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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXIV–Chasing Perpetual Growth On a Finite Planet

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXIV

December 16, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Chasing Perpetual Growth On a Finite Planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXV

November 9, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Decoupling Energy Use From Growth: More Bargaining

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

Great piece, Nathan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] See this.

Why Are We Not Talking About Ecological Overshoot?

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

By Elisabeth Robson / Medium
Ecological Overshoot

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

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

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

…click on the above link to read the rest…

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXI

July 29, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Peak Oil: Not Ready For Mainstream Consumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LX

July 19, 2022 (original posting date)

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX

July 13, 2022 (original posting date)

Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid. p. 266–267.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XL

February 19, 2022

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

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

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

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

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

-Robert Frost, 1915

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIII

November 25, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Overlooking Ecological Overshoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXVII–Ecological Overshoot, Hydrocarbon Energy, and Biophysical Reality

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXVII

July 24, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Ecological Overshoot, Hydrocarbon Energy, and Biophysical Reality

Discussing ‘renewable’ energy and its shortcomings with those who hold on to the belief that they offer us a ‘solution’ to the predicaments humanity faces is always ‘challenging’. Today’s contemplation is based on a recent dialogue I have had with a few people who seek to hold on to the belief that we can completely abandon fossil fuels and simply shift support for society’s complexities over to ‘renewables, and my response to someone who complimented my viewpoint (an unusual occurrence on the pages of the online media site (The Tyee) I frequent, whose writers/editors/commenters mostly support ‘renewables’ and the promises the proponents of them make). The story is not so straightforward and most don’t want to hear that. You can check out the conversation here.

Thank you. The root cause of our problem appears to be ecological overshoot brought on, primarily, by our exploitation of a one-time energy cache (fossil fuels) that has helped to ‘power’ amazing technological tools and processes that, in turn, have allowed us to exploit the planet and its resources substantially. This has led to a number of positive feedback loops, particularly exponential increases in population, waste (including greenhouse gases), and the speed at which we use these finite resources.

The crowd that insists ‘renewable’ energy (and it’s not truly ‘renewable’ given its dependency on finite resources, and certainly not ‘green/clean’ based on the processes necessary to produce them) can ‘sustain’ our energy-intensive complexities tend to be willfully ignorant of their negative consequences and deficiencies. In fact, my guess is that many have little experience with or knowledge of them (see Alice Friedemann’s work at Energy Skeptic and especially her most recent Springer Energy Series publication, Life After Fossil Fuels) and are grasping for solutions to our predicaments.

The cost, components, capacity, and energy-return-on-energy-invested for ‘renewables’ is nowhere near what most imagine; and I’m thinking most hold on to the belief that governments will ‘pay’ for the massive systems that would be needed to support our complex societies (and there simply aren’t enough finite resources on this planet to do this; to say little about the massive debts already existing within our Ponzi-like financial/economic/monetary systems that themselves are on the verge of collapse and the struggles many people have in just affording day-to-day living expenses). I personally have installed a photovoltaic system as an emergency backup system for our home. I have spent well in excess of $10,000 putting up about 2.2 KwH of panels, connecting charge controllers, deep cycle batteries, and inverters. I am under no delusion that such a system can sustain our household, particularly in our Canadian winters. The power is intermittent. The batteries drain relatively quickly. And charging can take days/weeks when its cloudy and cold, and/or snow builds up on them.

The religious-like adherence to the belief that ‘renewables’ are part-and-parcel of a ‘solution’ to the negative consequences of fossil fuels leads many to ‘attack’ anyone who questions their ‘faith’ (see Mike Stasse’s Damn the Matrix). I have been accused numerous times of being a shill for the fossil fuel industry and even threatened because of this allegation; one person recently wished me the worst possible end I can imagine and then multiply it by 1000 because I questioned the entire ‘renewable’ mantra and didn’t by into his ‘solution’ for addressing the climate crisis.

