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I founded the Collapse Party one year ago after coming to the hard realization that industrial civilization is unsustainable and that – barring revolutionary socio-political (e.g. “ecotechnic dictatorship“) or technological (e.g. geoengineering) transformation – it’s catastrophic unraveling by the middle of this century is almost inevitable. As neither of development seems to be in the pipelines, I decided it was time to explicitly thinking about the political dimensions of adapting to a re-localized world, in which resource depletion and climate change make impossible the huge economies of scale and their supporting technologies that we know take for granted.

collapse-party-end

The immediate inspiration was Dmitry Orlov’s essay The Collapse Party platform, which argued for setting up a mechanism to clean up the mess left behind industrialism and preparing society for the collapse. Orlov was personally pessimistic about the chances of political organizations achieving this, since to some extent the very notion of a “collapse party” is a contradiction in terms. After a year, it turns out that he was right – at least in the short term. I have neither the time nor the means to push this project, nor have I been able to do anything substantial about it apart from the (soon to disappear) site and a Facebook group. Furthermore, on further examination it never would have any good prospects anyway – even apart from the fact that few comprehend the sheer scope of our predicament, such a “pessimistic” view is politically unappealing to the vast majority of people.

This post will archive the Party’s Manifesto, which I do think contains some useful pointers to future action. The longer its recommendations remain the laughing stock of “polite society”, the more violent will be the long-term outcomes as the industrial engine splutters and screeches to a stop – and the more brutal and dictatorial the means that will be required to mitigate and adopt to the new conditions. But as a political project the Collapse Party is quixotic, and in any case there’s no point worrying about things you can’t change. Instead, I would recommend focusing on the great new opportunities of an opening Arctic: getting in early on its coming investment boom, snapping up prime Far North real estate and establishing your family as the future landed aristocracy. For true prophets are despised, but Tsars are feared and respected!

collapse-party-dance

The Collapse Party Manifesto

Anatoly Karlin

The world is finite, and so the resource stocks and pollution sinks that sustain industrial civilization (“the System”) are limited. We have been in a state of “overshoot”, beyond the “carrying capacity” of the Earth, since the 1980′s (The Limits to Growth, 2004). Limited resources have been drawn down much faster than they could be replenished, and the Earth’s pollution sinks have been overfilled much faster than they could be regenerated.

Elements of this overshoot can already be seen in phenomena as diverse as plateauing crop yields, topsoil loss, accelerating climate change, peak oil, collapsing fisheries, the depletion of higher-EROEI energy sources, dying rivers, global dimming, the proliferation of “failed states”, neo-colonial exploitation, and rising antibiotic resistance. But things are yet going to get much worse…

Based on paleoclimate reconstructions of CO2 levels, an eventual global warming of above 2C is already inevitable. This will set off a cascade of climatic disasters that will speed up the rate of warming, leading to the desertification of much of the world’s land and oceans, the drying of the great Asian rivers, and massive inundations of the low-lying coasts and deltas that harbor humanity’s heartlands. States will collapse into anarchy, spawning Biblical-scale famines and floods of climate refugees.

Meanwhile, the energetic resources that power the System will be coming under severe strain. Oil production has already peaked, and natural gas and coal will follow in a few more decades. The remaining resources are much harder to extract, since the easiest pickings have already been exploited. We will have to divert ever more energy, labor, and capital towards mitigating the effects of both energy depletion (renewables, remote hydrocarbons) and runaway climate change (adaptation, geoengineering).

This will starve agriculture and the consumer sector, ushering in disillusionment, social discontent, and a longing for a strong hand at the helm of power. This will undermine liberal democracy’s political legitimacy, leading either to anarchy (“failed states”) or increasing coercion (authoritarianism). Geopolitical rivalries over the remaining energy resources will intensify, extinguishing the already dim prospects for international cooperation. Long-term thinking will recede into irrelevance, for political leaders will have their hands full with much more pressing issues – building sea walls, feeding the military, and placating (or dispersing) angry mobs.

Our only way to escape this trap is to rapidly effect a global transition towards “sustainable development”. The imperative of such a transition was recognized as early as the 1970′s, but we have yet to see any truly meaningful action. Nor are we likely to, since the defining feature of industrial-capitalist civilization is indefinite growth, based around the taking of loans against (higher) future returns. There’s a reason why Malthusian societies suppressed usury – and should we continue business-as-usual, we will soon rediscover why.

Though the System is very effective in some ways, it cannot foresee its own demise; nor can its servants even ask questions that hint at the unpalatable answer. However, the casual, detached, and informed observer can. Yes, in a purely technical sense, disaster can still be averted if one could convince people to make, or more likely force through, drastic reductions in First World overconsumption, a full-scale retooling of the industrial system towards renewables and recycling, and a global system of “contraction and convergence” on CO2 emissions.

Achieving this, however, is unlikely in the extreme; any transition to sustainability is going to be stymied by social myopia and geopolitical anarchy, as well as innate human psychological features such as the conservative bias, the denial complex, hedonism, and susceptibility to “creeping normalcy” and “landscape amnesia”. Unless we overcome these failings, or discover a technological silver bullet, we will collide with planetary limits to growth sometime around 2030 to 2050.

In that scenario, the System as a whole will become increasingly fragile, such that a large enough perturbation – say, a major war or global climatic disaster – will send it into a self-reinforcing spiral down into chaos. The electrical-industrial infrastructure supporting modern technology, especially the massive repositories of information entombed within cyberspace, will crumble away into oblivion.
After a short period of unprecedented violence, famine, pestilence, and death known as “the Collapse”, the world will get larger once more, and society will retreat back into the comforting blackness of a new Dark Age.

Faced with these grim prospects, we see it fitting to launch a multi-pronged initiative to if not avert a Collapse (as is the purpose of the global Green movement), then at least to attempt to mitigate, as best we can, its catastrophic humanitarian consequences. We do not wish on the demise of technological civilization, for we recognize that for all its ecological obliviousness and social injustices, it has enabled tremendous progress in science and many aspects of culture and human welfare. That said, we recognize that sometimes, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the tendency for all closed, complex systems to decay – cannot be sidestepped.

We are “kollapsniks”, and our initiative is the Collapse Party.

We are an individual state of mind, for being mentally prepared for collapse is of the utmost importance. We are profoundly local, for each community will have to weather collapse on its own. We are a global project, for our predicament is global. We welcome everyone regardless of race, sex, creed, or political affiliation.

We propose a program of “sustainable retreat”, emphasizing the following three main principles:

  • Reinforce resilience in the face of collapse.
  • Inform the people that business-as-usual will lead to collapse.
  • Prepare for collapse by focusing on “sustainable retreat” and targeted technological development mitigate the severity of any ultimate collapse.

The Collapse Party Platform

These principles are to be pursued through and beyond the following set of policies.

  • Use the remaining high-EROEI fossil fuel stocks in a crash program to build as large a nuclear and renewable energy infrastructure as possible.
  • Clean up radioactive and toxic installations while we still have the technologies and resources to do so.
  • Work on fostering global unity and a common human identity to encourage cooperation and discourage competition and resource wars.
  • Preserve as much as possible of the world’s stock of technologies, bioresources, and knowledge in dispersed repositories (“lifeboats”) in durable, physical format.
  • Retool the education system to disseminate practical skills and democratize it using the power of the Internet (as long as it continues to exist).
  • Liberalize copyright laws.
  • Promote communal-agrarian values (“green communism”), while ditching the individualist and accumulative mentality that is spelling our doom.
  • Unite all social groups under different wings of the Party – conventional Greens, as well as socialists, feminists, right-wing survivalists, etc – that are amenable to the kollapsnik message.
  • Eschew militarism, dismantle overseas military bases, and repatriate the troops; but maintain a minimal nuclear deterrent.
  • Nationalization and / or regulation of the commanding heights of the economy to optimize resource conservation and pollution control.
  • Establish a network of self-contained “resiliencies” across the nation and the world, modeled on the Kibbutzim, that will provide physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment to those who need it.
  • Allow mostly-unimpeded free enterprise for small, non-strategic, and low-material throughput businesses, for it will still be necessary to keep the consumerist urgings satiated.
  • The Party is to be aim to operate on a horizontal and democratic basis, in which promotion and honors are to be based on the judgments of peers on one’s competence and commitment to the cause.
  • The winding-down of the prison-industrial complex in a controlled manner; the nature of law and order to be determined in further internal debate.
  • General debt amnesty to wipe the slate clean and start from Year Zero in our quest for sustainability.
  • Expand resources into research on areas such as sustainable energy, geoengineering, and artificial intelligence to increase the chances of achieving a technological “silver bullet”.

Recommended LINKS from the site: The Archdruid Report; Arctic Progress; The Cost of Energy; Dmitry Orlov; Energy Bulletin; Energy Watch Group; George Monbiot; Green Party USA; Grist Environment; James Kunstler; Jay Hanson; Kurzweil AI; Mark Lynas; Matt Savinar; The Oil Drum; Paul Chefurka; Peak Oil News; Real Climate; Sharon Astyk; Stratfor; World Changing.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This post is a meta-commentary on media coverage of Russia’s drought and wildfires. Now make no mistake, I admire the yeoman work of some journalists in covering Russia burning: no doubt a few will even make their way into the classical cannon such as The Saga of the Burned Foot (Miriam Elder) or The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich (A Good Treaty). :) But in my opinion, they almost all fail to consider the key facts that render their Kremlin criticism moot and fail to grasp the “big picture”: the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010 as a mere herald of things to come.

In summary: 1) There is nothing the Russian government could have done to contain a natural disaster of such magnitude, 2) many of the lectures about how Russia could have done better to prepare itself would have been counter-productive had they actually been implemented, 3) the hysteria about Moscow turning into a giant morgue from heat stress and smog or radioactive ash clouds is overblown, and 4) the real problem, or rather predicament, is global warming, the effects of which are expected to transform Russia’s heartlands into Central Asia within the next few decades.

Unprecedented Drought, Reductio ad Putinum

I’m going to be using Julia Ioffe as a foil in this section (not because I hate her but because I’ve actually read her articles). In her August 5th shock piece, Russia on Fire, she writes:

A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out.

So assume that the Kremlin had listened to forestry expert Ioffe, and restarted the Soviet practice of forest fire suppression whenever they sprang up. That would have solved the problem, right? No. It would have made it a lot worse.

Left alone, forests experience small, contained fires every few years, which clear out excess undergrowth, replenish the soil and maintain the resilience of the forest ecosystem. But as soon as you start playing Canute to the woodlands, layers of dead biomass accumulate on the forest bed. Eventually, it reaches such a critical mass that the next heatwave is bound to create a conflagration, made catastrophic of the interventionist’s own hubris.

But that too would inevitable have been the Kremlin’s fault, according to the Gospel of Julia. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. In her discourse, the main things are personalities, Tsar-Batyushka, the Tatar-Mongol yoke… As Mark Chapman remarked on AGT’s blog:

If Russia’s leaders stay remote and aloof from their subjects, they’re cold and indifferent. If they make any attempt, even one that looks suspiciously scripted, to connect, they’re Janus-faced Tsars.

Now I’m not denying the possibility that the current fire suppression efforts have been riddled with corruption and incompetence. Time will tell. But consider this from another angle. This drought is unprecedented in its severity for at least the last 140 years, if not the last 500! Some much needed facts and figures (as opposed to anecdotes) from Jeff Masters:

At 3:30 pm local time today, the mercury hit 39°C (102.2°F) at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Moscow had never recorded a temperature exceeding 100°F prior to this year, and today marks the second time the city has beaten the 100°F mark. The first time was on July 29, when the Moscow observatory recorded 100.8°C and Baltschug, another official downtown Moscow weather site, hit an astonishing 102.2°F (39.0°C). Prior to this year, the hottest temperature in Moscow’s history was 37.2°C (99°F), set in August 1920. The Moscow Observatory has now matched or exceeded this 1920 all-time record five times in the past eleven days, including today. The 2010 average July temperature in Moscow was 7.8°C (14°F) above normal, smashing the previous record for hottest July, set in 1938 (5.3°C above normal.) J uly 2010 also set the record for most July days in excess of 30°C–twenty-two. The previous record was 13 such days, set in July 1972. The past 24 days in a row have exceeded 30°C in Moscow, and there is no relief in sight–the latest forecast for Moscow calls for high temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) for the next seven days. …

Dr. Rob Carver has done a detailed analysis of the remarkable Russian heat wave in his latest post, The Great Russian Heat Wave of July 2010. A persistent jet stream pattern has set up over Europe, thanks to a phenomena known as blocking. A ridge of high pressure has remained anchored over Russia, and the hot and dry conditions have created helped intensify this ridge in a positive feedback loop. As a result, soil moisture in some portions of European Russia has dropped to levels one would expect only once every 500 years.

Furthermore, consider the vast territorial extent of Eurasia’s drought.

[Russia blanketed by forest fire smoke. Source: NASA.]

In retrospect, the current death toll from the fires, at 50, might well be remarkably low, considering the extreme circumstances (compare with 173 deaths in the Black Saturday bushfires last year in Australia, a country Russia’s critics would all consider “civilized” and developed).

But what do I know? According to Julia Ioffe and Foreign Policy, forest fires only happen in countries with non-liberal Presidents.

Moscow Morgues & Radioactive Ash Clouds

Two rather hysterical stories doing the rounds. Make no mistake: premature deaths from heat stress are tragic. Moscow’s mortality rate rose by 29.7% in July 2009, relative to the same period last year. August might be even worse if the searing temperatures continue into next week. The morgues are overflowing, with the numbers of daily deaths multiplying by 2-7x over normal in recent days (the sources differ).

But this does happen when record-breaking heat waves strike, anywhere. I was unfortunate enough to be in Paris during the 2003 heatwave, when temperates hit 40C and more. It was a torrid hell of heat and concrete: I remember taking several cold showers per day and avoiding sun-drenched spaces like a vampire. But I had it good. People with pre-existing medical conditions were dying early. The French capital observed a 142% mortality increase in August 2003, with deaths spiking to 2-8x their normal levels during the week of the heat wave.

[Number of deaths in Paris during August 2003 heatwave.]

But at least Parisians are more used to hot summers and didn’t have to contend with the smoke. Neither can be said for Muscovites. So a high number of excess deaths – estimated to reach 40,000 by Jeff Masters – is regrettable, but to be expected.

[The 2003 European Heatwave and the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 compared.]

What about the fires releasing radioactive ashclouds from the areas around Chernobyl? Pure hysteria. Even if the inferno spread there, the radioactive particles released in 1986 have long since become diluted in the environment. Rinse and repeat if taken on an airborne ride by the fires a second time.

The Real Meaning of the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010

Most commentators prefer to spend their time discussing Putin’s ownage of the Sovok citizen blogger or the destruction of the naval aviation storage base that spawned a firestorm of blame and recriminations. It certainly doesn’t shed a good light into the nefarious workings of the Russian bureaucracy (few things do), but guys, this is largely irrelevant. What’s really significant is that this once-in-a-century (or is now once-in-a-millennium?) drought is a symptom of global warming, a few more degrees of which will transform the Russian heartlands into Central Asia.

So here are the really important things:

1. The collapse of Russia’s grain production, estimated to fall from 100mn tons in 2009 to just 65mn tons this year. This is huge. It reverses practically all the agricultural revival (in volume output) achieved in the past few years, bringing Russia back (maybe even below) its post-Soviet agricultural nadir. Furthermore, the depression may continue for another two years, if the earth is baked too hard for sowing the winter crop: a nation accounting for 25% of the world’s wheat exports will be out of business for two years. Coupled with agricultural decline in other countries (e.g. floods in China to reduce its rice crop by 5-7% this year) and rising food protectionism, social welfare in poor food importers like Egypt and Pakistan will plummet. The conditions aren’t in place for a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, but this does confirm that our age is now one of increasing scarcity.

2. This year is unprecedented everywhere: it is the hottest July on record (and the hottest year on record). Thermometers have been snapping left, right and center as new temperature records are set from Belarus to Sudan. The Arctic has given up the ghost, with sea ice volume plummeting into oblivion.

