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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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The World’s Top Industrial Countries Are in Treacherous Waters

Sometimes, after reading a slew of news articles from around the world, I feel confused and weary. But occasionally patterns seem to emerge. I say “seem” because the human brain is all too eager to see patterns where there are none (hence humanity’s fascination with false conspiracy theories). Nevertheless, these days I can hardly escape the sense that current events are accelerating toward . . . something troubling.

Of course, we all bring preconceptions to bear on new information, and those preconceptions tend to shape the patterns we see. My own preconceptions have emerged from a few decades of studying humanity’s systemic problems—climate change, resource depletion, pollution, economic inequality and fragility, authoritarianism, war, and so on—and how these evolved through many centuries up to the present in response to new energy sources and technological innovation. The cornerstone of my preconceptions is a limits-to-growth perspective that sees the last few decades of fossil-fueled rapid expansion of population and per-capita consumption as profoundly unsustainable, and the decades of the 2020s and 2030s as the likely turning point in humanity’s overall trajectory from rapid growth to just-as-rapid contraction.

So, I guess you could say I’m a short-term, big-picture pessimist. You can judge for yourself whether focusing that particular lens on the Rorschach inkblot of current events is helpful.

The world is a complex place, and some countries are always doing better or worse than others. But occasionally, as was the case with the Great Depression and World War II, the whole world seems to falter or erupt at once. If the pattern I think I see is really there, we may be approaching a similarly pivotal moment.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

On Being Reasonable

Scientists have been in the news of late fretting that their projections about the onset of disasters caused by a warming climate may have been off the mark. It appears that Mother Nature has pushed the “fast forward” button and we are all paddling, choking, and sizzling much sooner than sober science had led us to expect. We will be hard-pressed to devise a plan of action commensurate with the trouble we are in if we come at that task wielding flawed assumptions.

Events cannot speak of their own accord but if they could recent ones would surely be telling us that any forecasts based on conditions prevailing even until yesterday are not worth much. We have entered a new phase in the life of our planet and, by all appearances, do not have a clue about what that circumstance demands of us as inhabitants.

I am not a scientist, but I did recently encounter a related case of cluelessness that I thought I might try to diagnose. Writing in The New Yorker (07/24/2023), Louis Menand pauses at the end of an essay on the rise and fall of neoliberalism to take stock of its achievements and failings. On the positive side, he claims that globalization has lifted a billion people out of poverty, lowered the cost of many household items, turned formerly marginal nations into “economic players,” and broken the monopoly held by First World powers on modern technology. On the debit side, he notes a deepening “trend towards monopoly” in every major industry and a disturbing increase in inequality. This latter, he believes, fouls the workings of democracy and thus poses a threat to civic order.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Biodiversity: Targets and lies

Victor Anderson and Rupert Read dissect the recent and ‘historic’ biodiversity CoP15 agreement.

Great rejoicing has followed the biodiversity agreement recently arrived at, just in time for Christmas. For example, ‘The Times’ editorial began: “The agreement in Montreal by 195 countries to protect wildlife and ecosystems, with 30 per cent of Earth’s lands and oceans protected by 2030, is a rare piece of good news in gloomy times.” The Environment section of the European Commission tweeted: “The new global #Biodiversity Agreement will ensure that nature keeps sustaining communities & economies for the next decades.”

The nub of our claim here today is: this “ensure” is a lie. Target-setting is very different from implementation and achievement. Voluntary agreements are very different from ones which are legally binding and enforced.

Don’t get us wrong. We are pleased that the Montreal talks didn’t irretrievably break down, and we are impressed by the surprising achievement of the diplomats who put together this agreement at the last minute. Moreover, we totally understand this widespread desire for good news. We two feel it so strongly ourselves! All of us desperately want to be able to believe that the future is looking less grim.

But fooling ourselves is not good for anyone. It’s certainly not good for nature; nor for our long-term mental health.