I usually attribute this to the first few stages — denial, anger, bargaining — of Kubler-Ross’s model of grief, which people who come to realise our predicaments tend to travel through. It is also a result of believing that what we face is a problem that can be solved when in actuality it appears to be a predicament that we are going to have to face and attempt to ‘weather’ (see Erik Michaels’ Problems, Predicaments, and Technology). In fact, I would argue attempts to replace fossil fuel inputs with alternatives is a very misguided and potentially catastrophic path to take. The fossil fuel platform is significantly required for almost all the processes necessary to shift to alternatives. From steel and concrete manufacturing to the heavy machinery necessary in mining and transportation, large fossil fuel inputs are required.

Then there’s the fossil fuel inputs into modern industrial agriculture: the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, heavy machinery, irrigation, and transportation that sustain food production in sufficient quantities and keep the just-in-time, long distance, supply chains functioning — to say little about the finiteness of the chemicals required for fertilizers or the drawing down of water aquifers. Food shortages would be guaranteed to be massive should fossil fuel inputs suddenly disappear without local, regenerative permaculture being ready to replace it; something we are woefully blind to. ‘Electrifying’ everything does little to address many of the negative consequences of our overshoot.

There are so many negative consequences to our overshoot that we are ignoring — in our zeal to sustain our complexities via ‘renewables’ — that would continue or expand by chasing such ‘solutions’ as widespread adoption of electric vehicles and solar/wind energy. In our rush to justify all the modern ‘conveniences’/‘energy slaves’ we have (especially in so-called ‘advanced’ economies) we are taking the world even further into overshoot which will lead to an even more catastrophic ‘collapse’ when it finally occurs.

We can accept that ‘collapse’ is imminent (and pre/history shows this occurs for every complex society that we have experimented with for the past 10,000+ years — see archaeologist Joseph Tainters’ text The Collapse of Complex Societies) and attempt to prepare for it, or continue the wishful thinking path that ‘this time is different’ and chase actions that will make the situation even more dire. I would prefer the former but my guess is we will attempt the latter for two main reasons.

First, we have been propagandised by what should be called ‘snake oil salesmen’ and their marketers who have taken advantage of our energy crisis. They have created a massive marketing campaign to sell their products and done so on our emotions, particularly fear and the need to have some ‘certainty’ about the future (refer to Dan Gardner’s Future Babble). The marketers have set fossil fuels up as the ‘problem’ and offered a ‘solution’ that just happens to enrich them. As with all such marketing, the negative consequences of their products have been left out of the narrative.

Second, having bought into the sales pitch, most people have created a set of beliefs that serve to help justify their living arrangements and avoid the difficulties that very likely lay ahead. Core beliefs are difficult to challenge. Questioning them creates cognitive dissonance in the adherent which can only be dissipated by clinging more strongly to the belief (usually by ignoring or attacking those challenging them) or reflecting on the beliefs and shifting them towards a more neutral or different stance. Most people tend to protect their core belief systems, regardless of the evidence/facts/data that would suggest they are misguided/misinformed; thus the ire/anger by some when the idea of ‘renewables’ being able to replace fossil fuels is confronted.

For the most part, the future is unwritten. We can accept the challenges of a world without all the energy slaves we have created with our ingenuity and tool-making acumen, and prepare for life with less, far less. Or, we can continue down the ‘business-as-usual’ path and attempt to sustain the unsustainable (see Meadows et al.’s Limits to Growth and its various updates), and that will likely result in far more chaos and difficulty as the bottleneck we have created closes around us (see William Catton Jr.’s book, Overshoot).

I’m increasingly chagrined to see us continue to chase the infinite growth chalice with a belief that this will all work out just fine, thank you, as long as we abandon fossil fuels and shift to ‘renewables’ with a religious-like fervour that completely ignores some harsh, biophysical realities. I am reminded of author Robert Heinlein’s observation that we are rationalising creatures, not rational ones, and we are leading ourselves into a very, very precarious and dangerous place.