["Daily Sea Ice volume anomalies for each day are computed relative to the 1979 to 2009 average for that day. The trend for the 1979- present period is shown in blue. Shaded areas show one and two standard deviations from the trend."]

This is despite the fact that we are at a periodic, deep minimum in solar irradiance. One can only imagine the kind of havoc we’ll see in 2012-15 as it bounces back to its maximum.

And that’s not all the bad news. The Russian fires will have burned an unholy amount of biomass, which is even now making its way into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Historically, heatwave years are associated with above-average increases in atmospheric CO2 as the carbon cycle reverses direction. It is not impossible that 2010 will be the first year in which atmospheric CO2 increases by more than 3ppm (the previous record was 2.93ppm in 1998, a scorcher year that saw massive peat bog fires in Borneo).

The general agricultural and climate crisis is the context in which Russia’s wildfires must be framed.

3. The extent to which Russia benefits from global warming surely ought to be reassessed. Most climate models predicted a moderate increase in agricultural output on the cold Eurasian steppes with up to 2C of warming, making up for declining yields in the mid-latitudes and tropics. These assumptions might have to be reassessed if Russia’s Black Earth metamorphoses into a Dust Bowl. Though mass migration to the Arctic is a possible (and probably inevitable in the long-term) adaptation, it needs generations to be effected.

The preparations have to begin now. The sooner Putin and Medvedev realize this, the more favorably history will judge them; minor things will be forgotten. (I intend to write a post on Russia’s future as an Arctic civilization sometime in the next few weeks).

Russia is unlikely to ever have problems feeding itself, as long as its agricultural policies remain more or less sane. Nonetheless, its massive drought (which may become the norm rather than the exception sooner rather later) and grain export ban indicate it’s unwise to rely on it to bring big food surpluses to the global dinner table in the next few decades.

UPDATE, August 10: So it really is not just a one in a hundred years but a once in a thousand years event: Russian Meteorological Center: There was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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putmarck Kicking off the Watching the Russia Watchers interview series at S/O is the promising new blogger A Good Treaty. He is a DC-based foreign policy analyst who prefers a “good treaty with Russia” to only treating with a good Russia: as a foreign policy realist, he is averse to neocon (and neoliberal / liberal interventionist) tropes alike. A Good Treaty has a graduate degree in Soviet history and has lived in Moscow several times. His blog references Russian newspapers and makes original translations, and constitutes an excellent resource for any Anglophone seriously interested in Russian politics and Russian-American relations. You can follow Putmarck on Twitter.

A Good Treaty: In His Own Words…

Before answering any questions, let me take a second to thank Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion for taking the time to draft some very challenging questions that were very fun to (try to) answer. I tried to invent responses that were equally thought-provoking, and while I may have failed in that enterprise, I do hope to explain a little bit about the way I approach this work, which occupies a startling amount of my time.

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

I’ve been studying and working on Russia for about nine years now. Russia = bizarre, alluring, etc. I figure anyone reading my blog shares my interest in the Motherland.

I don’t expect this blog to have any impact on public policy or academic debate, but I do personally benefit a great deal from having a forum through which I can better synthesize my own ideas and listen to the responses of others.

The specific angle of AGT (the whole ‘realist’ POV) was a conscious decision I made after working in Washington for about a year. Democracy promotion, I soon discovered, has really supplanted all other approaches to foreign policy. Speaking outside this framework is the easiest way to get oneself painted as un-American and pro-dictatorship. This is largely a sham, since the United States has hardly stopped cooperating with nasty foreign states, but the dialog carried out in DC makes it very difficult for anyone to acknowledge this. Basically, I set out to avoid the old, tired normative analysis.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The most fun I’ve had so far is writing direct responses to articles that appear in the press. Doing this, I’ve managed to gain the attention of other bloggers and journalists, which has produced some stimulating private email exchanges and led InoSMI to translate a few of my posts (three, so far) into Russian.

The worst thing about blogging is an inverse of one of its best aspects: I’m regularly reminded how many talented, bright people there are out there with my exact specialty, who are regularly producing fascinating original work, and living abroad in Moscow, which I think of as a sort of bittersweet adventure.

What are the best blogs about Russia and the Eurasian space? What are the worst?

Some of my favorite Russia blogs (in no particular order): Julia Ioffe’s Moscow Diaries, Mark Adomanis’ On Russia, Sean’s Russia Blog, poemless (RIP — just kidding), this blog — Sublime Oblivion, The Russia Monitor, and Scraps of Moscow. I’ve recently started following Democratist, Dividing My Time, The Kremlin Stooge, and Neeka’s Backlog (which posts the loveliest photographs of Eastern Europe). In Russian, Maxim Kononenko at Idiot.fm and Oleg Kashin’s LiveJournal provide regular amusement. Evgeny Gontmakher, Medvedev’s “man on the outside,” has some amusing op-eds on his ‘blog’ at Ekho Moskvy. For military affairs, I regularly turn to the following three blogs: Russian Defense Policy, Russian Military Reform (Dmitry Gorenburg), and Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Pavel Podvig).

The Russia blogs with which I torture myself by reading are some of the following: the LJ blogs of Vladimir Milov, Vasily Yakemenko, and Andrey Illarionov. Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia reliably produces some of the longest, most rambling posts you’ll find online. Oleg Kozlovsky’s blogs (WordPress for English and LJ for Russian) are both as boring as they are terrible. Since Oleg decided to integrate his Tweets with his LJ account, there has been five times as much garbage. Ilya Yashin’s LJ blog, modestly titled in Spanish “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (A People United Will Never Be Defeated), is full of the same D-list self-promotion, but he sometimes includes photography and multimedia that makes reading his PR slightly more fun. (Also, he volunteered sordid details about an alleged threesome sex scandal that never got any corroboration beyond his own ranting. So, it can be entertaining on occasion, without a doubt.) And finally, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s blog, Spotlight on Russia, is another publication I love to hate for its unwavering commitment to recycling the most vapid, useless tropes about the ills of Russia.

I don’t even bother reading La Russophobe, which seems to just scrape the bottom of the Window on Eurasia barrel — another blog I skim but lack the stomach to honestly read. I think LR is too much opinion without enough style. Mark Adomanis (On Russia) and Mark Chapman (The Kremlin Stooge) are also very opionated and often openly insulting, but I’m able to enjoy their stuff mainly because (a) I don’t find their opinions to be so crazy (sorry, what can I say — I love to affirm my biases), and (b) their writing is immensely better.

What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I haven’t traveled Russia nearly enough. The farthest east I’ve been was a brief visit to Kazan’, which I thought was fascinating and beautiful. The local Kremlin there, which hosts both an Orthodox church and a mosque, has a marvelous statue out front dedicated to the world’s proletariat. Though I’m not a Marxist, the monument is awesome. Imagine Atlas breaking Ghostrider’s fire-chain in slow motion, and perhaps then you’ll understand how cool this thing is. Hell, just look at it here.

I’d love to see just about anywhere else in Russia I haven’t already been, which is most places.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

I wouldn’t trouble anyone with a whole book. To understand Russia’s transitional conundrum, one should begin by reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1994 article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism“.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 1988? 1980? 2000? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

My impressions from talking to Russians is that life is better now that it’s been before. It’s still pretty lousy for most people, though. (I don’t think Russia is alone in this.) Whatever the benefits of modern living, Soviet nostalgia (for geopolitical status, for scientific respect, for athletic greatness, etc.) is also a patently real political force. Material realities are important, but it’s public perceptions that ultimately make the world.

How would you classify Russia’s political system? Is it a liberal democracy, an authoritarian regime, or a hybrid crossroads? Which current or historical political economies does it most resemble, if any?

Every polity is at a crossroads all the time. Every society in every nation in history is also a hybrid of various trends and persuasions. Russian politicians tend to have a more statist leaning in their way of conducting affairs, but this isn’t to say Western officials aren’t entangled in comparable webs of intervention, assistance, and power brokering. I honestly find very little to be gained by pursuing any classifications like those you suggest. If we call Russia ‘authoritarian,’ there are a thousand examples of information freedom and public debate to debunk this label. On the other hand, there are countless instances of repression to suggest that the Kremlin is indeed an authoritarian menace. Take your pick, but please leave me out of this errand.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

First of all, I don’t like the term “Putinism.” I think it gives too much ideological credit to the Putin administration, which has never bothered much with a real intellectual architecture for either the Power Vertical or United Russia. (Sorry, Surkov, but I’m just not seeing the big picture when you tell the Nashi kids to ‘innovate’ the way to tomorrowland.) Putin consolidated power during a time of political and economic anarchy. Was that a good thing? Of course it was. Russians were deeply unhappy with Boris Yeltsin’s second term (which they were scared into granting thanks to the a spectacular PR scheme by the oligarchs), and Putin brought more than just stability to the country — he managed a period of genuine prosperity that, at the very least, benefited enough of the country’s elites that they ceased open, internecine warfare.

The new focus on modernization and innovation under Dmitri Medvedev, whom I believe to be a political ally and proponent of “Putinism,” is just the next phase of a process begun ten years ago. Perhaps it’s thanks to Putin’s flexible non-ideology, but I believe that he’s capable of adapting tactics to the needs of the moment. If his financial team is telling him that foreign investment is a must, it’s no shock that the Kremlin is now pursuing FDI with all its might.

It’s not all roses with the Putin years. In 2001, Russia was 79th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last year it was tied for 146th. (Hint: higher is worse.) While we shouldn’t attach apocalyptic significance to the designation of a number by a single NGO, the general consensus is definitely that corruption has been on the rise. This is a serious problem — it’s the serious problem. An optimistic take might be that, as the Kremlin begins to crack down on bribes and dodgy deals, the wrongdoers are trying to exact maximum rents as long-term insurance.

Or maybe Putin’s own web of rent distribution is the backbone of the ‘legal nihilism’ behind Russia’s Africa-level corruption. If that’s the case, then perhaps that way of doing business is no longer optimal. Recent overtures from Medvedev (presumably acting in agreement with Putin) suggest that the authorities are, at the very least, considering new priorities. It’s Russian politics in action.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

Harassing the liberal opposition by denying them rally sites with fake counterprotests (for example, blood drives, and so on) seems to me to be a completely pointless exercise. It’s exactly this negative publicity that the opposition needs to survive, and the authorities continue to feed them this sustanance. Putin’s response, delivered to Shevchuk at the infamous luncheon exchange, was that these decisions aren’t up to him, but lie with local officials. Very well, Vladimir Vladimirovich, but why the hell don’t you get off your ass and exercise a little of that characteristic paternalism to steer your ship to calmer shores? I can only guess that the Kremlin is either unconcerned or desperately afraid — either of which seems like a stupid mindset for the leaders of the Russian Federation.

Additionally, I don’t see the point in squashing mayoral elections in cities across Russia. A few opposition victories by the communists or the SRs in buttfucknowhere cities is desirable! When Kondrashov won the Irkutsk spot recently, I thought ‘Wonderful!’ A few more such incidents will not even dent United Russia’s juggernaut, and it both injects some alternative voices into national politics and serves as excellent PR for Moscow to use in the faces of people who moan about attacks on democracy. And then I heard about Kondrashov switching affiliations to register with the ruling party. And then it turned out that the regional duma was seeking to abolish mayoral elections altogether in favor of an opaque ‘city manager’ appointment system. Again, the Kremlin and the authorities demonstrate an entirely unnecessary panic about the threat of opposition parties. If I had Putin’s or Medvedev’s ear, I’d scream into it that they need to display a bit more confidence — even if it’s in their own puppet political theater.

HARD Talk with A Good Treaty

ANATOLY KARLIN: As I understand, you are not the biggest fan of the Russian liberal opposition. You believe their leaders kowtow to the West and couldn’t care less about the everyday concerns of ordinary Russians. But consider the case of a patriotic Russian who detests the corruption and proizvol (arbitrariness) of state institutions and genuinely wants to improve human rights – not just those of Khodorkovsky, but of prison inmates, conscripts, minorities, etc. What can she realistically do about it, apart from ranting about the return of neo-Soviet totalitarianism in front of foreign TV cameras?

A GOOD TREATY: People “do” all kinds of things. Thirty-six parents and teachers in Ulyanovsk went on a week-long group hunger strike to successfully protest the closure of several local schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of youths in the Far East, fed up with local law enforcement and inspired by a particularly trigger-happy version of nationalism, decided to arm itself and start attacking police officers. Some people make it their profession to work in the line of danger — people like Natalia Estemirova and Sergey Magnitsky. Others lead scholarly human rights organizations like Oleg Orlov of Memorial, dedicated to unearthing a Soviet past they believe is forgotten at Russia’s peril.

All of these people are patriots in their own heads, and who am I to disagree?

I don’t begrudge the liberal opposition for ranting hyperbolisms in front of foreign TV cameras. This is half the business of being in the Russian liberal opposition, after all: (a) they need to provoke/tempt the authorities into cracking down on their rallies, otherwise nobody would ever care, and (b) they need to attract the attention of the West — for financial aid, for international connections, and for status. The liberal literati are frequent visitors to the United States — even the younger, student-”employed’ members like Ilya Yashin (who recently concluded a cross-country tour of the U.S.) and Oleg Kozlovsky (who’s been Stateside for weeks and is currently attending some kind of not-at-all-propagandistic-sounding democracy workshop at Stanford University).

These boys are more than welcome to globetrot wherever they like, but I personally can’t help but see them as a bunch of spoiled brats, partying to their own celebrity and hopelessly out of touch with the needs of ordinary Russians. (I’ve made it a point on AGT to focus on their endless infighting in order to highlight how self-centered and oblivious they really are.)

ANATOLY KARLIN: You noted that Oleg Kozlovsky’s rush to disassociate Solidarnost’ from the gay rights movement, or “radical LGBT activists” as he calls them, is remarkably similar to the Kremlin’s own arguments for dismissing the Russian liberal movement: neither minority enjoys much approval from ordinary Russians (see On “Minor & Non-Critical” Issues: Oleg Kozlovsky vs. Gay Rights). This is an inconsistency at best; a less charitable explanation is that many Russian liberals are themselves hypocrites and homophobes.

But consider this from another perspective – though claiming to be “a fan of free societies”, you insist the current Russian liberal movement is morally bankrupt and should moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric to be accepted by ordinary Russians. But if compromise is the key to political breakout, why should Russian liberals embrace the LGBT movement, an act that is sure to “alienate the vast majority of the population”, as Kozlovsky says, but improve neither rights of assembly nor LGBT rights? Are you not guilty of the same double standards as both Kozlovsky and the Kremlin?

A GOOD TREATY: The leaders of the liberal opposition may be a band of egotistical creeps, but I don’t think the principles of the movement itself are necessarily bankrupt. Like with the communists, there’s an unhealthy degree of backward-looking thinking, in their case consumed primarily with nostalgia for and white-washing of the ‘troubled 1990s.’

I don’t think the opposition needs to “moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric.” Plenty of Russians are more than responsive to criticisms aimed at the authorities, and liberals from Eduard Limonov to Liudmila Alexeeva could remain prolific dissidents without abandoning their principles. Remember that even at 70% approval ratings, almost one-third of all Russians still disapproves of the political status quo.

What liberals would benefit from is a reappraisal of their goals. Over the last few years, they’ve moved from one fad to another. ‘Other Russia’ to ‘Solidarity.’ ‘Marchy nesoglasnikh’ to ‘Days of Rage.’ The newest campaign, ‘Strategy-31,’ is catchy, but it likely maxed out its publicity potential with the blowup at the end of May. (We’ll see if the next one in three days proves me wrong.) As Vladimir Milov pointed out in a radio debate with Ilya Yashin, Solidarity and its various rally projects have peaked. More people just aren’t coming anymore (in fact, many seem to be leaving, he claims).

This, I think, has more to do with the focus (or lack thereof) of the professional liberal protesters. Everywhere they look for concrete platform ideas, they’re terrified of casting the net too narrowly. Hence, they mustn’t support the gays for fear of alienating the masses. Certain environmental causes are taken up (such as the movement to protect Lake Baikal), but it’s usually in response to local initiatives elsewhere, and it’s after the real hubbub has ended. What Moscow’s protesting “elites” typically trumpet is an unattractive medley of ad hominem attacks on national figures. So it’s “Putin v ostavku” or “Luzhkov v tiur’mu” — the Russian equivalent of Bush-era peacenik demonstrators demanding the president’s impeachment or today’s Tea Party comparing Obama’s healthcare plan to National Socialism.

