisdom about our future.

Curiously enough, the point that set off the commenter in question was the same one that incensed the author of the denunciation mentioned in last week’s post: my suggestion in passing that fifty years from now, most Americans may not have access to electricity or running water. The commenter pointed out angrily that I’d claimed that the twilight of industrial civilization would be a ragged arc of decline over one to three centuries. Now, he claimed, I was saying that it was going to take place in the next fifty years, and this apparently convinced him that everything I said ought to be dismissed out of hand.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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