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXV

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

More Greenwashing: ‘Sustainable’ Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIV–Climate Change and Narratives to Support Continued Economic Growth

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIV

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Climate Change and Narratives to Support Continued Economic Growth

The following commentary was once again prompted by an online media article, this one discussing the necessary paradigm shift required to confront the existential dilemma of climate change, particularly how we view our relationship with nature and the use of financial capital to expand our exploitive ways.

This article does a good job of highlighting one of the various complexities of the issue(s) involved in addressing our various existential dilemmas and the fact that there is no single panacea for humanity’s predicaments. It’s an interlinked combination of aspects that flow from humanity’s relatively long-time interaction with and exploitation of our natural environment. And how we view our relationship with nature is fundamental to better addressing the consequences of our current relationship but I believe it goes beyond how we tend to use ‘capital’ to exploit our world since humanity’s exploitive ways have carried on for millennia; long before ‘capitalism’ became a thing.

I would add to this partial story that it involves not just financial capital but our more ‘recent’ tendency to increasingly: expand our population, seek ever-improved living standards for a burgeoning population, create useful and then overly rely upon ‘technology’ to expand our exploitation of the natural world, urbanise more and more space at the expense of food-producing lands, depend upon ‘marginal’ lands to sustain us, and concentrate dependence upon finite resources that have encountered diminishing returns on our investments in them. These patterns of behaviour, however, are incongruent with existence on a finite planet regardless of the economic system used to pursue them. Even a far more ‘equitable’ one would likely result in a similar outcome at some point. Humans have not, for millennia, lived ‘sustainably’ with our world.

But since our behaviour does not align with the biophysical realities of finite resources to support them, we go about creating comforting narratives to reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance that arises. As animals with complex cognitive abilities and self-awareness, we cannot hold such conflicting belief systems without significant psychological stress being created so we seek confirmation that one of them is wrong and the other is correct. Rather than confront the more ‘depressing’ story that our ways are completely unsustainable and must be abandoned, we weave stories that appear on the surface to be more ‘acceptable’ to our current lifestyles and belief systems, and then look for evidence to support them; ‘facts’ being irrelevant. We refuse to acknowledge the counterevidence to our belief system. We deny. We get angry. We bargain with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. We construct a reality that we prefer, exorcising the one we don’t from our minds.

While it’s commonplace among some to point fingers at our current global economic system, such overexploitation and eventual negative consequences have been with human complex societies for millennia — long before ‘capitalism’ emerged. Our ‘ingenuity’, as it were, has allowed human societies to expand their footprint repeatedly throughout our pre/history and in my opinion it’s going to take more than a paradigm shift to balance our species’ impact/exploitation with that of the environment. Paradigm shifts take time. They begin on the margins and then they rely on a tipping point of participants to be convinced by the evidence that their current worldview conflicts with the data and a new paradigm better explains the phenomena being observed and experienced.

And here’s the rub. Humans are wonderful at creating stories. We have the ability to convince ourselves and others that our senses are lying to us. What you are witnessing is not what you think it is. It is something else entirely. Add on top of this the fact that we are social animals and think and believe in herds, and that there exist powerful psychological mechanisms that steer our thinking and beliefs. We are often convinced of things that are not true, that 2 plus 2 doesn’t equal 4 but 5. And our thinking can be manipulated in many different ways, and oftentimes without our even having the foggiest idea that this is happening.

So, if it’s in the best interests of the powers-that-be/ruling class/elite/social power structures to have the masses believe in a particular storyline, we can be fairly certain that the narrative(s) we are exposed to align with it and we consequently convince ourselves it is correct and arose from the ‘evidence’; it’s what all ‘right-thinking’ people believe and if you or others believe differently then it’s you that is wrong — believing otherwise is dysfunctional. We see this playing out repeatedly in both the mainstream and social media platforms on a variety of fronts. But we also want to believe in happy endings, that we have agency to alter significantly the future, that there is hope, that if we put our minds to it we can accomplish any and everything, and that we are an ingenious species that can control not just our local environment but nature itself and the future. And this seems especially true in ‘advanced’ economies that exploit our world far, far, far more than so-called ‘emerging’ ones and rely so much more on finite resources for their functioning and perpetuation.

