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21 Years Ago: The end of the Bombing of Serbia. And the Start of the Decline of the Western Empire

21 Years Ago: The end of the Bombing of Serbia. And the Start of the Decline of the Western Empire

Nato Bombing of the city of Novi Sad, Serbia, 1999 (image from Wikipedia)

21 years ago, on June 10, 1999, the NATO campaign against Serbia ended after 78 days of bombing. We still don’t know exactly the number of victims, civilian and military, nor the amount of damage and it would be difficult to say who actually “won” the bloody mess. But the bombing of Serbia was a turning point for many reasons.

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the “cold war” and gave rise to expectations of a “peace dividend” once the old enemy of the West had folded out. Needless to say, that never happened. It appeared clear with the Serbian campaign that saw the whole Western world allied against a single state of less than 8 million inhabited.

There was nothing special in the Western Empire taking an aggressive posture after the fall of the rival Soviet Empire. It is the way empires work: they are military organizations dedicated to shifting economic resources from the periphery to the center. So, empires last as long as the cost of their huge military apparatus can be paid for by the resources they can control. Since resources are never infinite, they tend to be overexploited and empires suffer of a classic economic problem: diminishing returns. That’s the reason for the cycles of growth and collapse of empires in history.

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Increased Violence Reflects an Energy Problem

Increased Violence Reflects an Energy Problem

Why are we seeing so much violence recently? One explanation is that people are sympathizing with those in the Minneapolis area who are upset at the death of George Floyd. They believe that a white cop used excessive force in subduing Floyd, leading to his death.

I believe that there is a much deeper story involved. As I wrote in my recent post, Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicamentthe problem we are facing is too many people relative to resources, particularly energy resources. This leads to a condition sometimes referred to as “overshoot and collapse.” The economy grows for a while, may stabilize for a time, and then heads in a downward direction, essentially because energy consumption per capita falls too low.

Strangely enough, this energy crisis looks like a crisis of affordability. The young and the poor, especially, cannot afford to buy goods and services that they need, such as a home in which to raise their children and a vehicle to drive. Trying to do so leaves them with excessive debt. If the affordability problem changes for the worse, the young and the poor are likely to protest. In fact, these protests may become violent. 

The pandemic tends to make the affordability problem worse for minorities and young people because they are disproportionately affected by job losses associated with lockdowns. In many cases, the poor catch COVID-19 more frequently because they live and/or work in crowded conditions where the disease spreads easily. In the US, blacks seem to be especially hard hit, both by COVID-19 and through the loss of jobs. These issues, plus the availability of guns, makes the situation particularly explosive in the US.

Let me explain these issues further.

[1] Energy is required for all aspects of the economy.

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Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicament

Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicament

The world’s number one problem today is that the world’s population is too large for its resource base. Some people have called this situation overshoot. The world economy is ripe for a major change, such as the current pandemic, to bring the situation into balance. The change doesn’t necessarily come from the coronavirus itself. Instead, it is likely to come from a whole chain reaction that has been started by the coronavirus and the response of governments around the world to the coronavirus.

Let me explain more about what is happening.

[1] The world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as described in the book with a similar title.

One way of seeing the predicament we are in is the modeling of resource consumption and population growth described in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows et al. Its base scenario seems to suggest that the world will reach limits about now. Chart 1 shows the base forecast from that book, together with a line I added giving my impression of where the economy really was in 2019, relative to resource availability.

Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” with dotted line added corresponding to where the world economy seems to be have been in 2019.

In 2019, the world economy seemed to be very close to starting a downhill trajectory. Now, it appears to me that we have reached the turning point and are on our way down. The pandemic is the catalyst for this change to a downward trend. It certainly is not the whole cause of the change. If the underlying dynamics had not been in place, the impact of the virus would likely have been much less.

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Welcome to the Era of Intensifying Chaos and New Weapons of Conflict

Welcome to the Era of Intensifying Chaos and New Weapons of Conflict

Geopolitics has moved from a slow-moving, relatively predictable chess match to rapidly evolving 3-D chess in which the rules keep changing in unpredictable ways.

A declining standard of living in the developed world, declining growth for the developed world and geopolitical jockeying for control of resources make for a highly combustible mix awaiting a spark: welcome to the era of intensifying chaos and the rapid advance of new weapons of conflict as ruling elites attempt to stamp out dissent and global powers pursue supremacy by whatever means are available.

Gordon Long and I discuss these dynamics in a new video The New Weapons of Conflict (28:30) that explores the drivers of increasing global chaos and a permanent state of intensifying conflict in both domestic (internal) and global (external) affairs.

