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Today’s Contemplation: CLXVIII–Avoiding ‘Collapse’ Awareness

Today’s Contemplation: CLXVIII

Pompeii, Italy (1984). Photo by author.

Avoiding ‘Collapse’ Awareness

The following is my comment on Alan Urban’s most recent post (see here) discussing his thoughts on why more people are not ‘collapse aware’.

The reasons you cite for most not being ‘collapse aware’ are part and parcel of a variety of explanations for this state of affairs. In my contemplations on the situation I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of this is due to human psychology and the mechanisms that help us to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts.

First, we highly-cognitive apes deplore uncertainty and the idea of ‘collapse’ is all about an uncertain future and one in which we have little to no control over events. In response, we tend to grab a hold of stories that portray certainty, especially if they paint a more positive future (thanks optimism bias) — regardless of evidence to the contrary (see my posts that discuss this here and here).

In addition, we humans tend to defer to authority, get caught up in groupthink, strive to reduce our cognitive dissonance, and seek to justify our perceptions of the world (see my series of posts on these, beginning here). These aspects of human cognition make us most susceptible to certain forms of narrative management (aka propaganda), particularly stories that portray a comforting and certain future.

Then there’s what seems our complete and utter blindness to the underpinnings of our complex societies — energy — and the limits of our ability to sustain the quantities required to maintain our living standards (see my post series beginning here on this aspect). That we have been drawing down our primary source — hydrocarbons — at ever-increasing rates as we encounter the headwinds due to diminishing returns is increasingly rationalised away as simply a bump in the road since our ingenuity and technological prowess can address any impediments to our wishes/wants — physics be damned.

Add to the above the idea that perhaps the most important cognitive evolutionary shift for our species may have been where we became aware of our own mortality and then developed ways to deny this reality (see Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s thesis here). Denying reality has become an entrenched means of reducing our anxiety, and it gets used often; and perhaps increasingly as the world goes sideways and provokes greater instances of uncertainty.

Combine the above with the hierarchical aspects of our social species and complex societies, and our story-telling means of communicating, and we have the perfect mix for why we rationalise away evidence for the impending ‘collapse’ of our current living arrangements and all the conveniences and comforts they afford us — especially in the so-called ‘advanced’ economies that have depended upon the lion’s share of what has been to this point in our history a growing supply of surplus energy.

We ignore the hard biogeophysical limits, we rationalise away the ecological systems destruction wrought by our demands, and we weave comforting narratives to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts. We live in a world of what appears widely-held false beliefs where challenging them gets you ignored and/or ostracised by those clinging to mainstream notions. It’s often better to raise marginally-related topics and concerns to nudge others along a path of ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ as you suggest rather than confront the hard reality of limits and what overshooting them means to our future…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIV–Energy-Averaging Systems and Complexity: A Recipe For Collapse

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIV

November 28, 2021

Athens, Greece (1984) Photo by author

Energy-Averaging Systems and Complexity: A Recipe For Collapse

Supply chain disruptions and the product shortages that result have become a growing concern over the past couple of years and the reasons for these are as varied as the people providing the ‘analysis’. Production delays. Covid-19 pandemic. Pent-up consumer demand. Central bank monetary policy. Government economic stimulus. Consumer hoarding. Supply versus demand basics. Labour woes. Vaccination mandates. Union strikes. The number and variety of competing narratives is almost endless.

I have been once again reminded of the vagaries of our supply chains, the disruptions that can result, and our increasing dependence upon them with the unprecedented torrential rain and flood damage across many parts of British Columbia, Canada; and, of course, similar disruptions have occurred across the planet.

Instead of a recognition that perhaps a rethinking is needed of the complexities of our current systems and the dependencies that result from them, particularly in light of this increasingly problematic supply situation, we have politicians (and many in the media) doubling-down on the very systems that have helped to put us in the various predicaments we are encountering.

Our growing reliance on intensive-energy and other resource systems is not viewed as any type of dependency that places us in the crosshairs of ecological overshoot and unforeseen circumstances, but as a supply and demand conundrum that can be best addressed via our ingenuity and technology. Once again the primacy of a political and/or economic worldview, as opposed to an ecological one, shines through in our interpretation of world events; and of course the subsequent ‘solutions’ proposed.

Our dependence upon complex and thus fragile long-distance supply chains (over which we may have little control whatsoever) is not perceived as a consequence of resource constraints manifesting themselves on a finite planet with a growing population and concomitant resource requirements but as a result of ‘organisational’ weaknesses that can be overcome with the right political and/or economic ‘solutions’. Greater centralisation. More money ‘printing’. Increased taxes. Significant investment in ‘green’ energy. Massive wealth ‘redistribution’. Expansive infrastructure construction. Higher wages. Rationing. Forced vaccinations. The proposed ‘solutions’ are almost endless in nature and scope.

All of these ‘solutions’ have one thing in common: they attempt to ‘tweak’ our current economic/political systems. They fail to recognise that perhaps the weakness or ‘problem’ is with the system itself. A system that has built-in constraints that pre/history, and population biology, would suggest result in eventual failure.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter discusses the benefits and vulnerabilities of ‘energy averaging systems’ (i.e., trade) that contributed to the collapse of the Chacoan society in his seminal text The Collapse of Complex Societies.

He argued that the energy averaging system employed early on took advantage of the Chacoan Basin’s diversity, distributing environmental vagaries of food production in a mutually-supportive network that increased subsistence security and accommodated population growth. At the beginning, this system was improved by adding more participants and increasing diversity but as time passed duplication of resource bases increased and less productive areas were added causing the buffering effect to decline.

This fits entirely with Tainter’s basic thesis that as problem-solving organisations, complex societies gravitate towards the easiest-to-implement and most beneficial ‘solutions’ to begin with. As time passes, the ‘solutions’ become more costly to society in terms of ‘investments’ (e.g., time, energy, resources, etc.) and the beneficial returns accrued diminish. This is the law of marginal utility, or diminishing returns, in action.

As return on investment dropped for those in the Chacoan Basin that were involved in the agricultural trade system, communities began to withdraw their participation in it. The collapse of the Chacoan society was not due primarily to environmental deterioration (although that did influence behaviour) but because the population choose to disengage when the challenge of another drought raised the costs of participation to a level that was more than the benefits of remaining. In other words, the benefits amassed by participation in the system declined over time and environmental inconsistencies finally pushed regions to remove themselves from a system that no longer provided them security of supplies; participants either moved out of the area or relocalised their economies. The return to a more simplified and local dependence emerged as supply chains could no longer provide security.

Having just completed rereading William Catton Jr.’s Overshoot, I can’t help but take a slightly different perspective than the mainstream ones that are being offered through our various media; what Catton terms an ecological perspective. And one that is influenced by Tainter’s thesis: our supply chain disruptions are increasingly coming under strain from our being in overshoot and encountering diminishing returns on our investments in them (and this is particularly true for one of the most fundamental resources that underpin our global industrial societies: fossil fuels).

What should we do? It’s one of the things I’ve stressed for some years in my local community (not that it seems to be having much impact, if any): we need to use what dwindling resources remain to relocalise as much as possible but particularly food production, procurement of potable water, and supplies of shelter needs for the regional climate so that supply disruptions do not result in a massive ‘collapse’ (an additional priority should also be to ‘decommission’ some of our more ‘dangerous’ creations such as nuclear power plants and biosafety labs).

Pre/history shows that relocalisation is going to happen eventually anyways, and in order to avert a sudden loss of important supplies that would have devastating consequences (especially food, water, and shelter), we should prepare ourselves now while we have the opportunity and resources to do so.

Instead, what I’ve observed is a doubling-down as it were of the processes that have created our predicament: pursuit of perpetual growth on a finite planet, using political/economic mechanisms along with hopes of future technologies to rationalise/justify this approach. While such a path may help to reduce the stress of growing cognitive dissonance, it does nothing to help mitigate the coming ‘storms’ that will increasingly disrupt supply chains.

The inability of our ‘leaders’ to view the world through anything but a political/economic paradigm and its built-in short-term focus has blinded them to the reality that we do not stand above and outside of nature or its biological principles and systems. We are as prone to overshoot and the consequences that come with it as any other species. And because of their blindness (and most people’s uncritical acceptance of their narratives) we are rushing towards a cliff that is directly ahead. In fact, perhaps we’ve already left solid ground but just haven’t realised it yet because, after all, denial is an extremely powerful drug.

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 XXXII–Greenwashing, Fiat Currency, and Narrative Management: More On Climate Change and Elite Confabs

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXII

November 6, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Greenwashing, Fiat Currency, and Narrative Management: More On Climate Change and Elite Confabs

Today’s missive was motivated by a former student’s (and eventual colleague) question regarding a Facebook Post I made regarding COP-26.

Here’s what I posted:

COP-26. Be aware…

These elite confabs are not about climate, except to leverage the fear factor over it to meet the primary concern of the ruling class: control/expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams. It’s additionally a marketing expo for ‘green’ energy products; a mechanism for helping to steer the mainstream narratives; and a justification for further enrichment of the elite via massive expansion of fake fiat currency.

It is not about saving the planet.

And here is the comment I am responding to:

The greenwashing of society is ridiculous. People continuing to buy useless things they don’t need that will not help the environment and now feeling good about draining their own pockets. The elite lining their pockets and masterminding it all. Curious, what do you mean by fake flat currency?