For the individuals involved in this movement, I’ve no doubt that they think they’re speaking ‘truth to power.’ On a superficial level, it’s certainly a pretty daring person who delights in taunting Russian OMON troops, essentially begging them for a beating and an arrest. But it’s that photogenic rush that seems to fool these folks into believing that they’re soldiers on the 21st century front against totalitarianism. When I met Oleg Kozlovsky earlier this year, he was asked if people feared for their jobs when attending rallies. His answer? Nope. Nobody gets fired for coming to these circuses. Come one, come all, to the political pageant.

If people like Yashin and Kozlovsky (and Milov and, I’m sure, nearly all the high profile lib leadership) want to ignore the gay rights movement for fear of endangering their popular appeal, I wonder why they can’t apply that same political sense to the rest of their activism. Either they are purists proudly pontificating from the periphery, or they’re cutthroat and calculating, and presumably seeking a way to speak to the interests and tastes of society at large. Right now, they seem to be occupying a sort of idiot’s limbo, where just about everyone has a reason to dislike them. And — what a shock — most Russians do.

ANATOLY KARLIN: When the Feds rolled up the “extremely undangerous” Russian spy ring, you argued that they managed to “jeopardize” an important relationship with the world’s second nuclear superpower. But STRATFOR would argue that you missed the point (see Russian Spies and Strategic Intelligence). Though Boris and Natasha failed to steal anything important, that wasn’t their goal to begin with! The traditional modus operandi of Russia’s intelligence services is to recruit young, promising Americans with potential careers in organizations like Lockheed Martin or the CIA (think Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames). Unless you want foreign moles infiltrating the Homeland’s national security agencies and military-industrial complex, why would you criticize the FBI for doing its job?

anna_chapman_facebook13.jpg A GOOD TREATY: It’s funny that you mention Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames as examples of people at risk of being ‘turned’ but Russian secret agents, as both these men initiated their work as spies by themselves. Hanssen and Ames each lived beyond their means, and apparently approached Russian embassy personnel to sell U.S. state secrets in order to cover their debts and subsidize the high life. No unregistered foreign employees were required to flip these Americans, whose volunteered treachery led in turn to the deaths of Soviet and Russian traitors working for us. If Anna Chapman or anyone from her team of ‘Illegals’ was in a position to ‘flip’ an important American source, it would have marked a departure from the history of U.S. sellouts, who typically defect of their own accord to registered Russian officials.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You describe yourself as a foreign policy realist and admire Otto von Bismarck for his political acumen. But what if American geopolitical imperatives and “a good treaty with Russia” are incompatible? Let me expound. The foundations of geopolitics are Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History. According to this view of the world, the Russian Empire seeks hegemony over the Eurasian Heartland; in direct opposition, the United States tries to prevent its emergence through geopolitical balancing, economic constriction and amphibious interventions (in what Aleksandr Dugin calls the “Anaconda Strategy”). These geopolitical dynamics colored the Cold War and are once again coming into play: even as Russia reasserts its influence over the post-Soviet world, the US is preparing to withdraw from Iraq and is building forward bases in the Balkans and expanding defense ties with Poland.

Two questions follow from the above. First, one of America’s great strengths is the abiding attraction of its purported democratic model. Why then isn’t then the US export its “freedom” to check Russian expansionism, and if possible undermine the Kremlin itself? (After all, if guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power, they can be expected to participate in the “international community” / serve Western interests). Second, as a realist, why would you disagree with Mearsheimer’s argument for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent?

A GOOD TREATY: The U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq … and doubling-down in Afghanistan. Being overstretched and unable to seriously deliver on open-ended defense pacts with Eastern European states, the White House’s rhetoric about missile defense and security investments along Russia’s western periphery is worrying, to say the least. The decision to militarize what could have functioned as a peaceful buffer zone between Russia and Europe seems to me to have been an extremely unwise decision by U.S. decision-makers. Even at the height of the Cold War, American buildup in Western Europe was met by (or in response to) Soviet maneuvers within the Warsaw Pact. It was certainly competition, but spheres of influence were generally agreed upon, and — even during the various uprisings that led to Soviet troops being deployed in 1953, 1956, and 1968 — the U.S. never threatened intervention, and any direct confrontation remained a nonfactor. In the 2008 Ossetian war, however, George W. Bush’s advisers apparently lobbied for an attack on the Roki Tunnel — an act of war that would have engaged American soldiers directly against Russian troops. That the U.S. has reached a stage where it even contemplates initiating military strikes against the Russian army indicates the frightening recklessness behind any worldview built upon a foundation of “America’s great strengths.”

Any conversation about realism is incompatible with a question that opens, “If guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power.” That being said, Vladimir Milov compares Kasparov to the early Bolsheviks, indicating that he might not be the friendliest candidate for a job in America’s global utopia. As for Khodorkovsky, installing him in the Kremlin would theoretically only put in his hands yet more power to buy or bump off his enemies and competitors. Even in this scenario, there’s reason to assume the U.S. would not find its ideal Slavic partner.

In living memory, it seems Washington has really only been happy when it’s been free to call all the shots — i.e., under the administration of Boris Yeltsin. If that’s really true, American spooks should look not to the liberal elite (who likely would only use more power to fight amongst themselves), but to institutional fissures in the Russian state. Yeltsin was in large part such a swell pal because he was all too happy to sell off the kitchen sink, as long as it meant the Soviet cooking space was left without running water. “Take all the sovereignty you can swallow” he commanded initially. It was only later, after he consolidated his own authority and raked the USSR’s ashes into the garbage chute, that national determination transformed into an all-out war for territorial integrity.

A weak Russian state will be less assertive on the international level, but destabilizing Russia itself can and would pose devastating risks to the human beings actually living there or nearby. (Luckily for Uncle Sam, I guess, his primary constituents are well across the pond.)

Regarding a nuclear Ukraine: great idea, but they surrendered the last of their bombs in 1996. Moreover: not a great, but a lousy idea. Russia would never have bought the concept that an unaligned Ukrainian state could exist with or without atomic weapons. Aside from the crippled era of Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin has never been comfortable with the premise that Ukraine exists outside its “privileged sphere.” The attraction of a buffer zone does not apply to Ukraine. If Washington had insisted on maintaining a nuclear Kiev, Moscow would have interpreted it as a direct existential threat. In other words, it would have been extremely destabilizing in an already topsy-turvy decade.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Medvedev will be reelected in 2012. Putin will continue on as Prime Minister. There will be some staff reshuffling, but nothing will really change. By 2012, the Russian economy should be doing much better. (I expect the same to be true in the U.S., where Obama will likely ride an ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ mantra to a second term.)

The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games will not produce any major international embarrassments for Russia. Investigative reporters will have no trouble turning up horror stories about the waste that went into the project and the poverty it ignored alleviating in the surrounding areas, but I don’t expect any Dagestani terrorist attacks or roof collapses to indict the Kremlin for lousy management. As for Russia’s medal count: better than it was in Canada, but still low enough to trigger another slew of articles about the collapse of Soviet sports training.

Sooner or later, Alexei Kudrin will be ousted from his position in the Ministry of Finance. This guy’s name is attached to too many revenue-saving, unpopular budgetary measures for him not become a political liability eventually. I don’t expect him to go the route of Andrei Illarionov, however. He’ll be honorably discharged and put to use in some less public capacity.

The Solidarity Movement will fizzle out within the next few years, to be replaced by the next ‘it’ conglomeration of the very same individuals. Maybe they’ll call it the ‘March of the Raging 31 Dissidents.”

What are you plans for A Good Treaty?

I intend to simply keep posting 1-2 pieces every week on topics of my choosing. I like to alternate between big-headlines-grabbers (like the Russian spy ring) and stuff that requires me to be a bit more inventive and take time to research (like previous posts on Russian defamation law, the recent FSB law, the ‘Clean Water’ program, and so on). Unfortunately, based on the WordPress statistics to which I have access, it’s these latter posts that generate substantially fewer readers. I can’t blame the interwebs for sending me less traffic when I’m not writing about hot topics, but it is a little disappointing to know that some of the stuff that takes to most work to write is also the least popular.

The biggest thing I’ve started doing in connection with the blog recently is actively using Twitter. I include a snapshot stream of my tweets in the lefthand column on the blog, but I hope users will actually subscribe to my feed on Twitter itself, as this allows me to better track my followers, and allows for opportunities to interact with readers/users — which is something I love about the service.

There is a possible Russia blogging collaboration project in the works with Mark Adomanis, but I really can’t say anymore because I don’t know anything more than that. He contacted me recently about the idea, and we tentatively agreed to make something happen. As I said above, Mark is a very talented writer, and I’m pretty excited about the idea of mooching shamelessly off his celebrity. Thanks, Marco!

And thank you, A Good Treaty, for an excellent interview!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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If I could recommend just one book to someone with a business-as-usual outlook, someone who believes human ingenuity and free markets will always bail us out of any resource scarcity or environmental problem, it would be Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (henceforth LTG). After reading it, you may never look at the world in quite the same way again. This post contains a summary, but I really do recommend you go and read it all. It is well argued, eminently readable, and pertains to issues central to our common future.

Meadows, Donella & J. Randers, D. MeadowsLimits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004). BUY THE BOOK!
Category: world systems, resource depletion, pollution; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: wiki; synopsis; WSJ story.

The first book was published in 1972, commissioned by a circle of statesmen, businesspeople, and scientists called the Club of Rome. The LTG models, using the latest advances in systems theory and computer modeling, suggested that business-as-usual economic growth on a finite planet would eventually lead to stagnating and then falling living standards, as ever more industrial capital has to be diverted towards mitigating the consequences of growth, e.g. soil degradation, resource depletion, and runaway pollution.

Cornucopians and establishment “experts” have tried to discredit LTG by claiming that its predictions of global apocalypse failed to materialize; instead, hasn’t the world seen remarkable economic growth since 1972? These criticisms are unfounded. First, the LTG modelers did not make any concrete forecasts, but merely a range of scenarios based on varying initial conditions (e.g. global resource endowments) and future political choices. Not all the scenarios led to collapse – a reasonable global standard of living is preserved under scenarios in which humanity makes a transition back below the limits towards sustainable development. Second, none of those scenarios projected a collapse before 2015 at the earliest, so the claim is invalidated even if you treat the worst case scenario as a prediction. As such, we can only conclude that these critics are either liers or haven’t actually read the book.

In this 30-year update, the authors note that their more pessimistic conclusions are already coming true – for instance, in per capita terms, global grain production peaked in 1984 and the marine catch reached an all-time high in 1988. Both have been on a slow, downward plateau since. (This finally culminated in the global foot riots of 2008 and rising “food protectionism” on the part of agricultural net exporters). Contrary to the hype surrounding globalization, the “new economy”, the flat world, etc, global GDP growth rates peaked in the 1960′s, and have since settled down to a lower level practically everywhere outside emerging Asia (and they may yet go into outright stagnation in the 2010′s due to the convergence of peak oil, geopolitical stresses, and the decline of the West). Furthermore, this slowdown was accompanied by rising inequality, between and within countries. Overall, the authors believe that humanity’s ecological footprint overtook the carrying capacity of the Earth sometime around 1980, ushering in “overshoot”.

A few things we should note before going further. LTG is not about particular phenomena, such as peak oil – though in itself very important, it is but a symptom of much deeper, underlying trends (the limits to growth). Second, the models indicate that growth will only begin to really falter once the system is in severe overshoot, so for the 1970-2010 period the LTG authors did not expect any major divergence between the unending growth predicted by neo-classical macroeconomics, and their own biophysical / systems dynamics models which account for the vital role of energy and ecological factors to sustaining growth. As the authors note, “we must all wait another decade for conclusive evidence about who has the better understanding” (and so far the economists are off to a bad start).

Exponential Growth, Limits, and Overshoot

 

The human population naturally exhibits exponential growth. Whenever total fertility rates are substantially above the 2.1 children per woman needed for simple population replacement, the population will usually grow very rapidly. In Malthusian, pre-industrial societies, this population growth typically exceeded the rate of growth of the carrying capacity; when the two drew level, population growth ceased as lower wages, elite predation, and food dearth raised mortality rates and lowered fertility rates. This increasing brittleness of the system, which made it vulnerable to shocks like poor harvests or peasant uprisings, is the single most convincing explanation for the cyclical emergence and collapse of empires.

In modern industrial societies, the effects of exponential population growth are modulated by the demographic transition, the tendency for fertily rates to transition to or below population replacement rates with increasing wealth. However, the effects of these gains on reducing the human impact on the environment is more than balanced out by the growth of the stock of industrial capital. This growth is inherently exponential, because the machine tool building sector that constitutes the base of the industrial ecosystem essentially reproduces itself, i.e. you need machines to build more machines. Labor and capital factor inputs, in their turn, are the motors of exponential growth in all other spheres of the human economy – food production, goods production, resource extraction, pollution emissions, services provision, etc.

Therefore, population and industrial capital can be said to have “an inherent system structure to produce the behavior of exponential growth”, which in turn drive increases in the food, energy, goods, and services needed to sustain that same growing population and industrial system. This increases the system’s level of physical throughput, the “continuous flows of energy and materials needed to keep people, cars, houses, and factories functioning”. However, both the materials-providing planetary sources (hydrocarbons, metals, minerals, etc) and the pollution-absorbing planetary sinks (soils, oceans, air, etc) needed to sustain a certain level of physical throughput are limited (the former can be depleted, the latter can be overfilled). There are hard planetary limits to the “rate at which humanity can extract resources (crops, grass, wood, fish) and emit wastes (greenhouse gases, toxic substances) without exceeding the productive or absorptive capacities of the world”. Once those limits are breached, development becomes unsustainable and we enter a state of overshoot.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that try to keep the system within its limits. The delays can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

Although the planetary sources usually appear large on paper, only a small fraction of them tend to be economically recoverable due to the law of diminishing returns. All the low-hanging fruit are picked first, such as “supergiant” oil fields, rich copper ore deposits, etc, or in other words energy sources with high energy return on energy invested (EROEI), thus leaving only remoter, deeper and more dilute resources such as polar oil, unconventional liquids, etc. Their extraction costs soar exponentially and requisition an ever greater share of the industrial base, leaving less room for consumer products (vital for political stability), the agricultural base (to prevent starvation), investment in capital stock renewal (to prevent the depreciation of the industrial base), and environmental mitigation (to prevent runaway pollution from wrecking other sectors).

Due to the dropping EROEI of newer energy sources, ever greater volumes have to be excavated and processed just to keep standing in place (e.g. coal’s gross energy content peaked in 1998 in the US, despite that volumes have continued increasing since). These diminishing returns per unit of capital employed towards resource extraction lead to rising pollution, which negatively feeds back into the agricultural base and human health. We could divert resources from other sectors to combat this pollution, e.g. through emissions reductions or geoengineering. Alternatively, rapid climate change coupled with declining oil and fertiliser output may lead to catastrophic falls in agricultural output, which could only be mitigated for a time by diverting capital and energy into this vital sector – but which would hurt the long-term prospects for renewal in the energy extraction and industrial sectors! And so goes our Faustian trap…

Below are four examples of these phenomena in action.

An example of diminishing returns / lowest fruit being picked first. The quality of copper ore being mined is falling, and more and more energy needs to be expended to get the same quantity of copper. Eventually, the returns may become so low that mining it will no longer be at all profitable, at which point the system collapses to a lower level of complexity and salvage becomes an attrative strategy.

PS. Note the counter-intuitive spike in the early 1930′s, correlating to the Great Depression. Economic retreat forces the shutdown of the least efficient mines, because the efforts they have to expend on extraction now surpass what they get back in profits. Unless the state takes increasingly coercive measure to maintain physical output at all costs, requisitioning labor and capital in a last-ditch Stakhanovite effort to prolong industrialism in a game of “last man standing”, the end of the industrial age will see the same general pattern.