Bear in mind: We have been here before, and recently. The same process, a Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed an earlier set of targets in 2010, known as the Aichi Targets, supposed to be achieved by 2020. What happened? Summarising an official UN survey, The Guardian reported (15.9.20): “The world has failed to meet a single target to stem the destruction of wildlife and life-sustaining ecosystems in the last decade, according to a devastating new report from the UN on the state of nature.”

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Putting the Land Back In Climate

What if we’ve been looking at the climate, well, incompletely? What if there’s another side to climate change, one less concerned with what we put in the atmosphere than what we do to the land, a side which, despite four decades of climate education, has yet to be explained to us?

Scientifically speaking, there is. Scientists call it “land change,” a characteristically neutral term for the not-so-neutral ways humans alter landscapes, through things like logging, agriculture, road building and urban/suburban sprawl. By disturbing land this way, we disturb the land’s ability to hold and cycle water, and that affects climate, particularly on a local and regional level.

Though we tend to think of climate in terms of carbon, water is in fact the primary medium of Earth’s heat dynamics, perhaps not surprising on this 71% water planet. Water not only has the highest heat capacity around, it’s also a shapeshifter, continuously phase-changing between water, vapor and ice, absorbing and releasing heat at each juncture, elegantly distributing heat along the way.

Evaporation, the phase-change from water to vapor, is a cooling process. We’ve all felt it when we sweat. Plants essentially do the same thing when they respire, cooling themselves and their surroundings by releasing water vapor from under their leaves. Trees are the power lifters here, drawing upwards of 150 gallons per day through their roots and out through their leaves, giving an average tree the cooling power of two air conditioning units running all day.1

The vapor, with the heat held latent inside it as a chemical potential, rises until it is high and cold enough to condense back into clouds and rain, at which point the heat is released into the air again, only higher, some of which continues its journey out to space, the rest reentering the system elsewhere…

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Oil, war and the fate of industrial societies

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

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

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

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Farm Stops: A New Way to Enhance Local and Regional Food Systems

There’s no denying that our current food system in the United States is in trouble. With the worsening climate crisis affecting crop yields, the pandemic limiting the labor force, and the war in Ukraine driving staggering inflation, we need alternatives to a largely homogenized system and fast. Now more than ever, we need a localized system that supports the rapidly shrinking population of small to mid-sized family farms, makes food more accessible, and provides full transparency to people who increasingly demand justice, equity, and accountability for the quality and source of their food. Over the past few decades we’ve turned to alternative methods like farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and most recently, food hubs. But there’s an emerging method that may just be the key to forming strong, localized food systems.

Enter the small-farm-supporting grocery store, otherwise known as a Farm Stop. A Farm Stop is a mission-driven entity that supports small-scale farmers by sourcing agricultural products from nearby producers, and by operating on consignment. Most people, when they hear the word “consignment” think of clothing or antique stores, but it can also be applied to sourcing local agricultural products, supporting small-scale farmers, and strengthening local food systems. A good example is the Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This year-round grocery store works with over 200 local farmers and producers. Argus gives the producers they work with 70 percent of the retail price, and takes a 30 percent commission to maintain its operations. This ensures that farmers get the real value for their products.

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

It’s the End of the World’s Fair as We Know It: Why Technology Won’t Save Us (Episode 55 of Crazy Town)

Back in the day, the World’s Fair was a global showcase of innovation and a peerless cultural event where visitors envisioned a neon future filled with technological wonders. These international expos featured miracle inventions and opportunities to explore new ideas, but also on display were useless gizmos, silly stunts (who’s ready for a game of topless donkey ping pong?), and some of the most unattractive towers people have ever built. Worse yet, a dismal thread of racism runs through the history of fairs, and in recent times, faux sustainability has become a recurring theme. Explore the diminishing marginal returns of both World’s Fairs and technology in general, and consider what’s next as dreams of a high-tech utopia go the way of the animatronic dinosaurs. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.


Jason Bradford

I’m Jason Bradford.

Asher Miller

I’m Asher Miller.

