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Editorial note: This article was first published at Arctic Progress in February 2011. In the next few weeks I will be reposting the best material from there.

The Arctic to become a pole of global economic growth? Image credit – Scenic Reflections.

Behold! Far north along the shores of the Arctic a quiver of upspringing settlements fringes the coast. Boats swarm around canning factories, smoke flutters above smelters, herds of reindeer dot the prairies… And here or there, on every street-corner, glimmer out the lights of theaters where moving-pictures entertain white people through the sunless weeks of the midwinter dancing-time, the singing-time, the laughing-time of Eskimo Land.

- Northward ho!: An account of the far North and its people.

In 2003, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill wrote the now famous paper Dreaming with BRIC’s, predicting that Brazil, Russia, India and China would overtake the developed G8 nations within a few decades and make astounding returns for faithful investors. The BRIC’s concept entered the conventional wisdom, spawning a host of related acronyms (BASIC, BRICSA, etc) – and if anything, realizing its promise well ahead of schedule. Last year, China’s real GDP possibly overtook America’s, and Russia’s approached Germany’s.

Yet for all their successes, the BRIC’s may not fulfill their expected roles as the stars of the global economy in the 21st century. The level of education is horrid in Brazil and atrocious in India; without the requisite human capital, these two countries will find it difficult to rapidly “converge” to developed world standards. China is much better off in this respect, but its high growth trajectory may in turn be disturbed by energy shortages and environmental degradation. China produces half the world’s coal, which is patently unsustainable given its limited reserves. But since coal accounts for 75% of China’s primary energy consumption and fuels the factories that keep its workforce employed, there is little it can do to mitigate this dependence. Meanwhile, China’s overpopulation, pollution and climate change predicament is so well known as to not require elaboration. Many other countries flirting around the edges of BRIC status – Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. – face serious challenges in the form of low human capital, uncertain energy and food supplies and a rising incidence of AGW-induced droughts, floods and heatwaves.

There is one global region that may hold the key to resolving these intertwined problems – and even to become a major pole of global growth in its own right. For the most part, it is now an empty wilderness, but climate change is opening it up as potential living space. Its exploitation has the potential to halve the length of global freight transport routes while increasing their security, uncover sizable to gigantic new sources of hydrocarbons and minerals, and stabilize global food prices through the expansion of arable land. Its experience of management and conflict resolution may inspire a global model of cooperation – or it may degenerate into an economic, legal, or even military battlefield over shipping routes and sub-sea resources.

This global region is the Arctic Rim, and its adjoining ARCS: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia. The ARCS of Progress in the 21st century.

Arctic sea ice extent on September 1, 2010 – both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage are clearly open. Image credit – The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.

From North Pole to Growth Pole

The core reasons behind the Arctic Rim’s bright prospects are global macro-trends: climate change; peak oil and resource nationalism; overpopulation in the South. These “push” and “pull” factors will induce a decades-long Arctic boom, starting with shipping, energy and mining, and culminating in a fundamental northwards shift of the center of the world economy. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Breaking Ice For Shipping

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a northwest passage to the sea.

- Northwest Passage song, Stan Rogers, 1981.

Typically, the cryosphere – the frozen part of the world – remains stable, because its snow and ice reflect much of the Sun’s heat, thus cooling itself. This process is called the ice-albedo feedback.

However, when the high-albedo ice melts, it leaves behind darker-hued earth, flora or sea that absorb far more heat. Local air temperatures soar and inhibit the reformation of the ice during cold seasons. From working to keep the system stable, beyond a critical threshold the ice-albedo feedback begins to reinforce a runaway dynamic of melting and warming.

The ice-albedo feedback largely explains why the Arctic is warming about twice faster than in the world as a whole.

In summer 2007, Arctic sea ice extent fell 38% below average since records began – an area the size of six Californias. The next year saw both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route clear of ice for a short period in late summer. As of December 2010, sea ice extent was the lowest for the month on satellite record, even surpassing the 2007 melt.

While the relentless fall in sea ice extent over the past three decades is remarkable enough, what’s stunning is the 55% decline in summer sea ice volume. Once the thick, multi-year ice is gone, then it’s really gone – the low albedo of the ocean water will raise local temperatures, preventing all but a thin film of sea ice from reforming during the cold winters. It is thus a near certainty that Arctic sea ice is already deep in its death spiral.

Inland, earlier snowmelts enable the ground to absorb more heat, while dark-hued shrubs and boreal forests encroach on the tundra.

Many of the effects will be negative. The polar bears will probably go extinct, either drowning for lack of sea ice, or starving, or migrating south and merging with their grizzly cousins. Invasive species from the south will drive out Arctic flora and fauna off the top of the world. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks.

But the new Arctic merchants will be making a killing.

Shipping routes during ice-free Arctic summer . Image credit – Laurence C. Smith.

In 2010, the Baltica became the first high-tonnage tanker to sail with petroleum products by the Northern Sea Route, steaming from Murmansk to China. This was followed by the voyage of the MV Nordic Barents, the the first vessel to sail from one non-Russian port to another through the Arctic, cutting 5,000km off the traditional Suez route. It carried 41,000 tons of iron ore from Kirkenes, Norway to feed the steel mills of China. One upping them all, the year ended with the first round-trip voyage without icebreaker assistance via the Northern Sea Route. The Norilsk Nickel-owned ship Monchegorsk carried the metal from the north Siberian port of Dudinka to Shanghai, taking just 41 days of steaming (the Suez route would have lasted as long as four months).

The opening of the Northern Sea Route and rising demand for metals and petroleum products from China and other emerging markets is set to continue spurring the development of Arctic shipping. In January 2011, a Sovcomflot executive said the Russian shipping company has already received 15 requests for icebreaker assistance in the Arctic for this year, compared to just four in 2010*. The governor of Murmansk, Dmitry Dmitriyenko, predicts that cargo transport through the Northern Sea Route will increase tenfold by 2020. This expansion will be sustained with private investment funding: both Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk are to be partially privatized in the coming years.

Similar trends are in play with the opening of the Northwest Passage across Canada. It has been conquered by cruise ship in 2006 and the commercial ship MV Camilla Desgagnés in 2008. Exploitation of the Northwest Passage will likely go slower than of its north Eurasian counterpart, because of lower demand and the (relative) underdevelopment of Canada’s icebreaker fleet. But there is still a wealth of opportunities there.

Black Gold or Fool’s Gold at the Top of the World?

Use it or lose it is the first principle of Arctic sovereignty.

- Speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2007.

Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century.

- Speech by Russian President Medvedev in September 2008.

Global oil production has now either peaked or is close to peaking, and will now either continue on its present “undulating plateau” – or begin to decline at an accelerating pace. The specifics are intensely argued over and the debate is far too extensive to detail here. But suffice to say, the “cornucopian” position that technological ingenuity and market forces will always conjure more and more resources out of a finite planet is untenable.

Any number of factors – global production exceeding new discoveries since the mid-1980′s; the world’s inability to significantly ramp up oil production despite soaring prices for the commodity; the rising costs of oil production due to the falling EROEI of the remaining oil sources; massively inflated reserves numbers from OPEC members; growing resource nationalism – militate against a business-as-usual future of increasing production in the oil industry.

These mounting challenges are the reason the big oil majors are pushing into the deepwater drilling that produced the Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and partnering with Russian state oil companies to develop offshore gas deposits in the Kara Sea, and sinking millions of US dollars on prospecting off Greenland despite no returns to date. They need to maintain their reserves numbers to prevent their stocks from tanking – but to do so, the oil majors are forced into taking escalating financial, environmental and political risks.

The Arctic’s natural resources. Image credit – Global Research.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic may hold as much as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil (90 billion barrels) and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the Arctic is rapidly becoming central to oil exploration. That said, capitalizing on these resources – even assuming they are as big as estimated above – will be exceptionally difficult. For a start, some 84% of these sources are likely to be offshore. Second, according to more recent USGS calculations, developing them will be prohibitively expensive: “Assuming production costs of up to $100 per barrel, only 2.5 billion barrels of oil could be lifted… and only with a 50% probability.” For perspective, an average oil price of $92 per barrel broke the world economy in 2008.

Talk of the Arctic becoming the next Saudi Arabia is unrealistic. Its oil reserves are smaller, more dispersed, more remote, of worse quality, and far more challenging to exploit. But this isn’t to say that its black gold is fool’s gold. Technological progress on Arctic drilling, as well as a lack of better options elsewhere, will draw Western oil majors and National Oil Companies north.

The Arctic isn’t only of interest to shippers and oilmen. Confronted with inexorable rises in demand from China, the global mining industry is rushing to add metals and minerals production capacity wherever they can. Just to take a few Arctic examples, there are plans to start or expand iron ore production on Canada’s Baffin Island, Norway’s Kirkenes and the Kola Peninsula. Coal production is resuming at Svalbard. Just in case the whole oil thing doesn’t work out, Greenland is looking to exploit its potentially vast mineral resources. The Coeur d`Alene Mines Corporation recently opened a gold mine near Juneau, Alaska ahead of schedule. Though volumes remain small, this will change as depletion becomes as evident for minerals as it is now for oil.

Towards an Arctic Civilization?

… Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

- James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis.

Beginning with the shipping and energy industries, the influence of the Arctic will eventually come to encompass the entire world. Assuming that efforts to quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions are unsuccessful, and that geoengineering is either not attempted or doesn’t work, then many of the middle regions will become too hot and dry for sustained agriculture (and maybe human survival), and masses of climate refugees will try to migrate north. The center of global economic growth, politics, and perhaps – in the far future – population, will come to rest within the Arctic Circle.