As the ore grade falls, more and more material has to be extracted and processed to get the same amount of copper. This naturally results in soaring pollution emissions, which will put increasing stress on regional and global biocapacity.

An explanation for the drastic improvements in air quality, river health, fuel economy, etc, in advanced industrial nations in the 1970′s-1980′s – picking the lowest-hanging fruit is pretty cheap. But beyond a certain point, reducing pollution becomes without a direct fall in physical output becomes prohibitively expensive.

One more example of limits (the main ones, resource depletion and CO2 pollution, are covered elsewhere in this blog) – arable land availability. The amount of land devoted to agriculture has remained constant in recent decades, though its quality has decreased as good land becomes exhausted and more marginal lands were brought into exploitation. Crop yields have risen and continue to rise, but 1) they are overly dependent on the intensification of farming, e.g. using (natural-gas dependent) fertilizers that mask the decline in natural soil fertility and 2) as noted above, they have not kept up with population growth since the 1980′s.

The graph shows possible food futures: if no more land is lost and crop yields double, then the world’s 8bn people can be fed on a comfortable West European diet. If on the other hand “erosion, climate change, costly fossil fuels, falling water tables… reduce yields from present levels”, then there will be a global Malthusian crisis. Possible solutions: “farming methods that conserve and enhance soil – such as terracing, contour plowing, composting, cover cropping, polyculture, and crop rotation”, and in the tropics, “alley cropping and agroforestry” – all methods that achieve high yields, improve the soil, and don’t require prodigious fossil fuel and fertilizer inputs.

Basically, LTG gives one a valuable sense of how interconnected all these global systems are, about just how universal the law of diminishing returns is, and how the failure to move decisively towards a sustainable economy now will lead to collapse further down the road (and the later we postpone this transition, the greater will be the eventual collision).

The most important thing is to make the human industrial ecosystem a closed loop, in which population ceases to grow, and a recycling sector feeds back wastes as inputs into the system instead of continuing drawdown to maintain an unsustainably-high “phantom” carrying capacity.

Why recycling matters: “undiscovered reserves” (sources) and the sinks for “solid waste” are both limited; hence, a high standard of living can only be preserved by 1) redirecting most wastes back within the loop and 2) directly reducing material throughput by technological innovation (energy efficiency, ecotechnology, informatics).

The World3 Scenarios

All of these are feedback loops that I’ve described form the basis of the World3 computer models that the LTG authors used in making their scenarios. They are reproduced below, in concise detail.

The central feedback loops of the World3 model govern the growth of population and of industrial capital. Two positive feedback loops involving births and investment generate the exponential growth behavior of population and capital. The two negative feedback loops involving deaths and depreciation tend to regulate this exponential growth. The relative strengths of the various loops depend on many other factors in the system.

Some of the interconnections between population and industrial capital operate through agricultural capital, cultivated land, and pollution. Each arrow indicates a casual relationship, which may be immediate or delayed, large or small, positive or negative, depending on the assumptions included in each model run.

Population and industrial capital are also influenced by the levels of service capital (such as health and education services) and of non-renewable resources.

The “initial conditions” and assumptions are overall rather optimistic, for instance, the ones dealing with the power of the environment to clean up toxic pollution. The model leaves out corruption, military expenditures, wars and political disruptions – although vital, they are too hard to model with any degree of rigor (I write about these in my posts on Collapse Ethics and Ecotechnic Dictatorship). Chronic food and energy shortages will lead to civil unrest and political instability, necessitating greater expenditures on law enforcement and assorted populist gimmicks (e.g. the tinpot dictatorships that will rise up in the pre-Collapse period), taking away industrial capital and managerial resources from the industrial base, agriculture, and other critical sectors.

Statistical bodies will manipulate inflation and GDP growth figures to preserve an image of stability, even as creeping normalcy converges to an ever darker reality. There will be a scramble to secure the world’s remaining sources of high-density resources, which will lead to a greater share of the industrial base being devoted to (unproductive) military production. Elites will mobilize support for permanent war and surveillance by citing the moral imperative of fighting freedom-hating terrorists, evil empires, and/or maintaining global peace, security and stability. And so on.

Basically, by excluding these political and geopolitical variables, the World3 model presents the uppermost possibilities for the “real” world, even in the standard run which leads to collapse. This standard run is reproduced below.

As you can see, it leads to overshoot and collapse. Why? Because signals and responses to problems are delayed, and limits are erodable.

Examples of erosion – 1) as hunger returns, resources are concentrated into intensifying agricultural exploitation at the cost of preserving longterm soil fertility, 2) as more industrial capital is needed to maintain a certain level of resource extraction, pollution abatement, and agricultural production, less is left over to counteract the depreciation of the industrial capital stock, which begins to wither away, 3) worst of all, increasing pollution can erode the pollution absorption mechanisms themselves, thus increasing the rate of pollution buildup – this is already evident in the reduced ability of the biosphere (forests, oceans, etc) to soak up human carbon emissions.

Symptoms of overshoot, many of which are already becoming self-evident:

Primary Physical Symptoms – Resource stocks fall, and wastes and pollution accumulate.

  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the preservation of species) – AK: In the worst case scenario, geoengineering would mean that the most basic function previously performed by Gaia, maintaining planetary homeostasis, becomes a human responsibility.
  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources. – AK: See the declining EROEI of oil sources, talk of seabed mining, the increasing emphasis on unconventional & remote energy sources like tar sands, deep-sea, polar oil, shale gas, coal seam gas, etc…
  • Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone. – AK: See greentech (greenwash?), the “hydrogen economy”, electric batteries, etc.
  • Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution. – AK: See climate change.

Resulting Physical Symptoms – As resource stocks fall and wastes accumulate the behavior of natural systems may change with consequences for ecosystems and human communities.

  • Growing chaos in natural systems, with “natural” disasters more frequent and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system. – AK: More heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, etc, are already observed.

Resulting Social Symptoms - Society tries to live with, compensate for, and adapt to the primary physical symptoms (note: these symptoms do not include responses that address the decline of the resource base in the first place, such responses are catalogued in Signs of Life Within Limits).

  • Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived infrastructure. - AK: See US infrastructure problems, paralleling that of the late Soviet Union.
  • Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the military or industry to gain access to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions. - AK: See resource wars, of which Iraq 2003 is one of the first in a long series to come; the US, China, and Russia have all ramped up military spending since about 2000.
  • Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to pay debts. - AK: We’ll see plenty of that in the next few years as Western states fall into insolvency like dominoes.
  • Debts a rising percentage of annual real output. – AK: Debt levels have exploded throughout the developed world since 2000, and went into overdrive following the 2008 economic crisis & bailouts of politically-connected corporate groups.
  • Eroding goals for health and environment.
  • Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources or sinks. - AK: Conflicts over sources = resource wars (see above), over sinks = “ecological warfare” (PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote about this in their prophetic book on Unrestricted Warfare).
  • Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford. – AK: That is basically another way of saying people will become poorer.
  • Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a declining resource base. - AK: Predatory elites always become a heavy burden on the peasantry and middle classes during times of imminent Malthusian dearth. Applied to the modern world, see the rise of the “surveillance state”, the emphasis on waging a (by definition endless) “war on terror”, the creeping militarization of internal security forces, universal databases, etc… Meanwhile, internal inequality has risen in every major region of the world – the US, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, India, etc – since 1970.

Do you observe any of these symptoms in your “real world?” If you do, you should suspect that your society is in advanced stages of overshoot.

Finally, here are the central assumptions in World3 that give it the tendency to overshoot and collapse: 1) growth in the physical economy is considered desirable and central to our socio-political systems; this growth tends to be exponential, 2) there are “physical limits to the sources of materials and energy that sustain the population and economy, and there are limits to the sinks that absorb the waste products of human activity”, 3) the world system receives signals about these physical limits that are “distorted, noisy, delayed, confused, or denied”, and responses are hence delayed and non-optimal, and 4) the “system’s limits are not only finite, but erodable when they are overstressed or overused”, and furthermore, there are “thresholds beyond which damage rises quickly and can become irreversible” (e.g. see tipping points in climate change). The authors note that if you want to refute LTG, you will have to show that one of the statements above is invalid.

Markets and Technology to the Rescue?

Maybe not. Here are three explanations. First from one of my older posts.

The criticisms from markets and technology also fall flat on their faces. Markets are implicitly modeled in World3 as resource allocations are typically automatically transferred to the sector of most pressing need. (Actually, if anything the models are more market-driven than our own world, since we don’t have perfect information and instant responses in the real world, as opposed to the model). As for technology, unless concrete steps are taken to reduce material throughput, improvements are simply soaked up by the Jevons paradox. Unless technological progress is extremely rapid (e.g. as envisioned by singularitarians), there will sometime come a tipping point when efficiency improvements no longer make up for decling agricultural and resource yields and soaring pollution, and world population and human welfare collapse.

Second from Limits to Growth synopsis.

The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. Impressive —and even sufficient— technological advance is conceivable, but only as a consequence of determined societal decisions and willingness to follow up such decisions with action and money.

Technological advance and the market are reflected in the model in many ways. The authors assume in World3 that markets function to allocate limited investment capital among competing needs, essentially without delay. Some technical improvements are built into the model, such as birth control, resource substitution, and the green revolution in agriculture. But even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that seems possible, if those are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent over shoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short‑term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

The second reason for the vulnerability of technology is that adjustment mechanisms have costs. The costs of technology and the market are reckoned in resources, energy, money, labor, and capital.

Third from my post on ecotechnic dictatorship to criticize the technology element of Korotayev’s cliodynamics model, but which happens to apply somewhat to LTG as well.

However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization.

I.e., 1) to get technological growth, you have to divert resources from industrial capital and services to sustain it, 2) many spheres of technological growth themselves show diminishing returns on investment, e.g. electricity-generating turbine efficiency has more or less plateaued, electric batteries are showing signs of plateauing, etc, 3) a lot of the technology we did create in the fossil fuel age is not even at all suitable for sustainable development and are thus essentially worse than useless, i.e. only ecotechnologies can be sustainably supported, and 4) technology requires a electro-industrial base for its very sustenance: if the latter gives way, so will technology, and we will see a collapse in spheres like energy efficiency, made even worse by the fact that the available energy sources would be increasingly depleted and low-EROEI.

Conclusion. Since technology itself relies on a material base for its sustenance, which in turn requires energy inputs to sustain itself. Thus, it will probably be one of the first things to be downsized when physical limits start pressing down on the economy. The hen that lays the golden eggs will probably be the first to get cooked. Second, there may be sudden and catastrophic increases in pollution. Climate change may be abrupt and catastrophic. A collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels by several meters and wipe the world’s ports and more importantly, much of its prime agricultural land. The Amazon is increasingly vulnerable to a conflagration that will turn it into desert, releasing more CO2 than I care to look up in the scientific literature. Increasing temperatures may unleash uncontrolled methane emissions from melting Siberian permafrost and oceanic clathrates.

Past the point of irreversible decline a controlled retreat to sustainability becomes ever more and more unlikely, because of a) the inertia of past pollution emissions and capital investments, b) political crisis in a society predicated on permanent growth will lead to short-term thinking and ever more exclusively stopgap solutions and c) eventually institutional collapse will make it impossible to fund and implement new energy-efficiency or pollution-control technologies on any sufficiently large scale or even maintain already existing infrastructure devoted for those purposes.

Further Reading:

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Smil, Vaclav – Global Catastrophes and Trends (2008)
Category: futurism, climate change, geopolitics, catastrophes; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Google Books

Vaclav Smil, an energy theorist and language connoisseur, brings his talents to bear on this idiosyncratic, incisive and balanced book on the global future. From the outset, he outlines his skepticism in universal theories of history and attempts at quantifying current trends to make point forecasts (e.g. predictions that nuclear power would make energy too cheap to meter in the halcyon days of the industry). Instead, he emphasizes the role played by the sheer complexity of human systems and their discontinuities – for instance, who could have imagined that a generation after the death of Mao, China would be the workshop of the world helping underwrite US military dominance?

Having established “How (Not) to Look Ahead”, Smil introduces his method – analyzing key variables categorized by a) unpredictable events – “catastrophes”, b) powerful trends (the effects of globalization, global demography, the energy transition), and c) the shifting balance of power between the Great Power (the marginalization of Japan, an unstable Islam, Russia’s partial resurgence, the uncertain rise of China and an increasingly faltering United States). It is one a method I highly favor and I agree with most of the arguments he makes in his book, albeit there are a few major exceptions.

Fatal Discontinuities

First, he classifies the catastrophes or “fatal discontinuities” into: 1) known catastrophic risks (asteroid strikes, earthquakes, super-eruptions), 2) plausible catastrophic risks (nuclear war, pandemic) and 3) speculative risks (“grey goo” or takeover by machines). [There is another classification of existential risks by Nick Bostrom].

The likelihood of world-changing natural disasters occurring is vanishingly small. Though floods and earthquakes killing up to 100,000′s of people happen about once or twice per decade, their global effects are very limited. An asteroid capable of terminating industrial civilization will need to have a diameter of about 2km+ (by darkening the sky with micro-particles and destroying the ozone layer), but the chances of such asteroids striking the Earth decrease exponentially with greater size. In any case the majority of large Near-Earth Objects have already been identified and identified as safe. Predicting super-eruptions is much harder, though again based on the geological record the chances of an unprecedented catastrophe are minimal – which would have to be on the scale of the Toba, Sumatra event 72,000 years ago, which ejected 2,000km3 of ejecta and reduced the world human population to 10,000. An example of a modern threat is a super-eruption of Yellowstone, which is about due though we’d have to be extremely unlucky to have it blow up during our lifetimes. Another possibility are submarine landslides forming tsunamis, such as at La Palma, the Canary Islands, where a 500km3 slide would create a mega-tsunami with repeated walls of water up to 25m striking Florida.

The second category includes pandemics and mega-wars. During the last generation, the onslaught against disease stalled and went into partial reverse, with a growing list of contagious diseases (the most significant of which is HIV / AIDS), failures in eradication (e.g. polio) and antibiotic resistance (multi-drug resistant TB – which now finished off many AIDS sufferers). There also remains the specter of an influenza pandemi c, which will be deeply disruptive and potentially highly virulent. Though a repeat of 1957 or 1968, or the current swine flu for that matter, aren’t going to have much effect, the consequences of the return of a Spanish Flu-like pandemic (1918) will be devastating. Arising out of the natural disease reservoir of South China, the flu can spread more rapidly (air transport, globalization, greater urban populations) and a mortality profile hard on the younger cohorts (15-30 years) will have devastating effects on aging European societies. Globalization will shut down as countries close borders, with highly disruptive effects on national economies. However, we are much better prepared for handling a pandemic today than in 1918 due to better nutrition and technological advances such as mechanical respirators, antibiotics for treating secondary infections, antivirals, and math models for optimizing quarantines and vaccinations.

Just as another pandemic is almost certain to happen, so there will continue to be violent conflict, terrorism, genocides, perhaps even another large-scale democide or mega-war with tens to hundreds of millions of casualties – despite that the incidence of violent conflict fell by 40% since the early 1990′s and the agreed reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. Some may be transformational and fundamentally change the course of world history (Smil identifies the Taiping Rebellion, the American Civil War, WW1 and WW2 as transformational). The risk remains of an accidental nuclear war between the US and Russia killings hundreds of millions, or the rise of an revisionist, expansionist power unleashing WW3. The potential deaths accruing to war are several OM’s (orders of magnitude) higher than for all natural catastrophes.

Smil points out that terrorism is 1) nothing new, having gone through four “waves” – a) Russia’s narodnaya volya assassinations, b) decolonization, c) PLO, IRA, Basque ETA, and Western left-wing groups favoring bombings and aircraft hijackings, and d) modern Islamic terrorism beginning with the Iranian Revolution / Hezbollah, later extending to the Palestinian intifada and al-Qaeda, at the symbolic start of a new century (1400) by the Islamic calendar, 2) has rarely been effective with a few exceptions like 9/11 (and even there its value lay mostly in symbolism – [the spirit of terrorism], disproportionate public fear and official overreaction), for the chances of dying from terrorism are extremely low. Since producing mass casualties is extremely difficult, terrorists have to settle for “mass disruption” instead of “mass destruction”.

