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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXI

July 29, 2022 (original posting date)

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

Peak Oil: Not Ready For Mainstream Consumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXXVI–Confessions Of A Fossil Fuel Shill

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXXVI

Tulum, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

Confessions Of A Fossil Fuel Shill

For anyone who has been following my writing over the past couple of years, you will know that I have been critical of non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (aka ‘renewables’) and the ‘marketing’ that surrounds them[1]. My critiques are usually focused upon the resource limits and ecological systems-destruction blindness that appear prevalent in many (most? all?) of the mainstream narratives, and the subsequent cheerleading surrounding such products and their ability to transition us smoothly away from hydrocarbon-based fuels/products[2].

On top of this is the argument that as with much (most? all?) in our modern world, the pursuit of controlling/expanding revenue streams to sustain the power/wealth accumulation (and thus privilege/influence) of an ‘elite’ few of our species plays a key role in the narrative management surrounding these industrial products and their uptake; particularly the ‘Electrify Everything’ and ‘Net Zero’ stories[3]. It’s no secret that this is increasingly being accomplished through legislation under the guise of carbon emissions reduction to address concerns with climate change.

As a consequence of my highlighting the biogeochemical restrictions, negative ecological consequences, and the motivation behind the marketing and uptake of these industrial products, I have been the recipient of accusations regarding my motivation for pointing these aspects out. These have ranged from being labelled, in no particular order: a fossil fuel shill, conspiracy theorist, Big Oil accomplice, technophobia cult member, right wing (Republican) supporter, climate change denier, Malthusian doomer, left wing (Democrat) extremist, etc.[4].

And it’s not that I support the ongoing growth in complexities that hydrocarbons has brought. In fact, I have extensively highlighted that this resource has been one of the most significant catalysts to our ecological overshoot predicament and modern societal complexities[5]. Again and again I have pointed out that the rise in complexity of societies through time contributes to the recurring ‘collapse’ processes that pre/history has shown occur, and that hydrocarbons have contributed to this time the phenomena being important on a global scale.

I’ve also pointed out that I don’t criticise these non-renewable, renewable energy-products because I ‘hate’ them, and that I am not unfamiliar with them having constructed my own solar photovoltaic back-up system for my home[6]. I’ve simply come to the realisation and accepted that there are limits to their usefulness in supporting the extremely complex systems of our modern world, and that the industrial processes required to manufacture and dispose of/recycle them are costly in terms of ecological destruction and resource drawdown.

It seems to me that the failure to accept the limitations (and thus consequences) that these industrial technologies bring with them are for the most part ignored/denied or justified/rationalised away[7]. There is little if any recognition that not only is their pursuit adding to the destruction of our very important ecological systems, but that they are contributing to our resource drawdown rather than offsetting it, and making our ecological overshoot predicament worse.

Humanity is not ‘transitioning’ away from its unsustainable path but exacerbating it by both increasing the overshoot and decreasing the natural carrying capacity for our species through the pursuit of these complex, industrial products. And rather than acknowledge our mistaken choices, we are creating stories to double-down on them and attacking the messengers who point out our errant ways.

The vast majority of people are accepting of the dominant narratives because it helps to avoid the anxiety and stress of cognitive dissonance that arises otherwise[8]. What do you mean we can’t have our cake and eat it too? Hang on a minute, that’s not what we were promised…

In our mistaken beliefs that we stand above and beyond Nature, and that our tool (i.e., technology) innovativeness and use can address any issue/dilemma that arises, we continue our journey towards the inevitable consequences that any species experiencing significant overshoot must endure. In our uniquely human way, however, we are sharing stories to avoid this reality — because we can, and by doing so makes us feel better (or, at least, not as bad). We are avoiding pain to pursue pleasure. The most head-scratching to me are the ones that insist physical limits do not exist, and that infinite growth is indeed possible on a finite planet (with zero repercussions, of course).

In the end, we humans tend to believe what we want to believe regardless of evidence that challenges these beliefs. Rather than confront our misguided beliefs, we tend to justify/rationalise them. Our reactions to evidence that contradicts our views tend to be emotional in nature, lashing out at the naysayers and clinging more firmly to our beliefs because having our beliefs challenged is threatening to our personal identity and the social circle/echo chamber we live within[9].

And because we abhor uncertainty, we cling to the certainty espoused by our ‘leaders/authority figures’ even if it is wrong and leading to greater harm. It’s simply our way of avoiding anxiety-provoking thoughts and evidence for as long as we are able — forever if we can.

So, sure, call me a fossil fuel shill or engage in some other ad hominem attack if it makes you feel better when you don’t like what I’m saying about why non-renewable, renewable energy-products are no ‘solution’ to overshoot and that your promotion of them is actually making our predicament worse.

But make no mistake, the future ain’t what it used to be when we imagined it based upon a notion of limitless energy and other resources — not even close. We are, at our peril, ignoring the signals being sent by our planet and its other species in our ongoing narcissistic beliefs that Homo sapiens are in some way ‘special’ and above and beyond the reproach of Nature, the biogeophysical limits of existence upon a finite planet, and laws of the universe.

Payback for our behaviours is sure to be cruel and unforgiving. But then again, I’m just a Malthusian doomer and right-wing conspiracy theorist…or is that left-wing?

[1] See:
A ‘Solution’ to Our Predicaments: More Mass-Produced, Industrial Technologies. Blog Medium
-To EV Or Not To EV? One Of Many Questions Regarding Our ‘Clean/Green’ Utopian Future, Part 1
. Blog Medium
Electrify Everything: Neither ‘Green’ Nor ‘Sustainable’. Blog Medium Substack
Electrify Everything: The Wrong ‘Solution’. Blog Medium Substack

[2] See:
The Pursuit of ‘Renewables’: Putting Us Further Into Ecological Overshoot. Medium
Roadblocks to Our ‘Renewable’ Energy Transition: Debt, Resource Constraints, and Diminishing Returns. Medium
Ignoring Ecological Systems Destruction. Medium
‘Renewables’: Virtuous Circles, Resource Limits, and Ecological Systems. Medium

[3] See:
Finite Energy, ‘Renewables’, and the Ruling Elite. Blog Medium Substack
‘Renewables’, Electrify Everything and Marketing Propaganda. Blog Medium Substack
‘Net Zero’ Policies: Propaganda To Support Continued Economic Growth. Blog Medium Substack
The Ruling Class: Chasing Growth Regardless Of the Consequences. Blog Medium

[4] See:
Thou Shall Not Disturb the ‘Renewables’ Force. Medium
Criticising ‘Renewables’ is Not a Sin. Blog Medium Substack
Sometimes People Don’t Want to Hear the Truth. Blog Medium Substack
Differing Opinions On ‘Renewables’. Medium

[5] See:
Finite Energy, Overconsumption, and Magical Thinking Through Denial. Medium Substack
Fossil Fuels: Contributing to Complexity and Overshoot. Blog Medium Substack
Ecological Overshoot, Hydrocarbon Energy, and Biophysical Reality. Blog Medium Substack
Surplus Energy From Hydrocarbons: Another Predicament Catalyst. Medium

[6] See:
Personal Experience With ‘Renewables’. Medium

[7] See:
Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Blog Medium Substack
Growth Greenwashing: A Comforting Narrative. Blog Medium Substack
‘Renewables’ and the Overton Window That Ignores Biophysical Realities. Blog Medium Substack
Climate Emergency Action Plan: Electrification and Magical Thinking. Blog Medium Substack

[8] See:
Grieving: There Are No ‘Solutions’ to Overshoot. Blog Medium Substack
‘Clean’ Energy and the Stages of Grieving. Blog Medium Substack
Magical Thinking to Help Avoid Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts. Blog Medium
Magical Thinking About the Energy Transition. Medium

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LX

July 19, 2022 (original posting date)

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX

July 13, 2022 (original posting date)

Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid. p. 266–267.