Chasing the perpetual growth chalice is currently being kept alive through such narratives as the Build Back Better, Green New Deal, and Great Reset storylines. These attempt to convince us if we ‘electrify’ everything or expand using ‘net-zero’ approaches we can continue to exploit the world at our leisure, and do so in a way that addresses climate change and ‘saves’ us all. But these stories avoid the obvious hurdles and roadblocks. They ignore the biophysical limits that exist on a finite planet. They discount the thermodynamic realities that restrict such policies. They depend very much on unproven or significantly uneconomical technologies (i.e., they take more energy/resources than they provide back). But it is likely we will continue to chase these ‘solutions’ for they offer us salvation and prolonging of the status quo. We do not like uncertainty and do not embrace change.

Who wouldn’t want to keep the party going especially with its many conveniences and obvious ‘benefits’ for those reaping the ‘rewards’? Life without these wonderful things would be a lot more work and less certain. Without the complex support systems we have created and depend upon, most of us would be in certain dire straits — to say the least.

Perhaps most glaringly we have lost our skills/knowledge to live/survive self-sufficiently but instead depend entirely upon complex and fragile systems (especially long-distance supply chains) over which we have zero control and so seek to find ways to convince ourselves that there are somewhat easy ‘solutions’. We have created a financial/economic/monetary system that necessitates chasing the perpetual growth chalice but since infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet we have leveraged debt and Ponzi-type structures to continue the party for a bit longer. We have pushed biophysical limits into dangerous territory while allowing ourselves to believe it can last forever, and a day. We have overshot our natural environmental carrying capacity and encountered increasingly problematic diminishing returns on our investments in complexity and like so many complex societies before us have begun the decline/fall/collapse that always follows.

Given all of this, I am increasingly coming to believe that regardless of our understanding of our dilemmas we will fail to address them in a way that would differ from complex societies of the past. We will continue to pursue growth and attempts to prolong such growth for as long as we can, damn the consequences. We will, for the most part, continue to believe biophysical limits do not, well, limit us. We will continue to tell ourselves and believe the comforting narratives our ‘leaders’ will tell us. We will continue to cling to faulty paradigms and rarely, if ever, admit the crumbling social structure (and physical structures) around us is anything but the ‘fault’ of those who didn’t believe in our ingenuity and inventiveness; to say little about the fact that the rich and powerful marketing these fantasies stand to become even richer and more powerful as we pursue them. It’s a final blow-off top of ‘growth’ before the eventual collapse that always accompanies a species overshooting its natural environmental carrying capacity.

‘Collapse’ is in all likelihood inevitable — I state ‘all likelihood’ since not one of us can accurately predict the future but from my perspective the evidence pre/history provides us with is overwhelming. It cannot be avoided but will be denied well beyond its in-your-face obviousness.

I close with quotes from two ‘experts’ on the issue of societal ‘collapse’. First, archaeologist Joseph Tainter from his 1988 text The Collapse of Complex Societies:However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.” And this from Jared Diamond’s 2005 text Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: “Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variations on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production…Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage…Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak.”

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIII–‘Clean Energy’ and the Stages of Grieving

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIII

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

‘Clean Energy’ and the Stages of Grieving

Today’s thought was motivated by another Tyee article that carries on the notion of ‘clean energy’ and the ‘magical thinking’ needed to buy into such narratives.

As long as language is being manipulated (e.g., ‘clean energy’ is a gargantuan oxymoron), magical thinking employed (e.g., ‘green hydrogen’ or some iteration of it has been on the books for 2+ centuries and is still far, far away, if ever, given the physical and economic hurdles/roadblocks), and fundamental causes of our dilemmas conveniently ignored (e.g., our pursuit of the infinite growth chalice on a finite planet), the ‘solutions’ we so desperately seek will always elude us (if they even exist).