His final category of fatal discontinuity are “imaginable surprises”, such as annihilation of the Earth by exotic particle experiments, unforeseen climatic shifts (e.g. a drastic cooling), grey goo eating the biosphere within a few days, etc. He correctly doesn’t put much stock into these sci-fi scenarios.

Unfolding Trends

Smil makes some general observations about trend analysis. First, they tend to follow a pattern of incremental engineering process (cheaper, more efficient) and gradual diffusion, yet are sometimes marked by profound discontinuities, e.g. fertility transitions, the continuing failure to control nuclear fusion. Surprises can occur because a) long-term trends aren’t recognized in time, such as the Soviet Union’s post-1965 stagnation, b) can’t predict which trends will become embedded in society, and which ones will veer off course, c) their unknowable effects on human society (e.g. will the oil peak be moderated by a smooth transition to gas or renewables, or does it herald the end of industrial civilization?). With that said, Smil now focuses on three things: 1) the coming energy transition, 2) Great Power dynamics and 3) the future of globalization.

Smil now moves into his forte – global energy systems. The first point he makes is that the basis of today’s industrial system was formed a long time ago and that improvements since then paled in significance. “The most important concatenation of these fundamental advances took place between 1867 and 1914″, when engineers realized electricity generation, steam and water turbines, internal combustion engines, inexpensive steel, aluminium, explosives, synthetic fertilizers, electronic components, thus laying the “technical foundations of the twentieth century” [much like men like Marx, Bismarck and Garibaldi laid its ideological foundations]. A second Golden Age occurred in the 1930′s and 1940′s, which saw “the introduction of gas turbines, nuclear fission, electronic computing, semiconductors, key plastics, insecticides and herbicides”.

This technological base requires huge, uninterrupted supplies of energy for its existence. The sources of energy remain constant for long periods due to the difficulty of substitution, which involves discarding old infrastructures and building anew. As a share of world total primary energy supply (TPES), coal went from 95% in 1900 (excluding phytomass), to just 28% in 2005, while crude oil rose from 4% in 1900 to 27% in 1950 and 46% in 1975, but dropped to 36% by 2005. Natural gas expanded significantly since the mid-century, reaching 24% of global TPES by 2005. All together, fossil fuels supplied 88% of global TPES in 2005, compared to 93% in 1975. Despite all the talk about environmentalism and energy security, there has been no walk; ours is still a predominantly fossil-fuel based civilization.

In the future, Smil foresees that a) there will be no oil peak, b) coal is unlimited except by concerns over climate change and c) gas will rise in importance because of its relatively low carbon per unit of energy ratio and advances in LNG technology.

Though I am in qualified agreement with b) and c), Smil ridiculing of the oil peakists in a) is singularly unconvincing. He claims the Hubbert model is “simplistic” in that it is “based on rigidly predetermined reserves” and ignores “innovative advances or price shifts”. The first point is flat out wrong. It applies to Hubbert’s first model, but in his later work he devised a method that did away with the need for guesstimates of URR (ultimately recoverable reserves) – and which gives pretty much the same results, indicating that the effects of technology and higher prices are limited. Taking the case of the US, despite the discovery of oil off Alaska and the Gulf, despite there having been more exploration in the country than in the rest of the world combined, despite the periods of high prices during 1973-1986 and 2002-2008, despite its light regulatory environment and access to cheap credit – American oil production has declined relentlessly since the early 1970′s. Quite simply, the evidence indicates that the power of depletion will eventually defeat ever greater and smarter extraction attempts. Read one of these overviews from 2007 or 2009 for a more indepth explanation of peak oil.

However, I agree with Smil that the transition to other non-fossil fuel sources will be a drawn out process, considering that most of the “prime movers” in our society are oil-based (the steam turbines that generate 70% of global electricity output, the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, the diesel engine, the gas turbine, and the induction electric motor). [I would note that these difficulties are going to be aggravated by peak oil].

Addition difficulties include a) the scale of the shift, b) lower energy density of replacement fuels, c) substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction, d) intermittence of renewable flows and e) uneven distribution of renewable resource extraction.

1) Global civilization uses fossil energy at a rate of 12 TW, a twenty-fold increase from the late 1890′s (total world TPES is around 13 TW). Only solar power has a significantly larger than current TPES is solar flux at 122 PW, which is 4 OM greater; otherwise, wind (<10 TW), ocean waves (<5 TW), and today energy / geothermal (<1 TW). Though Earth’s net primary productivity (NPP) / terrestrial photosynthesis yields solid fuels (biomass) at the range of 55-60 TW, exploiting it will further degrade vital ecosystemic services, and besides humanity already appropriates 30-40% of global NPP as food, feed, fiber and fuel (with wood and crop residue accounting for 10% of current TPES).

2) Coal and oil are far more energy-dense than wood and in general biomass cultivation will take up 4-5 OM more space than conventional oil / gas infrastructure. “In order to energize the existing residential, industrial and transportation infrastructures inherited from the fossil-fueled era, a solar-based society would have to concentrate diffuse flows to bridge power density gaps of 2-3 OM”. As an example, even using Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane to replace all current gasoline, diesel and kerosene used in transport would require the subjugation of 1/3 of the world’s cultivated lands – or all agricultural land in the tropics. Corn ethanol has half the power density of sugar cane ethanol. Large-scale adoption will have catastrophic impacts on food self-sufficiency.

[source]

3) Renewables don’t satisfy base load power requirements of an industrial society. Load factors are 75%+ for coal-powered power stations or 90%+ for nuclear power stations, whereas wind power is just 20-25%.

4) Renewable flows are also unevenly distributed, just like 60%+ of easy hydrocarbons are locked up in the Persian Gulf Zagros Basin. Jakarta has as little sun as Edmonton (shared with equatorial zone). Many areas are either too still or too windy, i.e. will be heavily damaged by hurricanes.

5) Costs won’t necessarily decline. To the contrary, protovoltaic silicon prices have more doubled; prices of steel, aluminium, plastics, etc, for wind turbines also drastically increased due to the underlying rise in oil prices.

Smil reiterates some pretty standard arguments on nuclear and hydrogen. The nuclear industry expanded quickly until the 1970′s, but stalled at that point because it previously hadn’t included costs like state-subsidized nuclear R&D, decommissioning costs and waste disposal (and later negative PR like Chernobyl). Hydrogen is not a realistic option barring the mass spread of cheap solar power. Concludes that this energy transition will be fundamentally different from previous one, which was driven by declining resource availability (deforestation), higher quality of fossil fuels (energy density, easier storage, more flexibility) and lower cost of coal and hydrocarbons. According to Smil, none of these factors apply to the fossil economy – though he expresses some concern over its contribution to climate change.

Having outlined his idea of the main trend of the next fifty years, Smil turns to a standard analysis of the shifting balance of international power between the US, China, Japan, Russia, Islam, and Europe. He cautions against subscribing to the conventional wisdom, pointing out that a) the Soviet collapse and Japan’s post-1980′s stagnation were largely unforeseen, b) the tendency of the US to surprise, going from decline / deindustrialization in the 1980′s to a vigorous “new economy” in the 1990′s before becoming fiscally and militarily overstretched in the 2000′s.

Geopolitical Trends

Smil does not believe Europe holds out much promise, unlike some delusional commentators. It is in long-term, centennial economic decline relative to the rest of the world and its economies are mired in inefficiency, unemployment and bureaucracy, and are less technologically dynamic than Japan or the US. Both Britain and Spain face separatist challenges and are economic basketcases. France is over-regulated dirigisme and has problems with integrating its 10% Muslim population (remember the burning banlieues?), but is at least demographically healthy – unlike Italy and Germany, which are rapidly aging and about to depopulate rapidly with very negative economic effects (they might be in a fertility trap, in which ever smaller generations need to pay higher tax burdens which limits their reproductive freedom). In particular, Italy is sinking back into corruption and Mafia influence, its artisanal manufacturing is being destroyed by Chinese competition and there remain huge gaps between the Nord and Mezzogiorno. He reiterates Mark Steyn’s Eurabia theory arguments (crudely summarized as lots of under-reported young, fertility, fanatical Muslims simmering in ghettoes), which has a number of holes in it. Finally, the EU structure itself is disconnected from national electorates and reality in general, and has no inspiring sense of mission; further expansion will just weaken it further. [Agreed with most things - I believe the EU by 2020 will be a much less significant institution and European nations will be tottering, preoccupied with trying to solve their own internal problems].

After a period of euphoric hubris in the 1980′s, when it seemed Japan would be number one, the country crashed into a long, ongoing period of stagnation marked by crippling deflation, the fall of the Nikkei from a peak at 39,000 in December 1989 to below 10,000, and the appearance of the NEET generation (not in employment, education or training). Though it remains rich, well-off and technologically advanced, there is a moral anomie as long-term jobs vanished and fertility plunged to around 1.2 children per woman. Smil is pessimistic on Japan due to a) its ingrained conservatism [though would the recent electoral win by the Democratic Party of Japan later be regarded in the same vein as the Meiji reforms?], b) the continued hostility of neighbors reinforces its security dependence on the US, especially to counter challenges from China and North Korea, and c) the start of depopulation in 2005, retirement wave in 2010′s as the 1950′s baby boomers retire, and the prospective massive aging of the population (medium age 50 by 2025, more 80+ than 0-14 year olds by 2050). Japanese culture does not accept immigrants and it will not be saved by robots.

The author sees Islam being in a fractured state (secular / spiritual, Sunni / Shia / others, etc) in a difficult relationship with modernity, fighting the same internal civil war that charactered early modern Christianity. His short exegesis of the Koran finds that there is support for many interpretations of just how restrictive Islam has to be, and this forms an ideological battleground between the extremists and moderates. Signs of this backwardness include the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie, the prevalence of bizarre conspiracy theories on the Arab street, and Islamic countries accounting for just 2% of the world’s scientific publications. [To this we can add the Mohammed cartoons controversy and the 2003 UN Arab development report that produced the astonishing statistic that more books are translated into Spanish per year than have been translated into Arabic in all history]. There are several inequalities within the ummah (e.g. oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and internal instability, in part cased by the demographic explosion [usually in water-stressed environments, I'd add] which results in youth bulges – young men with no job prospects who are susceptible to joining violent groupings. Even as the region simmers, the outside world will be forced to take an interest due to its stranglehold over the world’s oil supplies (the five Persian Gulf nations produced about 1/3 of the world’s oil in 2005, and this figure is projected to rise substantially).

It is evident he knows his stuff when talking about Russia, or at least is well-read on it. Contrary to most analysts, he believes it is resurgent in a real way, even though its longer-term prospects are uncertain. He lists its strengths as being an energy superpower (especially with respect to gas) with a big intellectual capacity and a formidable military that is being rearmed with newer-generation weapons. However, he foresees significant challenges in the form of its cyclical, hydrocarbons-based economy [as confirmed by the 2008 crisis, though the deeper problem is dependence on foreign credit], its unstable democracy, the Islamist insurgence in the Caucasus, and above all its negative demographic trends [I've written a lot about this, just search the site].

China is gradually returning to its old position of global economic predominance, its growth helped by Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization, FDI, the one-child policy, a cheap, disciplined and relatively skilled labor force, mass urbanization and migration to the coasts, and a certain degree of innovation (state-funded research facilities, as well as flouting of IP and large-scale industrial espionage). It is “a Communist government guaranteeing a docile work force that labors without rights and often in military camp conditions in Western-financed factories so that multi-national companies can expand their profits, increase Western trade deficits, and shrink non-Asian manufacturing”. It is economically mercantile, seeking resources around the world and if current growth trends continue, China could match US military spending by 2020. However, there are substantial problems with a) the population (severe 118:100 male-female imbalance, rapid aging and undeveloped pension system), b) the economy (huge rural-urban inequality, high taxes on peasantry and violent expropriations by business-state symbiosis), c) the environment (deforestation and soil erosion from Maoist era, little arable land per capita that is shrinking from salinization, desertification and urban expansion, needs more food but irrigation is constrained by water shortages and crops are already very intensively fertilized, falling water tables and toxic rivers, very poor air quality and now leading CO2 emitter), and d) cultural mediocrity (not as much soft power as the US).

India is nowhere near as powerful as China, and the same factors limiting the latter militate against India. It’s GDP is twice smaller; though its Gini index of income inequality is better (35 versus 45), this is a product of its underdevelopment, besides its deep social stratification / de facto caste system persists; malnutrition, immunization rates and adult illiteracy are all much worse in India; China has 3x the electricity-generating capacity and 17x the container port capacity. Though democratic, it is likewise deeply corrupt, bureaucratic and ecologically degraded. It faces a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the prospect of tens of millions of Bangladeshi refugees spilling over once their country sinks under the rising seas.

Smil is an all-round pessimist, believing the United States may go the way of the Roman Empire. According to him, its woes include increasing economic and foreign policy challenges [see Shifting Winds], uncontrolled Hispanic immigration that threatens its long-term territorial integrity and Protestant “work ethic” values, and perennial budget deficits (in particular the structural nature of the current account deficit, formed due to its reliance on oil imports to sustain the suburban arrangements and the collapse of its domestic industrial base – mundane manufacturing, the auto industry, and now even aerospace and the food industry. It has a poor education system (see results of PISA international standardized tests), retiring baby boomers about to cash in on state obligations and their savings, obesity and a general cultural decline. However, the possibility of open discussion of these failings is a persistent American strength.

He then proceeds to make the argument that “US leadership is in its twilight phase” and that the “coming transition will be unprecedented” due to the global nature of its hegemony. He plausibly affirms that no nation is strong enough to replace the US as the sole superpower, meaning that there will probably be more chaos, instability and wars. Smil predicts that in sum the world will regret its passing.

Smil concludes with an analysis of globalization, making the points that it is an ongoing historical process originating in the 16th C and blossoming from the 1950′s with the arrival of the tanker revolution, now blossoming in the intricate production chains and JIT system exemplified by Wal-Mart’s relation with China. There is a stabilizing force, interdependence, which expands the economic scope of every globalized nation far beyond the limited autarkies of history, but at the same time makes them ever more vulnerable to disruption of these links; the destabilizing force is the growing inequality between nations (e.g. failed states), though a caveat is that when calculated by population there is an improvement mainly thanks to China (but nullified when taking into account the intra-national growth of inequality – which increase since 1970 in all the major countries like the US [35 to 47], Japan [25 to 37], China [25 to 50], Russia [25 to 40]. There is now no global “middle class”, according to Smil, which makes the system unstable. [Here I disagree - East-Central Europe, Latin America and even China fit the bill here].

Environmental Change & Conclusion

This next long section is a detailed analysis of the likely course and effects of global warming. Most of the stuff is pretty basic and I’ve already summarized in my reviews of Six Degrees (Mark Lynas) and The Last Generation (Fred Pearce).

His most interesting discussions are of human influence of the nitrogen cycle (which they’ve affected to a far greater degree than the carbon cycle) and the spread of antibiotic resistance. “Losses of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers and manures, nitrogen added through biofixation by leguminous crops and nitrogen oxides released from combustion of fossil fuels are now adding about as much reactive nitrogen (c.159 Mt N/year) to the biosphere as natural biofixation and lighting does” (in contrast human interference in carbon cycle through land use changes and fossil fuel burning amounts to 10% of annual photosynthetic fixation of the element and sulfur is equal to 1/3. This leads to mass leaching, eutrophication, growth of algae and phytoplankton, and the subsequent decomposition deoxygenates water and kills bottom-dwelling aquatic species. The worst hypoxic zones are the Gulf of Mexico, the lagoon of the Great Barrier Reef, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea. Nitrogen oxides formed during combustion contribute to photochemical smog in urban areas around the world and acid rain. It’s use will increase as Asia demands higher crop yields and Africa needs to stop its increasing nutrient mining.

The other worrying trend he discusses at length is the rise of antibiotic resistance on the part of pathogens, as peniccilin and its descendants become increasingly less effective. This is inevitable, but is much facilitated by widespread self-medication, over-prescription and poor sanitation in hospitals. If these negative trends continue, influenza deaths will sky-rocket due to the inability to treat bacterial pneumonia, and treating tuberculosis and typhoid fever will become very difficult. A nightmare scenario can arise if this is accompanied by increasing malnutrition and AIDS, which make people far more susceptible to these secondary diseases.