The North Pole may become the spatial center of the world. Image source – Trausti Valsson.

This process will likely be accompanied by mass upheavals, societal collapses, famines, border conflicts, maybe even bigger wars. But as usual misery contains the seeds of opportunity. It is not impossible that the farsighted individuals who are now buying up Hudson Bay territories or Siberian riverside lands are positioning themselves or their heirs for lordships and kingdoms in 2200.

But let’s focus on just the next three decades. The opening of the Arctic by various “push” factors (overpopulation, global warming) and “pull” factors (shipping routes, resources) will create demand for infrastructure, housing, associated services, etc. Buying up strategic lands, routes and infrastructure in the Arctic region offers one of the best, and most overlooked, rates of return in the world today. Take inspiration from OmniTRAX, a Colorado-based company that bought the derelict Port of Churchill and its railway from the Manitoba government for a bargain basement price of $10 in 1998. Now that Hudson Bay has become clear of sea ice during the summer, these assets are receiving tens of millions of dollars of investment from the Canadian government.

How can you benefit from the coming Arctic boom? In the coming years, Russia is going to partially privatize lucrative state assets, such as shipping company Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk (which handles 60% of shipping across the Northern Sea Route). New ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, dams, oil and gas fields, aluminium smelters, LNG plants, etc. are springing up over the entire region.

Enter the ARCS of Progress: Why Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia are Positioned to Dominate the Polar-Centric World

Идут на Север срока огромные,
Кого ни спросишь – у всех указ…
Взгляни, взгляни
В глаза мои суровые,
Взгляни, быть может, в последний раз.

- Soviet GULAG song, 1947.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

- National Anthem of Canada.

Watching the economic news these days is a sure path route to depression. Anywhere you seem to look in the developed world there are awning budget deficits, soaring debts, depressed output, and stagnation. We’ve established that putting your money into the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) isn’t such a good idea. But the US is the “safe haven,” right? Unfortunately, its fiscal sustainability indicators are actually worse than the PIGS average. In 2009, the US got $0.6 in tax revenue for every $1 of outlays, or a receipt-to-outlay ratio of 0.6; the equivalent ratio for the PIGS was 0.78. Maybe Japan? With a 0.52 receipt-to-outlay ratio, it makes the US look like a paragon of fiscal discipline.

But within all that mess there’s a few, sparkling gems. Not only are they at the heart of the opening Arctic, but they are all excellent investment destinations on their own merits. They are the ARCS countries: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia.

Alaska

In contrast to the rest of the US, Alaska was barely dented by the economic crisis, its GDP declining by just 0.3% in 2009 and recovering 0.6% in 2010. Employment is lower than the US average. While states like California and Illinois flirt with state bankruptcy, Alaska has accumulated $40 billion in its Permanent Fund. Finally, it is – along with Greenland – the most demographically vigorous of the Arctic states, with a total fertility rate of 2.32 children per woman in 2006. It won’t be afflicted by the First World’s looming aging crises any time soon. Alaska is well set to fulfill its motto: “North to the Future!”

Russia

Though the poorest of the ARCS, Russia is also its fastest growing one, with 5% annual GDP growth during 2001-2010. Its high level of human capital (around 70% of Russians continue to higher education, a First World rate), vast resource wealth and decent macroeconomic management set it on a promising path to convergence with developed countries.

Additionally, Russia has a predominant population, economic and military presence in the Arctic. The Murmansk region by itself has more people than all of Alaska, while the Russian Northern Fleet is by far the strongest Arctic force. State policy is to transform the Arctic into Russia’s “strategic resource base” within the next decade.

Criticisms of Russia’s prospects typically center on allusions to its “Zaire with permafrost”-like corruption levels, plummeting population, crumbling infrastructure, “legal nihilism” and Putinist authoritarianism. While each of these has a grain of truth, taking them as gospel fundamentally misrepresents the country. For a start, if Russia really was more corrupt than Nigeria or Zimbabwe – as implied by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – then it would still be deep in debt as in the late 1990′s, and its $480 billion foreign currency reserves would be in Cayman Islands accounts instead of the Central Bank’s vaults.

What about Russia’s demographic “death spiral”? A quick glance at Rosstat will show that its population grew in 2009, and that its total fertility rate, at 1.6 children per woman, is now higher than the European average.

One can spend pages upon pages unraveling the double standards, misrepresentations and outright lies which the Western media and political class use to attack Russia. But if you’re unconvinced, and refuse to buy into Russia’s undervalued market on principle, it’s your loss.

As t he professional Russia investor Eric Kraus wrote in Business Week in July 2010, “Russian markets are fashion victims, and are currently both unfashionable and cheap. You can own them now, or wait and buy the next time they surge back into vogue. And I will be selling out just about then.” I’d trust him – that’s exactly what he did in 2008!

Canada

Canada combines the American spirit of free enterprise, with a greater safety net and social mobility. It is also on far better fiscal footing. In 2010, its cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit was -2.7% of GDP (US: -7.0%), and its net debt was 32.7% of GDP (US: 65.2%; Japan: 104.6%). Possessing huge energy, mineral and freshwater reserves, as well as a well-educated and growing population, it is surely one of the better investment bets in the developed world.

Scandinavia (and Nordic)

The Nordic region is one of the richest, most educated and socially cohesive on Earth, frequently coming at or near the top in any global index of freedom, social mobility, environmental sustainability, and technological modernity.

In 2010, Sweden’s GDP grew the fastest in Europe at a blistering 5.2%, while maintaining a balanced budget throughout the crisis. Norway’s fortunes are far more directly tied to its oil industry, but peak oil, excellent state management of reserves and a low population make for bright prospects. Norway is the second richest European country after the banking center of Luxembourg.

Even apparent basketcases like Iceland may be a good investment to buy up on the cheap. While its international banking career might be over, it still has massive freshwater and geothermal energy reserves, that make it an attractive center for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelters.

Finally, contrary to right-wing depictions of social democracies as retirement homes full of effete, aging liberals, all the Nordic states have fertility rates that preclude major aging crises (they range from 1.8 children per woman in Finland to 2.2 in Greenland).

The Arctic when all the ice melts.

From an Ultimate Dim Thule…

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.

- Dreamland by Edgar Allen Poe.

Even in our day, science suspects beyond the Polar seas, at the very circle of the Arctic Pole, the existence of a sea which never freezes and a continent which is ever green.

- The mystic H. P. Blavatsky.

Before the rise of the world economy, spatial perspectives were local, at most extending to the boundaries of their cultural sphere or world-empire: The Ecumene for the Ancient Greeks and Romans; Dar al-Islam for the Muslims; Christendom for the Franks; the Great Wall for the Chinese. Medieval European geographers referred to any lands beyond the borders of the known world as Ultima Thule.

Globalization from the 19th century bound the entire world together, for the first time in history, but its flows and links of labor, capital and commodities passed the Arctic by. Unattractive to sustained private investment, the region’s development was always fitful and unbalanced, from the Yukon Gold Rush that petered out almost as suddenly as it flared up; to the penal camps, subsidized settlements and military bases of the Soviet Arctic, now decaying away except where hydrocarbons extraction has thrown them a lifeline.

But now the world is changing. No longer will opening the Arctic have to be a hubristic project, as with the chiliastic visions of Soviet planners; or a costly and unprofitable strategic necessity, as with the Cold War submarine patrols beneath the Arctic sea ice or the bomber flights over it. Today, it is global macro-trends such as global warming, resource depletion and overpopulation that will ensure the rapid but organic development of the Arctic.

With the growing human presence, the Arctic will inevitably begin to lose its luster of mysticism, foreboding and darkness. As the years turn into decades, and 2050 approaches, the polar-centric view of the world will become increasingly central to human spatial consciousness. The world’s trade, energy and capital flows will have been largely rerouted north.

The ARCS of Progress, their numbers swelled by climate refugees, and their economies bolstered by a flood of capital investment, will be amongst the leading Powers in the world. This assumes they retain their present political configurations. For instance, could an independent Greenland, with just 56,000 people today, retain its own national identity? Facing resource shortages and droughts in the south, would China encroach on the Russian Far East? Would the US try to assimilate Canada?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is near certain. The vision of a northern Ultima Thule is dissipating, and will soon dissolve altogether (thought teh concept may be resurrected to describe a desolate, uninhabitable South many hundreds of years into an extreme AGW future). In its place there will emerge a polar world-economy of open seas, farms and growing cities by 2050.

There will arise an Arctic ecumene.

* According to more recent data, there were 34 transits of the Northern Sea Route in 2011, up from just 4 in 2010; with 820,000 tons of goods transported relative to 111,000 tons in 2010. Volumes are predicted to double again this year. This goes in tandem with record breaking sea ice melt in 2012.

Edit Jan 28, 2013: There were a record-breaking 46 vessels making the transit through the NSR this year.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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The standard view of the American economy is one of exponential growth: even if interrupted by a recession once a decade and a Depression once every two generations (the 1890′s, the 1930′s, the 2010′s?), the engines of industry would always come back roaring again. Output per American could always be expected to increase as it has from 1790 until the present day. There has never been a decade, even during America’s two Depressions, when US GDP was lower at the end than at the beginning.

However, another point of view on the US economy can be developed by drawing on observations of factors such as median income, energy consumption and inequality. Broadly speaking, this picture is one relative stagnation from 1890-1940, and again from 1973-today, punctuated by the truly remarkable “miracle economy” of the post-war boom. Furthermore, the US is now about to transition to a new phase: economic stagnation and anarchic stasis, to be followed by oligarchic Caesarism. This first post will be, for now, just a series of observations that I believe to be inextricably linked, but lack the theoretical foundations to put on a sound footing. Feel free to skip it, as it might be hard to follow and I’m mostly writing it to get greater understanding for myself. More polished version(s) to follow.