My response to Michelle:

Thanks for the question. It has motivated me to write a rather lengthy response that I have ‘published’ with my ongoing ‘series’ on Medium. You can find it below:

Basically, the currency we use is supposed to carry with it a number of ‘qualities’: use as a medium of exchange; a measure of ‘wealth’; and, a store of ‘value’. As with virtually everything the ruling class touches, our ‘fiat’ currency has become a tool of control and wealth extraction through its creation and distribution mechanisms (just another in a long line of examples that have lead me to believe that the primary motivation of our ruling class is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams; everything they do seems to serve this purpose in one way or another).

Our ‘money’ has always been problematic in the ability to be manipulated, but became even more exploitive in nature once removed from its tie to physical commodities, such as gold and silver, that served to constrain somewhat the level of abuse — thanks Richard Nixon and fellow politicians of the time. Since then, money (with the aid of the monetary policies of our central banks) has been able to be created from thin air in staggering amounts. This exponential growth in currency destroys it as a store of ‘value’ — the quality that most significantly impacts the ‘average’ user.

The term inflation actually refers to this growth in currency but has been twisted (as language often is by the-powers-that-be, think about the notion of ‘clean/green’ energy and the greenwashing that has and is occurring) to represent something ‘beneficial’ when it is for the ‘average’ person actually quite detrimental (classic Orwellian doublespeak). When the term inflation is now used it usually refers to the increase in the price of consumer products, and those running the fiat currency system market this price increase as beneficial to the economy and pursue it believing they can control it and its consequences (the belief that one can control/predict a complex system is perhaps one of humanity’s greatest shortcomings).

In reality, this currency expansion is primarily beneficial to the creators and distributors of money, and those first in line to receive this newly ‘minted’ money — usually governments and wealthy elite who can more or less avoid the impact of price inflation by getting access early, thus the lack of resistance by governments and large businesses to reign it in; to say little about the banking system that creates the currency and then charges interest on its product made from nothing. Once this flood of currency filters down to the ‘average’ person, its ‘value’ has decreased significantly because of consumer price inflation (what we witness as a loss of purchasing power — which of course is drastically underreported by the government institutions that ‘measure’ it; primarily because of the way they manipulate the statistics with the actual price increases people experience multiple times higher than the value reported and broadly regurgitated by the uncritical establishment media).

The issue is far more complex and convoluted than I could summarise in a few paragraphs, and I am sharing my ever-changing view based on relatively limited reading and experience. There are a myriad of books written about the subject.

And I haven’t even touched on the ‘narrative managers’ (academics, private economists, government bureaucrats, journalists, etc.) that steer the public perceptions of this gargantuan scam for that is what our monetary/financial systems have become (and thus our entire economic system): they have morphed into the largest Ponzi scheme ever created. In fact, we have entered a time where without constant growth (thus exponential in nature) the entire scheme collapses — the classic definition of a Ponzi scheme, one in which we are all embroiled.

For a long time, the growth needed to ‘fuel’ our economic system was provided by our exploitation of the planet and its relatively preserved and seemingly limitless resources. That changed, however, as we began encountering diminishing returns on our investments. For the past 50 years or so this growth has been predicated upon the expansion of debt/credit (i.e., fiat currency creation) and has, unfortunately, entered a very dangerous territory where debt repayments are exceeding people’s ability to even pay for their interest, let alone principal. To say little about the fact that debt/credit is in essence stealing from the future in the form of claims on future resources (especially energy) that are not only increasingly difficult to procure but in many cases don’t or won’t exist in the future because we live on a finite planet.

Our ‘prosperity/wealth/growth’, therefore, is in a sense all ‘fake’. A Potemkin village if you will. It appears solid and real on the surface but behind the façade is nothing but the ‘promises’ of our feckless ‘leaders’ — and we should, by now, know how much integrity these class of people have and how much of the ‘truth’ they spew. Zero, except perhaps some kernel of it that can be manipulated and leveraged to their advantage.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXI–Beware the Snake Oil Salesmen: Climate Change and Elite Confabs

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXI

November 2, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Beware the Snake Oil Salesmen: Climate Change and Elite Confabs

So, dozens of political leaders, their hundreds of staff, multitudes of corporate leaders, and who knows how many ‘celebrities’ have all gathered in Glasgow, Scotland for an elite confab (#26) to discuss the ‘Climate Crisis’. Heaven knows how many resources have been extracted and pollutants dispersed in this latest political theatre (mostly? all? at taxpayer expense). The irony is not lost on many, except perhaps much of the mainstream media that tends to simply regurgitate political media releases and share simplistic narratives for exceedingly complex issues — it is indeed difficult to get someone to understand something if their income depends on them not understanding it.

So, dozens of political leaders, their hundreds of staff, multitudes of corporate leaders, and who knows how many ‘celebrities’ have all gathered in Glasgow, Scotland for an elite confab (#26) to discuss the ‘Climate Crisis’. Heaven knows how many resources have been extracted and pollutants dispersed in this latest political theatre (mostly? all? at taxpayer expense). The irony is not lost on many, except perhaps much of the mainstream media that tends to simply regurgitate political media releases and share simplistic narratives for exceedingly complex issues — it is indeed difficult to get someone to understand something if their income depends on them not understanding it.

Needless to say I expect little of substance to result from this event. In fact, I am increasingly seeing this event as an expo for marketing of ‘green/clean’ energy products (and making sure most? all? countries pursue purchasing them) that do not address our fundamental predicament — ecological overshoot — of which greenhouse gases is but one negative consequence (and not even the worst). And, of course, all of this provides the justification to create trillions of more dollars out of thin air (the debt held by a variety of the ruling class) that will be funnelled towards specific industries (owned by others of the ruling class) while doing little to reduce actual consumption or ecologically-destructive extraction industries.

This is increasingly looking not like a problem that can be solved but a predicament that may at best be mitigated on the margins. One of the most significant dilemmas, however, appears to be the ‘solutions’ that are being bandied about also appear to be the ones that will simply make the situation worse: increasing technology and complexities in the form of ‘renewables’.

The evidence is accumulating quickly that ‘renewables’ (which aren’t really because they require lots of non-renewable, finite resources in perpetuity) are neither ‘green’, nor ‘clean’, nor ‘sustainable’. They require the fossil fuel platform at every level of their production, maintenance, and after-life disposal, and depend upon a variety of rare-earth minerals whose procurement wreak havoc on the environment. The entire ‘renewable’ narrative is appearing more and more like a sham meant primarily to market products and support business as usual than do anything about reducing our ecological destruction and carbon footprint (and keep in mind that our current debt/credit-based monetary/economic/financial systems are all predicated on growth in perpetuity — they will most certainly collapse without it).

If we are not discussing significant degrowth, however (and we’re not because there’s no money to be made from it and the primary motivation of the ruling class, who control the mainstream narratives, is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams), then it would seem we are just creating stories to sell more stuff and people tend to accept them readily because they reduce cognitive dissonance — we recognise we live on a finite planet and infinite growth is not possible (except through extreme magical, Cargo Cult-like thinking) but want to also believe that we can continue to live in our energy- and resource-intensive lifestyles uninterrupted and without significant sacrifice.

Basically, the snake oil salesmen of the world are, as they often (always?) do, leveraging our fear over a crisis (or crises) to enrich themselves mightily. We are being led to follow a path that actually exacerbates the predicament of overshoot rather than reduces the harm caused by us blowing past the biophysical limits imposed by a finite planet.

Sad on so many levels.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LI–Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Two — Deference to Authority

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LI

May 27, 2022

Monte Alban, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Two — Deference to Authority

This contemplation is the second part of a look at several psychological mechanisms at play in our thinking about ecological overshoot and the accompanying societal ‘collapse’ that will eventually result. You can find Part One here.

In Part One, I briefly summarised four psychological mechanisms I’ve been reflecting upon in the context of ecological overshoot and in particular the collapse of our global, industrialised complex societies that will (or, as some argue, has already begun to) accompany this overshoot.

One of the primary considerations in understanding how our cognitions and thus our beliefs and behaviours are going to be affected by the unfolding of the consequences of ecological overshoot and the concomitant ‘collapse’ of our societies is the anxiety/stress that such a future (and present) is going to have (is having) upon us; personally, on a familial level, and on the broader societal scale. Contemplating an unknowable future that is unlikely to provide many of the energetic conveniences most currently depend upon and/or that will challenge our complex systems to the breaking point because of extreme weather events[1] or supply chain disruptions/breakdowns (especially food, water, energy), etc. can be exceedingly anxiety-provoking.

Mix these (and many other) psychological mechanisms in with Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect — that postulates all animals have an innate motivation to avoid pain/seek pleasure[2] — and you have an animal whose sense-making abilities are leveraged by its mind to deny/ignore away evidence that challenges them and can cause painful, anxiety-provoking emotions (in fact, there appears to be neuroscientific support for this[3]). In response, we appear to employ all sorts of biases/rationalisations to support our belief systems (a ‘pleasurable’ sensation) regardless of disconfirming evidence (that can lead to painful/stressful emotions).

It’s long been recognised that complex societies[4] by their very nature become socially hierarchal in nature[5], with ‘power’ structures arising from the organisational requirements of living in large social groupings[6].

As archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out in The Collapse of Complex Societies[7]: where more complex political differentiation exists, permanent positions of authority/rank can exist in an ‘office’ that can be hereditary in nature; inequality becomes more pervasive; these groups tend to be larger and more densely populated; political organisation is larger, extending beyond local community; a political economy arises with rank having authority to direct labour and economic surpluses; and, with greater size comes a need for more social organisation that is less dependent upon kinship relations (ties that have historically constrained individual political ambitions).

Tainter goes on to point out that ‘States’ are characterized by their territorial organisation (i.e. membership determined by place of birth/residence). In addition, “a ruling authority monopolizes sovereignty and delegates all power”, with the ruling class being non-kinship-based professionals that hold a monopoly on force within the territory (e.g. taxes, laws, draft) and is validated by a state-wide ideology[8]. Maintaining territorial integrity becomes stressed and being more populated society becomes even more stratified and specialized, particularly with regard to occupation.

Further, complex states like their simpler societies must divert resources and activities to legitimizing authority in order for the political system to survive. While coercion can ensure some compliance, it is a more costly approach than moral validity. As a result states tend to focus on a symbolic and sacred ‘centre’ (necessarily independent of its various territorial parts), which is why they always have an official religion, linking leadership to the supernatural (which helps unify different groups/regions). When other avenues for retaining power arise, the need for such religious integration recedes — although not the sense of the sacred.

As social psychology has demonstrated, human deference/obedience to authority is a significant tendency. In a complex society that invariably develops hierarchical structures that facilitate organisation as it grows in size and complexity, this propensity can be — and pre/history shows it has been — leveraged by a society’s rulers to ensure efficiency but also to maintain compliance and control, regardless of its pursuit of ‘equality’ or ‘democratisation’[9].

I have the feeling that this deference to authority is perhaps one of the more problematic of human tendencies, especially as we glide down the Seneca Cliff of cheap resource availability (especially energy) and all the knock-on effects of this.

As Tainter further argues about complex societies, those at the top of human social hierarchies work hard to maintain their privileged position using coercion, moral validity, or a combination of the two. A ‘moral’ validation is developed by creating a narrative that the status/authority of the ruling elite is due to their directly descending from the gods, through to, more recently, it being based upon the will of the people.

There is likely no higher motive for the ruling class than to maintain their positions atop a complex society’s organisational structures. In fact, one of the beliefs that I have developed over the years and have argued is that the primary motivation of the ruling class is the control/expansion/maintenance of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and thus the power/prestige that they tend to seek[10].

In addition, as Lord Acton has been credited with observing: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely[11]. The research is still relatively young in this area and while most suggests power can but doesn’t always corrupt, there is still not definitive consensus upon the idea[12]. So once in power, it can be argued, all sorts of machinations are employed to keep and/or expand an individual’s/family’s/group’s hold on it. It is certainly not always in the best interests of the ruling elite, however, for the ruled to know about or believe such manipulations occur for they do require the consent of the governed, even in totalitarian regimes. Note that on the rare occasion when the curtain is drawn back to expose corruption/nepotism/criminal behaviour/etc., the incident is explained away or viewed as a one-off by a lone wolf or group (usually political opposition) and do not have the best interests of the people in mind as all the rest do (#sarc).

As a result of our tendency to trust/obey authorities, humans are susceptible to narrative control/propaganda. And one must consider that the ruling elite are well aware of this fact and leverage it to their advantage. Perhaps nowhere is this made more obvious than in the research and writings of the ‘father of propaganda’ and US government consultant, Edward Bernays, particularly within his seminal text Propaganda where he outlines the necessity of narrative control in complex societies:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” [13]

One can additionally look at the expenditures (hundreds of billions of US dollars) diverted to advertising by businesses[14] to support this argument. If marketing/narrative control was ineffective, neither businesses nor governments would spend so much of their time and wealth employing it in attempts at being ‘persuasive’. Suffice it to say, our ruling class is well aware of the psychological mechanisms at play in forming beliefs, and have been for some time.

It may be that humanity’s deference to authority is one of our most perilous psychological tendencies as we increasingly experience the negative consequences of ecological overshoot. It is because of this behaviour that we can be drawn into and blindly accept maladaptive strategies that are offered up by our ‘leaders’. As crises emerge, our ruling class will offer ‘solutions’ but one’s that do not do what they are marketed as doing but, in fact, quite often the exact opposite — such as the stories we are told about non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies and their ability to support not only our current complexities but continued growth in a clean and sustainable fashion[15].

As the energy/resource descent proceeds and possibly accelerates we might expect that those who ‘manage’ our narratives to expand their efforts to mask ‘collapse’[16], use it to highlight the evils of our ‘enemies’ so as to deflect anger from our own ruling class[17], and/or leverage crises to their advantage[18].

In addition, many if not most of the developments we have come to ‘celebrate’ as symbolic of our ingenuity (e.g., technology) and the language we use (e.g., progress, success) are mostly if not entirely energetically- and ecologically-blind. They tend to elevate one specific aspect of our existence (e.g., economic growth), ignore the negative consequences of their favoured narrative (e.g., biodiversity impacts are not relevant), and then encourage adaptations that align with this but are the exact opposite of what we likely need to be doing (e.g., degrowth). Pursuing such a maladaptive strategy, however, does benefit the ruling class who tends to own or be heavily invested in the industrial processes needed and/or the financial institutions required for growth to take place.

Given all the above, deference to authority can be viewed as an exceedingly problematic tendency that could well lead us into significantly more difficult times than we have experienced to date — in fact, likely speeding up the collapse that always accompanies a species overshooting its natural environmental carrying capacity. If our ‘leaders’ adopt and/or encourage maladaptation to our predicament and we mindlessly obey because that is what we do, we end up making our circumstances worse but end up cheering them on because to do otherwise leads to extremely anxiety-provoking emotions.

It can be argued that we don’t solve anything, for example, by pursuing non-renewable renewables (and increasing ecological destruction), we simply further reduce human carrying capacity. But in the thirst for expanding their revenue streams, our ‘authorities’ will market/cheerlead such consumer products as a panacea for perceived ‘problems’, relegating the negative consequences to the sphere of misinformation and/or ostracising/censoring those who raise them while raiding national ‘treasuries’, all the while ensuring the masses hear the message that what they are doing is great for ‘the people’ and their non-negotiable way of life[19].

As we continue to descend our energy/resource cliffs, it will be increasingly important to come to the realisation that there are no white knights coming to the rescue — especially from the ruling class. The solutions being pushed/marketed by those at the top of our social power structures should not be trusted just because they are in positions of authority; they need to be viewed for what they tend to be: a leveraging of ‘power’ to expand/maintain privilege and wealth.

We cannot grow or spend our way out of overshoot; in fact, we do the opposite in trying this. We cannot continue to destroy the planet with alternatives to fossil fuels and expect to avoid collapse in the process. We need to be considering that we are being led astray by people and groups who do not in any way have our best interests in mind.

‘Salvation’ is not likely to be found in our hierarchical social structures but perhaps within our close kinship-based circles[20].

Part Three of this multi-part Contemplation can be found here.

Please consider visiting my website and supporting my work through the purchase of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai, that chronicles the ‘collapse’ of modern society. For less than $10 Canadian you can receive the entire trilogy in PDF format.

[1] Having just experienced such an event with the most populated region of Canada having been hit with a devastating derecho storm, I can attest to the added stress that occurs. I think our family’s anxiety was mitigated with the help of previous preparations for such times but many others were not so prepared for several days without electrical power or the damage that took place — we were also much luckier than some having only sustained minor physical damage to our property (a blown down fence); in our immediate community there were homes/businesses damaged, cars crushed/damaged, and many power lines down due to snapped hydro poles and large tree falls. I am happy that all the seedlings I had planted the day before the storm were undamaged but it reminded me of the vagary of food production and vital importance of having surpluses set aside and establishing what Joseph Tainter terms ‘energy-averaging systems’: regional trade to support life when things go sideways in your area.

[2] https://www.simplypsychology.org/edward-thorndike.html

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/202001/the-neuroscience-seeking-pleasure-and-avoiding-pain

[4] https://anthropology.iresearchnet.com/complex-societies/

[5] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/social-hierarchy; https://www.sociostudies.org/journal/articles/140641/; https://evolution-institute.org/blog/the-evolution-of-hierarchy/

[6] http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/complex.PDF; https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/211336; https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1942.44.1.02a00040; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5494206/

[7] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/477.Collapse_of_Complex_Societies

[8] I would also recommend Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State as a relatively short and concise text on motivations of the ruling class and their machinations to maintain/expand their power/wealth/prestige. (https://cdn.mises.org/Anatomy%20of%20the%20State_3.pdf).

[9] Try pointing out to someone the unquestionable yet religious-like faith in the institution of representative democracy and its concomitant belief that one has agency via the ballot box. Firm believers in this process for ‘choosing’ leaders and providing input into societal ‘decisions’ will stanchly defend it and even attack ferociously any challenges to it — why do ‘leaders’ always suggest they are defending ‘democracy’ whenever they are pontificating about the evils of a geopolitical foe? Because it feeds into the narrative. Few people will entertain the argument that the entire election process is mostly theatre to help ‘legitimise’ our ruling class’s hold on power or the idea that they have no agency in the fundamental decisions made by politicians.