Domestic conflict is erupting and intensifying across the globe: political polarization and populism, driven by soaring wealth/income inequality and the decay of the social contract and the erosion of standards of living, and social disunity and disorder as cooperation has failed to fix what’s broken.

Geopolitical conflicts are now expanding across a vast spectrum from endless wars in contested regions to cyber-meddling in other nation’s domestic affairs, cyber-warfare via theft of intellectual property and targeting essential digital infrastructure, economic sanctions and currency-based warfare, along with a wide array of disruptive military technologies, including “first strike”-enabling hypersonic weaponry, anti-missile technologies and space-based weaponry.

The relative stability of the Cold War has given way to a multi-polar world in which nations are competing with a host of other nations, including erstwhile allies and economic/trade rivals. Geopolitics has moved from a slow-moving, relatively predictable chess match to rapidly evolving 3-D chess in which the rules keep changing in unpredictable ways.

There’s much more in the program; click on either graphic to go to the video:

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Renewables Are Dead

Renewables Are Dead

Gustave Courbet The man made mad by fear 1844

If I’ve said once that those among us who tout renewable energy should pay more attention to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, I must have said it a hundred times. But I hardly ever get the impression that people understand why. And it seems so obvious. A quote I often use from Herman Daly and Ken Townsend, when I talk about energy, really says it all:

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

Using energy produces waste. Using more energy produces more waste. It doesn’t matter -much- what kind of energy is used, or what kind of waste is produced. The energy WE use produces waste, in a medium of which WE cannot survive. The only way to escape this is to use less energy. And because we have used such an enormous amount of energy the past 100 years, we must use a whole lot less in the next 100.

We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.

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Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Preface.  I can’t believe I read this book, it is just a long litany of the  gigantic amounts of materials we exploit, with no analysis, implications, or the meaning of what impact this will have on the planet.

I certainly don’t expect anyone to read even this shortened version of his book, but it might be worthwhile to skim for an idea of how much material we’re consuming.

As I point out in my review of the United Nations 2016 report Global material flows and resources productivity” here, in order to accommodate an additional 2 billion people in 2050, material consumption will need to nearly triple to 180 billion tonnes of materials, almost three times today’s amount. If 180 billion tonnes grows in the future at a 5% compound rate, in 497 years the entire earth will be consumed, all 5.972 x 1021 tonnes of it, and we’ll be floating in outer space.

After reading this book, it’s hard to believe there’s anything left to exploit, though here it is 5 years later and the earth is still being pillaged.  But from Smil’s gargantuan numbers and the exponential exploitation of just about everything, clearly this will end badly.  The issue of peak sand has been in the news more frequently lately, which is essential for civilization to make concrete, computer chips, solar PV, and fracking.

Smil covers a wide range of materials that are essential to civilization that you may not have thought much about, and all the myriad uses of silicon, plastics, nitrogen, aluminum, steel, hydrogen, ammonia, cement, and more.  All of them made possible by oil.  All of them essential for civilization, so if one fails….(Liebig’s law of the minimum).

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Individual Preparations Have National Implications

Individual Preparations Have National Implications

Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Photo Source Gunvor Røkke | CC BY 2.0

“As soon as you are a scientist … you take a political side [because] you must necessarily choose to ask only certain questions. Many scientists … produce risk assessment for forest management [which] asks ‘how much can we cut, graze, salvage, spray, develop … and do to Earth’s ecosystems without making them buckle.”

–Mary O’Brien, 1994. Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides. BioScience 43(10): 706-708

“The larger and more immediate are prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation; Political leaders … base their policies upon a misguided view of the dynamics of resource exploitation; Distrust claims of sustainability; Scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressures.”

–Donald Ludwig, et al., 1993. Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History. Science 260: 17/36.

Back in the late 1980s, the good people of Minnesota, alarmed by heavy logging, asked that an impact analysis be done. Jaakko Poyry, an international forestry consulting firm, was hired to produce a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), and in 1992, the draft of the million dollar analysis was released for public scrutiny. In essence, it read “There will be ecological damage, we’re not sure how much, but industry rules.”

At even the lowest level investigated [the level that had caused public concern], there were projected declines in species of rare trees; declines of tree species within their ranges; unavoidable destruction of rare plant communities; loss of genetic diversity in many plants, including trees. The authors wrote “The lack of data … make it difficult to interpret impacts with any degree of certainly”; “Projections assume no natural disturbance” [Really!]; “Implicit assumptions [are] unrealistic”; “Loss of genetically unique ecotypes is irreversible.”; “Knowledge [is] not sufficient for detailed analysis of effects of fragmentation on biodiversity.”