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVIII–Magical Thinking to Help Avoid Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LVIII

July 6, 2022 (original posting date)

Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

Magical Thinking to Help Avoid Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts

Today’s contemplation shares a comment I made to a Facebook Group a number of days ago in response to an article by Dr. Ugo Bardi — whose writing, especially around limits to growth and his proposal about the Seneca cliff decline we are likely to face as we bump into the biophysical limits imposed by a finite planet, I have enjoyed and greatly learned from. While we agree on much, we have a definite disagreement regarding the role and potential of non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies (what most refer to simply as ‘renewable’ energy — a powerful marketing twist of language given the actual technologies required are in a very limited way ‘renewable’ (i.e., recyclable/rebuildable) and are not energy sources but technologies to harvest ‘renewable’ energy).

Dr. Bardi posted the article I responded to in reaction to another article that was penned by The Honest Sorcerer that I had shared on one of the several Facebook Groups Dr. Bardi hosts. My original comment is in bold below with some links/charts to articles/research that support my perspective and some concluding remarks.

Whether the article is ‘peer-reviewed’ or not (and there are certainly issues with the ‘gold standard’ of peer review), the fact remains that non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies appear to be an extension of our fossil fuel-based energies relying upon them significantly in both the upstream and downstream industrial processes necessary for their production, maintenance, and after-life reclamation and/or disposal.

Ideally, peer review is an objective and forceful gate-keeper that serves to eliminate poor ‘science’ prior to it being widely distributed but the process is certainly less than perfect and has it criticisms, even from within academia (in fact, the mainstay of gate-keeping — that is, repeating the experiment — is rarely, if ever carried out; mostly because there is not one to replicate):

British Medical Journal — https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c1409; https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/8/10/e020568
National Library of Medicine — https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25675064/
Mayo Clinic Proceedings — https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025619618307079
The Seneca Effect — https://thesenecaeffect.blogspot.com/2021/11/when-science-speaks-in-tongues-how.html
Utah Valley University — https://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=21706

While there exist some small-scale examples of ‘renewables’ producing needed industrial products and ‘fuelling’ heavy equipment (and lots of marketing propaganda by vested interests around these; mostly, I would argue, to attract capital), the scale and cost are prohibitive, especially for a world already drowning in debt — to say little about the finite resources required to ‘convert’ the processes necessary. The bottom line is that in the present, and forgoing some miraculous as-yet-to-be-discovered technology, fossil fuel-based industrial processes are required for energy-harvesting technologies:

Cement, Steel, Aluminum production— https://energyskeptic.com/2014/alt-energy-too-much-steel-cement-aluminum-but-little-power/; https://grist.org/politics/cement-has-a-carbon-problem-here-are-some-concrete-solutions/; https://oilprice.com/Energy/Coal/Is-It-Possible-To-Make-Steel-Without-Fossil-Fuels.html; https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=7570
Mining — https://grist.org/article/report-going-100-renewable-power-means-a-lot-of-dirty-mining/; https://energyskeptic.com/2016/when-trucks-stop-running-table-of-contents-preface-references/;
In General — https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm; https://phys.org/news/2021-10-net-policies-emperor-academics.html; https://medium.com/politically-speaking/when-renewables-are-not-renewable-8369808a7cea

These processes also add significant pollutants to a world already experiencing overloading of its various compensatory sinks, to say little of the reality that fossil fuel use has seen little if any contraction in demand despite decades of exponential increase in so-called renewables.

Here are a handful of ‘academic’ articles on how the industrial processes necessary for ‘renewables’ impact negatively the environment. They are neither ‘clean’ nor ‘green’ but are almost always referred to them as such (again, a marketing ploy):

University of Queensland studies — https://phys.org/news/2020-09-renewable-energy-threat-environment.html; https://phys.org/news/2020-03-renewable-energy-threaten-biodiverse-areas.html
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Institute of Technology — https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281550386_Environmental_Impacts_of_Renewable_Energy_Technologies
National Academies Press — https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/12987/chapter/6
Nature Communications — https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17928-5

Here are a couple of charts to demonstrate that fossil fuel use has not decreased as ‘renewable energy technologies have increased in use (and significantly increased the past two decades). As this article highlights, the increase in ‘renewables’ has not detracted from our fossil fuel use (our dependence upon fossil fuels has continued to increase), it has simply offset the decline in nuclear-powered energy:

Highlighting the negative aspects of these technologies and the observation that they do not seem to be actually ‘solving’ in any way our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot, or reducing our dependency upon fossil fuels, or reducing our destruction of the planet, is not ‘a mission received from God’; it is about challenging a narrative that seems quite problematic but is being marketed by many as the ‘solution’ to something that is increasingly looking to be a predicament that cannot be solved — and as William Catton Jr. pointed out in his 1980 text, we seem destined to experience the collapse that always tends to accompany overshoot because: “..habits of thought persist…people continue to advocate further technological breakthroughs as the supposedly sure cure for carrying capacity deficits. The very idea that technology caused overshoot, and that it made us too colossal to endure, remains alien to too many minds for ‘de-collosalization’ to be a really feasible alternative to literal die-off. There is a persistent drive to apply remedies that aggravate the problem.”


My ‘motivation’ for sharing the above is to provide the opportunity for the reader to decide thru their own reading and ‘research’ which story appears more believable. As The Honest Sorcerer recently wrote in this article (and others have similarly argued[1]), it takes some ‘magical thinking’ to believe that non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies are any type of ‘solution’ for the predicament of ecological overshoot and for attempting to ‘sustain’ our globalised, complex society.

The widespread adoption of magical thinking to avoid anxiety-provoking cognitions is in no way surprising. It is perhaps, as Ajit Varki argues, that “Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species — including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior…”[2].

The allure of non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies is that they can create a story in which a transition to a ‘green/clean/sustainable’ future with most (all?) of our current complexities is not only possible but assured; in fact, for some, it is the only future we should be pursuing if we are to avoid civilizational ‘collapse’.

Such a future may be possible, I suppose, if ALL the right conditions are met — the most significant that I can think of off the top of my head are being far fewer people, far less imperial endeavours by our ruling elite, and the acceptance of far, far lower living standards by those in so-called ‘advanced’ economies.

Revealing the impediments that exist in such a narrative is not a God-inspired mission as Dr. Bardi accuses. But it can create both anxiety and significant uncertainty for those who have hooked their wagon up to the ‘renewable’ horses and are hoping to get to the big sustainable city on the horizon. So it’s not surprising that many (most?) rail against the argument that our current complexities can in no way be sustained via non-renewable, energy-harvesting technologies and our future path is likely going to be far more chaotic and problematic than most imagine — at least for those that ponder such a predicament, since most actually tend not to think about it.

A book I highly recommend to help in one’s understanding of our penchant for clinging to stories that appear ‘certain’ but very often are not is Dan Gardner’s Future Babble (my personal summary notes can be found here).

As he argues:

It is more often than not the confident, self-assured voice providing a simple story (regardless of ‘evidence’ to the contrary) that is the most persuasive and influences beliefs more — one told by the ‘hedgehogs’ as Gardner calls them. Contradictory evidence is rationalised away and certainty assured.

Given our predisposition to avoiding uncertainty and wishing control (to avoid fear and anxiety), we search for certainty, employ magical thinking, and see patterns where none exist; and someone who sounds like they are sure of their story (and especially if they are an ‘authority’ figure or ‘expert’) is preferred to the ‘foxes’ who will acknowledge complexity and uncertainty about their narrative with warnings and unsureness. Research demonstrates, however, that it is the enthusiasm and confidence more than the expert status that persuades people. It instills a sense of trust. Unfortunately, such overconfidence can lead people astray and into accepting false beliefs.

Further, Gardner argues that human cultures have always created stories about themselves and their world. This allows knowledge to be passed from generation to generation, strengthens social bonds, and allows possible outcomes to be practised. These narratives also function to explain and make sense of phenomena but if such stories are left unresolved, we are unsettled and search for resolution. And if the narrative doesn’t fit into our prior beliefs, we tend to ignore it or deny its implications. If we happen upon a ‘trusted’ expert’s story that resonates with our beliefs and values, we cling to it regardless of their prediction record (usually by forgetting failures but celebrating successes).

Misremembering and hindsight bias not only contribute to the illusion that the past was not uncertain but lead us to be less sceptical of prognostications about the future. We don’t recall that we worried about an uncertain future previously and that most predictions never materilaised. We seek certainty about the future and find it in trustful ‘experts’ and their forecasts.