[10] I believe I have developed this notion primarily through my readings of Charles Hugh Smith who blogs at https://www.oftwominds.com. I cannot locate any exact reference by him to this idea at this time, however. Regardless, the concept does align with historical evidence and psychological mechanisms.

[11] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/john_dalbergacton_109401?src=t_power_corrupts

[12] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/200908/how-power-corrupts-leaders; https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_power_corrupt_everyone_equally; https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/the-science-behind-why-power-corrupts-and-what-can-be-done-to-mitigate-it; https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-power-corrupts-37165345/. Also consider Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment here (https://www.prisonexp.org) and the Power Paradox that occurs (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/power_paradox): “Power is given to those individuals, groups, or nations who advance the interests of the greater good in socially-intelligent fashion. Yet unfortunately, having power renders many individuals as impulsive and poorly attuned to others as your garden-variety frontal lobe patient, making them prone to act abusively and lose the esteem of their peers. What people want from leaders — social intelligence — is what is damaged by the experience of power.

[13] I highly recommend reading Bernays’s Propaganda (https://archive.org/details/BernaysPropaganda). It lays out fairly clearly the notion of creating narratives to direct what people believe.

[14] https://www.statista.com/statistics/272314/advertising-spending-in-the-us/

[15] To be fair, this view is via my personal interpretive lens that has shifted over the years as I have researched and learned more; there are various competing narratives that one can choose from.

[16] Look at the manipulations that have been taking place for decades with respect to consumer price inflation and its pernicious impact upon pretty well everyone outside the top 1–10% of earners. You will only hear that ‘mild’ inflation is great for the economy and nothing about the currency devaluation that is taking place as a result of infinite credit/debt growth.

[17] Almost everything going wrong in the West currently is the fault of that evil Vladimir Putin.

[18] The quote “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has been attributed to a number of politicians including Winston Churchill, but demonstrates the thinking of our political class when it comes to using a crisis to their advantage.

[19] There is a very good argument that the creation and distribution of fiat currency by our ruling class falls into this category as well. They maintain that it is done responsibly and for the benefits of society but evidence would suggest the opposite.

[20] Unfortunately, for most ‘advanced’ economies these kinship-based circles have been eroded for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the ‘mobility’ provided by cheap energy. Small, local communities may be the next best avenue for the coming ‘transition’.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh L–Cognition and Belief Systems in a ‘Collapsing’ World: Part One

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh L

May 19, 2022

Monte Alban, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

Cognition and Belief Systems in a ‘Collapsing’ World: Part One

Keeping in mind that we humans are storytelling primates with extraordinary cognitive abilities, I’ve been reflecting upon a few of the psychological phenomena that are key to how we form beliefs, especially as they pertain to ecological overshoot and its concomitant societal ‘collapse’. The specific mechanisms I have been thinking about include: deference to authority, groupthink, cognitive dissonance, and the justification hypothesis[1]. I studied all of these during my few years of interest in psychology[2] while at university and have been re-exposed to their importance in the past handful of years[3].

This contemplation is quite a bit longer than my usual ones so will be broken up into parts as I reflect upon, edit, and invariably expand it…please try to bear with me until the end of these few contemplations to see how I view these psychological processes as important to our impending ‘collapse’ — or, at least, one’s interpretation of it and ultimate reactions in light of personal and societal perspectives.

What we believe is extremely important to our perception of the world as it creates a ‘reality’ for us that may or may not have much in common with observable, physical evidence. Ultimately it would appear that we believe what we want to believe; ‘facts’ be damned. We very much don’t want to acknowledge this but we seem to be, as author Robert Heinlein has been credited with stating, rationalising animals not rational ones; and research is increasingly supporting this view[5].

Megan Siebert and William Rees highlight this point at the start of an article on the impediments and consequences of pursuing non-renewable ‘renewables’: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”[6]

This is an important perspective to take on our species since it is the narratives that we construct (or have constructed for us) that impact significantly our belief systems and thus everyday actions and reactions. But the stories we cling to also influence greatly our understanding of events, helping us to comprehend (or miscomprehend) a complex world — its past, present, and how it may unfold in the future[7].

Thinking about ‘collapse’ and ecological overshoot necessarily has us attempting to frame a picture of the variables impacting our world and how events are going to ‘unfold’[8]. I’ve increasingly come to believe that predicting the trajectory of complex systems is, well, complex; in fact, I’d argue impossible. We need look no further than meteorological models to get a glimpse at how difficult (impossible?) it is to predict relatively simple, complex systems such as wind and precipitation patterns. Throw human behaviour into the mix and complexity goes off the charts.

Dan Gardner’s Future Babble[9] is an excellent reminder that complex systems with their non-linearity and emergent phenomena[10] cannot be predicted accurately, so there is no ‘certainty’ to be found in constructed stories, regardless of the sophistication of the model used in the prediction or the amount of data/evidence inputted into the model. ‘Uncertainty’ will always exist and the tiniest of errors in a fundamental assumption at the start can have oversized impacts on the projected trajectory and endgame. Ultimately, only time will tell what the future holds but this simply is not sufficient to an human wanting certainty to reduce their anxiety about an unknowable future.

We want to know what the future holds. How things may rollout in the days, months, years ahead is fundamentally important to us as we tend to find uncertainty extremely anxiety-provoking. One of the methods for reducing the stress/anxiety that accompanies uncertainty is to take solace in ‘certain’ narratives; regardless of the evidence/facts that support them. And oftentimes it matters little how accurate a person’s or institution’s previous prognostications have been. If the story sounds plausible and it is given with certitude, we are more prone to believe it even if previous predictions have never been accurate.

So, to ensure our beliefs about the future are ‘certain’, we employ a host of cognitive biases to help us become confident in our thinking. What are these? Simply “[a] cognitive bias is a subconscious error in thinking that leads you to misinterpret information from the world around you, and affects the rationality and accuracy of decisions and judgments. Biases are unconscious and automatic processes designed to make decision-making quicker and more efficient. Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, such as heuristics (mental shortcuts), social pressures, and emotions.”[11]

Without further ado, here are four of the mechanisms that I’ve been considering as important as we slide down the Seneca Cliff of ‘collapse’ and attempt to make sense of our world[12].

Deference to Authority

Wishing to try to understand better German society’s apparent willingness to participate in the vilification and systematic elimination of countless Jews during World War II, Yale University’s Stanley Milgram began exploring the relationship between authority and the well-known tendency of people to obey instructions issued by authoritative figures[13].

Milgram’s ‘Shock Experiments’ demonstrated rather plainly the willingness of individuals to obey the demands/requests of supposed ‘authority’ figures to a point of overriding their moral principles. This was said to be the result of a relinquishment of responsibility for one’s actions in the presence of an authority figure but also because of a person’s acceptance of the definition or viewpoint of the situation as supplied by the authority figure.

Basically, humans tend to trust and obey individuals in positions of ‘authority’. We follow their diktats. We believe their stories. We do as we are instructed. Not always, but certainly most people do, most of the time.


Irving Janis coined the term Groupthink “to describe a premature concurrence-seeking tendency that interferes with collective decision-making processes and leads to poor decisions. It is characterized by deterioration in group member mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments that result from in-group pressures to seek consensus. It is what happens when the task demands on a decision-making group are overwhelmed by the social demands to reach consensus. When experiencing groupthink, members tend to make simplistic statements about the issues and more positive in-group references than those in nongroupthink cases.”[14]

Supplemental research has suggested that groupthink is far more likely when group leadership is directive in style, when greater amounts of mind-guarding occur (tendency to keep group members from being exposed to contrarian viewpoints and information), and a tendency to self-censor. Solomon Asch’s research on behavioural conformity is also of particular interest to this mechanism[15]. Asch found that individuals are likely to conform to the observations and opinions of peers in social situations. As social animals, humans tend to conform to their social group in behaviours and ideas. This tendency increases when: more people are present; a task is more difficult; and, other members are of higher social status.

Fundamentally, humans have a tendency to meet the ‘norms’ of the social group in which they find themselves and will accept the group’s ideas and behaviours, primarily to avoid the negative social pressures that accompany non-conformity. We may not necessarily agree with certain things, but we tend to go along for better or worse.

Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger investigated and defined the idea that humans experience negative emotions when they hold conflicting or inconsistent cognitions[16]. The resulting state of discomfort leads us to become motivated to align our cognitive knowledge, and the more discomfort or anxiety we feel from such conflicting cognition the more we struggle to reduce the resulting tension. It is during such efforts to reduce the dissonance we are feeling that we engage in significant rationalisation that can convince us to accept knowledge that we might otherwise not agree with.

“And that is what is so interesting about cognitive dissonance. In our effort to reduce dissonance, we come to distort our choices to make them seem better, we come to like what we have suffered to attain, and we change our attitudes to fit our behaviors.”[17]

Essentially, in the attempt to achieve consistency in knowledge about the world we align our behaviours with our attitudes, and to reduce the anxiety that may arise from inconsistent cognitions we accept or reject certain information leading us to construct a ‘reality’ that is less anxiety-provoking than we might otherwise hold. We create a belief system that is comforting and then tend to cling to it fiercely.

Justification Hypothesis

The Justification Hypothesis is part of the Grand Unified Theory of Psychology[18]. It argues that human cognition differs from other animals due to the relationship between language, self-consciousness, and social existence. The interaction of these phenomena result in our beliefs functioning to legitimise our particular perception of the world. We consequently engage in systems and processes that serve to justify our behaviours[19].