1. Median incomes (the ones that matter to ordinary Americans) tell a radically different story from the GDP figures. As shown below, they remained at a virtual plateau from 1914 to 1940. During the WW2 mobilization, spare capacity filled up, as factories began to produce the tanks, ships, planes, jeeps and misc. that played a crucial role in the Allied victory. After the war, what might have been a new plateau from the 1940-50 base accelerated, literally driven by the automative revolution; it is during this time that the US became a suburban, oil-based civilization.

ave-us-income-saez

However, the oil shocks of the 1970′s threw a jackhammer into that arrangement. Since then, the only discernible rise took place in the 1990′s: a period that saw the opening up of the Chinese “reserve army of labor” and the Soviet resource base to global markets. These began creating powerful deflationary effects in the US. But things went into reverse altogether during the past “lost decade“.

The median household income in 2008 was $50,303. The median household income in 1999, expressed in 2008 dollars, was $52,748.

You’ve got to figure 2009 will see another decline in income, in which case Americans will end the decade significantly less well off than when they started it. We’re not just treading water. We’re going backwards. …

Still, the 2000s have been especially barren. Median income rose only in three years—2005, 2006 and 2007, and even at the cyclical peak in 2007 it was below the levels of 1999 and 2000.

2. More on the energy developments during the period. During 1950-70, the US enjoyed very rapid growth both in absolute energy consumption and the energy efficiency of its techno-industrial base. Therefore, the quantity of “useful work” available for exploitation by American labor and capital increased very rapidly.

But this growth moderated since the 1970′s. Given the continuing reduction in the EROEI of oil, the peaking of the net energy flowing into the US economy from coal in 1998, and the turn to costly shale gas to maintain natural gas production volumes observed within the last decade, this trend must have only strengthened in the 2000′s. Graphs are taken from Economic Growth and Cheap Oil (Robert Ayres).

us-exergy-services-supply

The growth in the”technical efficiency” with which exergy is converted to “useful work” by the American economy has been flattening since the 1980′s (probably due to diminishing returns to investments into more efficiency: see Tainter, etc). Though Obama’s drive to increase energy efficiency is laudable, it will be hard to achieve big results given that most of the low-hanging fruit have already been picked.

technical-efficiency-us-exergy-services

If further improvements in technical efficiency are low, then the US will be going into a permanent hyper depression in the years ahead according to Ayres’ calculations. As of today, the observed results match the Low forecast.

ayres-us-gdp-forecasts

There’s little reason for hope. The potential for squeezing more “useful work” – the single biggest factor in GDP growth – out of the current US energy base are very limited. Coal, oil and natural gas are roads to nowhere. While nuclear and renewables are far more sustainable in the long-term (for maintaining an industrial base), they need 1) several decades to be build up and 2) given the same investments in K and L generate less useful work than today’s hydrocarbons because of their low EROEI’s.

3. Another interesting thing is that the period of stagnant US median incomes is linked with rising inequality. (This explains the continued moderate growth in consumption and GDP – its just that since 1973 a very large portion of it has been accruing to the guys at the top of the pecking order).

Now in stagnant systems – e.g. overpopulated agrarian societies – this is explained (Turchin) by the fact that land, food and credit prices have a tendency to go up, benefiting the elites (landowners, financiers, etc) relative to the rest of the population. While similar processes apply to industrial societies (see Marx), its effects can be combated by the powerful redistribution mechanisms available to the modern state (that were lacking in the agrarian states of yore). Hence, despite the fact that since the 1980′s Western Europe has been on much the same vastly lower growth trajectory, inequality in states such as France and Germany has remained low.

On the other hand, the US – having progressively deregulated the financial sector and knocked down marginal tax rates – has experienced a massive increase in inequality that may now be approaching the levels of the Gilded Age.

marginal-tax-rates

4. Fertility rates are linked to economic conditions. One of the many explanations for the post-war baby boom in the US is that soldiers were returning home, social conservatism, etc. But none of them are very convincing as comprehensive explanations.

us-fertility-rate

Instead, one may interpret the above graph as follows:

  • 1900-1940: stagnant median incomes; TFR approaches replacement level rates as the US ceases being an agrarian society.
  • 1940-1970: the baby boom as US middle class living standards expand rapidly. Populations tend to expand rapidly when their resource base expands. Interesting why TFR expansion started dropping in early 1960′s, though: perhaps looking at cohort TFR’s (which adjust for average age of childbearing) would yield a better fit with the economic stats?
  • 1970-2010: roughly replacement level TFR’s, stable median incomes.
  • 2010+: if median incomes begin to fall in the future, due to energy constraints and/or fiscal collapse, we might well see the TFR drop to something like 1.5.
  • A comparison: Russia completed its post-agrarian fertility transition by the mid-1960′s; after that, the TFR remained stable at around 1.9-2.1 until 1990 (as we know this was a time of zastoi / stagnation, esp. in the later part of this period). But in the 1990′s Russia’s TFR fell off a cliff, along with real living standards (not only did average incomes fall, soaring inequality made most people’s income fall even faster). The nadir was reached in 1999 (TFR=1.16) and has since risen up to 2009 (TFR=1.56).
  • Of course, non-material factors also play a big role: e.g., why is German TFR so much lower than France’s? etc…

5. Preliminary speculations. The reason I’m very skeptical on the Keynesian / Krugman vs. Austrian / Tea Party “debate” is that both positions, though ostensibly opposite, are based on the same presumption: that further economic growth is still possible, if only their policy prescriptions were to be followed. (In a recent Oil Drum posting Gregor MacDonald laid out my thoughts very well in Hollow Men of Economics.

So, Krugman draws many simplistic graphs showing how growth was bigger during the (Keynesian) 1950′s-1960′s than during the (monetarist) 1980′s-2000′s, ergo, the government should throw more and more money at the economy, the deficits and debts be damned. Then there his ridiculous “invisible” bond vigilantes argument: if the US can sell debt so cheaply, why should we worry about exploding budget deficits? Only a few things wrong with this theory…

  1. It’s a complete strawman! By the time the bond vigilantes take off their invisibility cloak, the costs of servicing debt – much of it now in short-term bonds which have to be frequently rolled over – will begin to spike, leading to an irreversible death spiral.
  2. Makes the questionable assumption that the US will grow at 2-3% in the future, whereas 1) the necessity of deleveraging, 2) the exergy situation and 3) the fragile geopolitical situation makes this highly unlikely.

Of course, the Austrians / WSJ are no less insane. If only the rich could get more tax breaks, if only banksters and oil corporations could be coddled even more than they are already, everything would be fine and dandy and we’ll be growing our way into a Randian paradise of abundance.

Both sides UTTERLY fail to consider the vital factor of useful work to economic growth. Useful work is a function of exergy & technical efficiency. Exergy is likely to peak and go into decline within the decade, given the trends in the energy base; technical efficiency appears to have a trend of flattening out. If investors were to suspect there are no prospects for future growth, the credit system – the economic equivalent of fertilizer in agriculture – as it exists today would collapse (why give out loans if there’s little prospects they will be repaid?), and the consequent drop off in investment will lead to depreciation overtaking and the capital stock beginning to contract. Finally, while the labor force will continue to expand, its quality will not because American IQ has been flat since around the 1980′s because of the cessation of the Flynn effect. (The *only* positive, productivity enhancing trend at work is the continued informatization of the economy, which may gain a boost with the appearance of ubiquitous, specialized and highly effective AI’s by the 2020′s.)

This is not an attractive view to take, because it basically means that whatever the government does or doesn’t do, GDP decline is inevitable. But the alternatives aren’t rosy either:

  • If Krugman “wins” the debate: the economy sputters along for a few years, never getting onto a sustainable growth trajectory. Awning budget deficits and ballooning of the public debt (which is now at 140% of GDP if you also count local/municipal debt and Freddie Mac/Freddie Mae liabilities). The result: an Argentina 2000/Latvia 2009-style collapse, probably sometime around 2012-15 (might be triggered by a “geopolitical shock”). End-result: some kind of American Caesarism.
  • If Austrians “win” the debate: the decline is grinding and gradual, rather than sudden and catastrophic.

Instead, it would perhaps be a better idea to craft policies in such a way as to minimize the harm done for (as I suggested in my abortive “Collapse Party” project) and at the same time make the foundations of the American state stronger.

  • Reintroduce the high marginal tax rates of the 1950′s-60′s to reduce inequality and shift the burden to those able to shoulder it. Might prevent the soaring inequality / corruption / resentment that leads to crony Caesarist outcomes. Problem: ACHTUNG SOCIALISM!
  • Allow the financial system to contract / collapse as needed. Today, it is a rotting dead weight on the US – both economically (there’s no need for such a huge financial sector in the first place) and morally (they are a class apart from normal Americans). Problem: institutional capture means same banksters wield immense influence over both parties of power.
  • Reduce military expenditures. There’s a lot that can be cut. First, the metastasized “war on terror” apparatus. Second, the expeditionary/naval component can be cut. There’s no long-term hope of containing China, but the Western US itself is secure. The Pacific Fleet can be reduced. Get out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, maintaining dominance in the Atlantic (core US interest) and the Middle East (oil) is useful. Third, saved money can be used to 1) continue research into next-generation military technologies, 2) reducing deficit. It’s not really a choice, actually. Military contraction is inevitable in the next decade: the only question is whether it will be uncontrolled (as during 1990′s Russia, when c.70% of Soviet military assets depreciated into junk) or controlled (with the result that core strengths will be preserved). Problem: suggesting reductions in military spending is unpatriotic & goes against the powerful defense & MIC lobby.
  • Obamacare is imperfect, but one of the administration’s best achievements. Leave as is.
  • Use savings from cutting off subsidies to the MIC & financial mafias – and the bigger tax intakes – to launch a coordinated restructuring of the US energy base. To accelerate the transition to sustainability, start planning and building lots of new nuclear power plants, and renewables. Start phasing out coal. First, makes a positive contribution to helping the world avoid catastrophic climate change. Second, this transition is in any case inevitable once the EROEI of hydrocarbons dips to lower levels – but by then, switching will harder because there’ll be many other challenges on the plate (e.g. mitigating the increasing effects of global warming; coping with the dearth of capital). So make a head start now. Problem: requires the kind of forward thinking that institutions are chronically incapable of.
  • How do solve all these problems? Obama needs to take a gamble, revolutionize his leadership, launch an all out political assault against the enemies of progress. Problem: not going to happen.