In the end, we all believe what we want to believe; ‘facts’ be damned…

We could ‘debate’ the ‘facts’ forever and in reality be no closer whatsoever to the ‘truth’ as to whether ‘renewables’ could support a complex society, for only the playing out of the timeline can determine which perspective is ‘correct’. From a scientific method standpoint, we would carry out a number of experiments where significant variables would be controlled (hopefully) and eventually reach consensus on an interpretation of evidence.

Obviously, we cannot do such reality-testing for many (most?) of the narratives we create in our attempts to understand the world and sketch a rough picture of the future, so we continue to debate with the psychological mechanisms that impact our perceptions and beliefs influencing us constantly. While it is one thing to recognise that we are affected by these psychological phenomena, it is quite something different to be able to shield ourselves from them no matter how much we try.

In addition, we often have little to no idea about the eventual consequences of a remedy for a perceived problem, especially if it is a relatively newly recognised one — let alone a predicament that has no ‘solutions’. One of the things I have argued about complex systems is that with their non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, they are impossible to predict (let alone control). Even with the most sophisticated models and the most powerful computer systems, the tiniest of errors in baseline assumptions can result in predictive trajectories being completely off-base from what may eventually occur.

I raise the above point because one of the arguments against pursuing non-renewable energy-harvesting technologies is that their production would bolster our overshoot by further withdrawing finite resources and overloading compensatory sinks. It would put us in even worse peril then we already seem to be in. Is this assured? Obviously not since the future is unwritten and unknowable but the danger remains. To argue there is no danger requires some significant denial, bargaining, and magical thinking.

Regardless of the real dangers and the accumulating evidence that our technologies have in fact created our overshoot and pursuing more of them will result in significant ecological damage, I have a feeling that attempting to create more of them is exactly what we will do. For it is the ruling elite who tend to be the ones who steer our economic policies and decisions, and they stand to profit handsomely from the production of such technologies due to their ownership of the industrial processes and financial institutions required for their production and distribution.

The notion of a managed ‘collapse’ which some advocate for is anathema to those that sit atop the power and wealth structures that exist in our globalised complex society. Better to advocate for and cheerlead confidently a path that can be packaged in a shiny techno-box of hope and certainty for the masses while ensuring revenue streams are maintained or even expanded.

Damn the consequences. Full speed ahead.

[1] See Erik Michaels and Charles Hugh Smith.

[2] https://carta.anthropogeny.org/events/sessions/mind-over-reality-transition-evolution-human-mortality-denial

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXIV–Will Another Civilisation Rise From Our Ashes?

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXIV

August 15, 2022 (original posting date)

Tulum, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

Will Another Civilisation Rise From Our Ashes?

Today’s contemplation has been generated in response to some comments on a Chris Hedges’ article I shared in the Peak Oil Facebook group I am a member of. Hedges’ article suggests our civilisation has not been the first to collapse but it will be the last. Two members suggested this is likely not to be the case and that another will arise — I have my doubts.

Will another civilisation rise after ours collapses?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Circumstances are always different and most certainly are today with our globalised, industrial civilisation that is, for all intents and purposes, completely reliant upon the dense and highly-transportable energy of fossil fuels — a finite resource that has encountered significant diminishing returns.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three significant impediments to a global, complex society again rising from the ashes of our destined-to-collapse one.

First, our environment (globally) has been degraded to a significant degree. Little fertile soil remains with most of the arable lands having to depend upon fossil fuel supplements to boost food production to feed all of us[1]. Toxic chemicals have spread across the planet, some of which have had devastating impacts upon ecological systems and other species (especially very important pollinators)[2]. It will take significant time, perhaps millennia, for our planet to recover and allow the over-exploitation that is necessary for a widespread, complex society to once again flourish[3]. And then there are those who contend that our burning of fossil fuels have created an irreversible greenhouse effect that is leading to feedback loops that will ensure inhospitable environmental conditions and precluding many, if any, species to survive long on this planet[4].

Second, today’s complex societies (but especially so-called ‘advanced’ economies) have resulted in a situation — because of our leveraging of fossil fuels — where almost no one has the skills/knowledge to be self-sufficient. In the past, most of a population was still heavily involved in food production and fundamental self-sufficiency skills, and so when a society ‘collapsed’ most people dispersed into the countryside and were able to fend for themselves[5]. That is certainly not the case today. The ability to procure potable water, grow one’s own food and/or hunt and gather, and construct shelter needs for the regional climate has been mostly lost. Few of an advanced economy’s populace would survive for much more than a few weeks/months without the ‘conveniences’ of our many energy slaves due to this loss of knowledge/skills — to say little of the chaos that would ensue and probably wipeout many of those who might possess the wherewithal to get to the other side of the ecological bottleneck we seem to be in[6].

Finally, there are those very dangerous complexities that we have created that could put an exclamation mark upon our industrialised society’s impending collapse, any peoples remaining, and the ability to establish a future complex society. Nuclear power plants. Biosafety labs. Chemical production/storage facilities. We have a potpourri of potential environmental catastrophes once the ability to contain/manage these facilities and their waste products disappears — to say little of the damage that has already been done to our ecological systems from them. 437+ nuclear power reactors[7]. 59 biosafety labs[8]. Countless chemical production and storage facilities[9]. I can only imagine the local/regional/global impact of a loss of ‘containment’.

I’d argue the chips are stacked firmly against another complex society, certainly global-spanning one, developing again in the future. Of course, as several notable personalities have been credited with stating: It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future[10].

Only time will tell…

To help support my internet presence, please consider visiting my website and purchasing my ‘fictional’ collapse novel trilogy — Olduvai.

[1] I won’t even touch upon the overshoot predicament here. See: Catton, Jr., W.R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 978–0–252–00988–4).

[2] Biosphere integrity and biogeochemical flows have been suggested to be the most severe planetary limits we have surpassed: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html.

[3] Yes, every one overexploits its environment; a contributing factor to its eventual demise.

[4] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1810141115

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

[6] See: Catton, Jr., W.R.. Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse. Xlibris, 2009. (ISBN 978–1441522412).

[7] For those who cheerlead nuclear as the only ‘safe’ and ‘green’ option (they are not), these 437 reactors only account for 10% of current electricity generation. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/reactor-database.aspx

[8] ‘Safety’ is relative here given the number of ‘accidents/leaks’ that have occurred. https://theconversation.com/fifty-nine-labs-around-world-handle-the-deadliest-pathogens-only-a-quarter-score-high-on-safety-161777

[9] https://www.statista.com/topics/6213/chemical-industry-worldwide/#topicHeader__wrapper; https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Chemicals_production_and_consumption_statistics; https://cen.acs.org/business/World-Chemical-Outlook-2019-Around-the-globe/97/i2; https://archive.epa.gov/sectors/web/html/chemical.html.

[10] https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/20/no-predict/

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXIII–Primary Motivation For Society’s Elite

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXIII

August 11, 2022 (original posting date)

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Primary Motivation For Society’s Elite

It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently (for years to be honest) on the ever-present belief by most people that our governments/political class/ruling elite can lead the way to ‘solving’ our various crises, be it the ‘climate emergency’, ‘energy crisis’, ‘inflation’, ‘inequality’, ‘geopolitical disagreements’, etc.. I note such a perspective virtually every day be it in personal comments people make in social media posts and/or by journalists/contributors in the media (both mainstream and ‘alternative’); and it is particularly strong and echoed by almost everyone around election times or perceived ‘crises’.

Add to this belief the ‘bargaining/denial’ arguments that tend to suggest that the only reason the ‘problems’ have not been addressed/solved/mitigated is because we simply have not had the ‘right’ individuals or ‘party’ in power; once the ‘right’ people get chosen by the public, all will be well again — if the new government can overcome the disastrous policies/actions of the previous one or current political opposition[2].

I lost that perspective some decades ago[3]. I have increasingly come to view our world/nation state/regional ‘leaders’ (aka ruling elite/class) as part and parcel of our growing problems/predicament. In fact, more often than not I see their actions/policies as resulting in even worse situations — eventually[4] — yet they are often (always?) marketed to the public as optimal and beneficial for all (or may result in some slight, short-term pain, but most certainly will result in longer-term prosperity for all — think of the current narratives developing around the ‘austerity’ and ‘sacrifices’ required to support the war efforts in Ukraine[5]).