The concept is founded upon three premises. First, the development of language and living in social groupings led to the problem of having to justify actions/behaviours; why did you do what you did? Second, our attainment of self-consciousness created a system of aligning internal concepts of self with external actions; we strive to hold a stable view of oneself and create the same image for our peers. Third, since we are social beings living with many others, sometimes in very large groupings, we create sociocultural expectations/beliefs/values about normative behaviour along with large-scale systems to justify these.

Primarily, this hypothesis points to our tendency to rationalise our behaviour and beliefs as a result of our biology, psychology, and social interactions with others in order to maintain our self-image and avoid conflict with others.

You can locate Part Two of this multi-part Contemplation here.

[1] These are just a handful of the many processes that are relevant to human cognition and our formation of ‘knowledge’. Epistemology and some related fields are fascinating areas to explore; especially social psychology since we are, after all, very social animals and form our knowledge from and with others.

[2] It may have actually been meeting this great girl in one of the classes that kept me interested in the subject. Once she agreed to marry me I shifted over to archaeology;) And now we’re closing in on our 36th anniversary.

[3] Reading a couple of recent psychology course textbooks along with my youngest daughter as she took some courses so she’d have someone to bounce concepts/understandings off of during online courses due to the pandemic closures has been perhaps the best refresher.

[5] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2020-81515-001

[6] https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm?fbclid=IwAR2ISt5shfV4wpFEc8jxbQnrrxyllyvZP-xDnoHhWrjGTQRIqUNfk3hOK1g

[7] And I acknowledge that this is as true for me as everyone else. In fact, I would admit that the more I come to ‘understand’, the more I come to appreciate how much I don’t completely understand and how ‘simple’ our comprehension of an exceedingly complex universe truly is.

[8] It also, because of how we form ideas/beliefs, has us interpreting the present and past through particular lenses/worldviews/schemas/paradigms.

[9] Gardner, D. Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway. McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2010. (ISBN 978–0–7710–3513–5)

[10] Here I recommend reading Donella Meadows work, especially Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. (ISBN 978–1–60358–055–7)

[11] https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-bias.html

[12] Note that my summaries are in no way ‘comprehensive’. These are my highlighting of what I view as important aspects of these phenomena.

[13] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-influence/obedience-to-authority-studies/

[14] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/industrial-organizational-psychology/group-dynamics/groupthink-i-o/

[15] https://www.verywellmind.com/the-asch-conformity-experiments-2794996

[16] https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-psychology-theories/cognitive-dissonance-theory/

[17] ibid

[18] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4614-0058-5_1

[19] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201112/the-justification-hypothesis

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXVI–Societal Collapse: The Past is Prologue

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXVI

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Societal ‘Collapse: The Past is Prologue

Today’s Contemplation has been once again prompted by the latest musings of The Honest Sorcerer. I believe their posts motivate me more than most others I read because we very often focus upon the same subject matter and appear, for the most part, to come at the issue(s) from a similar standpoint. In fact, I have had more than one person accuse me of being The Honest Sorcerer and simply using a different name/platform — which I will take as a compliment given how much I enjoy their articles.

Here is my posted comment on their Substack publication:

I’ve found it most enlightening (and I’m sure it’s my personal bias in having some background in the subject) to consider past experiments in complex societies and the societal responses/reactions to the cyclical phenomenon of ‘collapse/simplification’ to guide our discussion on how things may unfold. Archaeology demonstrates that despite human ingenuity and having the best ‘technology’ of the time, similar patterns emerge across both time and space as a complex society ‘dissolves’.

As the saying goes, ‘It’s difficult to make predictions, especially if they’re about the future’; however, there’s also the Shakespearean phrase ‘What’s past is prologue’ suggesting that we can learn from pre/history and its apparent oft-repeated processes as we have hints as to what may befall us as our societal ‘decline’ proceeds providing an educated guess on the future (the best we might hope for in an uncertain and complex world full of nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, to say little about Black Swan events).

I’ve written a number of posts about this, most recently just a couple of months ago entitled What Do Previous Experiments in Societal Complexity Suggest About ‘Managing’ Our Future (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxlviii-fb2491bb08fe). Some of its points are quite similar to those you make.

In this piece of writing I focused on the aims of the ‘degrowth’ movement and why our ‘collapse’ will not likely be ‘managed’ in the way many degrowthers hope. I make the argument, based upon my understanding of archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies, that:

1) “…society’s power-brokers place the burden of ‘contraction’ upon the masses via currency devaluation, increased taxes, forever wars, increased totalitarianism, narrative management, etc..”

2) “Once surpluses are exhausted, everyday operating ‘costs’ begin to suffer and living standards for the majority begin to wane. A gradual decline in complexity ensues.”

3) “As societal investments encounter the Law of Marginal Utility due to ever-increasing costs of problem solving and its associated complexity, society experiences declining living standards. Eventually, participants opt out of the arrangement (i.e., social ‘contract’) — usually by migrating — resulting in a withdrawal of the support/labour necessary to maintain the various complex systems.”

4) “…to offset our increasing experience with diminishing returns, especially as it pertains to energy, we have employed significant debt-/credit-based fiat currency expansion to increase our drawdown of important resources among other perceived ‘needs’…”

5) “…to sustain a society’s complexity as it bumps up against limits to expanding its problem-solving ability (particularly its finite resource requirements), surpluses are drawn upon…The drawdown of these surpluses puts society at greater risk of being incapable of reacting to a sudden stress surge that may expedite the ‘collapse’ of complexity.”

6) “…once diminishing returns sets in for a society, collapse requires merely the passage of time. New energy sources, however, do little to address the issues that arise from expanded technology use–particularly the finiteness of the materials required and the overloading of planetary sinks that occur from their extraction and processing…”

7) “…pre/historic evidence also demonstrates a peer polity competition trap where competing ‘states’ drive the pursuit of complexity (regardless of environmental and/or human costs) for fear of absorption by a competing state. In such situations, ever-increasing costs create ever-decreasing marginal returns that end in domination by one state, or collapse of all competing polities. Where no or an insufficient energy subsidy exists, collapse of the competing states occurs at about the same time.”

We should be able to learn from these past trials in large, complex societies. And I recall putting this prospect to Jared Diamond about a decade ago when I heard him speak at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. His response (and I’m paraphrasing) was that just because we have this capability does not in any way mean we will use it.

Do I believe humanity will heed the lessons of the past?

In those early days of my journey down the rabbit hole of societal ‘collapse’ that began with my exploration of the concept of Peak Oil and its implications for our world (I thank the rental from our local Blockbuster in late 2010 of the documentary Collapse with the late Michael Ruppert for this), I thought we could avoid the pending decline of society. I thought that human ingenuity and intelligence could and would come to understand our plight and take remedial steps to set things right.

I no longer believe this; in fact, I chuckle somewhat at my naivete in those early days as I struggled to move through Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving. I experienced an awful lot of denial and bargaining.

Pre/history appears to show that every complex society has reacted to their decline in somewhat parallel ways. Not exactly the same, but pretty damn similar despite the vast differences between them in terms of time, geographic location, and sociocultural practices.

Despite all of this evidence, most of us involved in the current iteration (at least those that have the ‘privilege’ to contemplate such things; many in our world of course don’t) have a tendency to believe that this time is different — especially because of our ingenuity and technology leading to our perpetual ability to ‘solve’ any issue that arises — and the narratives we craft in light of this belief system. But our responses appear to be unfolding in ways not unlike those that previous societies have experienced.

In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that our ‘modern’ responses are even more broadly and significantly detrimental to our future prospects because of the ever-present and widely disseminated propaganda that aims to keep the masses ignorant of the various revenue-generation/-extraction rackets siphoning resources towards the top of our power/wealth structures, and that appear to be expanding and speeding up as the surplus energy that has sustained our growth moves towards zero and then goes negative.

And as I conclude in the piece referenced above,

Little to none of the above takes into consideration our current overarching predicament: ecological overshoot (and all of its symptom predicaments such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, sink overloading, etc.).

Having significantly surpassed the natural environmental carrying capacity of our planet, we have strapped booster rockets to the issue of complex society ‘collapse’.

We have chosen to employ a debt-/credit-based economic system to more quickly extricate finite resources from the ground in order to meet current demands rather than significantly reduce stealing them from the future. We have created belief systems that human ingenuity and finite resource-based technologies are god-like in their abilities to alter the Laws of Thermodynamics (especially in regard to entropy) and biological principles such as overshoot…

Given we cannot control complex systems, we also cannot predict them well (if at all) and thus we cannot forecast the future with any certainty. But there exist physical laws and limits, biological/evolutionary principles, and pre/historical examples/experiments that all point towards a future quite different from the optimistic ones painted by those who believe we have control over such things.

I expect one last ginormous pulse of energetic ‘consumption’ in a most wasteful binge (and likely mostly towards geopolitical strife over the table scraps of finite resources) and a significant amount of narrative management by society’s wealth-extracting forces before ‘the great simplification’ and Nature’s corrective responses to our overshoot take hold — showing Homo sapiens who is really in charge…and it’s not us.