Rob Dietz

And I’m Rob Dietz. Welcome to Crazy Town where your favorite ride at the amusement park is the self-driving bumper cars.

Melody Travers

This is producer Melody Travers. In this season of Crazy Town, Rob, Jason, and Asher are exploring the watershed moments in history that have led humanity into the cascading crises we face in the 21st century. Today’s episode is about World’s Fairs, the diminishing returns of technology, and bizarre notions of progress. The watershed moment took place in 1851. At the time, the estimated carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 285 parts per million, and the global human population was 1.24 billion.

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

The Status of U.S. Oil Production

After the price of oil collapsed in April of 2020, U.S. oil producers reduced drilling new wells and completing drilled wells, which contributed to a production declined to 11.28 mb/d on an annual basis in 2020. Beyond the pandemic problems endured by oil producers, there were depletion problems as well, particularly for tight oil production.  Tight oil comes from the fracking of shale plays.

Government data for oil field production may represent crude oil or crude oil + condensate. If graphs and tables in this report only include crude oil, that will be specified otherwise the data can be assumed to be crude oil + condensate. Typically, condensate represents less than 20% of the total crude oil + condensate production for a field or play.

U.S. crude oil + condensate production increased significantly between 2008 and 2019. That increase was due to tight oil and deep water Gulf of Mexico (GOM) production increases. Tight oil production increased approximately 7.3 mb/d from 2008 to 2019 and deep water GOM production increased approximately 0.67 mb/d. To put 7.3 mb/d in perspective, only 2 countries, other than the U.S., produce over 5.0 mb/d of oil (Saudi Araba and Russia).

In 2021, the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil increased significantly over 2020 and even beyond the value of 2019 (2019/2020/2021 average prices were $56.99/$39.16/$67.99/barrel) but the average annual U.S. crude oil + condensate production rate was only 11.19 mb/d, down 1.10 mb/d relative to 2019. National Public Radio (NPR) news programs put an interesting spin on the low U.S. oil production rate for 2021 even though the price of oil was significantly higher than in 2020 and even 2019.

The spin from NPR is that the U.S. oil industry is showing great discipline in holding production down to prop prices up. The implication in the spin is that the U.S. oil industry could crank production up to whatever level they desire if that was their goal. But their goal is actually to maintain higher oil prices.

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

The Failure of Global Elites

In the 1970s, global political and corporate elites had all the information they needed to put the world on a path toward long-term stability. Systems science was sufficiently advanced that a team of its practitioners organized a scenario study to see how trends in industrial production, population, food, pollution, and resource usage might interact over the next few decades; the study showed that continued growth in population and industrial production would prove unsustainable. Political scientists were beginning to sort demographic, economic, and historical social data for clues to understanding why societies sometimes descend into internal violence; data seemed to show that there was a rough correlation between rising economic inequality and declining social stability. Also, the science of ecology was revealing that forest, ocean, desert, freshwater, and soil ecosystems are inherently complex and resilient, but that they are subject to catastrophic tipping points when subjected to high enough levels of pollution or loss of habitable space. It was clear what should be done in order to put society on a sound footing: discourage population growth, cap the scale of industrial production, reduce economic inequality, clean up past pollution, reduce current and future pollution, and leave plenty of space for nature to regenerate.

Elites didn’t do those things. Initially, during the Nixon and Carter years, US politicians enacted some thoughtful, far-reaching policies. Then, increasingly, and regardless of the party in power, they simply found excuses to stop pressing ahead or to backtrack. They set their pet economists to work writing books and reports insisting that growth is always good; that economic inequality is excusable because eventually the wealth of the few will surely “trickle down” as benefits to the many; and that, in President Ronald Reagan’s feel-good but tragically misleading words, “There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder.”

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

After the Ukraine Invasion: Sobering New Global Energy-Economic-Political Terrain

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s response, are ushering the world into a new energy, economic, and political era. In broad outline, this new era will have less-globally-integrated energy markets, and less-secure supplies of fossil fuels. Since energy is the irreducible basis of all economic activity, this translates to a precarious global economy and a likely reordering of national alliances. We are, in short, living through a moment that may be as politically and economically transformative as the World Wars of the 20th century, though with little likelihood of an outcome anywhere near as desirable as the boom decades of the 1920s or 1950s.