In the last chapter, “Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty”, Smil sums up and embellishes his ideas, asserts the necessity of properly quantifying risks, cautions on the fallacies of linear extrapolation of current trends, and notes that even during a collapse there are silver linings, using the construction of the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome (422-483) during the waning years of the Roman Empire (ended in 476) as an example.

In conclusion, this is a very good and entertaining book. There are some East European-style grammatical mistakes and perhaps a bit too much personal boasting, but otherwise it provides a realistic appraisal of the real potential catastrophes facing humanity (i.e. big wars and pandemics, not terrorism, earthquakes or “grey goo”) and the dominant trends of the next fifty years (geopolitical flux / non-polarity, climate change & pollution, the energy transition). He approaches the subject very rigorously-scientifically so one gets a good perspective of possible futures, my only major disagreements with him being on his disbelief in the oil peak theory and paying too little attention to the social and geopolitical ramifications of climate change (he doesn’t really consider the catastrophic possibilities, sticking to the middle-of-the-road consensual IPCC forecasts).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In most Russian bookstores, there is a bookshelf or two dedicated to so-called “patriotic literature” – reappraisals of Stalin against “liberal revisionism”, overviews of Russia’s secret super-weapons, the exploits of its special forces and Russian theo-philosophy. Much of it is (apparent) nonsense, but the economic crisis has forced me to reconsider one particular “patriotic” thesis – Andrei Parshev’s Why Russia is not America.

His big idea, an elaboration and tying together of earlier work, is that Russia’s economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, and that integrating with the global economy will lead to catastrophe. This is because of his counter-intuitive observation that Russia is overpopulated. Though its population density is low on paper, the cold climate, huge landmass and poor riverine connections means that the carrying capacity of north Eurasia is nowhere near as high as that of the world’s other centers of economic and political power – the US, China, and Europe. Because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically “efficient” to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Pearl River Delta or the Great Lakes. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds; the other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the era of neo-liberal reforms). He recommended a return to sovereignty, autarky and sobornost as the solution to these woes.

I agreed with Parshev’s analysis upon my first reading of his book in 2002, a time when I still thought Putin was no more than a better-dressed, sober gangster in Yeltsin’s mold and the country showed little signs of real recovery. Yet as evidence mounted that Russia really was prospering by the mid-2000′s and I became influenced by Krugman’s criticisms of competitiveness, I increasingly came to reject his ideas (e.g. see this comment). However, since then increasing awareness of the vital role played by protectionism in “catch-up” industrial development, the reality of peak oil and above all the economic crisis forced me into reconsidering Parshev.

Russia’s Geographic Curse

According to the geographic-determinism school of economic development, Russia is afflicted by a panoply of woes experienced by no other country or region to anywhere near the same extent. This is held to explain its special path of development, in which attempts to “catch up” with the West only end up reinforcing a Sisyphean loop of unrealized ambitions and tragic legacies.

1) Russia is too cold.

But aren’t Canada and Finland prosperous liberal democracies, despite their harsh climate? Yes, they are. But most of Canada’s 30mn-strong population is concentrated around the Great Lakes, Vancouver and Newfoundland. The former has great riverine connections with the dynamic US heartlands, while the latter two have maritime climes with excellent deep sea ports. There are a few millions living in the agriculturally productive Canadian Prairies (equivalent to Russia’s Black Earth regions). However, Canada has nowhere near so many people living so far north and so far inland as Russia.

Without central planning and subsidized energy flows, it is highly unlikely that settlements in deepest Siberia or the High Arctic could have developed into substantial population centers. Manitoba-Saskatchewan-Alberta (5.9mn) together have fewer people than the demographically weakest Russian Far East (6.7mn), let alone Siberia (20.1mn), the Urals (12.4mn) and the Volga (31.2mn) which all have similar or worse climatic conditions. Just compare the populations of the following rough climatic equivalents: Moscow (14.8mn) and Calgary (1.1mn); Irkutsk (594k) and Yellowknife (19k); Norilsk (135k) and Churchill (923).

As for Finland, it is climatically and geographically equivalent to St.-Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast, which are atypical in having relatively mild climes and sea access during the warm seasons. Even so, Finland has an unremarkable GDP per capita compared to other developed nations, despite it having some of the best human capital in the world.

The cold makes growing seasons short and late spring droughts are a recurrent problem. This traditionally made Russian agriculture outside the southern Black Earth regions (where the cold is mitigated by exception soil fertility and access to the seas) unproductive and barely sufficient for population subsistence.

This in turn gave rise to peasant cultural traditions deeply averse to the development of capitalist enterprise, with its emphasis on individual initiative and steady capital accumulation. The classic Kluchevsky quote from the 19th century:

There is one thing of which the Great Russian is sure − that a sunny summer day is valuable, that nature would allow little time convenient for agricultural work and that a short Great Russian summer can be shortened even more by a sudden untimely turn of bad weather. This would force the Great Russian peasant to hurry up and toil in order to achieve as much as possible over a short while and take the crop in good time… In this way the Great Russian would learn to take an extraordinary but short effort, would learn to do rush, hasty work and then take a rest during forced idleness in autumn and winter. No other nation in Europe is capable of such short extraordinary effort; but, on the other hand, such lack of habit to regular, moderate, constant work is unlikely to be found anywhere in Europe.

Though peasants view capitalists with suspicion throughout the world (money relations are a threat to the village social relations that serve to guarantee subsistence to its members), the precariousness of Russian agriculture reinforced the antipathy and encouraged the formation of a strong state capable of accumulating and protecting surpluses in the good times to insure the people from dearth in the bad times. It is probably no accident that the Russian state arose out of Muscovy, one of the remotest and least agriculturally productive regions, which however compensated with overwhelming military and political power.

Of course, the influence of climatic factors is much weaker on industry and services, than on agriculture. They have higher added value and the severe cold is mitigated by Russia’s energy riches, made exploitable by the Industrial Revolution. That said, the infrastructure costs remain significantly higher than in more climatically benign nations.

As you can see from the map above, east of Poland and north of Romania, Crimea and the Caucasus, Eurasia is afflicted by deep permafrost. This necessitates laying thick, heated concrete foundations and makes constructing housing, factories and skyscrapers far more costly than in developed nations, despite Russia’s cheaper labor force.

2) Russia is too big and remote.

Russia is in the paradoxical position of being at once overpopulated and underpopulated. Overpopulated in that it is too cold and harsh to sustain a big population; underpopulated in that the population density is low, which makes transport costs per capita prohibitively high. The challenge posed by its huge size and lack of sea ports was noted as far back as the 18th century by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations.

…all that part of Asia which lies any considerable way north of the Euxine and Caspian seas, the ancient Scythia, the modern Tartary and Siberia, seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state in which we find them at present. The Sea of Tartary is the frozen ocean which admits of no navigation, and though some of the greatest rivers in the world run through that country, they are at too great a distance from one another to carry commerce and communication through the greater part of it.

This is also a constant theme of Stratfor‘s analysis (e.g. see The Recession in Russia).

Throughout history, Russia has lacked navigable river transportation and access to ocean trading routes. Furthermore, Russia’s population is scattered across its vast territory, its natural resources are mostly found in unpopulated areas and a number of regional challengers constantly threaten its territorial integrity. Russia’s core is essentially the northeastern portion of European Russia…

With vast territory, constant expansion to the buffers and a lack of internal transportation, Russia requires a substantial amount of resources to maintain and defend its borders. It requires top-down management of the economy to focus resources on overcoming geographical impediments to development and security. As such, Russia is not a capital-rich country; it is starved for capital by its infrastructural needs, security costs, chronic low economic productivity, harsh climate and geography. Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, where industrial and post-industrial economic development can spring forth with little or no direction thanks to favorable geography (intricate river transportation systems in the United States and access to oceanic trade routes for both) and the relative security of oceanic barriers, Russia has had to rely on firm state-driven economic development.

Railways ameliorated Russia’s situation by vastly decreasing transport costs across its barren continental swathes, thus reducing the relative advantages enjoyed by the Rimland nations through virtue of their access to sea traffic. (This development was noted more than a hundred years ago by the geopolitical theorist Mackinder, who was concerned by the strategic threat Russian railways posed to British-ruled India). Meanwhile, the telegraph, telephones, radio, TV and eventually the Internet nullified the effects of distance on information exchange.

Nonetheless, Russia continues to incur great costs on account of its cold, continental nature. Road and railway maintenance are relatively hard and expensive in Russia, which has more limited spare resources in the first place. It also largely misses out on the great productivity gains accruing from the cargo freighter revolution of the late industrial age. Outside the Moscow road rings and the Moscow – St.-Petersburg corridor, highways remain little more than directions.

3) Russia has too many enemies.

Given its origins as a settled, economically-weak civilization surrounded by foreboding plains dominated by Asiatic horsemen to the east and Germanic, Scandinavian and Polish rivals to the west, Russia’s rulers have always felt insecure. This drove them to expand the Empire since the 15th century to occupy natural buffers, as far down the North European Plain as possible, to the Carpathian Mountains to the southwest, the Caucasus and Hindu Kush to the south and the Altai Mountains, Tian Shan and Stanovoy Range in the Far East. As Catherine the Great pithily put it, “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them”. Below is a map showing how Russia’s geo-strategists view the world:

Poor internal communications and technical deficiencies forced Moscow to main large standing armies on every potential front, incurring a constant drain on scarce resources and the productive labor pool. More resources were required for administering non-Russian lands, maintaining a formidable internal policing apparatus, and funding the development of strategic sectors, above all those tied to military applications. Security vacuums in Russia’s periphery drew in Russian troops and bureaucrats. All this makes imperial overstretch, economic inefficiency and primitive consumer markets constant features (not bugs) of any Eurasian empire.

4) Russia retains a burdensome Soviet legacy.

Though technological developments partly mitigated the negative roles of climate and geography in Russian economic development, the Soviet physical legacy of single-industry towns, “gigantism”, remote settlements, and “structural militarization” acted in the opposite direction.

Towns were built in remote areas, including the High Arctic and the Far East, regardless of costs and explicitly designed to serve a planned economy. Heating in apartment blocks was centralized, meaning that even if half the inhabitants left the rest were still entitled to utilities services. All this constituted a massive diversion of energy flows from more “efficient” purposes. Many of these towns relied on just a few large industrial employers to survive; closing the enterprise down, even if it was high unprofitable, would have resulted in humanitarian catastrophe. Incidentally, this is precisely the reason why the neoliberal reforms of the 1990′s weren’t (and probably couldn’t be) really carried through.

Stalin built up the foundations for a gargantuan military-industrial complex (MIC) centered in the remote, uninviting Urals. After the 1960′s, the MIC metastasized to such an extent as to constitute around 30% of Soviet GDP by the mid-1980′s. Though activity collapsed in the 1990′s, Russia retains a structurally militarized economy. Though currently dormant and atrophied, it can be easily reconstituted. In the mean-time the MIC continues to lock up a great deal of Russia’s human and capital resources, along with the armed forced and its vast array of security agencies.

Why America is not Russia

The US is structurally different in almost all respects. Though it has a huge continental interior, its fertile areas are interconnected by an extensive riverine network that remains ice-free throughout the winter months. It possesses excellent sea ports on both coasts. The Great Lakes region is perhaps the best place anywhere in the world for industrial development.

America’s strategic isolation and massive internal potential allow it to maintain a world class navy and expeditionary forces with ease. The US uses them calculatedly and sparingly to check the emergence of any Eurasian hegemon, the only construct that has any chance of challenging its global preeminence. And it is not afflicted by economic distortions from its deep past because America was, at least internally, a consistently free market nation since the earliest days of its founding. Its small population and abundant resources produced large per capita surpluses, sparing it from the Malthusian crises that periodically stunted older civilizations, and instead spurring on the development of free-wheeling capitalism.

From Stratfor‘s The Geography of Recession:

The most important aspect of the United States is not simply its sheer size, but the size of its usable land. Russia and China may both be similar-sized in absolute terms, but the vast majority of Russian and Chinese land is useless for agriculture, habitation or development. In contrast, courtesy of the Midwest, the United States boasts the world’s largest contiguous mass of arable land — and that mass does not include the hardly inconsequential chunks of usable territory on both the West and East coasts.

Second is the American maritime transport system. The Mississippi River, linked as it is to the Red, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, comprises the largest interconnected network of navigable rivers in the world. In the San Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound/New York Bay, the United States has three of the world’s largest and best natural harbors. The series of barrier islands a few miles off the shores of Texas and the East Coast form a water-based highway — an Intracoastal Waterway — that shields American coastal shipping from all but the worst that the elements can throw at ships and ports.
The real beauty is that the two overlap with near perfect symmetry. The Intracoastal Waterway and most of the bays link up with agricultural regions and their own local river systems (such as the series of rivers that descend from the Appalachians to the East Coast), while the Greater Mississippi river network is the circulatory system of the Midwest. Even without the addition of canals, it is possible for ships to reach nearly any part of the Midwest from nearly any part of the Gulf or East coasts. The result is not just a massive ability to grow a massive amount of crops — and not just the ability to easily and cheaply move the crops to local, regional and global markets — but also the ability to use that same transport network for any other economic purpose without having to worry about food supplies.

The implications of such a confluence are deep and sustained. Where most countries need to scrape together capital to build roads and rail to establish the very foundation of an economy — transport capability — geography granted the United States a near-perfect system at no cost. That frees up U.S. capital for other pursuits and almost condemns the United States to be capital-rich. Any additional infrastructure the United States constructs is icing on the cake. (The cake itself is free — and, incidentally, the United States had so much free capital that it was able to go on to build one of the best road-and-rail networks anyway, resulting in even greater economic advantages over competitors.)

Third, geography has also ensured that the United States has very little local competition. To the north, Canada is both much colder and much more mountainous than the United States. Canada’s only navigable maritime network — the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway —is shared with the United States, and most of its usable land is hard by the American border. Often this makes it more economically advantageous for Canadian provinces to integrate with their neighbor to the south than with their co-nationals to the east and west.

Similarly, Mexico has only small chunks of land, separated by deserts and mountains, that are useful for much more than subsistence agriculture; most of Mexican territory is either too dry, too tropical or too mountainous. And Mexico completely lacks any meaningful river system for maritime transport…

With geography empowering the United States and hindering Canada and Mexico, the United States does not need to maintain a large standing military force to counter either. The Canadian border is almost completely unguarded, and the Mexican border is no more than a fence in most locations — a far cry from the sort of military standoffs that have marked more adversarial borders in human history. Not only are Canada and Mexico not major threats, but the U.S. transport network allows the United States the luxury of being able to quickly move a smaller force to deal with occasional problems rather than requiring it to station large static forces on its borders.

Like the transport network, this also helps the U.S. focus its resources on other things.

Taken together, the integrated transport network, large tracts of usable land and lack of a need for a standing military have one critical implication: The U.S. government tends to take a hands-off approach to economic management, because geography has not cursed the United States with any endemic problems. This may mean that the United States — and especially its government — comes across as disorganized, but it shifts massive amounts of labor and capital to the private sector, which for the most part allows resources to flow to wherever they will achieve the most efficient and productive results.

Russia’s Return to the Future

As I pointed out earlier here and here, Russia is returning to the future. Its demography is stabilizing after the precipitous collapse of the 1990′s, and social morale and faith in the nation is slowly returning, to the dismay of geopolitical competitors, “Russophobes” and “social progressives” alike. Russia is implementing an industrial policy aimed at manufacturing growth and technology diffusion. The state brought the regions back under its thumb and is again becoming the linchpin of the Russian economy. The party’s over for Russia’s oligarchs:

Because of the financial crisis and government consolidation, the once-powerful oligarchs no longer have a say in their future and are merely along for the ride. Indeed, they no longer constitute a powerful and distinct business “class.” Some oligarchs will survive the shakeout, but not with their independence. To some degree, they all will become part of the Kremlin machine so carefully engineered by Putin. As copper oligarch Iskander Makhmudov said in a rare interview: “The oligarchs now have mixed fortunes, but we will all end up being soldiers of Putin one day.”