Despite relatively general recognition of humanity’s impending ‘challenges’, we continue to follow the ‘Business-As-Usual’ (BAU) scenario painted for us by Meadows et al. in their 1972 Limits to Growth. Our ‘leaders’ talk a good talk but the reality (given the obvious lack of ‘progress’ in mitigating our issues and their increasingly probable negative consequences) is that we have painted ourselves into a corner from which we apparently cannot extricate ourselves (except through some very convoluted narrative creations).

There is overwhelming and increasing evidence that there is a significant reckoning in terms of energy decline (and various other resources) in our future, regardless of our wishes, ingenuity, and technology. The complexities of our globalised, just-in-time, and highly resource-dependent industrialised societies are losing their support systems in terms of the resources they require. We have encountered significant diminishing returns on our investments and can no longer ‘afford’ them. All the talk of ‘solutions’ is, at this point, seemingly reflective of the first four stages of grief outlined by Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

We are very keen on avoiding the final acceptance stage. Instead, we listen and accept faulty narratives about how this will all work out just fine. We create and propagate misleading phrases like ‘clean energy’ and ‘net zero emissions’ which are primarily marketing slogans. We allow ourselves to believe in ‘promising’ technological ‘fixes’ that require us to ignore or dismiss the constraints and physical impossibilities that are involved. And perhaps the worst of all, we look the other way when our ‘leadership’ completely ‘jumps the shark’ and whispers in our ears that we indeed can pursue ‘sustainable growth’ (a phrase that totally twists the concept of sustainability and ignores the biophysical constraints of a finite planet) and live, for the most part, happily-ever-after.

Such a fairy tale ending is indeed possible, but only in our imaginations. The momentum of our complex systems and the reality of a finite world straining under the exploitation of cognitively ‘advanced’ walking-talking apes are taking us down a path that is best described by William Catton Jr. in Overshoot: a species that overshoots its environmental carrying capacity is destined to encounter a population ‘collapse’ and any response that increases the drawdown of the fundamental resources upon which the species is reliant only speeds up the process. And this seems very much to be exactly what we are doing as we ‘debate’ ways in which to sustain our living standards and most of our energy-reliant and -intensive sociocultural practices.

Our best option may be to, in the words of author and social commentator John Michael Greer, “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush”. Degrowth is coming. We can have some say in how this occurs but the longer we delay (and we’re very, very good at delaying our encounters with ‘reality’), the less ‘control’ we will have in meeting the coming challenges.

My suggestion is to detach from the ‘Matrix’ as much as possible by relocalising production of necessary goods but particularly shelter needs and organic and regenerative food production, and ensure the procurement of potable water. The government/politicians/ruling elite are not coming to the rescue; that is not their primary concern despite everything they say. The way in which they have met these challenges (that have been known for a number of decades) is evidence of that. We have continued to follow the BAU path set out in 1972 and simply managed to put ourselves further and further behind the eight ball. It’s perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that the planet burns while our ‘leaders’ are fiddling. Rely on yourself, family, and like-minded community members; not some politician promising more of the same actions that brought us to where we are.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XI–Fiat Currency, Infinite Growth, Finite Resources: A Recipe For Collapse

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XI

Knossos, Crete (1993) Photo by author

Fiat Currency, Infinite Growth, Finite Resources: A Recipe For Collapse

Yet another in an increasing collection of comments I have posted to the online media site The Tyee. This time it is a commentary on an article that reviews a book arguing in favour of the implementation of Universal Basic Income.

“No stone is left unturned in their thorough and convincing argument…”

I’m not so sure this is true. My personal focus for the past decade+ has been on the unsustainability of our complex society, particularly as it is impacted by our propensity to chase growth — especially population and economic, for these both have a significant connection to our ever-increasing drawdown of finite resources and ecological destruction of our planet. If we are not correcting this tendency to ‘grow’ in any way, shape, or form, then we are just creating more ways to kick-the-can-down-the-road of our wasteful and ruinous path; and place the significant burden of our misinformed ways on future generations.