I have come to interpret our societal elites’ behaviour as primarily motivated by a never-ending drive to control/maintain/expand the wealth-generating/-extracting systems that provide their revenue streams and thus their power/wealth/prestige/privilege[6]. That some portion of the wealth they appropriate gets funnelled back into the public sphere is simply ‘the cost of doing business’; just as the number of financial institutions that knowingly ‘bend the rules’ to obtain obscene profits set aside a portion of that ill-begotten wealth to pay the eventual fines should they get publicly prosecuted for their shenanigans[7].

Perhaps the most egregious (but purposeful) ‘error’ our elite make is their chasing and cheerleading of the perpetual growth chalice (particularly economic growth[8], but they do also encourage population growth[9]). The common refrain/narrative is that growth is primarily — if not ‘solely’ — a benefit to human ‘progress’ and well-being, any negative impacts being discounted or rationalised away demonstrating a poor if not conveniently purposeful ignorance of the way complex systems behave.

It is as Donella Meadows argues in Thinking in Systems: A Primer[10]:

…a clear leverage point: growth. Not only population growth, but economic growth. Growth has costs as well as benefits, and we typically don’t count the costs — among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction and so on — the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! What is needed is much slower growth, very different kinds of growth, and in some cases no growth or negative growth. The world leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction. …leverage points frequently are not intuitive. Or if they are, we too often use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve.

It seems self-evident to me that this pursuit of perpetual growth runs into some fairly heavy obstacles in the sense of biophysical limits on a finite planet, despite arguments to the contrary — especially by most economists who argue for infinite substitutability as the ultimate solution to such limits, or the ever-expanding ‘printing’ of money.

There is not just the issue of resource limits and diminishing returns on extraction/exploitation of the necessary resources for our ever-increasing societal complexities (especially energy-producing ones) but the predicament of ecological overshoot that occurs when a species exceeds its environmental carrying capacity[11].

It’s instructive at this juncture to revisit what archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out in The Collapse of Complex Societies[12] given that his analysis and thesis rests primarily upon ‘collapse’ in the sociopolitical sphere (which then has serious repercussions in pretty well everything else for human societies).

Tainter argues that ”[c]omplex societies are problem-solving organizations, in which more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation, more inequality, and more kinds of centralization and control emerge as circumstances require.”[13] They are maintained almost exclusively through organisational control and specialisation.

Growth of complexity refers to size, distinctiveness and number of parts, variety of social roles, distinctiveness of social personalities, and a variety of mechanisms to organize parts into a whole.

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; 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, and the constraint that kin-ties had on individual political ambitions is lost.

States, perhaps the most complex of human societies, are characterized by: their territorial organisation (i.e. membership determined by place of birth/residence); a ruling authority that 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; maintenance of territorial integrity is stressed; and, greater stratification and specialisation, particularly with regard to occupation, develops.

Complex states, like their simpler societies, must divert resources and activities to legitimising authority in order for the political system to survive. While coercion can ensure some compliance, it is a more costly approach than moral validity.

To ensure moral validity amongst the populace, states tend to focus on a symbolic and scared ‘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). As the need for such religious integration recedes — although not the sense of the scared — once other avenues for retaining power exist.

In summary, organisational structures that arise in complex societies[14], especially as they grow larger and even more complex[15], concomitantly see the development of ‘power’ structures[16] that lead to outsized influence/power over others by a controlling elite that then creates and fosters legitimisation narratives, and/or coercive policies, to ensure these structures are maintained/expanded.

In addition, Tainter maintains that support, be it via legitimisation or coercion, also requires a material base. This support, however, can decline when output failure (political and/or material) ensues. As this process is ongoing, it necessitates resource mobilisation in perpetuity — a significant impossibility on a finite planet where such exploitation encounters diminishing returns due to our proclivity to extract the easiest- and cheapest-to-retrieve resources first. The tendency by the elite to deal with output failure is to begin pulling in resources from other spheres and/or increase coerciveness to maintain their priorities — be it using domestic reserves and/or surpluses, and/or exploitation of other societies.

Given the above, it is not a stretch to see that the primary motivation of the elite conflicts quite significantly with any policy/action/belief that would contend that growth cannot and should not be pursued in perpetuity. Throw in the evidence that we are in ecological overshoot and the predicament for humanity multiplies several-fold.

Then we encounter all the psychological and biological/physiological mechanisms that affect human beliefs and actions, and our situational predicament explodes. Cognitive dissonance reduction. Deference to authority. Desire to believe one has agency. Groupthink. Optimism bias. Confirmation bias. Avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure. Rationalisation/justification of behaviours that conflict with certain beliefs. Overarching propensity to deny reality.

This all adds up to a tendency to believe in comforting lies and avoid harsh realities. We want to believe the propaganda of the elite and their promises to address and ‘solve’ our crises. We want to believe we have significant impact on society and agency via the ballot box. We want to avoid looking in the mirror. We want to continue with our lives unencumbered by existential worries and let others, our ‘leaders’, ‘solve’ our ‘problems’.

What we have instead, I tend to believe, are elite confabs that result in grandiose promises to benefit society at large while in actuality end up funneling wealth to the owners of the industries and financial institutions required to produce and fund the actions/directives sold to us as ‘solutions’. A mainstream media (again, owned by the elite) that parrots the elitist rhetoric and provides a widely dispersed platform for the marketing and misleading propaganda of the ruling class, especially legitimisation narratives. An ever-expanding potpourri of racketeering, such as the ‘green/clean’ energy narrative, ‘equitable/beneficial’ creation/distribution of fiat currency, the necessary expansion of ‘war’ and government, etc..

The world is not as it appears to most. What most of us believe in is, in my opinion, a tightly controlled illusion that benefits a minority primarily at the expense of the majority.

There are no ‘solutions’ to our predicament of ecological overshoot and the inevitable collapse that is awaiting us (if not already begun). There is, at best, a ‘hope’ for some to come out the other side of the bottleneck we’ve created (primarily via our leveraging of technology to overexploit our planet and expand the human experiment).

But as I shared with someone who commented on my last contemplation: “Hope is very much a two-edged sword. It can indeed foster denial and bargaining so as to avoid the stress of cognitive dissonance and provide pleasure while avoiding pain. It can, depending upon how one’s energies are focused with some ‘hope’, serve to provide direction and impetus to acting in ‘better’ ways. As I see it, however, the problem is that our ‘elite’ (and feckless others) pedal and leverage it for purely self-serving purposes, and most soak their version of it up because comforting lies are much more enjoyable than harsh realities.”

Seeing beyond the grand illusion that has been constructed over the ages by the elite is, again in my opinion, what is necessary to understand what can and should be accomplished to salvage some of our human experiment. It is, as I have argued before, most important to attempt to relocalise as much as is possible potable water procurement, food production, and regional shelter requirements. It is not to give over responsibility to others who do not have your best interests but theirs in mind. And it is not to believe in their ‘solutions’ — that way surely leads to ruin.

A handful of readings that support the notion that the elite’s primary motivation is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating/extracting systems that provide their wealth/power/prestige/privilege:



[1] Often credited to humourist Mark Twain, research suggests this ‘just ain’t so’ (see: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/11/18/know-trouble/).

[2] I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that really changes after an election is the narrative we tell ourselves and others: If my ‘team’ wins, all will be right with the world soon enough; if the other ‘team’ wins, the world will soon go to hell in a handbasket.

[3] Through the years I have been involved in the ‘political’ sphere in a number of roles. During some of my post-secondary years, I chaired a university department’s students’ ‘union’ and got to witness academic ‘politics’ first-hand. Perhaps the most eye-opening experience, however, were the years I spent as the chair of a political action committee for a relatively large teachers’ federation/union. After that, I spent a number of years as one of the chief negotiators for the region’s school administrators.

[4] The time lag that often occurs between an action/policy and the negative consequences can sometimes be quite long, causing a connection between them to be mostly unseen. However, very visible (and always highlighted) ‘benefits’ can occur quickly — think of infrastructure construction here where the project is clearly visible and can be laid before the public but the ecological/resource consequences are externalised and/or temporally far-off allowing them to be ignored/discounted.