We begin with energy, since all else flows from it. The following would seem to be a small news item in comparison with other events and risks detailed further below, but it’s emblematic of the new era we’re entering.

Major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP, have announced that they will cease collaborating with the Russian petroleum industry, which includes state-owned energy giants Lukoil and Gazprom. This will likely have implications more far-reaching and long-lasting than President Biden’s ban on imports of Russian oil and gas to the US. Russian oil and gas resources and production are enormous (the country supplies over a tenth of the world’s oil and 7 percent of the world’s gas), but many of the country’s oil and gas fields were initially developed decades ago and are no longer able to maintain former rates of flow. In 2021, the Russian Energy Ministry forecast that the nation was at peak petroleum production levels and would probably never exceed pre-Covid rates of output…

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

 Power: Introduction

This is an excerpt from Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (2021) by Richard Heinberg; posted with permission from New Society PublishersRead more in this series.

One might think that everything that could possibly be written on the subject of power already has been. There are thousands of tomes that discuss subjects related to power in one or another of its many manifestations, and hundreds with the word power in their titles. But no book that I’m aware of has systematically examined the sundry forms of power, and investigated how they are related, how they arose, and what they mean for us today.

When I started the research that would culminate in this book, I wasn’t compelled by a burning interest in power per se; rather, I was driven to better understand the problems that imbalances and abuses of power have caused. I was determined to find answers to three survival-level questions:

  1. How has Homo sapiens, just one species out of millions, become so powerful as to bring the planet to the brink of climate chaos and a mass extinction event?
  1. Why have we developed so many ways of oppressing and exploiting one another?
  1. Is it possible to change our relationship with power so as to avert ecological catastrophe, while also dramatically reducing social inequality and the likelihood of political-economic collapse?

In their essence, these questions had dogged me my entire adult life, though it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to distil them down to these few words. As I pondered these questions, it became increasingly clear that reliable answers required a clearer understanding of power in and of itself, since it’s the thread tying together our critical human problems and their potential solutions.

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

The deep divide between the American people and mainstream politics and media

A dangerous gulf exists between Americans’ concerns about their lives, their country and their future, and the priorities, proclivities and pre-occupations of the country’s mainstream politics and media. Other liberal democracies should heed the lessons.

In 2013 I collaborated in a survey that investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Across the four countries, over a half (54%) of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and almost three-quarters (73%) rated the risk at 30% or greater. A quarter (24%) rated the risk of ‘humans being wiped out’ in this time at 50% or greater.

The US stood out from the other three countries in several respects. It had the highest percentage (30%) who thought humans might be wiped out (19-24% in the other countries). It had a much higher level of agreement with fundamentalist responses to global threats, with 47% agreeing or strongly agreeing that ‘we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world’, and 46% that ‘we need to return to traditional religious teachings and values to solve global problems and challenges’. (The results presumably reflect the strength of religion in the US, especially ‘end time’ thinking among Christian fundamentalists.) In the other three countries only 30-33% agreed with these two statements.

The survey also included questions about how concerned people were about a range of personal and societal issues. The US stood out here too, with higher levels of concern about many societal issues, especially political and economic. Two thirds (65%) were moderately or seriously concerned about ‘the state of politics in my country’, compared to 42-53% for the other three countries; 64% were concerned about ‘corruption of politicians/officials’, compared to 39-47% in the other countries.

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

The Ideology of Human Supremacy

The somber truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world characterized primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. Underlying this devastation is the ideology of human supremacy—claiming innate superiority over nonhuman forms of life. But is human supremacy innate to humanity, or rather something specific pertaining to our dominant culture?