And that’s the story of it.

If I had to bet on it, I’d say US GDP per capita will be 5-25% lower in 2020 than it is now – even though we’re in recession. (Unlike with the 1930′s Depression, there’s no abundant, very high-EROEI energy subsidy on the horizon waiting to propel the US to another level). Inequality will be no lower than today, because of the power of today’s stakeholders in the system, hence – coupled with lower output and the waning of the credit system – median incomes will be a lot lower; hence, many more people in outright destitution. The center of gravity (economy, population) shifting back to the north and east (above all the Great Lakes region) from the south and west. The Presidency will have transitioned to some kind of Caesarism, served by a clique of politically-connected oligarchs. Any imperialist adventures now confined to the Western hemisphere. The citizenry too atomized, apathetic and preoccupied with quotidian concerns to do much about it.

I appreciate your thoughts and criticisms of this post, but do note that it is not meant to be final or “serious”; more like a strange mix of relatively obscure economic concepts, lazy extrapolations and personal impressions. As I said at the beginning, I hope to refine and connect these ideas into a more rigorous and logical framework in the future.

(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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As a follow-up to my article on the historical necessity of Green Communism, I would like to 1) refute some common myths and misconceptions about limits to growth-induced collapse, 2) clarify the concept of Green Communism, and 3) elucidate why the only realistic way to prevent collapse now is to force through a “sustainable retreat” by an “ecotechnic dictatorship”.

Let’s take as a starting point our current situation. From the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, calculations indicate that humanity exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. Fossil fuel resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate, producing an increase in what William Catton called the “phantom carrying capacity“, which now supports many of the Earth’s surplus billions. However, should the energy base becomes too weak to sustain this phantom carrying capacity, there will be a catastrophic fall of the human population as the Earth system snaps back into equilibrium, producing a massive Malthusian dieoff. The recent peaking of world oil production and accelerated Arctic methane release are but the early portents of hard limits to growth on our finite planet.

We are in a predicament, dependent on an industrial Machine whose insatiable appetite for ever higher levels of material throughput will eventually doom us all. A Machine and its brother, Mammon, with whom we have made a Faustian bargain. We have to somehow wriggle out of this physical and spiritual dependency on our industrial Mephistopheles to avert a collapse of industrial civilization by 2050, but continued dithering and denial makes the changes required ever more drastic year by year. Had the world begun the transition to sustainability in the 1970′s, a great deal of personal freedom and private affluence could have been preserved; as of today, it looks ever likelier than only a Leviathan invested with total power over society can haul us back from the brink of the Olduvai Gorge.

The Necessity of Green Communism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

The world’s industrial infrastructure and services run on cheap fossil fuels and electricity (much of which is derived from hydrocarbons). Past global energy transitions, such as the one from biomass to coal, took 50 years to accomplish. It is not unreasonable to expect a similar timescale for the hydrocarbons to renewables transition, especially since unlike in the past we will be shifting towards energy sources with lower EROEI’s and lower energy and power densities. At the same time, we will have to deal with the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which seems to exhibit more signs of veering out of control with every passing year.

In the face of these challenges to industrial civilization, the world system may continue on one of the following three paths: 1) business as usual, 2) limits to growth, and 3) sustainable retreat. The rough shape of humanity’s ecological footprint trajectories are summarized for each scenario in the graph below, where 100 is a rough estimate for the carrying capacity of the Earth in 1960.

My vision of three possible future overshoot scenarios.


Business as Usual, or “Fantasy”

The miraculous discovery of a new energy source, embodied in the element unobtainium, enabled an uninterrupted continuation of economic progress. Energy researchers all over the world slapped their balding heads in frustration in 2012 for not discovering this energy source earlier, an energy source that was non-polluting, present throughout the world’s oceans, and very easy to extract and exploit. Just a few years later world governments embarked on a geoengineering scheme to create a cloud of self-assembling nanobots, designed to cleanse up the surplus atmospheric CO2 back to its pre-industrial levels, and hopefully not turn the world’s biosphere into “grey goo” in the process.

By the time they got ready to get going with this in 2025, to their happiness they discovered it wasn’t even necessary. Just a few days before the nanobots were due to be unleashed, the theory of anthropogenic global warming was finally exposed as a massive hoax invented by Al Gore to further his megalomaniac plans for global totalitarian socialism. In an interview, the UN climate panel’s chairman admitted, “I am deeply ashamed for having perpetuated such a massive fraud on the governments of the world”. Al Gore himself couldn’t be found for comment, the conman having been raptured into the technological singularity hours before the scandal broke.

Limits to Growth, or “Reality”

Though business-as-usual cornucopia sounds like a good plot for a literary homage to Michael Crichton, few informed people can seriously believe that technology and markets by themselves will enable us to extend our Faustian bargain with the Machine long enough to cheat Gaia when she comes to collect. The likeliest outcome of business-as-usual hubris is a flattening plateau, following by a global, cliff-like collapse in human numbers, technology, and socio-political complexity. There are four major sources of evidence for holding this theoretical viewpoint.

1) Limits to Growth. According to the findings of the widely-publicized 1972 study by the Club of Rome, exponential growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, even when markets and technological growth are accounted for. The results of the “standard run” of their World3 model contained in the 2004 updated version of the study are reproduced below. Crushed between the Scylla of resource depletion and the Charybdis of pollution overload, collapse occurs within the first half of the 21st century.

The Limits to Growth standard run leads to collapse early in the 21st century.

A recent report by Graham Turner of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, showed that world system dynamics in the post-1972 era closely tracked the forecasts of the Limits to Growth standard run. Not good.

2) Resource Depletion. In support of the theory that the world will experience severe problems with energy are depletion studies of the three major fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal. Let’s summarize each one.

Peak oil was most likely reached in 2008, and from 2011 depletion will decisively overtake new fields coming offline – most of which will be located in remote locations like deep offshore or the Arctic, and will require huge investments for exploitation to begin. Natural gas will peak by 2030, but its decline profile will be much steeper than for oil; however, there are hopes of prolonging the gas age by exploiting shale gas and coal seam gas. Finally, although on paper coal reserves should last centuries, the bulk of the deposits are very low EROEI and may even require more energy to extract than they will ever produce through combustion. It should be noted that even though US coal extraction by volume has seen continued increasing uninterrupted in recent years, when measured by total energy it peaked in 1998, and has since been on a slow downslope. Finally, tar sands, oil shale, and other unconventional sources of oil require a phenomenal amount of fresh water and natural gas to extract, they are extremely polluting, and have a very low EROEI; it is completely unfeasible that they will make good the gap.

Paul Cherfurka’s projections of future global energy usage by source.

Could renewables save us? Solar PV is improving rapidly, but it starts from an extremely low base. Wind power is already well established, but there are serious questions over its real EROEI level – can industrial civilization be run on wind, or is its real inefficiency masked over by the prior cheap oil subsidies used in the making of wind turbines? Yet the crucial problem facing wind and solar are their low energy and power densities, which makes them unsuitable for providing the base load that a stable electricity supply demands. The only real hope is to massively expand next-generation nuclear reactor construction, in conjunction with other renewables. However, this will take a intense effort spread over decades, and it is not clear that this effort will be sustained as the system comes under assault from ever fiercer energy and climate shocks – and that’s assuming uranium extraction remains profitable in net energy terms.

In conclusion, the evidence indicates that from 2030, the net energy available to industrial civilization will begin to decline; furthermore, due to diminishing marginal returns, by that time there will be little scope for more efficiency improvements. This lends support to the Limits to Growth standard run model that industrialism will decline by the first half of the 21st century due to resource shortages.

3) Tainter on diminishing returns to complexity. In his celebrated work on The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter posits that societies increase their complexity in order to solve certain problems. For instance, one of the major reasons behind the formation of the Chinese state was its provision of a bureaucratic-administrative mechanism for implementing irrigation and flood control works, which increased the carrying capacity of the land. Unfortunately, the flip side is that societies need to expend ever more organizational and physical energy to maintain a certain level of complexity, a complexity which is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Eventually, this expenditure undermines the society’s economic base and opens up a large potential gap where said society could reap the same benefits but at a lower level of complexity (and cost). At that point, there arises the risk of collapse.

Tainter’s collapse model: at C3-B1, there appears a risk of collapse back down to C1-B1, at which point “hypertrophied states” tend to use coercive tools to try to prevent this from happening.