[5] https://www.axios.com/2022/03/12/democrats-gas-prices-russia-ukraine; https://caitlinjohnstone.substack.com/p/how-much-are-we-prepared-to-sacrifice?s=w; https://caitlinjohnstone.substack.com/p/more-escalations-in-online-censorship?s=w;

[6] I have reached this perspective through personal experience, observation of current events, and lots of reading. A handful of examples of relevant readings will be included at the end of this contemplation.

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/business/dealbook/guilty-pleas-and-heavy-fines-seem-to-be-cost-of-business-for-wall-st.html; https://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/breakout/11-billion-fine-just-cost-doing-business-jpmorgan-175948500.html; https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/faculty_scholarship/2147/; https://www.reporterherald.com/2013/01/16/bank-fines-just-a-cost-of-business/

[8] https://www.businesstoday.com.my/2022/07/09/encouraging-gdp-growth-will-strengthen-economy-in-q2/; https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/4d723-minister-donohoe-notes-strong-growth-in-gdp-and-encouraging-indicators-for-the-domestic-economy/; https://www.businessinsider.com/tech-industry-growth-midsize-us-cities-recession-economic-recovery-2020-10; https://www.forbes.com/sites/garyshapiro/2013/01/23/six-ways-to-create-economic-growth/?sh=220ee7017e32; https://www.cbpp.org/research/economy/economic-growth-causes-benefits-and-current-limits;

[9] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51118616; https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/14/world/europe/italy-births-fertility-europe.html; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-economy-population/japan-targets-boosting-birth-rate-to-increase-growth-idUSKCN0T113A20151112; https://southeusummit.com/europe/france/migration-creates-net-positive-population-growth-france/

[10] Meadows, D.. Thinking In Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. (ISBN 978–1–60358–055–7)

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

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

[13] Ibid. P. 37

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_society; https://anthropology.iresearchnet.com/complex-societies/

[15] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228384313_Organizational_complexity; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3367695/; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286533126_The_emergence_of_social_complexity_Why_more_than_population_size_matters;

[16] https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-structure/Theories-of-class-and-power

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLII–Criticising ‘Renewables’ is Not a Sin

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLII

March 1, 2022 (original posting date)

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Criticising ‘Renewables’ is Not a Sin

The following ‘contemplation’ follows on the heels of a discussion I began with another within a Facebook group I am a member of. The post and dialogue can be found here. Suffice it to say, I was, as has happened numerous times, criticised for a comment that challenged an argument for accelerating our shift from fossil fuels to ‘renewable’ technologies.

What follows is my response to their response to my comment that suggested we need to simplify our existence and not accelerate our pursuit of environmentally-/ecologically-destructive and complex technologies.

Let me respond to each of your paragraphs:

First, indeed humans have harnessed wind and water power for millennia but using far, far less complex and resource-intensive technologies and for far, far fewer humans so their impact on the environment has been multiple times less, and during times when numerous biophysical limits had yet to be broached or nearing such overshoot. You then create a straw man implying I am arguing to return to the ‘Stone Age’, which I did not[1]. I left open the nature of any type of ‘simplicity’ that we should be aiming for but there’s a good argument to be made that ‘simple’ windmills/waterwheels for far fewer humans than currently exist may be the only ‘sustainable’ option[2]. What I did argue is that we need to NOT seek complex technologies that continue the destruction of the planet as our ‘modern’ harnessing of wind/solar/water do; facts you have completely glossed over[3].

Second, to point out the significant issues with non-renewable renewables (NRRs), does not necessarily feed into the ‘climate change denial, fossil fuel fundamentalism’ you accuse me of[4]. This is another straw man based upon a complete lack of contextual interpretation of my comment, and continued ignorance of the environmental destructiveness issue I raise; to say little of the reality that a massive push to accelerate the processes needed to produce NRRs would require massive fossil fuel inputs (and lots of other finite resources; thus the reason they are non-renewable). I am as concerned about continued fossil fuel extraction and its impacts as I am about all the other resource extractions we continue to rely upon (and expand as diminishing returns increase in severity).

Third, I would argue we are not where we are primarily because of fossil fuels (although they have likely sped up our predicament) but because of our propensity to expand and create complex societies based upon a number of finite resources. Humanity has shown its complex societies have been ‘unsustainable’ from the very first ones, long before fossil fuels ever came into the picture — every complex society that has ever existed has eventually ‘collapsed’ due to diminishing returns on investments in complexity[5], and accelerating an adoption of NRRs fits into this perfectly; they require significantly increased inputs compared to outputs (while continuing to destroy our biosphere[6]).

Keep in mind that resource ‘wars’ far, far predate our past few decades of fighting over oil and gas (resources that, unfortunately, underpin our current massive global complexities and footprint). Fossil fuels have simply expedited our propensity to overshoot our local carrying capacity and taken it global in nature. It is this, ecological overshoot, that is our predicament; the consequences of which we increasingly appear to be unable to avoid because we’re misdiagnosing/misinterpreting it (and have been for some decades). I would argue that there is nothing that is ‘sustainable’ for close to 8 billion humans. Nothing, probably not even ‘Stone Age’ hunting-and-gathering.

By all means, let’s transition away from fossil fuels but let’s not exacerbate our predicament by chasing the wrong path that is increasingly being shown to be just as detrimental to our species and all the other ones we depend upon. If we are not talking significant degrowth and simplification, then we are just creating comforting narratives to reduce our cognitive dissonance[7].

Having said all this, however, I am convinced we will attempt the push into NRRs that you advocate as we slide down the Seneca cliff of resource/energy availability. For, after all, the ruling class[8] that controls/influences the mainstream narratives (and what most people think/believe) stand to profit handsomely from the effort for they also control/influence all the industries and financial institutions that are required to pursue such a path. The result will surely be a trajectory further into ecological overshoot and thus a more massive ‘collapse’ (which always accompanies a species overshooting its environment). Nature always bats last and we continue to deny this and end up putting ourselves in greater danger. And, unfortunately, it would seem even a lot of the most well-intentioned individuals and groups are cheerleading us along the wrong path.

[1] While I did not suggest we would return to the ‘Stone Age’ that may indeed be the endgame of our unknowable future. In fact, some of humanity may be ‘lucky’ to make it through the bottleneck we have created and actually live in a ‘Stone Age’ type way. Time will tell.

[2] What might be ‘sustainable’ depends upon a host of factors, most importantly the number of humans and the nature of their living standards. More resource-dependent living standards necessarily means far fewer humans can be supported.

[3] The industrial processes necessary to create and produce the current technologies to harness wind, water, and solar energy are highly finite resource-dependent (including fossil fuels) and require significant mining, transportation, refining, and construction processes that result in concomitant waste production; both toxic and non-toxic in nature.

[4] It seems any criticism of ‘renewables’ is immediately construed by many as being in favour of continued fossil fuel extraction and use. This seems to me to be more of an instantaneous emotional reaction than a considered interpretation of the context in which such criticism is made. Such dichotomous thinking, while a common defense mechanism, prevents one from seeing the complexities and nuances of situations and distorts perceptions.

[5] See archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies.

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



[7] My discussion here doesn’t even begin to elaborate on all the additional ‘headwinds’ we are bumping up against besides resource limits and overloading of planetary sinks, a significant one being the massive ‘debt’ that currently exists. With debt being, more or less, a claim on future energy we are in substantially more dire straits than it appears on the surface due to significant debt obligations and the Ponzi-like nature of our financial/monetary/economic systems. Most, if not all, economic activity could find itself collapsing completely with the implosion of the debt bubbles that exist far before resource limits bring it all crashing down; to say little about the impact of geopolitical stressors.

[8] I use the term ‘ruling class’ as a catch-all for those individuals/families/groups that sit atop a complex society’s power and wealth structures; and whose prime motivation is the expansion/control of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems which they tend to control/own/influence.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXX–To EV Or Not To EV? One Of Many Questions Regarding Our ‘Clean/Green’ Utopian Future, Part 1.