Also see these:

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Six — Sociopolitical ‘Collapse’ and Ecological Overshoot (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-lvi-1f3de97ef6e9)

Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-lix-800413db180a)

Energy Future, Part 3: Authoritarianism and Sociobehavioural Control (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-xciii-78f4f61f8a1d)

Energy Future, Part 4: Economic Manipulation (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-xcix-1eaf7ac0c5c6)

Collapse Now to Avoid the Rush: The Long Emergency (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxxxv-5b9d26816e33)

Declining Returns, Societal Surpluses, and Collapse (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxli-c3a58b371496)

Ruling Caste Responses to Societal Breakdown/Decline (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxliii-a063a8dee7ff)

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXV–Rackets: Keeping the Curtains on Reality Drawn

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXV

Monte Alban, Mexcio (1988). Photo by author.

Today’s Contemplation is my comment on The Honest Sorcerer’s latest article that looks at the financial nature of our modern world.

Rackets: Keeping the Curtains on Reality Drawn

Excellent summation of our predicament and how reality is being ‘hidden’ by the story-telling nature of our species — especially the stories being disseminated by those benefitting most from our current practices and trajectory.

I’ve come to believe almost everything today is a racket of one form or another. And by racket, I defer to what U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler stated about this phenomenon with respect to war: “A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.”

And this is where humanity appears to stand at the moment in our history on this planet: rackets are everywhere.

We are surrounded by rackets meant to keep the wealth-extraction/-generation schemes going and remaining in place in one form or another for at least another quarter or election cycle. And the stories associated with them are not only meant to keep the masses ignorant of the fraudulent nature of our practices and institutions, but to get the masses to support and cheerlead them on while ostracising and shouting down the voices that dare challenge or expose them.

And as our descent down the Seneca Cliff speeds up (due, of course, to the limits you discuss), the rackets are expanding in number and size in order to not only siphon more and more wealth from the masses towards the few at the top of our wealth and power structures, but to compensate for the expanding nature of our decline as the surplus energy needed to pursue growth quickly fades.

A perfect positive feedback loop expediting our descent and ensuring the inevitable ‘collapse’ is all the more spectacular and all-consuming in nature.

But, hey, let’s hear another feel-good story about our human ingenuity and technological prowess ‘solving’ all this and humanity living happily-ever-after, holding hands with each other and Nature…that tale is all lot more fun to listen to and believe in. Even if it is only a fairy tale told to make us feel safe and comfortable as the approaching storm grows in size and intensity.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXX–Ecological Overshoot and Political Responses

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXX

September 21, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Ecological Overshoot and Political Responses

Today’s post has been prompted by some thoughts regarding the inability of our political systems to respond in a timely manner to our plight of ecological overshoot penned by Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace, and posted by Alice Friedemann of energyskeptic.com.

I agree with virtually everything Rex argues, especially the role of self-interest by our political class for their apparent rejection of the notion of ecological overshoot and what needs to be done to address the negative impacts this predicament will have on our societies (we can’t avoid these impacts but we might be capable of mitigating their worst outcomes somewhat). My experience with government (I spent many years involved with unions/federations/councils and their political action committees, including chairing some and being directly involved in negotiating contracts, thus having to deal directly with senior administrators and politicians) and readings pertaining to various sociocultural areas (e.g., economics, geopolitics, political systems, pre/history, etc.) have solidified for me the notion that our sociopolitical institutions are for a variety of reasons the last place we should be looking to ‘correct our course’ and attempt to confront the many complex issues of our overshoot and that are beginning to become more obvious. In fact, it is likely (I believe guaranteed) that our ‘ruling class’ will continue to do the exact opposite of what is needed.

Government systems appear to be a means to an end for maintaining the power (and thus wealth) structures within our complex societies. The ‘elite’ of society uses the various governmental bureaucracies/institutions/agencies (as well as other areas they tend to control such as media, education, entertainment, etc.) to meet their primary objective: the control and/or expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams. Everything they do more or less is to help meet that end. And, yes, they do throw some bones to the masses periodically if only to keep them mollified, distracted, and less likely to rebel (as Noam Chomsky has argued so well, control of the people is one of the most important concerns of those who hold power and privilege); one of the more ‘effective’ means in my view is the theatrical performance we refer to as ‘elections’ — convincing the masses in ‘representative democracies’ that they have agency via the ballot box is perhaps one of the most successful scams the ruling class has accomplished for as Johann von Goethe observed: the easiest slave is the one who believes he is free.

Growth, the very antithesis of addressing ecological overshoot, is promoted by government to help in their pursuit of both wealth and power. But it also addresses the unfortunate consequence of the way we have sustained growth the last few decades: exponentially-exploding debt (somewhat north of 200 trillion U.S. dollars at present for the globe, and the larger the debt the larger and more sustained the payments to the ‘lenders/creators’ of the world’s various currencies — the financial institutions that seem to work hand-in-glove with our governments). This debt has not only turned our financial/economic/monetary systems into gargantuan Ponzi schemes, it has necessitated the continuation of growth in perpetuity to help pay off the debt (significant revenue for the financiers) and keep the Ponzi schemes from collapsing.

Of course, such infinite growth is a tad difficult on a finite planet so the other options of addressing our financial dilemmas is to increase taxes and/or inflate away the debt. Our feckless ‘leaders’ are attempting all three of these approaches to keep things from collapsing. They cheerlead and encourage growth, telling the masses it has only beneficial properties and minimising, ignoring, or denying the negative aspects. Taxes are expanded continually and applied to increasing numbers of economic interactions, although the wealthy have an almost infinite number of ways to minimise their tax obligations, unlike the masses. Inflation (which in its original form refers to ever-increasing money/credit printing but eventually results in price inflation which is what most people think of) is, in perfect Orwellian language use, said to be a positive force for our economy while it actually debases our currency which serves the purposes of the large debtors (governments and large corporations) but harms the masses because of the debauching of their ‘money’ as is becoming increasingly obvious as wealth inequality continues to explode.

For all of these reasons (and more) it is unlikely (I would actually put the likelihood at zero) our political systems would ever intentionally curtail the pursuit of growth for it is their seed corn. They will pursue and cheerlead it right up until collapse can no longer be denied, and then attempt to push it some more as they tell those experiencing precipitous decline to stop believing their lying eyes; and/or blame our failing societies on some foreign/domestic bogeymen, but certainly not them and their policies.

The government, as with the rest of the ruling class and unfortunately most people, will not hear the arguments about ecological overshoot at all. It matters not how much ‘science’, data, or evidence is thrown at them. Almost everyone but especially the elite are in total denial (or at least feigning it, perhaps just to reduce their cognitive dissonance). This is why I have abandoned any ‘hope’ that our ‘leaders’ will in any way address ecological overshoot even if they do admit it exists — if they do, it will likely be leveraged to pursue activities that not only enrich the ruling class further but make our overshoot worse, such as ‘clean’ energy which is anything but clean and certainly not sustainable as sold. And, unfortunately, the political systems (at least in so-called ‘representative’ democracies) have morphed into out-promising the other parties for what ‘goodies’ they will provide freely to citizens. More. More. More. Which, again, is the opposite of what is needed to counter our going even further into overshoot…not that it may matter much at this point given how far we are likely already past the most important tipping points.

As Rex argues, the ‘solutions’ that will matter most to people will be at the local level. Relocalistion of as much production and distribution of goods as possible (but especially potable water, food, and shelter needs — including that which is needed to deal with local weather/climate, such as wood for winter heating) is the best approach to be taking to help one’s community mitigate as much as possible the coming storm. It’s likely to get ugly and ‘government’ will be nowhere to be found to turn to; you will need to depend upon immediate family, friends, and community members so cultivate those relationships and work on getting them to understand our predicament and begin making your local community as self-sufficient and resilient as possible.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIX–Are We Being Duped Regarding Global Warming?

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXIX

August 17, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Are We Being Duped Regarding Global Warming?

Today’s contemplation was prompted by an email my mum sent me. As she closes in on 80, I find that she’s becoming a bit more open-minded about things but remains somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to global warming/anthropogenic climate change. We periodically share thoughts on the state of the world, especially politics, and I think I’ve almost got her convinced to abandon her faith/trust in government…

Anyways, here is the comment about global warming she forwarded to me and my relatively quick response (typed up while I was engaged in replacing a floor/foundation for one of our greenhouses — I never considered a decade ago when I installed the first greenhouse, of three, that the mini-garden ties I was using to terrace our backyard would decay/rot so quickly so I am replacing them with concrete blocks and putting in a patio stone floor so that my eldest daughter who has taken over the greenhouse can have many years of use with it, hopefully). I have added some minor supplemental thoughts (in italics) and supporting links to a few sources (see endnotes).


With global warming having become as much a political issue as a scientific inquiry, I went from wondering whether mankind might really be influencing the climate to someone questioning a science I do not understand. I am now worried we are being duped by people with an agenda, like keep the money gravy train running. No one has yet explained to my satisfaction the big ice age followed by warming then a mini-ice age, followed by warming, all before mankind was a significant presence on earth and did nothing but have a few campfires.