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Murdered for Sand

Murdered for Sand

The world is running out of sand, and people are dying as a result

“It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.“

Vince Beiser, author of “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization”

Think of a valuable resource. What images come into your mind’s eye? Maybe oil? Water? Perhaps you looked at a ring on your finger and thought of gold. All of these are valuable resources, it’s true.

Now, what if I told you sand was also an incredibly rare and precious resource? It may sound absurd, especially if you’ve been anywhere near a beach or desert lately, but the world is running out of sand. A crucial material in everything from cellphones to high-rises, the resource is being used up faster than it can replenish itself, sparking environmental concerns and community conflicts. Some are even willing to kill for it.

You may not realize it, but nearly everything around you is built with sand. The concrete your apartment, condo, or house is made out of was mixed with sand. The glass windows you look through to see what the weather looks like — those were made with sand as well. The cellphone or computer you’re reading this on — the silicon chips in them are made with sand. The road you travel on to work — sand as well. If you live in any kind of urban setting, it is constructed with sand.

Credit: Sand Stories

Sand Isn’t as Plentiful as You Think

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Some Thoughts On Climate Change

Some Thoughts On Climate Change

A new IPCC report written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies says we’re looking at climate catastrophe as early as 2040 unless changes are made worldwide on a scale and speed which has no historic precedent. $54 trillion worth of damage is predicted to result from the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures we’re expected to be facing at that time if drastic changes are not made.

To be clear, when climate scientists talk about a 1.5 degree hike in global average temperatures, they are not saying that days will tend to be around 1.5 degrees warmer, which doesn’t sound bad at all. What they are saying is that there will be drastic heat spikes which elevate the overall average by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) around the globe. This means moving into a world which sees sea levels rising and destroying coastal and island civilizations, it means mass famine due to destruction of crops from heat spikes in summer months, freezes in the winter and other extreme weather events, it means potential worldwide violence and predation as livable regions and resources become scarce on a rapidly changing planet.

This is coming off the back of the Trump administration’s seamless shift from claiming climate change is a Chinese hoax to saying it’s very real and very bad but there’s nothing that can be done about it. In a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that a temporary freeze in fuel efficiency requirements for cars won’t be that big of a deal in terms of environmental impact because we’re headed toward a four degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures by the end of the century and avoiding that “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

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Paying the True Costs of Living

Paying the True Costs of Living

We’re in trouble. We as in the people of the Earth, which is all the people there are, notwithstanding theories of extraterrestrials munching their popcorn equivalents while watching us flail about. Our planet is only so big and has only so much in the way of natural resources to offer us. Think of The Giving Tree. As we cruise to a 7.7 Billion human population, the rest of the Earth and its species aren’t doing so hot (anthropological climate change aside), with a few notable exceptions such as starlings, cockroaches, and rats. This represents one of the unquantified costs of living, the impact of our increasing population and activities on the global ecosystem. Not to mention the ever decreasing EROEI (energy return on energy invested) that is signalling the end of capitalism as we know it. Gulp!

For example, flying insect biomass has been found to have decreased by over 75% in Germany over the past 27 years. Insects are one of the foundations of our ecological house, with some 10 quintillion (1 with 19 zeroes after it) bugs in existence on Earth at any given time. Well, maybe 2.5 quintillion these days. Regardless, the fate of these lowly arthropods is an indicator of the fate of higher organism and our fate as well. Other animals eat these bugs and are themselves eaten, the whole circle of life thing. Such as in Britain where farmland birds have declined by 50% since 1970. The world has been made aware of hive collapse syndrome in our hard working bees for hire which pollinate so many of our food crops. But what about all those wild bugs that pollinate for free? Can we lose 75% of them and maintain a functioning ecosystem? 85%? 95%?

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Did the Club of Rome Ever Disavow “The Limits to Growth”? A Story of Ordinary Disinformation

Did the Club of Rome Ever Disavow “The Limits to Growth”? A Story of Ordinary Disinformation

Aurelio Peccei in 1969, when he was appointed the first president of the Club of Rome

The Club of Rome is inextricably linked to the legendary report that it commissioned to a group of MIT researchers in 1972, “The Limits to Growth.” Today, nearly 50 years later, we still have to come to terms with the vision brought by the report, a vision that contradicts the core of some of humankind’s most cherished beliefs. The report tells us that we cannot keep growing forever and that we have to stop considering everything we see around us as ours by divine right. 