Instead of liberalizing, the economic crisis has simply reinforced already latent trends in Russia’s economic development. Russia’s ongoing globalization since the 1970′s is slowly beginning to reverse itself; Russia’s decision to apply to the WTO as part of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan is an early indicator of an accelerating trend. Much of what I predicted in The Importance of Self-Sufficiency half a year ago is already coming to pass:

A wave of consolidation will occur in the Russian banking industry, Russia Inc. will close the oil windfall-foreign intermediary-cheap credit loop that was its prior financing mechanism and the country will emerge with a stronger, self-sufficient financial system. The oligarchs, Moscow and the middle classes bear the brunt of the crisis, while the provinces, agriculture and domestic manufacturing benefit, thereby reinforcing already latent tendencies in national development.

Though the drop in Russia’s output was far greater than I expected, it was far worse in Ukraine and the Baltics. Ukraine’s project of Westernization has failed utterly. According to my quick back of the envelope calculations, its GDP is currently (taking into account the recent collapse) around 30-40% lower than it was in the late USSR! (Russia’s is around 0-10% lower, but it is not faced with a fiscal or political crisis). Thus, though there is a possibility of a humanitarian crisis and a demographic shock in Russia, it is much lower than in Ukraine – where in any case a post-Soviet fertility recovery is much less in evidence in the first place. Damningly, opinion polls indicate that Putin and Medvedev are by far the most popular politicians in Ukraine.

Decline and disillusionment in Ukraine, and the return of isolationist nationalism to Russia. What next? History is a guide. A fundamental feature of autarkies is that to be truly self-sufficient they need to expand their domain, much as the Bolsheviks created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which in turn expanded it to COMECON. It has to expand territorially in order to have access to all the vital building blocks of an industrial economy and to be able to hold its own against other economic blocs, which are more tightly interwoven into the world market. As such, it is very likely that within the next decade Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan will again become integrated with Russia, on a spectrum of possibilities ranging from an EU-like structure to a unitary state-empire.

Reintegration will create a state with 210mn souls and will significantly increase the industrial (including military-industrial) power at Moscow’s disposal by at least 50%. One has to keep in mind that Eurasia’s industrial base was meant to be unified when it was constructed during the Soviet era, and as such the gains accruing from reintegration will be more than just the sum of its parts. One of Russia’s geopolitical priorities is to thwart an independent energy corridor for the proposed Nabucco oil pipeline and to link up with its ally Armenia, so it will no doubt continue pressuring Georgia to return into its orbit. Saakashvili’s days in power are almost certainly numbered. Whether Russia will choose to expand in Central Asia is more questionable. On the one hand, they have respectable energy reserves (especially gas), constitute demographic reservoirs amidst graying Slavdom and are geopolitically important. There are few problems with radical Islam and on the whole they appreciate Russian culture. On the other hand, they will present a development burden and China will likely oppose an overt Russian reassertion in Central Asia.

I do not think these trends are possible, or even desirable, to arrest, even should the Kremlin leadership want to (they will be pulled along by the Russian people). The reasons why they are inevitable, I leave to a later post.

Why they are nothing to lament over can be answered now – because of other key global trends. Russia’s oil production very likely peaked in 2008, along with global production. Conserving what remains for its own use should be a priority; exports should only be allowed on the most favorable terms, in exchange for Western technologies, not US Treasuries, Chinese trinkets or oligarch mansions in London. One consequence is that there will be increasing competition for resources. The industrial core (the US, Europe and China) will probably strike up strategic alliances to control and influence resource-rich nations, either overtly (latter-day gunboat diplomacy) or covertly (influence operations, information wars, etc). In this world, much like in the 1930′s, the strong will beat the weak. As such, Russia’s geopolitical priorities would logically be – and this already seems to be happening – to a) maintain its military strength, including the nuclear deterrent, b) neutralize and co-opt Europe and c) extend influence over the energy-rich Arctic, Central Asia and the Middle East. To pursue these goals effectively, it needs economic sovereignty, morale, and the attributes of an empire (in Russia’s case, these are all inter-linked).

The era of childish enchantment with the West, pursued by Andropov’s successors, is coming to an end, at last dispelled by the deafening crash of globalization.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Not only is global warming a real and present threat that may yet in conjunction with impending energy shortages doom industrial civilization, it may have even been dangerously underestimated. “What have you been smoking!?,” you might say to me. Get off the doom train and enjoy the Sun. Unfortunately, we might not have much of it during the next decades – at least metaphorically speaking. To see why, I recommend you watch this video on global dimming or read its transcript.

So here’s the plot-line. After 9/11, the US air fleet was grounded for three days in the name of national security. Though presumably a major inconvenience for travelers, it was a boon for climatologist David Travis who was studying the effects of contrails, or vapor trails, left behind by high-flying aircraft on the world’s climate.

He predicted that removing contrails would have a significant impact on global temperatures, but was shocked to discover that the daily temperature range – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperature measures in a day – shifted up by an unprecedented 1.1C during those three days!

The Beginning

This story begins with Gerald Stanhill, who was tasked to measuring solar radiation over Israel as part of its plans to develop an irrigation system in the 1950′s. Repeating these experiments in the 1980′s, he found that there had been a whopping 22% drop in solar radiation over Israel!

The results were dismissed by mainstream researchers, who could not believe that the Earth’s atmosphere was darkening because there had begun a clear warming trend from the 1970′s. But then Beate Liepert combed through meteorological records in Germany and discovered the same thing. Working independently, Stanhill and Liepert discovered that from the 1950′s to the early 1990′s, the level of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface had dropped 9% in Antarctica, 10% in the USA, 16% in parts of the British Isles and almost 30% in Russia. They christened the phenomenon global dimming.

Global Dimming

Scientists still ignored these results, since they could not square global dimming with global warming.

In Australia, two researchers, Michael Roderick and Graham Farquhar, were investigating the factors influencing the so-called “pan evaporation rate”. Basically this is a really boring set of repeated experiments in which you fill up a pan of water, leave it out in the Sun for constant intervals of time and plot a time series of how much water vanishes during those periods. Really sad. But very useful in agricultural science.

Their research indicated that the key things determining evaporation rates are wind levels, humidity and the brightness of sunlight, with the latter dominant (the photons kick the water molecules out of the pan into the atmosphere). Temperatures actually play only a relatively minor role. So they reasoned that the number of photons hitting the Earth’s surface was going down…but why?

Mike Roderick happened across a paper called “Evaporation Losing Its Strength” in the magazine Nature, which reported a global decline in pan evaporation rates across the US, Europe and Russia. Putting two and two together, they compared it with the decline in observed sunlight from Stanhill’s and Liepert’s work. The trends towards decline matched perfectly.

The global dimming theory now had a bright future.

Reflecting Away the Asian Monsoon?

During the mid-1990′s climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan noticed a decline in sunlight over large parts of the Indian Ocean. He reasoned this was due to atmospheric pollution. Industrial civilization emits soot and sulfate particulates into the atmosphere, creating the hazes which shroud its major cities.

This effect is especially pronounced over the plains of northern India, where the fires from hundreds of millions of primitive peasant cook-stoves and the exhaust from the millions of rickshaws that ply its gridlocked cities play a major part in forming the “Asian Brown Cloud”, the dusky haze that envelops much of South Asia.

A multinational experiment was conducted to study this in more detail in the Maldives. In the north, air is polluted by aerosols from the Indian subcontinent; in the southernmost islands, it is cleared away by clean Antarctic winds. This fortunate conjunction lent itself well to comparative study.

When water vapor attaches itself onto naturally occurring particles, they eventually become too heavy to remain airborne and fall to the ground as rain. There are far more particles suspended in polluted air – ash, soot, sulfur dioxide, etc – than in normal air. By a factor of 10, to be precise. Thus the man-made particles provide ten times as many sites for water droplets to attach themselves to. Therefore, polluted clouds contain many more water droplets than naturally occurring clouds – each one far smaller than it would be naturally.

Many small water droplets reflect more sunlight than a few larger ones, so polluted clouds reflect far more light back into space, preventing the Sun’s heat from getting through. This is the mechanism by which global dimming works – not only are the particles themselves reflecting more sunlight, but most importantly they form brighter clouds over polluted areas.

(I think this is also a feedback mechanism. During Ice Ages, you have a lot of dust-laden winds which would reflect back sunlight, dim the Earth and reduce evaporation rates, which in turn would lead to dessication and more dust. When the Earth warms, more vegetation appears and deserts eventually contract once the system reaches an equilibrium, so more sunlight reaches through, increasing the power of the Earth’s hydrological engine.)

Satellite images revealed this global dimming effect was not just limited to India, but also encompassed China extending to the Pacific, Western Europe extending into Africa, the British Isles, etc.

These clouds could alter the world’s rainfall patterns. This may have already led to the first global dimming Holocaust.

There was a major famine in 1984 in Ethiopia, partly caused by a decades-long drought across the Sahel. The area is crucially reliant on a short wet season created by the summer monsoon.

This monsoon depends on the Sun heating the Atlantic north of the Equator, drawing the tropical rain belt northward and bringing rain to the Sahel. This mechanism failed frequently during the 1970′s and 1980′s.

Leon Rotstayn was puzzled by this phenomenon because his climate models indicated that pollution blowing in from Europe and the US over the Atlantic should have little effect on the Sahel’s rainfall patterns. But taking the new Maldives findings into account, he found that the resultant brighter clouds would reflect more sunlight in space, cooling the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently the equatorial rain bands would fail to move as far north, spelling doom for the benighted denizens of the Sahel.

From the 1990′s, there were serious moves towards regulating aerosol emissions in Europe and the US. Scrubbers were installed on factory chimneys, fuel was cleansed of sulfur and cars acquired catalytic converters. The rains returned to the Sahel and the droughts have receded in recent years.

However, the “Asian Brown Cloud” is still growing and as noted earlier the Asian monsoons that sustain 3bn people are crucially dependent on the temperature gradient between land and oceans. These gradients will diminish in the presence of major dimming. Furthermore, could it be that the reason El Nino has increased in recent years (in contrast to the historical record, in which it usually flares up only when the world is colder, i.e. when less sunlight reached the Earth) is due to diminished solar intensity over the west Pacific “fire-stove” off the Indonesian coast that drives this cycle?

From the Frying Pan into the Fire – Accelerated Global Warming

So the world decides to clean up its act. Quite literally. Global dimming eases, the monsoons return to stability and everything will be nice and dandy, right?

Unfortunately not. For global dimming has been masking us from an even greater threat – very fast global warming.

As shown in this satellite photo of the Western US, though contrails are individually small when there are many of them they can blanket the whole sky. Now if according to Travis’ calculations just a three day interruption in air travel can raise the daily temperature range by more than 1.1C – a unprecedentedly sharp jump, then what would happen to global temperatures if all industrial activity were to collapse tomorrow?

The slight global cooling from the 1950′s to the 1970′s may have been due to rapidly rising pollution whose immediate cooling effects overwhelmed the as yet modest effects of global warming (whose impact is not immediate, but stretched over decades with a “half-life” – when the climate system moves half the way to its new equilibrium – of around 30 years). However, since then pollution control in the industrialized world coupled with the end of exponential growth in world hydrocarbons extraction allowed the warming trend to regain the initiative.

The effects are already observable in Europe. During the 1980′s, east-central Europe was an environmental hellhole of hanging smogs, acid rain and wilted forests. The central focus was at the so-called “Black Triangle”, on the borders of Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The collapse of Communism cleaned away the blight, but nature doesn’t provide free lunches. Europe cutting its pollution may have saved millions of Sahelians and added a few years to the life expectancy of the denizens of Dresden, but temperatures too started rising rapidly – culminating in the ferocious summer heatwave of 2003, which produced 35,000 excess deaths. Within a few decades, this will be the norm; within a few decades more, much of the Mediterranean may become desert.

If global dimming has such a big and immediate impact on temperatures, then this means that global warming is in fact a far stronger beast than previously thought. Furthermore, most aerosol pollutants are washed out of the atmosphere or broken down by hydroxyl within days; CO2 accumulates and stays up there for centuries. In the long run, and absent conscious human intervention, CO2 and global warming will win out.

The Dilemmas of Global Dimming

Once clean air regulations and/or depleting hydrocarbon stocks force a stop to or reversal of “dirty” pollution, which produces a cooling effect, then warming will hit the Earth with full force – by then no doubt accelerated by positive feedbacks like the decreasing ice-albedo effect, ocean acidification, vegetation dieoff and Siberian methane releases.

Global warming will follow the upper end of the IPCC’s projections (6.4C rise by 2100), or even exceed them altogether. We may hit 2C as soon as 2030, initiating the melting of the polar icecaps and dooming the world’s coastal cities. A rise of 4C, perhaps as soon as 2040, will spell the death of the Amazon. The fin de siècle climate may be as much as 10C hotter than today, which implies certain doom for industrial civilization as the (electronic-cyber) map collapses from the assault of the desert of the real.

No wonder then that stratospheric sulfur particulate emissions are one of the leading contenders for geo-engineering plans to “correct” the world’s climate should global warming veer out of control, this idea being proposed by Mikhail Budyko as early as 1974. Or we could try to initiate a hydroxyl collapse so that pollution no longer gets cleansed out and accumulates like CO2, shielding us from the Sun’s wrath.

Of course, both paths – global warming or global dimming – will have catastrophic impacts on world food production. Increasing the global aerosol cover on such a large scale is a huge undertaking in political and social costs. One way to do it is to increase coal burning and to remove the scrubbers from factory chimneys and other such amenities of today’s life. In the future, clean air may become a luxury.

Doing this will be quite cheap – coal is still plentiful, even if the mined ores are constantly declining in energy density, and removing pollution controls will significantly increase its EROEI (energy return on energy invested), which will give a boost to an industrial civilization by now on the verge of collapse. However, embarking on this project will be difficult to explain to citizens already tired of the dead hand of government in their lives, for by now net returns to complexity will be decidedly negative (Tainter). Furthermore, not all nations will benefit or agree to this project, though they will no doubt be bullied into line should the Great Powers reach a common agreement.

However, quite apart from further postponing the inevitable day of reckoning and increasing its magnitude when comes, darkening the world could shut down the Asian monsoon and drastically change the world’s weather patterns.

If global warming is to go unchallenged by global dimming, however, it will be all the faster and more catastrophic. Beyond a 3C rise, the heat will wreck the world’s mid-latitudinal breadbaskets and cause staple crop yields in overpopulated nations like China and India to plummet.

Fire or darkness? That is one hell of a predicament.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
Green Communism is humanity's last and only chance to avert environmental catastrophe.
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Communism is not usually regarded as a green political system.The lack of attention to negative environmental externalities on the part of central planners bequeathed the areas under their control a legacy of wilted forests, poisoned waters and darkened skies. The dissolution of the Soviet empire revealed these failures to the world – the overflowing chemical sink of Dzerzhinsk, the black sulfurous snows of Norilsk and, most iconically, the radioactive zone of Chernobyl. The post-Soviet economic collapse idled the smokestacks and destroyed many of the most egregiously polluting enterprises; yet the hellish mills grind on in China, home of 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. So the claim that Communism could have saved the planet from ecological oblivion will no doubt be met with a fair amount of skepticism.

However, we must first define what kind of pollution we’re talking about. For instance, European medieval cities lacked the most basic sanitation and epicenters of pestilence. Until the nineteenth century, their death rates were permanently higher than their death rates, and needed a constant influx of people from the countryside to sustain themselves. However, in that period humanity’s ecological footprint, even measured per capita, was very small and sustainable. This is because that kind of pollution was extremely localized. Modern man would no doubt find life in the medieval city unbearable, at least initially. However, if you venture outside its (typically small) perimeter, a lost world of bucolic idyll would open up before you. (Then you’d get hanged for vagrancy or killed by bandits or starve to death, but that’s beside the point).