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXX

Pompeii, Italy (1984). Photo by author.

To EV Or Not To EV? One Of Many Questions Regarding Our ‘Clean/Green’ Utopian Future, Part 1.

Today’s Contemplation has been prompted by my recent thoughts regarding the debate around the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), their place in a world experiencing the predicament of ecological overshoot (and its various symptom predicaments but especially atmospheric sink overloading), and the competing narratives as to whether EVs can address in any way the environmental/ecological concerns and/or resource constraints/depletion that is at the forefront of discussions.

I’ve seen a recent array of arguments by proponents of EVs highlighting the increase in sales over the past few years[1], with some even using these relatively short-term trends to suggest that the end of the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is nigh[2] — and, for a few, that the world is ‘saved’[3]. I have my doubts and the following are some of the reasons why.

While the eventual ‘end’ of ICE vehicles is increasingly probable, it will likely be due to the ever-increasing impact of waning liquid, hydrocarbon fuel supplies and associated cost increases, not the burgeoning transition to EVs its cheerleaders are crowing about. Even government mandates[4] will unlikely create the widespread adoption of EVs advocates are demanding/encouraging as these directives will likely be cancelled or pushed further and further into the future as increasingly economically-challenged citizens rebel against them and various headwinds arise[5]. What we may experience is a curtailing of personal ICE vehicles for many as fuel supplies dwindle and are overwhelmingly taken up by the privileged sitting atop society’s power and wealth structures who can afford/access them — particularly in nations that control hydrocarbon resources. Of course, only time will tell how this all plays out both spatially and temporally.

The first thing to consider is that uptake on the margins by those with the financial ability to be early adopters of EVs does not a long-term trend make. This is especially so with smallish numbers of new purchases having outsized impacts on percentage increases in the early stages of availability. Early trends can be quite misleading and not truly representative of long-term ones. Bubbles happen in technology adoption and the initial euphoria can quickly peter out[6]. This may be what we are seeing with EVs; again, only time will tell.

It is estimated there were 1.4 billion motor vehicles on the roads in 2019[7] (excluding heavy construction equipment and off-road vehicles). In 2022, approximately three out of every twenty new car sales were EVs[8]. And while these vehicular sales can be marketed as monumental based upon comparisons carried out over a short-term perspective, it would take many years of such growth in sales to replace even half of the more than a billion ICE vehicles on the road[9]. Should this early sales growth slow (as some have argued — see below), then replacing over a billion ICE vehicles will take decades; if it happens at all.

Leaving without much comment at all the resource constraints that exist regarding the energy storage components that would be needed for this stupendous feat[10] — and the strain on existing electrical power production and its infrastructure[11] — there exist a number of impediments to a continuing increase in EV adoption suggesting the claims by their cheerleaders to be hopium-laced predictive tales rather than a reflection of on-the-ground reality; especially for a world experiencing diminishing returns on its investments in complexity and well into ecological overshoot — particularly with regard to finite resource depletion and associated shortages.

Perhaps one of the largest deterrents to the mass adoption of EVs is the cost[12]. Cost is a huge factor for many (most?) individuals/families when considering the purchase of a vehicle. This is as true for the purchase of an ICE vehicle as it is for an EV but there exists a variety of cheaper, used vehicles that allow more affordable price points in the ICE realm. Even given these less expensive options, the reality is that purchasers are struggling to afford personal transportation vehicles.

As a recent Zerohedge article highlighted for American car purchasers, an Edmunds analyst told Bloomberg News that: “We’re in this situation where combined with the cost of the vehicles being so high and the interest rates being so historically high, you have a lot of people who are in bad car loans.” As a result, “…the percentage of subprime auto borrowers at least 60 days past due in September topped 6.11%, the highest percentage ever.”

This may change with time but it’s not the current reality, and for potential EV purchasers there are growing concerns over battery degradation leading to declining range ability and more rapid cost depreciation for used EVs to consider[13]. Not only can EVs be substantially more expensive at the outset[14], reports of much higher repair costs[15] are beginning to surface and inhibiting purchases. Again, this may change over time if their uptake continues to grow but it’s a significant concern for cash-strapped families/individuals.

More and more families/individuals are struggling with price inflation of basic goods and services, let alone having to replace high-cost items such as increasingly ‘encouraged/mandated’ ‘low-carbon’ home heating appliances and transportation vehicles. In addition, government economic support via various incentives for EVs is beginning to be withdrawn[16].

‘RealClear’ publications have a fairly obvious bias/bend to them, but this particular article highlights a not so ‘hidden’ aspect of the ‘electrify everything’ narrative: the substantial government subsidies/incentives that has been driving the growth in non-renewable, renewable energy-based technologies (NRREBTs). These financial supports are quite widely publicised by our virtue-signalling politicians looking for brownie points with the public giving credence to the argument that without such incentives by governments (using taxpayer funds and hidden price-inflation taxes) the growth in these products would not be anywhere close to what they have been in recent years.

Countering this point has been the assertion that the main reason NRREBTs have not been widely purchased and sought after is due to oil and gas-industry subsidies[17] (and their massive negative propaganda), a practice that must stop — except for NRREBTS, and these should be increased in one form or another[18].

Digging further into recent data and policy changes (and despite counter-narratives bestowing the incredible recent increase) it would appear that growth in the pickup of EVs is/or is expected to stall/fall as these incentives/subsidies are removed[19]. Once again, only time will tell since it’s difficult to make predictions — especially if they’re about the future.

One other aspect of supposed EV sales records is the emerging evidence of channel stuffing[20] that is occurring. This is a deceptive sales practice that sends products to retailers in quantities far beyond their ability to sell them, but count the inventory as ‘sales’ thus influencing statistics. This has occurred for some time with regard to ICE vehicles[21] and is now being seen with EVs[22].

On top of the considerations described above, there are others who are extremely skeptical of the much ballyhooed benefits of such technologies from an environmental perspective. The production of both EVs and ICE vehicles have tremendous negative impacts upon our ecological systems. Perhaps the most salient differences being discussed are the fuel sources and the impacts of these. It’s not as simple, however, as one being much less destructive than the other and therefore the obvious choice to pursue and mass produce.

I will explore this further in Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] See this.

[8] See this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] See this.

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

[20] See this.

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

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVIII–The ‘Predicament’ of Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVIII

January 25, 2022

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

The ‘Predicament’ of Ecological Overshoot

The following contemplation has been prompted by some commentary regarding a recent article by Megan Seibert of the Real Green New Deal Project. It pulls together a couple of threads that I’ve been discussing the past few months…

There is no ‘remedy’ for our predicament of ecological overshoot, at least not one that most of us would like to implement. While it would be nice to have a ‘solution’, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner from which there appears to be no ‘escape’ — for a variety of reasons.

Most people don’t want to contemplate such an inevitability but the writing seems to be pretty clearly on the wall: we have ‘blossomed’ as a species in both numbers and living standards almost exclusively because of the exploitation of a one-time, finite cache of an energy-rich resource that has encountered significant diminishing returns but whose extraction and secondary impacts have led to pronounced and irreversible (at least in human lifespan terms) environmental/ecological destruction; this expansion of homo sapiens has blown well past the natural carrying capacity of our planetary environment and like any other species that experiences this the future can only be one of a massive ‘collapse’ — both in population numbers and sociocultural complexities.

Also like every other animal on this planet, we are hard-wired to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. But unlike other species we have a unique tool-making ability that we can use to help us address this genetic predisposition. So instead of accepting our painful plight and because of our complex cognitive abilities we have crafted a variety of pleasurable narratives to help us deny the impending reality — few of us ‘enjoy’ contemplating our mortality, so we avoid it or create comforting stories to soothe our anxieties and reduce our cognitive dissonance (an afterlife of some kind being one of the most common).

Throw on top of this the propensity for those at the top of our complex social structures to leverage crises to meet their primary motivation (control/expansion of the wealth-generation/extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and positions of ‘power’), and we have the perfect storm of circumstances to craft soothing stories of ‘solutions’ — especially through industrial production of ‘green/clean’ energy.