Excerpted from The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe (published in June in the UK, and available July 13 in the US)

Shifting baseline syndrome

The nonhuman creatures with whom we share the Earth are being systematically annihilated by the Great Acceleration, as they lose their habitat, get hunted down, or poisoned by our pollution. There has been a 68 percent decline in vertebrate populations worldwide since 1970, with freshwater species such as amphibians registering a jaw-dropping 84 percent loss. Insects have been faring just as badly, with reports of “insectageddon” from some areas that have seen populations crashing toward extinction levels—such as the Monarch butterflies that migrate annually from Mexico to the United States, and have declined by 98 percent over the past thirty years.

There have been five mass extinctions of life in Earth’s history, caused by cataclysms such as volcanic eruptions or meteorite impact. Scientists warn that human activity is now causing species to go extinct at a thousand times the normal background rate, and that if we continue at this rate for a few more decades, we will have triggered the Sixth Extinction. Leading experts in the field, such as biologist E. O. Wilson, predict that half of the world’s estimated eight million species will be extinct or at the brink of extinction by the end of this century unless humanity changes its ways.

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

 “Don’t Look Up” (part 1) – climate movie is kryptonite to the super villains

You know a satirical movie has hit its target when the mainstream reviewers call it “shrill” and “overblown.

That’s what’s happened to the brash comedy “Don’t Look Up” which was released on Netflix the day before Christmas. Most of the mainstream reviewers panned it.  Audiences disagreed – the movie promptly jumped to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list in 89 countries.

As one site said, “general audiences don’t give a rat’s ass about what the critics think.”

Like the earlier political  comedies “Network” and “Dr. Strangelove,” the movie is a cry of frustration. We know bad things are in store. We know we’re being lied to by politicians, the media, the sociopathic billionaires.

But what can we do?  We write earnest articles, we protest, we try to understand different points of view.

For years we do this, and the machine rolls on. Sometimes we just need to rear back and laugh at all the jackassery.

Peter Kalmus tweets: 

As a climate scientist, I live in #DontLookUp every fucking day

I felt seen

… it’s satire but it’s also damn accurate … we need more climate storytelling like this

What’s ironic is that the movie doesn’t mention climate at all. Instead a comet is discovered hurtling towards earth. It’s a planet killer which will send tidal waves a mile high in all directions.

You’d think that the imminent catastrophe would set off screaming headlines and a lightning response from world governments.

If you think that, silly you!  You haven’t been paying attention to our dysfunctional response to:

  • Climate change
  • Covid
  • Obscene wealth vs growing desperation
  • Species extinction
  • Resource depletion

The movie shows us a familiar cast of characters. Some struggle heroically to get the word out. Others plot how to squeeze the crisis to their personal advantage.

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

The climate response cliff

Climate change is only one symptom of a broader ecological crisis; the rapid loss of wild life is equally critical. Most species other than humans and our livestock, (and pets and pests) have had horrifying drops in population within the last 70 years or so, even if they are not yet threatened with extinction. We and our livestock are now 96% of the mass of land vertebrates, leaving all wild creatures together to comprise a mere 4%. At this rate within another generation there may be virtually nothing left but us and our coterie—and we would not survive that, as we depend on a network of life more complex than we can imagine. We’re also seeing the oceans acidifying, filling with plastic and toxins, and warming; topsoil depleted, rivers and aquifers running dry; and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and power plants leaving sites potentially dangerous for thousands or even millions of years. Various toxins are infiltrating our water, our food and our bodies.

All these threats are related—there are simply too many humans, and the richest segment are consuming and wasting too much per capita. Solutions to climate change will generally solve the other environmental problems as well. Real solutions that is, not the magic tricks of entrenched industrial interests, the dependence on technical breakthroughs unlikely to happen…the greenwashing. Real solutions involve drastic change in the lifestyles of we who live in the “developed” nations.

How drastic? That’s the crux of this essay. We’re caught in an energy trap, the consequences of which keep building. If we had taken sensible and responsible steps when the first signs of depletion and overshoot became apparent around 1980, we could probably have transitioned in the way many proponents of a Green New Deal imagine…

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

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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