In pre-industrial and early industrial civilizations, although localized pollution may be extreme, global pollution is minimal. As is well-known, CO2 is the major greenhouse gas that contributes to anthropogenic global warming. Between 1000 and 1840, the global CO2 concentration fluctuated between 275-285ppm. It only began rising appreciably when the world entered the age of iron and steel around 1850, still very slowly albeit extremely fast by geological standards. Although disrupted by the discontinuities of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the post-1950 age of cheap oil that fueled the American economic miracle, European recovery and the large-scale industrialization of the Soviet bloc and Japan turbocharged CO2 emissions. The 1970′s oil shocks moderated but did not check this secular trend. High oil prices spurred investment into oil operations in remoter regions free of OPEC’s price-setting and eventually brought prices down. The opening of China from the late 1970′s resulted in its becoming the coal-powered workshop of the world by the new millennium. This was part of a general global trend in which the developing world ditched Marxist-inspired theories of economic development in favor of freer markets, albeit outside Asia the economic results were usually mixed. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions again spike on up, while its atmospheric concentration kinks ever more upwards – a dark singularity that may potentially doom human civilization.

Viewed from a long timescale, the past century of environmental vandalism looks like a singularity. Unlike the human lifespan, which is measured in decades, the biosphere is measured in hundreds of millions of years. As such, to Gaia humanity already appears as a disruptive and alien technological Singularity. From the dialectical materialist perspective, this is the Law of Negation at work - just as each class begets its own gravedigger, so homo sapiens builds its civilization upon the bones of the biosphere that gave it birth, leaving behind only desert.

Viewed from a long timescale, the past century of environmental vandalism looks like a singularity. Unlike the human lifespan, which is measured in decades, the biosphere is measured in hundreds of millions of years. As such, to Gaia humanity already appears as a disruptive and alien technological Singularity. From the dialectical materialist perspective, this is the Law of Negation at work – just as each class begets its own gravedigger, so homo sapiens builds its civilization upon the bones of the biosphere that gave it birth, leaving behind only desert.

One of the effects of Communism in the twentieth century was that it stifled the growth rates of the countries it infected. In 1950, China and Taiwan had similar levels of economic development. However, there was a generational difference between when these two countries opened themselves up to globalization. Taiwan began developing as a market-driven export hub from the 1950′s; China joined the Asian tigers only in the 1980′s. Today Taiwan belongs to the rich club of nations, while China is still in the throes of development and only recently moved into the ‘lower middle-income’ rank. Since these countries are culturally similar (most of the world recognizes them de jure as ‘one China’) and were at roughly the same level of development prior to the Chinese Revolution, the difference between them can be safely attributed to Maoist inefficiency and chaos.

Energy, or more precisely exergy that is used for useful work, is a key factor of growth – a neglected topic in classical economic growth theory that has only relatively recently been addressed by the work of Robert Ayres and others. Since up till now the most intense and effective energy sources have been hydrocarbon based, they make up the lifeblood of our industrial civilization. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2. First, heavy industrialization boosts CO2 emissions per capita to around 5-10 tons; afterward, automobiles and other consumption push them up by another 5-10 tons. From 1990 to 2003, Taiwanese CO2 emissions doubled to 12.4 tons as its citizens became rich and bought up vehicles and household appliances. South Korea went up from 5.6 tons in 1990 to 9.8 tons in 2004. Massive industrial expansion in China raised their emissions from a meager 2.1 tons in 1990, to 3.8 tons in 2004 and more than 5 tons by 2007 – the consequence of becoming the world’s largest producer of steel, cement, aluminium and a whole host of other heavy industrial products. The difference, however, is that the combined population of South Korea and Taiwan are less than 10% that of China, so increasing per capita emissions in the latter are having a vastly greater global impact. In absolute terms the increase in world CO2 emissions since the millennium has been the greatest in human history.

Although China’s economic potential was the most suppressed of any country under Communism in absolute size, Russia’s has been held down for the longest period. At the dawn of World War One, the Russian Empire enjoyed the fastest rate of industrial growth of any European country. Without the ‘lost decades’ of the Civil War (1916-28) and the Great Patriotic War (1941-50), it is entirely feasible that it could have become a fully industrialized country by the 1950′s, instead of the 1970′s. Furthermore, like Japan it would have developed a mature consumer economy by the 1970′s, instead of the 2010′s or 2020′s as seems likely today. The demographic dividend from cutting out the Civil War, Stalinism, World War Two (it is unlikely that Hitler could have come to power in Germany were it not for the Communist specter) and falling post-1965 life expectancy would have meant that Russia’s population today, assuming similar fertility trends, would be around 200mn rather than 141mn. This demographic dividend would also be reflected in Eurasia and east-central Europe in general. What all this implies is that per capita CO2 emissions would have reached around 20 tons per capita by the 1970′s (similar to Canada or the US – remember that Russia is a cold, resource-rich country). In conclusion, Eurasia’s and east-central Europe’s potential contributions to CO2 emissions could have been as as great or even greater than China’s during the course of a non-Communist twentieth century, due to the fact that their development (and pollution) was suppressed for a longer period of time.

Finally, without a respected and powerful bastion of Communism in the world in the form of the Soviet superpower, Marxist economic ideas would not have enjoyed such wide traction in the post-colonial developing world. The ‘License Raj’ might not have been a feature of Indian life, thus possibly accelerating its development by one or two decades such that today it would be an industrialized if not yet consumer-orientated country. Without its legacy of import substitution and bureaucratic overload, Latin America would probably be both richer and a bigger global pollutant. (This is not to say, however, that the region will have converged to advanced country living standards. Like the Arabs and Africans, and unlike east Europeans or the Chinese, the low emphasis these cultures place on education means their basic economic problem, low human capital, would have put a plateau on their potential GDP well below developed standards, as I argued extensively here).

Taking historical CO2 emissions since 1950 as my base, I constructed two scenarios – Capitalist China, in which the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was averted; and No Communism, in which the 1917 Russian Revolution was thwarted and no other severely anti-capitalist ideology took over a large share of the world’s economic capacity in the twentieth century.

To construct Capitalist China, I assumed historical CO2 emissions up to 1975, a rise to 5 tons per capita (versus historical 2.1 tons) by 1990, and a further rise to 10 tons per capita (versus 3.8 tons) by 2004. This assumes that like South Korea or Taiwan, the latter stages of heavy industrialization occur in 1975-1990 (in reality: 1990-2008) and that 1990-2004 sees the development of a prosperous consumer economy. In No Communism, I just crudely assumed a flat 50% increase in CO2 emissions for 1950-2006.

To construct Capitalist China, I assumed historical CO2 emissions up to 1975, a rise to 5 tons per capita (versus historical 2.1 tons) by 1990, and a further rise to 10 tons per capita (versus 3.8 tons) by 2004. This assumes that like South Korea or Taiwan, the latter stages of heavy industrialization occur in 1975-1990 (in reality: 1990-2008) and that 1990-2004 sees the development of a prosperous consumer economy. In No Communism, I just crudely assumed a flat 50% increase in CO2 emissions for 1950-2006.

The Capitalist China scenario is, I believe, robust albeit crude. I worked out a new value for 1990 and for 2004 global CO2 emissions, assuming the above increases in Chinese pollution, and linearly connected them with straight lines. It suffocates the details out of the picture, e.g. the oil shocks and their effect on CO2 emissions. Nonetheless, this is permissible since we’re talking about an alternate history decades down from its branching point, so assuming a simple repetition of the Arab oil embargoes is pointless. It does however show the huge impacts on cumulative CO2 pollution caused by delayed Chinese industrialization.

Since there is no ordered data for national CO2 emissions prior to 1990 (and in any case aggregating and manipulating them all would require far more work than I’m willing to do – we’re talking generalities here), I basically assume a 50% increase of CO2 every year over historical levels. Although towards the high end, I do believe it’s justified. If Russia and its peripheries had become industrialized by the 1950′s, rather than the 1970′s, that would have added around 250mn more people into the industrialized world, at a time when it consisted of perhaps 350mn Europeans whose economies were devastated by war and 150mn Americans. The Third World would have started developing a great deal quicker without the influence of Marxist thought on economics, which is pernicious to traditional growth. The oil shocks of the 1970′s would instead have correlated to the oil shock of 2008, the harbinger of peak oil. After that, with renewable energies still in their infancy, the late twentieth century would have seen the substitution of oil for much dirtier coal, whose increased pollution would have canceled out the effects of more natural gas and nuclear power, let alone fledgling wind or as yet non-existent solar. Therefore, overall I think the 50% over historical levels CO2 pollution is a reasonable assumption for a non-Communist century.

That said, what role would these increased emissions have had on atmospheric CO2 levels, in a world where Eurasia and the Third World declined Marxist economics and China followed Taiwan’s and South Korea’s development path?

When looking at the historical data, I found that in any year the gross amount of CO2 emissions and the increase in the level of atmospheric CO2 are very closely correlated (to the extent that there's no need to even bother with a proper straight line fit). This stands to reason - human emissions of greenhouse gases have long since far surpassed the ability of the world's sinks to swallow them. After simplifying the relation between emissions and CO2 levels as a basic linear formula, I applied it to the two emissions scenarios detailed above and came up with this graph. Note - to account for Eurasian industrialization and no World War Two between 1917 and 1950, the CO2 level in 1950 is set at 317ppm, corresponding to the real 1960 level, instead of the real 1950 level of 311ppm.

When looking at the historical data, I found that in any year the gross amount of CO2 emissions and the increase in the level of atmospheric CO2 are very closely correlated (to the extent that there’s no need to even bother with a proper straight line fit). This stands to reason – human emissions of greenhouse gases have long since far surpassed the ability of the world’s sinks to swallow them. After simplifying the relation between emissions and CO2 levels as a basic linear formula, I applied it to the two emissions scenarios detailed above and came up with this graph. Note – to account for Eurasian industrialization and no World War Two between 1917 and 1950, the CO2 level in 1950 is set at 317ppm, corresponding to the real 1960 level, instead of the real 1950 level of 311ppm.

As of 2006, the atmospheric CO2 level was at 382ppm and soaring at a blistering rate. However, had just one country, China, embraced globalized markets just a generation before it did, the CO2 level in 2006 would have been a full 10ppm higher, at 392ppm. That it did not, bought the world five additional years in which to curb material throughput or make a technological breakthrough that would avert climate catastrophe. Furthermore, if the globalized idyll of before 1914 were not shattered and if Communism remained confined to the world’s libraries and universities, CO2 levels in 2006 would have been at 421ppm – at today’s rate of CO2 increase, equivalent to fifteen years of breathing space. Peoples suffered under Communist regimes so that humanity could survive.

That is a bold statement that might seem rather insane and perhaps callous. Let me explain. The EU defined anything greater than a 2C rise in global temperatures to be a ‘dangerous’ level of warming and set itself targets to avoid it. Although at those temperatures the Great Plains breadbasket, coral reefs and the Arctic icecap are all doomed to desertification and extinction, truly catastrophic warming and widespread human ‘die-off’ are likely to be averted. According to climate modeler Meinshausen, meeting the 2 degrees C climate target means that atmospheric CO2 levels have to be stabilized somewhere around 400ppm – and even then, we’re only giving ourselves a slightly greater than break even chance. For this to occur, emissions must peak by 2015, halve from 1990 levels by 2050 and peak atmospheric CO2 levels must not exceed about 450ppm. (Consult the linked paper for more details, it has caveats on probabilities, the effects of other ‘CO2 equivalent’ greenhouse gases, etc).

Furthermore, the above work neglects recent research into positive feedbacks in the global climate system. Should the global temperature reach a certain ‘tipping point’, it is possible that it will unleash self-reinforcing ‘runaway warming’. The vegetation and forests of the world will switch from being carbon sinks to carbon sources, as decay overtakes growth. Large parts of the Amazon are projected to burn up and become desert, releasing more CO2. In possibly the most under-reported story of 2008, vast tracts of Siberian permafrost and Arctic gas hydrates are already melting rapidly and releasing methane, a gas twenty times as potent as CO2 in its contribution to global warming. The past decade saw the biggest relative growth of global CO2 emissions since the 1960′s (and the biggest in absolute terms), so we are very far from stabilizing them. The current economic crisis is hurting the renewable energy industry and public commitment to green projects, even as the world once again bathes in a cheap noxious brew of hydrocarbons. And all this is quite disturbing.

We are already at the edge of the precipice, and this in a world where Communism suppressed the economic and polluting potential of vast swathes of humanity like a compressed spring for most of a century. If Eurasia had been allowed to become a normal consumer economy and if China and the rest of the old Third World hadn’t been stalled in their large-scale industrialization by the shackles of socialism, we would already be at an atmospheric CO2 level of 420ppm or so and well on the road to oblivion. Meanwhile, we would still be at around the same technological level as we are today. Thus, Communism played a key role in the last century in the salvation of mankind.

However, as discussed above, the survival of advanced civilization is still far from assured. Yes, we might still be rescued by a technological breakthrough. For instance, recursively self-improving machine intelligence could negate humanity and transcend its climatic problems. Unfortunately, the dates postulated for the technological Singularity by most thinkers, around the middle of the century, are just about the time when credible ‘business-as-usual’ models of climate catastrophe and resource depletion foresee the collapse of advanced industrial civilization amid a global die-off. It would do no good if computer scientists finally unlock the inner secrets of the human brain just before their lab is stormed by a starving mob that lynches them and destroys the machine that just minutes before had passed the Turing test with flying colors… The twenty-first century will be a make or break century – Olduvai Gorge or technological Singularity. Of course, it’s possible that just before falling over the cliff, humanity does manage to incubate machine intelligence, which will precede to take over the world on the bones of their biological parents, just as we in our time took over the biosphere and left behind deserts. That would make for a most sublime demonstration of the Laws of Negation and of Transformation in dialectical materialism.

It should be transparently clear that Green Communism is the wave of the future. The capitalists are morally, and now financially, bankrupt, with the Ponzi scheme that is global finance unraveling before our eyes. We can live without the Madoffs and made-offs of this world; we cannot live in a world of metastasizing deserts and encroaching oceans. The zombie masses of the consumerist have blindly worshipped the false Gods of material growth, directed in their idolatry by cultural hegemony of the capitalist elites. The masses must be woken from their gasoline-fume induced stupor, before stern Mother Nature does it for us. Green Communism is the road to redemption for consumerist sins of greed and gluttony.

The Europeans are too soft and effete to give up on their luxuries, the Americans too enamored of their bankrupt and soulless capitalist system. Russias are already infected with the poisoned chalice of mass consumerism, and never made good Communists anyway. Ironically, the best hopes of foisting a true values shift upon the world may lie in China. They have finished building up their heavy industrial base, but have not yet developed to the stage of mindless consumerism. Now they stand at a crossroads. Their Communist party can either opt for the patently bankrupt philosophy and way of life that is neoliberalism, or they could ignore the temptations of listening to shallow popular sentiment and start focusing on material and spiritual transformation.

The world must arise as one in revolt against the neoliberal System, overthrow the warmongers and capitalists and institute a global network that will focus its energies on technological innovation and spiritual advancement – surely worthier goals than today’s prevailing commodity fetishism. China may be the locus, but whichever nation or region first takes upon itself the holy burden should not be left alone – otherwise, surrounded by predatory and cynical capitalist Powers, it will fall into the same militarism and parochialism that destroyed the Soviet soul and ultimately its material foundations. Society should be fundamentally restructured. The productive capacities already exist to provide everyone with food, shelter and a reasonable standard of living. Economic activity should be geared almost exclusively to technological research, as well as maintaining existing productive capacities and social obligations. Material throughput must be drastically reduced and all major economic activities subject to stringent sustainability criteria. Patents and elite universities should be replaced by and the collaborative spirit that is aspired to in academia and free, quality education over the Internet (on the model of MIT’s courses). The workers must be guided out of their false consciences, which the elites hoisted so long upon them to imprison them, and new, smaller generations should be reared in factory incubators. The development of bottom-up nano-manufacturing and deep machine intelligence will bridge the Olduvai Gorge and transform human civilization into the post-scarcity paradise that is Green Communism.

Notes: My main sources were the Earth Policy Institute for global CO2 emissions and atmospheric levels, and Wikipedia for national CO2 data. You can also look over the data file (.opd) used.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.