Not surprisingly, the report generated strong feelings and, with them, there came plenty of disinformation and legends. Some cast the Club of Rome in the role of a secret organization with dark and dire purposes, others aimed at the Limits report, claiming that it was “wrong” or, worse, purposefully designed to deceive the public. I wrote an entire book on this subject (The Limits to Growth Revisited) — in short, most of these stories are false but some contain grains of truth and all of them tell us something about how we humans don’t just deny bad news, we tend to demonize the bearers.

So, there is a peculiar legend stating that the leaders of the Club of Rome disavowed their brainchild, The Limits to Growth and, in doing so, they admitted that it had been wrong, or an attempt to mislead the public. It is an old legend but, as all legends, it is surprisingly persistent and you can still see it mentioned in recent times (for instance, here and here) as if it were the obvious truth. It is not: it is a good example of how disinformation works.
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‘The Expanse’ is a story about systemic ruin

‘The Expanse’ is a story about systemic ruin

“The Expanse” is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today’s so-called less developed countries).

But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of “The Expanse” previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.

Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.

Those who’ve seen the series know that the systemic risk results from the discovery of what comes to be known as the “proto-molecule,” an alien life form first encountered on one of Saturn’s moons. The proto-molecule has the miraculous power to transform anything living that it touches, remaking and reorganizing it from the ground up. (Later it learns to transform inanimate matter as well.)

The life form is initially controlled by a large conglomerate which immediately sees the proto-molecule’s potential as a weapon, one that could be sold to the highest bidder in the solar system. (The parallels to current-day genetic engineering and bioweapons seem obvious.)

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Equality: A Beneficial Alternative to Collapse

Equality: A Beneficial Alternative to Collapse

What future shall we choose? Equality or inequality? Deep democracy or more limited forms? Sustainability and wise stewardship of resources, or exploitation for profit? You have a good idea of where current systems are taking us. A viable alternative path exists, and that path is science based.

InMarch 2018, Bloomberg news reported that income inequality in the United States had hit a disturbing new high. Not unlike atmospheric carbon dioxide, income and wealth inequality in the United States have been rising since at least the 1980s, under Democratic and Republican presidents, and Democratic and Republican Congresses. The Occupy Wall Street movement crystallized public attention on inequality in 2011 with its slogan “We are the 99 percent.” In 2014 the French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a masterful book on the subject that became a global best seller. His take-home message? Capitalism itself produces severe income inequality.

Yet with all the written words and public discourse on inequality, very little attention has been paid to its complement, income and wealth equality (or near-equality, essential equality). That discussion is long overdue.

Obviously, severe inequality of income and wealth benefits those at the top. But what about everyone else? Pick any dividing line, say the 70th, 80th, 90th, or even 99th percentile of family income or wealth. It’s difficult to argue that inequality helps those below the line as much as those above it. If it benefits everyone evenly, there would be little reason to prefer the 60th over the 40th percentile, for example, or the 90th over the 60th.

But we do have preferences. We toil and sweat, even sometimes step on each other’s heads, in hopes of climbing one rung higher. Higher is almost always preferred to lower, all else being equal. That’s because wealth has real benefits.

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The next financial crash is imminent, and China’s resource crisis could be the trigger

The next financial crash is imminent, and China’s resource crisis could be the trigger

Over three decades, the value of energy China extracts from its domestic oil, gas and coal supplies has plummeted by half

Source: naturepost

China’s economic slowdown could be a key trigger of the coming global financial crisis, but one of its core drivers — China’s dwindling supplies of cheap domestic energy — is little understood by mainstream economists.


All eyes are on China as the world braces itself for what a growing number of financial analysts warn could be another global economic recession.

In a BBC interview to mark the 10th anniversary of the global financial crisis, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney described China as “one of the bigger risks” to global financial stability.

The Chinese “financial sector has developed very rapidly, and it has many of the same assumptions that were made in the run-up to the last financial crisis,” he warned:

“Could something like this happen again?… Could there be a trigger for a crisis — if we’re complacent, of course it could.”

Since 2007, China’s debts have quadrupled. According to the IMF, its total debt is now about 234 percent of gross GDP, which could rise to 300 percent by 2022. British financial journalist Harvey Jones catalogues a range of observations from several economists essentially warning that official data might not reflect how bad China’s economy is actually decelerating.

The great hope is that all this is merely a temporary blip as China transitions from a focus on manufacturing and exports toward domestic consumption and services.

Meanwhile, China’s annual rate of growth continues to decline. The British Foreign Office (FCO) has been monitoring China’s economic woes closely, and in a recent spate of monthly briefings this year has charted what appears to be its inevitable decline.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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