One of the key arguments of archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis regarding societal collapse as presented in his text The Collapse of Complex Societies is that a society becomes increasingly susceptible to collapse once it encounters diminishing returns on its investments in complexity. It is not a stretch at all to argue that we have been on the path of such decline for decades, particularly once we began creating a purely fiat currency that has allowed an explosion in debt/credit. If one looks at the ‘growth’ of our world since the late 1960s when central banks/governments shifted the world to a monetary system that creates money from thin air with no connection to physical commodities that could constrain our growth somewhat, it is almost all predicated on debt/credit expansion; a conundrum since debt repayment necessitates the growth imperative to continue (yes, basically a gargantuan Ponzi scheme).

Why is this connection to fiat currency important? Primarily because money is basically a claim on future resources and such resources are in terminal decline. So, the more money we ‘print’ (regardless of the reason for its printing), the more claims there are on future resources; resources that not only are disappearing quickly and getting more costly to access (because we always retrieve the easiest and cheapest to get to first), but whose retrieval results in monumental ecological destruction.

And on top of all this is the whole overshoot conundrum we have led ourselves into because of the above. Again, it is not difficult to argue that we have far surpassed the natural carrying capacity of our environment and only been able to ‘sustain’ our population by increasing our drawdown of resources through technology, energy-averaging systems (based on trade/geopolitical conquests), and this explosion of debt.

So, if we want to support our most vulnerable in society in a world that must pursue degrowth (the antithesis of our current pursuits and its expansion of debt/credit), then we need a much more complex discussion of how to do this. I see zero mentions of these complexities in the article. Just creating more money to distribute to a portion of our society is not a solution. In fact, the creation of more and more fiat is likely to have the negative consequence of our ruling class pursuing (more than they already do) increasing and significant price inflation, something that tends to hurt the majority of society more so than the elite at the top of the monetary/financial/economic system.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VI–Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VI

October 9, 2020

Teotihuacan, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Tyee commentary…(https://thetyee.ca/News/2020/10/09/Australian-Invasion-Big-Coal-Plans-Alberta/)

It’s truly unfortunate that our society pursues such self-evidently egregious exploits on our environment. You can’t continue to pollute your backyard without eventually destroying the complex ecological systems that support you — to say little about the finiteness of most resources we overly depend upon. And, certainly, we can’t continue to allow our sociopolitical ‘leaders’ to pursue such destructive policies and actions.

Yet, the issues and underlying dilemmas are much more complex than just exploitive foreign capital and revenue-seeking politicians. Yes, these are problematic; without a doubt. But they are one piece in a multi-layered puzzle that may or may not have a ‘solution’.

Society’s embracing of several self-destructive behaviours must be undone and reversed. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the pursuit of ‘growth’. Economic. Population. Technological. Et cetera.

We do not live on a planet with infinite resources and the exponential increase of our activities continues to paint us further and further into a corner. While it is unlikely there will be a definitive ‘day of reckoning’ because of our blasting past our natural carrying capacity (since collapse is a process, not an event), the consequences of our actions will be felt as surely as day follows night.

In fact, it could be argued that we are already and have been experiencing the fallout of our expanding and increasingly complex activities for some time now. Decimated species required for food crop pollination. Expanding geopolitical tensions over resources, especially fossil fuels and water. Supply chain interruptions. Environmental disasters. Increasingly authoritarian government policies and edicts to control populations. Currency debasement. Global pandemics. And on and on.

A group of MIT researchers some years ago proposed that there were real biophysical limits to the pursuit of growth and that the time to alter our trajectory was upon us. That was almost 50 years ago (The Limits to Growth, 1972). Unfortunately, humanity has followed the ‘Business-as-Usual’ scenario outlined by the study. The path forward from this point does not look promising. Yet, it is virtually guaranteed to be the one we continue to follow since we have ignored the warnings.