Civilization reaches its absolute peak of power, health, well-being, etc, at C2-B2. When it begins to run up against problems, the typical reaction is to continue increasing complexity, even though marginal costs now exceed marginal benefits. At C3-B1, there appears an appreciable risk of catastrophic collapse back down to C1-B1, because at that point people would retain the same benefits but at a much lower cost. Furthermore, by this point a civilization’s natural legitimization mechanism, economic growth, will have long since failed; more artificial forms of legitimization have to be found (e.g. the idea that the Empire is sanctioned by God), as well as ever higher levels of physical coercion (e.g. the security forces, authoritarianism) – for instance, the Western Roman Empire adopted Christianity and experienced its highest levels of militarization just a century or so before its final collapse in 476 AD.

In addition to society’s tendencies to try solving its predicaments with the failing tools of the past (ever more complexity), in systems characterized by competitive peer polities, such as our own anarchic international system, there is a further reason for maintaining complexity – anyone who doesn’t can’t support an army, and those who don’t have armies get conquered for their resources. In these systems, organizational complexity is maintained absolutely regardless of costs, and the extractions necessary to sustain it are legitimized by the fact that every other state within this system is doing the same thing. Only when every unit of the system reaches economic exhaustion does the resulting power vacuum finally allow for a rapid, global collapse. A collapse more reminiscent of the relatively rapid fall of Mayan civilization, than of the Roman Empire’s slow decline over the centuries.

The Limits to Growth model has to be updated to reflect these political and geopolitical feedback loops. The likely result is that the increasingly authoritarian, “hypertrophied states” of future decades, locked in deadly competition over each for resources, will stretch out the smooth peaks shown in the Limits to Growth standard run into decades long plateaus, as shown in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”. However, when collapse does finally come, it will be far, far steeper than it would have in a world without politics. The artificial prolongation of industrial civilization will result in an explosive closing of the awning “potential gap” on the complexity graph, plunging the world into famine, anarchy, and dieoff.

4) Cliodynamics. Another valuable analytical tool is the recently-developed science of “cliodynamics“, which attempts to mathematize “big history” by modeling the systems dynamics of the rise and fall of civilizations. In particular, its insights can teach us a great deal about the nature of Malthusian stress and political-demographic collapse.

Here is the basic story. Over millennial timescales, technological growth produced a secular rise in the carrying capacity of the land, which allowed the human population to grow to its current seven billions. However, over shorter timescales the Malthusian tendency for populations to grow faster than technology or the increase in carrying capacity typically resulted in diminishing per capita surpluses and a plateauing of the population. The system became fragile, as surplus stocks accumulated during the “Golden Ages” of plenty were drawn down, and climatic, political, and geopolitical perturbations during the stagnation resulted in sharp dips into dearth. During these times of dearth, peasants began to turn to banditry, producing rising internal violence in the countryside, which forced other peasants into the cities and further decreases food production. Faced with their own shortages, elite predation also grew, further squeezing the peasantry.

Eventually, a “tipping point” was reached, in which elite predation, internal violence, and depreciation of carrying-capacity improvements (e.g. roads, canals, grain silos, redistribution mechanisms, irrigation works, etc) became self-sustaining and spiraled out of control. In the ensuing “cascading collapse”, the central state withered away into a patchwork quilt of warring fiefdoms, and the drastic reduction in the carrying capacity of the land resulted biblical-scale Malthusian dieoffs. However, as soon as the violence died down, the population was found to be far below the carrying capacity of the land, and there was a new “Golden Age” of growth until it once again bumped up against the plateau of carrying capacity. This explains the basic mechanism of pre-industrial Malthusian political-demographic cycles.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Now Korotayev et al (the cliodynamicians) believe that ever since the industrial revolution, technological growth has reached such great velocities that the increases in carrying capacity accruing from it now far surpass any Malthusian pressures. According to them, the era of cyclical collapses is now at an end. 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. But their greatest omission is that much of the post-1900 increase in carrying capacity has come not from technological growth, but from the technologically-enabled exploitation of the high-EROEI hydrocarbon “resource windfall” – oil, coal, and natural gas. Once these resources become scarce again, the technology used to exploit them will become as chimerical as the fossil fuel-powered machines and phantom carrying capacity they once supported.

The end result will be similar to the same Malthusian-era collapses analyzed by the cliodynamicians. An era in which surplus per capita draws to the level necessary for mere subsistence, characterized by dearth and famine in the bad years, and limited recoveries in the good years; a plateau that increasingly slopes down, until a series of severe perturbations (climatic disasters, resource wars, etc) so disturbs the world system that negative feedback loops take over and the entire system collapses into a prolonged Dark Age.

In conclusion, drawing on the theoretical works of systems modelers (Limits to Growth), energy modelers, collapse theorists (Tainter), and modern cliodynamicians (Korotayev, Turchin, Nefedov, Khaltourina, etc), we can paint a general outline of the next 50 years. Ever more human effort will be mobilized or requisitioned by ever more coercive “hypertrophied states” to compensate for the effects of declining emergy availability (peak oil, exploitation of lower-EROEI energy sources, diminishing returns to energy efficiency, and the effects of credit collapse, resource nationalism, and geopolitics), falling agricultural productivity (fertilizer shortages, heatwaves, rivers and fossil aquifers running dry, rising sea levels inundating coastal farmlands, etc), and other costs accruing from exponentially rising climate chaos.

Those regions which collapse first, nowadays called “failed states”, will be taken over by neo-colonial industrial powers to contain the chaos and acquire resources to buy just a little more time for their industrial civilization. Physical output will plateau and stagnate, while real living standards begin to degrade at an accelerating rate. Eventually, a series of shocks – climate catastrophes like the conflagration of the Amazon or a “hydroxyl collapse”, poor harvests resulting in global famine and pestilence, perhaps even a final, total war of late global industrialism – will finally make the Machine give up the ghost. The collapse of fossil fuel availability will render usless most modern technology, everything from microchips to electric cars and photovoltaic panels. This will result in a political-demographic collapse of unparalleled severity that reduces the human population to below one billion souls within a few decades, ushering in a post-industrial “Rust Age” on a polluted, desertifying, and drowning planet.

The "Rust Age", or "age of salvage" (M. J. Greer).

The “Rust Age”, or “age of salvage” (M. J. Greer).


Sustainable Retreat, or “Green Communism”

As shown above, business-as-usual will be anything but usual, and will almost certainly lead to impoverishment, oppression, totalitarianism, wars, and eventual global dieoff. There is still however a path out, should we choose to take it – a global “sustainable retreat” to below the limits, which if accomplished within the next generation could still stave off collapse and allow us to continue with the development of a truly sustainable civilization, one based not on growth of physical output and consumerism, but on intellectual, cultural, and spiritual self-actualization. This ideal or utopia I shall call Green Communism, a scientific fantasy in which man reaches reconciliation with Gaia, socio-economic classes disappear, and the coercive state itself withers away into oblivion.

However, Green Communism cannot be attained while human psychology remains myopic, short-sighted, competitive, and individualistic; nor is any such transition possible while the world is in overshoot and increasingly hemmed in by limits to growth. As such, a transitory period is required – an “ecotechnic dictatorship” that would concentrate onto itself the political legitimacy and coercive tools to force the world back onto a sustainable path. But first, to forestall the inevitable criticisms and condemnations, I must point out why alternative roads to the sustainable transition are no longer viable, even if they ever were in the first place.

1) The Anarchist Delusion. Disillusioned with the “System” – states, corporations, etc – many “peakists”, “doomers”, survivalists, etc, advocate community-based retreat on a spectrum ranging from weed-smoking “hippies” teaching themselves organic permaculture to “frugal patriots” holing up in their Idaho “doomsteads” with prodigious quantities of canned food and firearms. However, very few of them have truly broken off the ties that bind to industrial civilization; learning to survive on sustenance agriculture in true pre-industrial fashion is very, very hard work, and almost no-one has the will and perseverance to follow through.

Furthermore, they will receive a rude awakening in the coming era of limits to growth-induced authoritarianism and collapse. Governments don’t like anarchists, especially nasty ones. Period. One of my critics tried to prove an anarchic lifestyle works by posting a Wikipedia link to a “list of anarchist communities“. But on closer examination, practically all their modern manifestations collapsed within just a few years, either from internal causes or due to state suppression.

Perhaps the anarchists will “band together” to protect themselves, he went on to suggest? Will there be enough of them to keep the warlords away? That would certainly be a good idea as the government’s writ collapses and rural violence soars. However, one very important thing is that “bandits” are so-called violence-specialists; it is what they do, their profession. For a settled anarchist community, it will be difficult in the extreme to muster the economic, administrative, and military capabilities to successfully accomplish all three of the following necessary tasks for surviving in an anarchic environment: 1) producing enough food and goods for community subsistence, 2) managing internal conflicts, and 3) defending themselves from the bandits, psychos, and warlords. Drawing resources from one task will undermine the likelihood of fulfilling another. In practice, what will almost certainly happen is that either the anarchist communities begin paying tribute / protection money to the warlords (thus creating a dependency through which they can later be brought to heel), or they find it more profitable to become warlords themselves. After all, the first kings and nobles were all essentially just the most successful racketeers!

Yet the most essential feature of the anarchist delusion isn’t even their belief that they can make it on their own, but that the state is dispensable, unnecessary, and even harmful to the human enterprise. From the same poster: “What problems has the state solved that weren’t caused by the existence of states?”

The fundamental predicament (not problem) of most biological life-forms is their tendency to overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. One of the most powerful theories for the rise of the state was its capacity to raise the carrying capacity of the land, which postponed overshoot and collapse, and in general made state-centered societies far more powerful than the hunter-gatherer tribes that they displaced.