Conveniently left out of these tales (through both omission and commission) are the ‘costs’ of these ‘remedies’:
1) The actual unsustainability of industrial products dependent upon finite resources, including the fossil fuel platform.
2) The environmentally-/ecologically-destructive extraction and production processes required to construct, maintain, and then dispose of these ‘clean’ products.
3) The impossibility of any proposed energy alternative to fossil fuels to support our current energy-intensive complexities.
4) The social injustices being foisted upon peoples in the regions being exploited for many of the resources required for ‘green’ products.
5) The geopolitical chess games being played primarily over control of the resources — and the very real possibility of large-scale wars because of these.
6) The highlighting of immediately perceived benefits but the hiding of externalised negative consequences (that is made easier because of temporal lags in some of the effects).

Our propensity for ‘trusting’ authority combines with our desire to deny negative outcomes and leads the vast majority of people to believe that the oxymoronic solution of ‘green’ energy is real and achievable. Not only can we overcome the unfortunate consequences of our growth, but we can transition and sustain, no, improve, our standards of living if only we pursue with all our resources (both physical and monetary) the production of technologies cheered on by our ‘leaders’ — who just happen to profit handsomely from this. All it takes is belief…and, of course, the funnelling of LOTS of fiat currency into the hands of the ruling class.

Adding to the complexity of all of this, we walking/talking apes are highly emotional beings and loss impacts us significantly. We go through a rather complicated grieving process to come to grips with the negative emotions that accompany loss. The increasing recognition that we exist on a finite planet with finite resources and that we have reached or surpassed a tipping point in what we can ‘sustain’ of our social and physical complexities brings significant grief — few want the good times or conveniences to ever end. We experience a variety of stages in coming to accept our loss. Psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first proposed a five-stage process for this: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Most people, I would argue, are in one of the first three stages at this particular juncture of time. Many are still in complete denial. They continue to believe that things will work out just fine and that the Cassandras shouting about the apocalypse are just plain ‘kooky’. There are some who are indeed quite angry and they are protesting and demanding that our political systems address our issues. They are pushing back hard against the status quo systems, upset that they have been misled on many fronts. Then there are those who are bargaining hard and clinging to the idea that we can ‘tweak’ our current systems or find some ‘solution’, especially through the use of our technological prowess and resourcefulness.

Then there are those few who have moved into the acceptance stage. They recognise what has happened and what will happen. They have acknowledged the inevitability that the complex systems that we rely upon are well beyond our capacity to alter, except perhaps at the margins.

This is not to say those who have reached the acceptance stage have completely ‘given up’, which is an accusation often hurled by those in the earlier stages of grief — and usually along with a LOT of ad hominem attacks. Indeed those who I know accept our predicament are still ‘fighting’, as it were. They are attempting to: alert/inform others so as to not make our situation ever worse (which is exactly what technological ‘solutions’ do); pursuing marginal changes such as increasing the self-reliance/-sufficiency of local regions by advocating relocalisation and regenerative agriculture/permaculture, and/or advocating degrowth; and/or seeking solace through faith of some kind.

No one, not one of us gets out of here alive. Whether some of us or our descendants make it out the other side of the bottleneck we have created for ourselves is up in the air. I wish the stories that have been weaved about ‘renewables’ and the future they could provide were true but I’ve come to the realisation that the more we do to try and prolong our current energy-intensive complexities, the more we reduce the chances for any of us, including most other species (at least those that we haven’t already exterminated), to have much if any of a future.

A couple of relevant articles/links in no particular order of importance:

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVII–Decline of ‘Rationality’

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVII

January 15, 2022

Teotihuacan, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

Decline of ‘Rationality’

Got involved in a discussion after an Facebook Friend (Alice Friedemann, whose work can be seen here) posted a study on the decline of ‘rationality’ over the past few decades.

My initial response was as follows:

My initial thought is that this shift is more the result of a paradigmatic shift in academia itself from ‘Modernism’ to ‘Post-Modernism’ that has slowly filtered into the mainstream than anything else. As a university student during the entire decade of the 1980s, I was exposed to A LOT of Post-Modernist philosophy that questioned ‘Rationality’. Off the top of my head I recall a number of the philosophies I was exposed to coming from such academics as: Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, Friedrich Nietzche, Martin Heidigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stephen Jay Gould, G.W.F. Hegel, H.G. Gadamer, Thomas Kuhn, and Jurgen Habermas. The topics included: rationality, literary criticism, deconstruction, deconstructive criticism, hermeneutics, philology, metaphysics, and dialectics. These all reflected a questioning of the strict ‘factual’ or ‘rational’ universe at one level or another — especially the ‘subjectivity’ verses ‘objectivity’ aspects of ‘science’. Here’s just a few of the books I still have in my dwindling collection:

The conversation has brought back some of my interests that arose during my university education (the ten years were in the pursuit of four degrees from biology/physiology to psychology/anthropology that culminated in an M.A. in archaeology and B.Ed. for a career in education; retired almost ten years now). It’s been a while (decades) since I studied this stuff but here are my two cents on the topic:

There is definitely a difference between the hard/physical sciences and the soft/social ones. Measuring and observing chemical reactions, the movement of stars, or biological/physiological properties then projecting their past and/or future states is quite different then doing this when humans are involved in the equation, be it psychology, economics, history, etc..

Perhaps one of the reasons that the Post-Modern era occurred was the result of the social sciences attempting to legitimise their fields as ‘science’ in order to be taken more seriously. Regardless, I still believe humans cannot ever be ‘objective’, especially about themselves; there are just too many psychological mechanisms affecting our cognition. Then there are the ‘incentives’ that exist in research and academia that impact ‘science’; not only the interpretation of results but their use and distribution/publication.

I also believe that as an endeavour practised by very fallible human beings science cannot help but be ‘subjective’ in nature. On more than one occasion we can see the exact same physical evidence being ‘interpreted’ in diametrically-opposed ways by ‘experts’ in the same field, and consensus, if it does occur, can sometimes take place as a result of persuasiveness and influence of a group rather than as a reflection of the evidence itself. This makes one of the more important aspects of science, the modelling of future states, even more problematic — to say little about our ‘interpretations’ of past states.

Throw complexity, non-linearity, and chaos into the mix and everything becomes less prone to accurate modelling and interpretation, no matter how sophisticated or how much data is input. In fact, the more data and more complex the model the more prone it is to error, especially due to the assumptions that tend to get built into them. The smallest of input errors can result in the largest of output result errors.

Certainly there are some models and projections that are better than others and evidence leads to ‘laws’ that are for the most part, irrefutable; but for better or worse, science tends to work on probabilities and rarely absolutes, with the passage of time being the verification of how accurate the base assumptions and model are.

So, I think we need to be careful as Post-Modern thought is challenged and rejected that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way and as some are doing attempt to place science upon a pedestal from which it cannot be questioned or criticised, ever. I’ve run into individuals who will not accept any questioning of ‘science’ or criticism of the endeavour. As soon as you pose a question you are labelled a ‘denier’ and ignored or attacked. Science is absolute, irrefutable, and always correct. Always.

One of the dangers I’ve observed in an unquestioning faith in ‘science’ becomes the increasing leveraging of cherry-picked science by the ruling class to justify/rationalise policy and/or actions; something that has happened in the past and that we seem to be seeing more and more of with it being accompanied by the insistence that the policy/action taken is absolutely correct, cannot be questioned, and anyone critical is anti-science, anti-rational, anti-government and should be silenced, ostracised, marginalised, deplatformed, etc., etc.. And it could very well be that the apparent increasing questioning of ‘science’ is the epiphenomenon of people questioning the ruling class, not necessarily the scientific process itself.

And while the above beliefs of mine may appear as anti-science to some I would argue they are not. They are simply critical awareness of the fact that science is an endeavour practised by very fallible human beings that live in a social world where they are pushed and pulled in numerous directions by a variety of forces that can and do influence the way they think and interpret their physical world. Add to this the (ab)use of ‘science’ by the ruling class and we have the perfect environment for controversy beyond a simple reflection about the human aspects of the practice of science.

We have to be very careful that science does not become a cult where its adherents are ‘righteous’ and ‘better than the others’ because of their ‘correct’ beliefs. That sounds an awful lot like using science to create a new religion to me.