That human activity has an impact on our environment and ecological systems, I have little doubt. How could almost eight billion of us and our resource demands not? Especially the so-called ‘advanced’ economies[i]. There is growing evidence that shows that our industrial civilisation has surpassed several planetary biophysical limits and likely overloaded a number of the planet’s compensatory sinks due to the vast amounts of waste material produced in its quest to procure the minerals and energy that our tools require for their manufacture and pollutants produced through their use.[ii]

The issue with the focus on global warming/climate change/carbon emissions is multi-faceted —such stories are never as simple as we’re led to believe. Geologic history shows pretty clearly that the planet’s climate changes and probably most significantly as a result of the sun’s cycles.[iii]

Is human activity exacerbating natural cycles? Quite possibly[iv]. Is it as catastrophic as painted by some?[v] Only time can truly tell since modelling of complex systems is fraught with difficulties.[vi] One minor variation of one of many variables that are used to create future predictions can shift the eventual outcome significantly.[vii] Of course, humans don’t like uncertainty (which is really all that can be provided about the future — probabilistic scenarios that may or may not occur — no matter how complex one’s predictive model is) so we cling to and tend to believe forecasts that are at their root uncertain; their potential accuracy matters not.[viii]

One of the other complications of the narrative is that our ruling class always leverages crises to their advantage. Always. I have little doubt that the hyper focus on climate and carbon emissions is being used to pursue the ruling class’s primary motivation: control/expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue streams.[ix]

The ‘problem’ of climate change is always presented with ‘solutions’ but those ‘solutions’ do not address carbon emissions in the least; in fact, there’s a good argument to be made that they actually increase them.[x] Much as the ruling class manufactures consent for any policy that the masses might question/reject (almost always via significant propaganda campaigns), they have created a narrative that is designed to persuade people to believe something that is increasingly being shown to be completely false and little more than marketing/sloganeering.[xi]

These ‘solutions’ also, conveniently, increase the revenue streams of the ruling class via taxes and complete replacement/overhaul of virtually all important technology (e.g., ‘renewable’ energy, electric vehicles, etc.). Scratch even gently below the surface of the ‘clean/green’ energy story and you discover it’s all basically bullshit.[xii] These technologies not only are not sustainable because of their dependence upon finite resources (including very much on the fossil fuel platform itself), but their production is hugely ecologically destructive. We are being sold a load of crap on various fronts so that the sociopaths that ‘control’ our world can profit. This being said, we do face some significant environmental and resource depletion challenges.

Probably the most dire predicament we face is ecological overshoot — too damn many people (especially living in ‘advanced’ economies) for a planet with finite resources.[xiii] The constant push for growth (which really is just to prolong/support the gargantuan Ponzi that our financial/economic/monetary systems have become) is the exact opposite of what we likely need to be doing; as is the push to ‘electrify’ everything.[xiv] The unfortunate thing for the future is that any species that overshoots its natural carrying capacity has only one way to be rebalanced: a massive die-off.[xv] When that occurs (and how it unfolds) is anybody’s guess…

As much as we tend to believe we understand our world and its complexities, I would contend we do not; at least, not very well. To compensate for this uncertainty we have developed all sorts of psychological mechanisms that lead us to believe particular narratives with some ‘certainty’. The beginning of a recent paper that challenges the mainstream story surrounding ‘renewable’ energy (that has been presented as a panacea for reducing carbon emissions; although I would argue Peak Oil is a more troubling issue in the energy needs of industrial civilisation[xvi]) is pertinent to this idea: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”[xvii]

[i] https://archive.globalpolicy.org/social-and-economic-policy/the-environment/general-analysis-on-the-environment/45393-how-much-of-the-worlds-resource-consumption-occurs-in-rich-countries.html; https://www.livescience.com/20308-greedy-nations-top-resource-users-earth.html

[ii] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921800914001323; https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/1259855.full; https://ideas.ted.com/the-9-limits-of-our-planet-and-how-weve-raced-past-4-of-them/; https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2015-01-15-planetary-boundaries—an-update.html

[iii] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/how-does-sun-affect-our-climate; https://phys.org/news/2017-03-sun-impact-climate-quantified.html

[iv] https://sciencing.com/what-human-activities-affect-the-carbon-cycle-12083853.html; https://www.e-education.psu.edu/earth103/node/680; https://phys.org/news/2010-12-human-affect-carbon.html

[v] https://www.populationconnectionaction.org/2021/08/12/ipcc-catastrophic-climate-change-is-coming/; https://www.npr.org/2021/08/09/1025898341/major-report-warns-climate-change-is-accelerating-and-humans-must-cut-emissions-; https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/deepadaptation.pdf

[vi] https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/complexsystems/introduction.html; https://wtf.tw/ref/meadows.pdf

[vii] https://issues.org/climate-change-scenarios-lost-touch-reality-pielke-ritchie/?fbclid=IwAR1dbpSNqPXWr9QyfC-fDzlWrvfswO3LLZKj08szexcCb_7h7uRW2j7Qv54

[viii] https://www.amazon.com/Future-Babble-Pundits-Hedgehogs-Foxes/dp/0452297575

[ix] https://www.counterpunch.org/20 , 15/10/06/yes-there-is-an-imperialist-ruling-class/; https://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/sociopol_globalelite07.htm

[x] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2012/jan/09/wind-turbines-increasing-carbon-emissions; https://www.amazon.com/Life-after-Fossil-Fuels-Alternative/dp/3030703347; https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/opinion/mondaycop22-lower-co2-emissions-with-lower-carbon-solar-energy/

[xi] https://www.amazon.com/Manufacturing-Consent-Political-Economy-Media/dp/0375714499; https://www.amazon.com/Propaganda-Edward-Bernays/dp/0970312598; https://planetofthehumans.com; https://www.brightgreenlies.com

[xii] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-renewable-energy-technologies; https://www.e-education.psu.edu/eme807/node/715https://www.nap.edu/read/12619/chapter/7; https://www.altenergymag.com/article/2015/08/the-dark-side-of-renewable-energy-negative-impacts-of-renewables-on-the-environment/20963/; https://www.routledge.com/Environmental-Impacts-of-Renewable-Energy/Spellman/p/book/9781482249460; https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/renewable/the-environmental-impact-of-lithium-batteries/

[xiii] https://www.pnas.org/content/99/14/9266; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/319810.Overshoot

[xiv] https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/our-economy-is-a-ponzi-scheme-8fc56b9e594f; https://eand.co/how-the-economy-became-one-giant-ponzi-scheme-4ac84bf18738; https://moneyweek.com/economy/global-economy/601657/why-our-economy-is-a-giant-ponzi-scheme

[xv] https://thesenecaeffect.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/humans-in-ecological-overshoot-collapse-now-to-avoid-a-larger-catastrophe/; https://www.earthovershoot.org/who-we-are/frequent-questions.html; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overshoot_(population)

[xvi] https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/29458/peak-oil-decline-coronavirus-economy/; https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/has-peak-oil-already-happened/; http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2014/ph240/liegl1/

[xvii] https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm?fbclid=IwAR2ISt5shfV4wpFEc8jxbQnrrxyllyvZP-xDnoHhWrjGTQRIqUNfk3hOK1g

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXIV–Growth and Denial: A Bad Combination

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXIV

Knossos, Greece (1993). Photo by author.

Growth and Denial: A Bad Combination

Today’s Contemplation is a glimpse into some conversation between myself and another around growth, denial, and differences in what can/should be advocated for.

Post by GW:
Just saw the sign coming in to town which reads “Country close to the city” it should read “Condos close to the city”

RB: …we need to make sure we are seeing the most responsible planning surrounding that development as we can. I have a growing feeling that some of our areas of intensification are both deviating from our growth strategies and will not be receiving needed services in a timely fashion to ensure complete communities, maximal livability, and minimal consequences.

I have long held a belief that spending time, energy, and breath just opposing growth and development is a waste. Understand the need (and legal requirements) to grow, understand the planning processes and facets of private ownership, and spend your time advocating for the best possible planning to ensure the best possible community living experience as that growth gets underway.

Me: RB, may I suggest some homework to help expand your perspective on the issue of growth and the negative consequences we tend to ignore/deny (and has led us into ecological overshoot):

1) This presentation, entitled Exponential Growth Arithmetic, Population and Energy, by the late Dr. Albert Bartlett that explains our blindness to how exponential growth works and how it has led us into overshoot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZA9Hnp3aV4.

2) This 30-year update to the 1972 Limits to Growth study by MIT researchers; pay particular attention to the Business-As-Usual scenario that we seem to be tracking almost exactly and the negative consequences of this: https://www.amazon.ca/Limits-Growth-30-Year-Donella-Meadows/dp/193149858X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=82KI5K3MPE34&keywords=30+year+update+limits+to+growth&qid=1700239657&s=books&sprefix=30+year+update+limits+to+growth%2Cstripbooks%2C97&sr=1-1. You can find a synopsis of this text here: https://donellameadows.org/archives/a-synopsis-limits-to-growth-the-30-year-update/.

3) This 1988 academic research text, The Collapse of Complex Societies, by archaeologist Joseph Tainter that highlights the recurrent/cyclical decline that has occurred to every complex society to date due to the diminishing returns that invariably arises as a population attempts to continue growing beyond the resources (mostly energy) that can support it: https://www.amazon.ca/Collapse-Complex-Societies-Joseph-Tainter/dp/052138673X. Summary notes can be found here: https://olduvai.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Collapse-of-Complex-Societies.pdf.