Now let’s turn to today’s reality. If all states were to magically vanish right now, so would the administrative and coercive tools to sustain global industrialism. Soon afterwards, the underlying carrying capacity-enhancing infrastructure such as the global oil industry, fertilizer production, cybernetics, etc, would depreciate into irrelevance from lack of maintenance. Anarchy will reign and the global population will plummet back down to the few millions of people that primitive technology and band-like social organization could support. You may dismiss or despise the hand of the state that feeds you, but you will likely sing a different tune when it withers away into your anarchic paradise.

2) Why Individual and Community Retreats are no Real Solution. Another strand of the anarchist delusion is that since collapse is unavoidable, it is best to retreat from the System while you can, pay off your debts, cut the ties that bind, etc. But quite apart from the implicit resignation to the inevitability of the untimely deaths of billions of people, it cannot be stressed enough that any collapse today will be global (see Tainter above), and the chaotic fluxes it produces will be so violent than any community, no matter how prepared or resilient, could be casually swept away by the tidal waves it would generate.

I do not deny that it pays to get personally and psychologically prepared for collapse, but this must be part and parcel of a multi-pronged political effort to avert collapse if possible, and dampen its severity should avoidance prove impossible. The idea that you can hole up in a doomstead and survive against the imminent zombie hordes is particularly inane (read the War Nerd‘s entertaining essay Apocalypse Never to find out why). Finally, defeatist notions of the inevitability of collapse – such as those advanced by Dmitry Orlov, who is strongly opposed to all forms of political activism – are in many ways as counter-productive as the mindless business-as-usual mentality of modern society.

The traditional American focus on individualism and self-reliance only worked in the age of abundance which characterized their entire history (the US GDP has been higher at the end of every decade than at the beginning since its founding). This era is at end and will never return. This will be a major shock for Americans, more so than for most people whose memories of cyclical and Malthusian dynamics are more recent, but they will all have to get used to it.

3) The Gramscian Road to Green Communism will take too long. Say what you will about them, but at least the Green Party has a political plan for a sustainable future. This plan involves changing society’s core values to embrace concepts such as “ecological wisdom” and “community-based economics”, through means of grassroots political action and infiltration of key political and economic institutions. Hopefully this will displace the pro-growth bipartisan consensus and enable the democratic enactment of policies that will steer the world back towards sustainability.

As I argued in Roads to Green Communism, however, this “soft” approach to the sustainability transition is doomed to failure. Guilt-ridden liberals may be moved to make $10 donations to Greenpeace or boycott electricity consumption for a grand total of one hour per year (on the so-called “Earth Hour”), but this will not be enough to persuade them to make real sacrifices. It gives me no joy to say this, but the hard truth is that left to themselves, free from coercion either by their peers or by the Leviathan of the state, even enlightened individuals will not take anything more than symbolic steps to reduce their ecological footprint.

Why? All humans are prone to a psychological blindsight called “creeping normalcy”, or what Jared Diamond in his book Collapse calls “landscape amnesia”. This describes a process in which slow, detrimental changes to the environment go unnoticed by the general population because of their slowness and gradualism, but whose eventual accumulated impact becomes devastating. One tragic example would be the Easter Islanders who chopped down all their trees, accelerating the tempo in the last decades of their pre-collapse civilization in order to construct ever bigger moai (statues) to honor the gods that legitimized the tribal chieftains who ruled over them. Human psychology reacts well to immediate threats, but when they are far-off and abstract – such as the declining EROEI of energy sources of climate change – mobilization is much more difficult. As the biggest McMansions and tallest skyscrapers have been erected in the present era of peak oil, there is nothing to suggest that modern civilization is any wiser than the Easter Islanders.

As of now, changing this psychology quickly will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the Soviet Union, it took around two generations to transform the bulk of society from having a traditionalist-peasant worldview, to an urban-secular one – and this despite uninterrupted state propaganda and coercion. Today, even most educated people see the green movement as a bit weird and extremist, if not as evil socialists planning to enslave the world. And we certainly don’t have even a single generation to wait, let alone two. Gradualism is not a solution, it is suicide.

4) Our current System is blinded by Institutional Myopia. Could the current System bail us all out, like it did the politically connected Wall Street oligarchs? Almost certainly not.

Modern society is run by experts and technocrats, if indirectly (their recommendations have to be balanced against corporate interests and the popular will, which is what politicians are there for). However, those same experts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are meaningless buzzwords and Orwellian oxymorons like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, and “clean coal”; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking inconvenient questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm.

Incidentally, this very omnipresence of this System will doom the Gramscian and anarchist approaches. For when systems come under strain, they tend to rigidify, to revert to authoritarian conservatism, and free thinkers – the only people who have any chance of averting socio-political collapse by “scanning” an innovative solution to the problem – are scapegoated as a divisive enemy by the angry, confused masses, and repressed by the coercive “hypertrophied state”, which for all its authoritarianism is a fragile, populist creature that appeases society on the easiest matters (such as repressing the powerless). From Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

Even the intensified legitimization of the “hypertrophied state” vanishes, as do the coercive tools that kept it together well past the point when it should have naturally collapsed. Science and rationalism retreat, and its former agents – intellectuals, priests, tax collectors, etc – are liquidated, as the Sun dawns over a new Dark Age.

5) Technological Singularity as a Road to Green Communism? As Good wrote in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Hence, as soon as humanity and its technologies become obsolete, the biosphere’s limits to growth will become equally irrelevant to the future of intelligent life on Earth. If we manage to hold on long enough to unleash this technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, and the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön. Fully freed from material constraints, humanity will be able to build the purest forms of Green Communism… should it wish to.

There is one problem, however – industrial civilization may not survive long enough to catapult itself out of overshoot. For the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and the Limits to Growth proponents tend to place their respective events – Singularity and civilizational collapse – in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

This may be the last answer industrial civilization will find out.

The Necessity of Ecotechnic Dictatorship to Force a Retreat from Collapse

In his excellent book “Our Ecotechnic Future“, Michael John Greer outlined his thoughts on the future of our civilization, which he saw as going through the following four stages: 1) “abundance industrialism” (1950-2010), 2) “scarcity industrialism” (2010-2050?), or the plateau on my “World Overshoot Scenarios” graph characterized by rising coercion, impoverishment, and resource wars, 3) the “age of salvage” (2050?-2250?), in which civilization scavenges the detritus of late industrialism to sustain a very low-level, primitive industrial system, and 4) the “ecotechnic future”, in which post-industrial technologies in spheres like renewable energy or biotechnology, scarcely-conceivable today, may reset the world on a path of truly sustainable development in harmony with Gaia. Such an ecotechnic age will be close to the Green Communist ideal.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na'vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to "network" itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na’vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to “network” itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

However, is it really necessary to endure a catastrophic human dieoff and a centuries-long wait for the sustainable transition to Green Communism that may not even come about? Or perhaps there is still a chance, however slight, of effecting such a transition through a sustainable retreat starting from today, as shown under “Green Communism” in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”?

I think that given the will, there’s a way – an ecotechnic dictatorship leading the people towards Green Communism.

This system will be based on three pillars – reinforcing resilience, educating the people, and preparing for collapse. These pillars will be supported by the full power of the modern state and technology.

A) Reinforcing Resilience. Technocratic central planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking to minimize waste while maximizing real living standards. The legitimacy of the state is not based on creating prosperity or opportunity, so it will be ideologically resilient in the face of the economic decline that is necessary to reduce physical throughput to levels consistent with a retreat to global sustainability. Resources will be funneled into 1) intensive, targeted research in computer science, cybernetics, sustainable energy generation and food production, geoengineering, systems dynamics, and cliodynamics, 2) the provision of social goods such as education, preventative healthcare services, high culture, and social support to the indigent, and 3) internal security and military forces necessary to defend the fledgling ecotechnic republic from hostile forces within and without.

The ecotechnic dictatorship is a democratic society. The state will make strategic decisions by balancing their decisions between opinion polls and expert panels – much like modern China’s experiment with “deliberative dictatorship“. Since corruption and economic sabotage will be immensely harmful in a world suffering from resource shortages, it will have to be stamped out without mercy. One workable method is to institute a system of universal 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riders; since this mechanism is “horizontal”, in contrast to the “vertical” nature of traditional surveillance, it will reinforce ecotechnic democracy. The people will be able to observe trials and electronically vote on criminals’ punishments.

How to maintain enthusiasm and prevent the ideological ossification of the regime’s elites? Through a dedication to meritocracy and the power of modern electronic technology to enforce transparency. Promotions will be based on technical competence and devotion to the cause as judged by one’s peers; greater power will gain one greater material perks and privileges.

One might object, how is this different from the current System that needs to be overthrown? Realistically, some level of hierarchy is necessary and inevitable. Once society acquires a certain level of size and technological development (like our own), it needs a corresponding level of socio-political complexity to sustain itself, and that in turn requires a hierarchy. You need people at the top to set certain the limits and restrictions by which the world is to be dragged back from overshoot. Unless we return to primitivism (impossible with the size of today’s populations) or manage to achieve a technological singularity (then we’ll talk about it), all hierarchy cannot be abolished without a large fall in carrying capacity. That said, under the ecotechnic dictatorship, there will be nothing on the scale of the awning inequality chasms of today. Furthermore, thanks to the power of modern networking technologies, power can be distributed horizontally to an unprecedented degree. The ecotechnic elites will be subject to greater scrutiny than those below them.

Though this all sounds restrictive of individual freedom, even dystopian, it is nonetheless a valid and probably morally superior alternative to anarchy, collapse, and dieoff. (Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that a reversion to authoritarianism – furthermore, a socially unjust authoritarianism – is in any case virtually guaranteed in the last throes of the business-as-usual scenario). For we can only achieve a rapid enough sustainable retreat back to within the limits if the transition is backed by a powerful, global, and universal coercive force, or in other words, Leviathan.