I close with a passage near the beginning of an article on the idea of a ‘renewable’ energy transition by Professor Emeritus Dr. William Rees and Meghan Seibert that I believe is relevant:

“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.”

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVI–On Narrative Control and ‘Fact Checking’

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVI

December 21, 2021

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

On Narrative Control and ‘Fact Checking’

One of the areas of interest for me as I weaved my way through my ten years of formal post-secondary education (yes, I spent the entire decade of the 1980s pursuing four degrees at several different universities; some of it part-time as I waffled between education and full-time work for relatively good pay in a grocery store) was that of epistemology (the nature and origins of ‘knowledge’). It was likely the result of some of my required readings: Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Clifford Gertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures. Regardless, I ended up exploring (outside of my regular classes) such topics as deconstructive criticism, hermeneutics, and philology; interesting topics for someone who ended up teaching elementary school students (10 years) and as a school administrator (15 years).

Upon reflection, this exploration of how humans come to ‘know’ what they know (or at least what they believe) has led me to be rather skeptical of dominant narratives, especially of ‘authority figures’. My challenging of ‘authority’, as it were, may have come somewhat ‘naturally’ given I grew up in the household of a police officer. Not that I consider my dad to have been ‘authoritarian’, not at all, but the somewhat ‘natural’ pushback children can give to parents was slightly coloured in our household by the simple fact that my dad was a sociocultural authority figure on top of his role as a father.

Anyways, I believe I have always questioned to a certain extent the ‘popular’ stories we are exposed to. And as I’ve read more widely over the years, I’ve come to hold that these stories tend to always play to the pursuits of the people that dominate society’s economic and power structures. Reading Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State, and Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance has certainly solidified that feeling. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the primary motivation of our ruling elite is the control/expansion of the wealth-generating/extraction systems that provide their revenue streams. Everything they do serves this purpose in one way or another. Everything.

As Chomsky makes clear in Hegemony or Survival, one of the dominant concerns of the ruling elite is controlling the masses. Without such control, their power and privilege is at risk since the masses far, far outnumber the elite.

Rothbard argues in Anatomy of the State even just simple, passive resignation by the people that the status quo structures are inevitable is enough to sustain them. To ensure such acceptance, the State employs ‘opinion molders’ to justify/rationalise/persuade the population of the beneficence of the ruling elite and that some alternative is far worse.

In Propaganda, Bernays sets out arguing that democracies being so complex require an unseen group of people to guide their ideas and beliefs so as to ensure cooperation. It is this special cadre that directs what stories/narratives are to be believed that is the real ruling power in a society, not its politicians. And, of course, Bernays became an important part of the US Empire’s storytelling to market geopolitical ‘interventions’ as adventures in nation building and spreading democracy.

So, narrative control is essential to maintaining power and privilege. One of the growing ways of controlling the narrative in a world of social media and non-mainstream/corporate digital news is to ‘disprove’ alternative stories. One of the more recent forms of such control has been the phenomenon of ‘fact checking’. Fact checking has been marketed as a form of objective and investigative research into claims disseminated by others. If one can ‘check’ the ‘facts’ and show them to be biased, prejudiced, misinformed, misguided, purposely false, etc., then one’s own narrative can be shown to be ‘true’ and ‘factual’.

It would appear, however, that the ‘fact-checking’ narrative itself is beginning to fray quite openly, perhaps reinforcing the accusation by some that the process of ‘fact checking’ is far more about giving the appearance of objective support for dominant/mainstream storylines (virtually always in favour of the power and economic structures that favour the ruling elite) rather than actually providing ‘factual’ buttressing of well-documented and evidentiary arguments.

Although you will have some difficulty finding the following stories in most (all?) mainstream/corporate media outlets (this is one of the ways legacy media censures stories; they simply don’t report on them at all or very marginally— see the organisation Project Censored for ongoing examples), there is increasing exposure that ‘fact checking’ is nothing more than another tool in the toolbox of narrative control/propaganda used by the ruling elite.

In a lawsuit by journalist John Stossel, Facebook has defended its ‘fact checking’ by claiming that the third-party fact checkers it uses are merely the ‘opinion’ of the fact checkers it depends upon and thus protected under the U.S.’s First Amendment. It’s ‘opinion’ not actually ‘factual’ so the lawsuit is frivolous.

In another accusation of wrong-doing, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook/Meta calling the censorship and flagging of some of their work very problematic. In fact, the editors of the journal called Facebook’s fact checking: “inaccurate, incompetent, and irresponsible.” Facebook/Meta has yet to reply.

We have a long-time journalist standing up to the fact-checking process and Facebook defending itself by stating these ‘fact checks’ are really just the opinion of others. Followed by a well-respected medical journal challenging Facebook’s fact checking as completely off-base and unfounded. Two pretty strong strikes against a powerful media’s supposed objective ‘fact checking’ and increasing censorship of non-mainstream stories.

I could go one with example after example of such blatant manipulation of narratives by our ruling elite and their so-called ‘fact checkers’ but what else is there to say? Except, if the mainstream/corporate media and/or government/politicians are pushing repeatedly a narrative (or purposely censoring one), then it likely serves the purpose of manipulating what you believe so as to maintain/expand the status quo power and/or economic structures of our society. Their stories, no matter the rationalisation/justification for them, should always be viewed critically and questioned. Chances are they are serving their narrow purposes, not the wider society’s.

I see this all the time in many of the energy/resource stories I read and the domineering economic paradigm through which the ‘facts’ are viewed at the expense of an ecological lens. And while there has been a growing incorporation of environmental/ecological concerns in the energy/resource narratives, it seems to me it’s more about crafting storylines that serve to leverage concern about natural limits to further expand wealth and control, and certainly not to address the notion that we can’t continue to pursue growth in any form in perpetuity without doing irreparable damage to the natural systems we depend upon for our very survival.

No, we can chase growth, employ everyone, and forever raise our standards of living by constructing ‘Net Zero’ buildings and electric vehicles, all powered by ‘clean/green’ energy, and living happily ever after. Comforting stories to be sure, but also ones that feed the insatiable profit-seeking of the ruling elite at the expense of the natural systems that provide our ability to be alive.

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

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXV–Exponential Growth, Natural Carrying Capacity, and Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXV

December 8, 2021

Pompeii, Italy (1984) Photo by author

Exponential Growth, Natural Carrying Capacity, and Ecological Overshoot

The following very short contemplation was in response to some comments on an Andrew Nikiforuk article in The Tyee.

As an Apex predator, humans were on a path from the outset to likely overshoot the natural carrying capacity of their environment. As the late Dr. Albert Bartlett opines in a must-watch presentation on our inability to understand the exponential function: “…here we can see the human dilemma — everything we regard as good makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.”

As William Catton argues in Overshoot, we humans have had two approaches to overcoming carrying capacity limits and continuing our exponential population explosion and global reach/impact: the takeover and drawdown methods.

For millennia we relied upon taking over unexploited regions by migrating. The biggest boost came about with the European ‘discovery’ of a second hemisphere.

Then, a couple of centuries ago, we began exploiting the drawdown method that relies upon extraction of fossil energy to inflate the human carrying capacity.

Given that the drawdown method relies upon a finite resource, that avenue of extending the limits to our expansion could only ever be temporary. And, it would appear, we encountered diminishing returns on the drawdown method some decades ago but are only now really beginning to experience the limits imposed upon us by a finite planet.

Population biology shows us what happens to a species that comes to rely upon finite resources (or renewables ones that are over-harvested faster than can be replenished): population collapse.

We have this knowledge and awareness but for many reasons we tend to refuse to accept it. Instead we craft comforting narratives in our denial or bargaining to avoid thinking too deeply about it.

There is no solving this via our technology or ‘ingenuity’ (in fact, there’s a good argument to be made that our attempts to do this are actually expediting and adding to our overshoot by increasing our drawdown of finite resources, further overloading our planetary sinks, and further reducing our carrying capacity). Our refusal (for whatever reason) to degrow/downsize/power-down/etc. ensures we lose our chance to mitigate the consequences of our overshoot.

After posting this comment, Alice Friedemann (see her Energy Skeptic website) posted the following on Facebook. I encourage everyone to read this and consider signing it.

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.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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