4) This 1980 text, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, by William Catton Jr. that outlines the biological principles that invariably impact species that grow beyond their environment’s ability to support them. https://www.amazon.ca/Overshoot-Ecological-Basis-Revolutionary-Change-ebook/dp/B00VVH4UGG/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3UNABBTCM5RCJ&keywords=overshoot&qid=1700239867&sprefix=overshoot%2Caps%2C500&sr=8-1. Summary notes can be found here: https://olduvai.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Overshoot_-The-Ecological-Basis-of-Revolutionary-Change.pdf

NG: Steve Bull, a more than likely nuclear war should damper population growth.

Me: RB, I would also advise digging deeper and looking behind the curtain with respect to what has ‘supported’ our extraordinary growth the past couple of decades (mostly financialisation of our economic systems; i.e., ginormous amounts of debt that has turned into nothing more than Ponzi financing to keep growth afloat to the tune of hundreds of trillions of dollars currently — a perfect example of what Tainter refers to as diminishing returns and is being felt increasingly by the masses due to the inevitable weight of price inflation/currency devaluation) and centuries (mostly the leveraging and expeditious drawdown of a one-time cache of hydrocarbon energy that has provided a surplus of energy that has allowed us to continue to pursue exponential growth beyond our natural carrying capacity, but that is declining/disappearing at an alarming rate (dive into the issue of Peak Oil) — it’s no surprise that nations rich in these resources are the focus of so much geopolitical chaos.

Then there’s the symptom predicaments of overshoot and the various planetary boundaries we’ve blow past in extraordinary expansion throughout the globe. See this: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html

That most believe such growth can continue without dire consequences is not surprising given the amount of conditioning and propaganda we are exposed to about growth (particularly by those that profit from it). That we cannot even challenge such orthodoxy speaks volumes as to our mass denial.

RB: Steve Bull, you and I have had this conversation in past.

If our society suddenly shifts to establishing and enforcing population controls and an economic system that isn’t dependant on infinite growth, I will change my tune.

Until then, I am going to focus my advocacy based on existing realities for best possible outcomes.

Me: RB, we will have to agree to disagree, once again, regarding what is ‘best’ to advocate for. While I would contend that we (especially in so-called ‘advanced’ and ‘emerging’ economies) are unlikely to willingly pursue ‘degrowth’, or even halting growth (for a variety of reasons, but perhaps mostly because we all want the Ponzi to continue), I would also argue that accepting it and trying to work with it is akin to being complicit in mass suicide…which is what the increasing amount of evidence regarding our overshoot is suggesting.

RB: To each their own, of course. And I am most certainly not disregarding your concerns, which are absolutely reasonable. I just have to pick my battles, so to speak. If that makes me complicit, so be.

Me: RB, fair enough. Me, I prefer not to be overly complicit in this tragedy we are embarked upon as a species. While we can ignore/deny the laws of physics, biological principles, and pre/historic evidence, they are ever-present, unforgiving, and will eventually catch up with us.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXVIII–The Predicament of Ecological Overshoot Cannot Be ‘Solved’, Especially Via ‘Renewables’

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXVIII

August 10, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

The Predicament of Ecological Overshoot Cannot Be ‘Solved’, Especially Via ‘Renewables’

Today’s very brief ‘contemplation’ is a comment I penned on an article that discusses the limits to growth we have probably surpassed, Kuber-Ross’s stages of grief (especially denial and bargaining) that the world seems to be experiencing in the wake of increasing awareness of our existential dilemmas/predicaments, and a call for cooperation amongst the world’s people to address our plight.

I have repeatedly experienced the denial and anger that tends to arise when one challenges another’s personal beliefs. I should know better than to present countervailing evidence/narratives, especially given the defensive psychological mechanisms that arise to preserve such beliefs. We tend to look for confirmation of our strongly-held views by surrounding ourselves with like-minded voices, not disruptive narratives that can lead to cognitive dissonance. Such stories are denigrated and attacked (as the author of the article points out for the Limits to Growth authors).

I do believe, however, that the acceptance of our limits in many aspects leads to a conclusion that degrowth needs to be not only considered and discussed, but widely pursued if humanity is to have any hope of at least some of us transitioning through the self-made bottleneck that is directly ahead of us. Pursing the ‘wrong’ path will only make our predicament far, far more challenging and greatly reduce any opportunities for at least some of humanity to survive.

As I have come to understand our predicaments better (not perfectly of course, but better), I have reached the conclusion that the best way to mitigate our situation (or at least preserve some semblance of human society) is to pursue degrowth strategies. What I have encountered along the way is a very well-meaning but somewhat problematic counterproposal (that is very narrowly focused in my view) that the best way to confront our situation is to throw everything we have at transitioning us from fossil fuels to ‘renewables’ (I put this in quotes since their dependence on non-renewable, finite resources — including fossil fuels — suggests they are not truly ‘renewable’).

This approach appears to be the mainstream one and the one that seems to be getting the most support at this time probably because it is comforting in the sense that ‘others’ are responsible for seeing its funding, development, distribution, etc. and it offers a means of maintaining our complexities without much disruption; at least that is the narrative/perception (but also likely because there is much profit to be made in the attempts to completely replace the fossil fuel-dependent technologies currently employed).

Increasingly, however, this storyline is showing many plot holes: energy-return-on-energy-invested close to zero or even negative; non-renewable, finite resource limits; environmental/ecological destruction to procure needed resources; dependency upon the fossil fuel platform for the procurement and processing of necessary materials as well as the distribution, maintenance, and afterlife disposal/reclamation processes. As I attempt to point these roadblocks out to the advocates of ‘renewables’ and suggest degrowth is a more realistic path given the biophysical limits of living on a finite planet, I am quite chagrined with the variety of personal attacks I am subjected to. From being a climate change ‘denier’ to a shill for the fossil fuel industry, the anger/denial that is displayed is quite something.

So, if we are hoping for cooperation and discussion to help us confront our existential dilemmas, there is much, much work that has to be done. What I am experiencing is not unique to those who have accepted our limitations and predicaments. The ‘clean/green’ energy crowd seems unwilling to accept that their ‘solution’ and convictions may in fact expedite, or at least contribute to, the further degradation of the planet and result in the exact opposite of what they believe. I fail to see how this can be resolved in a timely manner when so much of the propaganda we are exposed to by our world ‘leaders’ cheerlead it as a means to continue expanding our growth and ensuring prosperity for all.

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 CLXIII–Keep Calm and Carry On

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXIII

Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Today’s Contemplation is my comment on a recent post by Allan Urban that speaks to his experiences attempting to share his learnings on ‘collapse’. For those that have read it, you can likely recognise similar reactions from others; I certainly did.

After years of experiencing the same ‘frustrations’ in attempting to share my ‘insights’ regarding our predicament, I’ve come to understand that we all believe what we want to believe and that regardless of the evidence/facts that point to our inevitable collision with ‘collapse’ most will reject the idea and carry on in the belief that tomorrow (and the future) will be much like yesterday and today. For the most part, that’s a good belief system and one that has been proven correct again and again for people, and how others respond to challenges to this system are fairly typical.

The list of psychological mechanisms to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts is almost endless. And the idea of ‘collapse’ is most certainly anxiety-provoking. Fight or flight. Groupthink. Going along to get along. Deference to authority/expertise (especially the ruling caste of our societies — e.g., government, legacy media). Cognitive dissonance reduction. Stages of grieving (particularly denial of reality and bargaining). These are next to impossible to overcome.

So, while I write about the situation (see https://olduvai.ca) and my perspective on it, I don’t engage too many others — especially in my personal, social circles — with my views. The exception being those who respond to my writings and are interested in the topics involved.

I have also completely abandoned any ‘hope’ that our political systems (or even most (all?) non-governmental ones) are the place to look for ‘salvation’. These systems are designed for the most part (and motivated by) self-preservation and the status quo. There are few if any that truly aim to ‘deconstruct’ our extractive/exploitive systems that have led us to where we our. That’s not their role; in fact, quite the opposite.

Our governing systems in particular are pre/historic institutions in place to maintain/expand the control of wealth-generating/-extracting systems that provide revenue streams for a select few. Their current iterations weave comforting narratives about ‘representation’ and beneficent policies/actions for the masses, but these are propaganda meant to appease and mollify — nothing more. Their aims are primarily oriented towards growing these systems of extraction and exploitation, regardless of the social and/or ecological systems costs.

We have not only cyclical complex society ‘collapse’ processes to contend with in our modern-day experiment of a globalised (and financialised) system, but the various symptom predicaments of ecological overshoot as well — especially depletion of probably the most fundament of resources to our modern complexities: hydrocarbons.

If pre/history is any indication of how things will unfold (and I would contend it very much is), then most of us will deny/ignore the signals long after our decline is well and truly underway — as many argue it already is. We will carry on in our ignorance and complicity, believing things will improve and someone, somewhere will ‘solve’ all this. Keep calm and carry on.

Keeping the ruling caste’s feet to the fire is commendable (if the pressure directs them in a way to degrow our existence, not grow it via even more ‘green/clean’ technology) but ultimately will not result in system changes. It will be Nature that corrects our Overshoot, as it always does with species that blow past its natural carrying capacity.

Perhaps our energies are best focused upon attempts to mitigate the consequences as best we can for our local communities. Relocalise and simplify, or as John Michael Greer has suggested: Collapse now and avoid the rush.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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