B) Informing the People. The second pillar of the ecotechnic dictatorship is its focus on reforming human psychology from its accumulative-materialist basis to progressive, transcendental values of ecotechnic sustainability. This is the fundamental and necessary legitimization behind the ecotechnic dictatorship and its march towards Green Communism. The end goal is to coax a real “gift economy” into being (as opposed to a centrally planned one), perhaps with the help of social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy.

As soon as these ecotechnic values percolate throughout society, the necessity for the powerful state will vanish, and the ecotechnic dictatorship can be allowed to wither away as a new spirit of universal kindness and spiritual oneness, a state of complete sobornost, bathes humanity in the ether of Green Communism.

C) Preparing for Collapse. Though it would be great if the ecotechnic dictatorship managed “sustainable retreat” successfully, as a regime orientated towards the future it must always keep in mind the possibility of its own failure and demise, a demise that would inevitably lead to global collapse.

Hence, it will devote a black budget into making secret preparations to “buffer” human civilization against the possibility of collapse by creating Arctic “lifeboats” or repositories containing seed stocks, banks of knowledge, etc, whose locations will be entrusted to a society of dedicated Guardians. The goal of these Gaian priests and priestesses would be to function as the “bookleggers” and “memorizers” of Miller’s post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz, preserving knowledge and culture into the post-collapse Dark Ages.

What is to be Done?

1) Is collapse under the business-as-usual scenario truly inevitable? Or am I underestimating the capability of markets and technology to overcome the restrictions posed by finite resources and the laws of thermodynamics?

2) What are the chances of effecting a “sustainable retreat” before it is too late and energy shortages and climate chaos destroy industrial civilization? Can such a transition really be carried out from the grassroots level and gradual culture change, or is the capitalist-industrial System too entrenched for that to work?

3) If an “ecotechnic dictatorship” as described above or something similar is necessary to prevent collapse, how should we go about implementing it? Through Gramscian infiltration and subversion of the current System, or a decisive revolutionary break that, in Zizek’s words, “does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”?

4) How should the “ecotechnic dictatorship” legitimize itself, and how should it defend itself from its numerous enemies within and without – preferably without degenerating into all-out tyranny? Indeed, how much liberalism can we afford?

5) And how can we “globalize” the Revolution so as to prevent our ecotechnic enclave from being smothered in its cradle by outside capitalist-industrial Powers?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Thesis. The current capitalist-industrial System is incapable of surmounting the limits to growth on planet Earth because markets and technology, today’s salvation gospel, are no deus ex machina to the energy-and-pollution predicament of industrial civilization. Nor is this System in principle capable of preventing ecological overshoot because growth in physical throughput is the very basis of its existence. As such, we need to transition to an entirely new way of thinking about politics, society, and the economy – Green Communism. This is a system based on technocratic planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking; political control based on ubiquitous 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riding; and spiritual succor from transcendental values linked to ecotechnic sustainability, instead of today’s shallow materialist values embodied in the System’s “myth of progress”.

By repressing the economic potential of eastern Europe and China throughout much of the 20th century, one of Marxism-Leninism’s greatest legacies is to have indirectly postponed humanity’s reckoning with the Earth’s limits to industrial growth in the form of resource depletion and AGW. Had Eastern Europe and Russia become industrialized, consumer nations by the 1950′s-1960′s instead of the 2010′s-2020′s; had China followed the development trajectory of Taiwan; had nations from India to Brazil not excessively indulged in growth-retarding import substitution, it is very likely that today we would already be well on the downward slope of Hubbert’s curve of oil depletion, and burning coal to compensate – in turn reinforcing an already runaway global warming process.

Though one might refrain that socialist regimes tended to focus on heavy industries and had a poor environmental record, this pollution tended to be localized (e.g. acid rain over Czechoslovakia, or soot over industrial cities); however, CO2 per capita emissions – which contribute to global warming – from the socialist bloc were substantially lower than in the advanced capitalist nations. Furthermore, it should be noted that the overriding spur to heavy industrialization in the first place was the encirclement by capitalist powers, which created a perceived need for militarization (most prominent in the USSR from the 1930′s, and now North Korea). This process also distorted other aspects of those regimes, e.g. the inevitable throwing aside of universal pretensions (in practice, though not in rhetoric) in favor of nationalism, and what could be called a reversion to the “Asian mode of production” with industrial overtones, which could be used to describe Stalinism, or the militarized neo-feudalism of the Juche system of North Korea. So one cannot point to those countries as “proof” of the superiority of capitalism; to the contrary, we should take away the lesson that any anti-capitalist transition should be universal if it is to survive.

The Real Contradictions of Capitalism

Capitalism was a viable and successful system when there was still plentiful land, labor and cheap resources to be exploited (even Engels acknowledged the primacy of nature in powering history’s march forward, for it “supplies [labor] with the material that it converts into wealth”). The cheap resources are now ending, so a system predicated on debt-financed perpetual growth is no longer tenable; this became visible in Japan from the early 1990′s, and is now becoming clear in Europe and the US too, where economic collapse in 2008-09 was only checked thanks to a massive transfer of private losses and bad debts onto the public account (socialism for the elites, capitalism for the rest). The neoliberal era underwritten by cheap oil, global finance, and the US Navy is coming to an end.

Given that oil production peaked in 2008, and the decreasing EROEI of other energy sources, willingly or not we are going to return to the zero-growth of pre-industrial times: then we can either 1) successfully get out of our overshoot predicament and restart conventional development (unlikely), or 2) we can effect a “sustainable retreat” to lower levels of physical throughput and increased efficiency, or 3) we can with ever more coercive state efforts, with the help of modern cybernetics and electronic technology, use the tools of the industrial era to try to maintain the industrial infrastructure and its associated institutional-cultural superstructure.

Most likely we will choose the latter, but it will almost certainly fail; all the Limits to Growth models all suggest that both markets and technology – Mammon and the Machine – are powerless to solve the fundamental predicament that a limited world can support unlimited growth, and they don’t even take further negative feedback loops such as the debilitating effects of political populism and geopolitical competition; nor do those models incorporate the observation that the technological base is dependent on the economic-industrial base for its support, so once the latter fails, technologies from plant bioengineering to energy efficiency also go into retreat.

Thus we see the emergence of capitalism’s real contradictions – not so much the impoverishment of the workers (that, too, will come eventually as industrial civilization approaches collapse), but ecology. Throughout the pre- Industrial Revolution era, peasants all over the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth (K. Polanyi, 1957). These attitudes will resurge with a vengeance in the coming neo-Malthusian future. Capitalism will have dug its own grave by eating away the basis of its own existence.

Socialist Sustainability

To avoid collapse, by far the safest route is to kickstart a transition to sustainability – not sustainable development, because it’s far too late for that (we should have started on that during the 1970′s), but sustainable retreat – cutting down on real “living standards” (or at least as measured by the deeply flawed measure of GDP, which counts prisons and environmental cleanup as wealth), to transition to a way of life that is compatible with Gaia.

In practice, this will probably imply a transition to a roughly Cuban way of life. The tropical island is, by one measure (developed level of HDI, low ecological footprint per capita), the world’s only sustainable society.

Predictably enough, there will be several heated objections to living like Cubans, but they can all be effectively countered.

1) Poverty. Don’t they try to swim to Florida? Yes, some do. But Cuban poverty is in part the result of US sanctions, and their punishment of foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Furthermore, it is still far more comfortable than any Malthusian-age, pre-industrial society (or any conventional Third World society). The perception of poverty is created by the “international demonstration effect”, in which images of Western consumerism (based on unsustainable exploitation of Gaia) create false needs and frustrations in poorer societies, a false consciousness hoisted upon all humans connected to the System.

If the rest of the world embraced the concept of sustainable retreat and accepted Cuba as a valid example, then it will become to look much more attractive as 1) it regains access to leading global technologies technologies and know-how, and 2) because its people will no longer be encouraged to judge success by the standards of how new and how big their SUV’s are, but by their ecological wealth, social harmony, and cultural output.

2) Political repression. Yes, Cuba locks up dissidents and is, in Western terms, an unfree society. However, note that the US has been fighting a decades-long information war against Cuba, that the Western media has an incentive to exaggerate its human rights abuses, and that Cuba’s rulers themselves have to fight against this information war and international demonstration effect to maintain Cuban sovereignty. Given that they are much poorer and less influential, the tools at their disposal are much cruder.

Furthermore, as argued by Zizek, the main impact of the communist idea (a secular successor to Christianity’s chiliastic fantasies of salvation) so far was not so much the perfection of the societies acknowledging the idea, as the elucidation of the historical laws (dreams?) by which the perfect society is to appear.