In our haste to believe ‘this time is different’ or that ‘we are smarter’ (usually in the form of the trope ‘human ingenuity and technology’), we have continued to pursue growth in almost all its guises. And it’s almost all of us that are guilty. Yes, our ‘leadership’ has led the way and been the main cheerleaders of the idea that growth only has positive attributes. And, yes, the pursuit has been exacerbated by the fiat currency swindle imposed upon the world. But most of us, perhaps unwittingly, have been consumption machines, endlessly purchasing and expanding our environmental footprints.

Unless and until we all begin serious discussions about degrowth on a global scale (even just local/regional would be a great start), I fear we will continue along our current path; in fact, it would appear we have actually picked up speed in these exploitive and damaging endeavours as diminishing returns (see archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies) have made it necessary to invest more and more effort, energy, and resources into finding and retrieving the resources necessary to hold our complex systems together for a bit longer.

Australia’s investments in Canadian resources is a natural consequence of our growth pursuits. And politicians, whose primary motivator is the control, maintenance, and expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue stream, will almost always encourage such activities. Negative consequences be damned.

If we cannot change the conversation and our behaviours, then we cannot change the eventual outcome. Nature will do for us what we are unable to accomplish ourselves. And we will likely not enjoy the way nature brings the planet back into balance.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh IV–Fiat Currency: Debasement and Infinite Growth

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh IV

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Fiat Currency: Debasement and Infinite Growth

Sep 24, 2020

My comment on an article in The Tyee about our federal government’s latest throne speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/09/24/Throne-Speech-Stew/).


The idea that a sovereign nation can never run into trouble financially because it can create its own currency is certainly the dominant narrative amongst government and ‘mainstream’ economists/bankers. After all, who benefits the most from this storyline?

But is it in fact true?

Scratching below the surface of this ‘experiment’ suggests it is not.

If printing one’s own money were a panacea, then nations like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, or the German Weimar Republic (and countless other nations throughout history) would never have experienced the hyperinflation and/or currency debasement that they have. They would be the richest nations ever to have existed.

One could counter that this is because they had to use their debased currency to import goods. True, but if one is debauching one’s currency through exponential ‘printing’, then this may be true for any nation dependent upon imports, which almost every nation is in our globalised, industrial world.

The solution that nations have rested upon given this reality is that the central banks collude to all print at relatively the same rate, so currencies don’t fall/rise too drastically compared to their trading partners.

Fine, but what does endless money/credit creation due to the purchasing power of this fiat currency created from thin air?

Previous trials in this approach indicate that it totally debases/debauches the currency, significantly reducing the ‘wealth’ of the people holding/using it because of the inflation that it creates.
Here’s what John Maynard Keynes had to say about this: “By a continuing process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

And while it’s interesting to note ‘official inflation’ is subdued, the manipulation that goes into creating this gauge of price inflation makes the official number meaningless to people’s real-world experience (look up hedonic adjustments to get a sense of how manipulated these numbers are; and then compare your experience in price increases to official numbers — my family’s utilities, food, health, housing, transportation, insurance, education, etc. expenses far, far outpace ‘official’ inflation; by several times).

Then there’s the whole issue of continuing to chase the infinite growth chalice and pulling substantial growth forward through debt/money creation. We live on a finite planet despite hopium narratives to the contrary and all this push for growth does is get us further and further into overshoot by quickening our exploitation of finite resources.

There is no consideration whatsoever of the limits imposed upon us. There is only more growth to try and address our dilemmas that are created by us pursuing growth in the first place.

Despite the story that these policies are being used to solve our problems and help people, the reality is that they are very much probably doing the exact opposite.

In fact, a good argument could be made that the ‘all in’ aspect of this is further evidence that the planet is reaching the endgame of overshooting our natural carrying capacity and the fallout is quickening towards its obvious conclusion: collapse of the complex systems we have come to depend upon.

To paraphrase Canadian economist Jeff Rubin in his book Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: things are going local and simpler, whether we want them to or not.

Prepare accordingly.

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