As Alain Badiou pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures, the “really existing Socialism” was the only political force that – for some decades, at least – seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism, really scaring its representatives, driving them into paranoiac reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the totality of the human civilization, every “Communist” territory was and is – again, in spite of its horrors and failures – a kind of “liberated territory,” as Fred Jameson put it apropos of Cuba. What we are dealing with here is the old structural notion of the gap between the Space and the positive content that fills it in: although, as to their positive content, the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself. What the anti-Communist dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very space from which they themselves criticized and denounced the everyday terror and misery was opened and sustained by the Communist breakthrough, by its attempt to escape the logic of the Capital. In short, when dissidents like Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by Communism itself – which is why they tend to be so disappointed when the “really existing capitalism” does not meet the high expectations of their anti-Communist struggle. Perhaps, Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s pragmatic double, was right when he dismissed Havel as a “socialist”…

The difficult task is thus to confront the radical ambiguity of the Stalinist ideology which, even at its most “totalitarian,” still exudes an emancipatory potential. From my youth, I remember the memorable scene from a Soviet film about the civil war in 1919, in which Bolsheviks organize the public trial of a mother with a young diseased son, who is discovered to be the spy for the counter-revolutionary White forces. At the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik strokes his long white mustache and says: “The sentence must be severe, but just!” The revolutionary court (the collective of the Bolshevik fighters) establishes that the cause of her enemy activity was her difficult social circumstances; the sentence is therefore that she be fully integrated into the socialist collective, taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son is to be given proper medical care. While the surprised mother bursts out crying, unable to understand the court’s benevolence, the old Bolshevik again strokes his mustaches and nods in consent: “Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!”

It is easy to claim, in a quick pseudo-Marxist way, that such scenes were simply the ideological legitimization of the most brutal terror. However, no matter how manipulative this scene is, no matter how contradicted it was by the arbitrary harshness of the actual “revolutionary justice,” it nonetheless provided the spectators with new ethical standards by which reality is to be measured – the shocking outcome of this exercise of the revolutionary justice, the unexpected resignification of “severity” into severity towards social circumstances and generosity towards people, cannot but produce a sublime effect. In short, what we have here is an exemplary case of what Lacan called the “quilting point [point de capiton],” of an intervention that changes the coordinates of the very field of meaning: instead of pleading for generous tolerance against severe justice, the old Bolshevik redefines the meaning of “severe justice” itself in terms of excessive forgiveness and generosity. Even if this is a deceiving appearance, there is in a sense more truth in this appearance than in the harsh social reality that generated it.

We must still undergo a trial, a Great March, of sustainable retreat, at the end of which (due to the elimination of materialist thinking) we will transition into what could be called Green Communism – a sustainable, steady-state human existence founded on the (ever-elusive) reconciliation between freedom and equality. How?

Roads to Green Communism

1) The hippies, Green Parties (including Green Party USA), authors of LTG, etc, stress the importance of the grassroots, of Gramscian infiltration, of gradualism – all couched in fluffy, cuddly polar bear-language like “ecological wisdom” or “community-based economics” or “respect for diversity”. The end state is to be a kind of “gift economy”, perhaps in practice encouraged into being through social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy. All well and good, but none of this is going to motivate many people to make real change, even in progressive enclaves like the Bay Area (people here mark “Earth Hour” and marginally tone down their CO2 emissions for one hour every 24*365 hours – news flash! it ain’t gonna do much!). Lacking any real drive or force, the elites will ignore these movements at will, and the new Caesars of the coming collapse era will suppress them.

2) The revolutionary extremist road: Alinsky-style activism, propaganda of the deed, catechism of the revolutionist, etc. Problem is that it will not win over the people, and as long as the state remains strong it will take coercive actions against these movements. Unlikely to succeed, but may be the only real chance for change. For capitalism-usury is founded on perpetual growth, by forsaking this tenet the System annihilates itself, so it will not willingly do that.

Second, most analysts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are buzzwords like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, or geoengineering; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The Gramscian approach of 1) may be doomed by this Bolshevik-Zizek argument that “a political intervention proper does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”. Yet even if the Revolution is successful, power corrupts; any state formed on the foundations of any such “intervention” may well degenerate into its own nemesis.

3) The laws of history tend to be follow the laws of dialectical materialism – opposites, negation, and transformation – on a route that may lead to a technological singularity, assuming that the ecological base remains intact long enough to sustain the transformation of the industrial System onto a higher plane of existence.

The following extract I found in one of my texts:

The history of the universe is accelerating evolution. A cursory examination of the past reveals growth to be exponential over any sufficiently long period, as can be measured by the frequency of paradigm shifts. Hence, biological life has evolved over a period of billions of years; advanced organisms over several hundred million years. The appearance of intelligent life took place ushered in a technological epoch, which also shows overwhelming evidence of exponential growth – it took ten thousand years from the beginnings of agriculture to catalyse modern economic growth, which has yielded the information revolution in just two hundred years. There are credible prognosesthat posit the appearance of molecular nanotechnology and intelligent machines within the first half of the twenty-first century.

There exist patterns to the evolutionary process itself. According to futurist-inventor Ray Kurzweil, ‘each stage or epoch uses the information-processing methods of the previous epoch to create the next’. Life emerged due to the chaotic interplay of increasingly complex carbon-based compounds. Its DNA-driven evolution eventually gave rise to agents with information-processing capabilities, which culminated in the human ability to create abstract models of reality within their brains. This capacity to conduct mind experiments created the concepts of technology and machines – the bedrock upon which modern material civilization is built. Futurist pundits, extrapolating current trends in computing, predict the coming of a ‘singularity’ that will result from a merger of human and (exponentially expanding) machine intelligence, leading to a universe saturated with intelligent life.

All epochs are based on integrated networks that can be described and mathematically modelled. The first network was based on atomic constituents, governed by physical forces. The universe’s
fine-tuned physical constants made life possible, which was born as the biosphere on planet Earth, which lies in a narrow ‘zone of habitability’. The biosphere (or Gaia) took over the geosphere as the primary architect of its own evolutionary path by evolving a feedback system which seeks to optimize the environment for life. Later, technological growth was able to increase the carrying capacity of the land, leading to demographic growth, greater scope for innovation and therefore faster technological growth in a positive feedback cycle. Agriculture permitted the uneven but inexorable coalescence of complex, stratified societies that in the long-run vanquished the biosphere, be it embodied in forests or hunter-gatherers; the world entered the Holocene, in which the environment – land, and increasing air and water – is shaped by the collective will of the noosphere. Basically, networks in evolution build upon each other. A consequence is that later, more complex superstructures, like intelligence, depends for stability on its biological foundations that regulate the geosphere – something we’re putting in jeopardy via environmental damage.

If we manage to unleash a technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön, modern society’s atoms in the iron cage will become avatars of e-Gods in an electronic cage (like on online forums), based on horizontal networks, instead of the power verticals of today. This form of Green Communism is not of the material, but of the cyber-ethereal.

However, the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and “doomers” / “kollapsniks” mostly place their respective events (Singularity or civilizational collapse) in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

What is to be Done?

One idea would be to look at the manifesto of the Collapse Party!, whose goals, essentially, are to ascertain and pursue the optimal road to Green Communism out of those presented above. It is quoted below in full:

The Collapse Party Manifesto

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 propose a program of “sustainable retreat”, to be characterized by the following policy planks:

  • 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, 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”.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In an article some months ago I suggested that “perhaps this crisis is simply an unconscious recognition of this inconvenient truth?” – namely, the peaking of oil extraction and all that it implies for the continued survival of a financial system built on assumptions of continuous economic growth. In other words, the fashionable approach of focusing on exotic financial instruments, regulatory failures, etc, if a case of mistaking the forest for the trees.

The Oil Drum had a nice graphical summary. According to the author, Gail the Actuary, the chain of causation runs thus: rising oil prices -> inflated asset values -> booming phantom wealth -> high energy costs undermine real economy -> more and more bubbles pricked -> banking crisis -> credit crisis -> cascaded economic failure -> oil demand destruction -> oil prices plummet -> so do ever costlier long-term investments in oil extraction -> economic recovery at lower level -> rising oil prices. Cycle repeats itself to oblivion.

This explains the extreme severity of the crash – record GDP growth at a time of plateaued oil extraction in the 2005-2008 period was patently unsustainable, so a very big “correction could not have been unexpected.

And it is quite a correction.

As of the September-November average, global industrial production was plummeting at an annualized rate of -13% and merchandise trade by a truly remarkable -43%. And it is obvious the collapse accelerated since then…

Already far worse than during even the worst month of 2000-2001, the last and only global slowdown for which the IMF has data.

Already far worse than during even the worst month of 2000-2001, the last and only global slowdown for which the IMF has data.

But this is not a strictly economic post, or meant to be long / detailed (I’ll post that kind of thing within the next few weeks). So on to the next point about the oil connection…

Another Oil Drum blogger, Phil Hart, wrote about the dramatic rise and fall in oil prices in terms of simple supply and demand curves. I’ve had the same thoughts tumbling about in my head but unfortunately didn’t come to writing about them in such detail…

Oil demand and supply.

Oil demand and supply.

His thesis is that because of the geological limits to oil supply, the marginal cost of providing ever more oil is generally low until it reaches some point – say, 85mn barrels a day – and then veers off into the sky (i.e. becomes very inelastic). Demand is also inelastic, since modern society basically runs on oil. Hence there comes a time when the demand curve reaches a point when its intersection with the supply curve – i.e., the market price – starts rising exponentially.

Exponential rise in oil prices; all exponents in a finite environment will eventually overshoot and collapse.

Exponential rise in oil prices; all exponents in a finite environment will eventually overshoot and collapse.

Supply can no longer be expanded to any significant extent, despite the market signals. All we managed was a precarious plateau, the big rate of natural decline of existing oilfields being compensated for by remoter and lower-EROEI sources. The strain got too big, we slipped up and are now falling to a lower plateau – at an annualized rate of at least negative 13% of global industrial production…

PS. Is it also a coincidence that possible the hardest hit major industry was the automobile sector, with production plummeting by up to 50% in most countries? Particularly when you consider that they are the sector that is most tightly linked to cheap supplies of oil products?

Calculated Risk compiled a graph of the fleet turnover (total vehicles divided by annual sales) to give a historical value for the number of years required to totally refurbish America’s car fleet – from hovering at 13-15 years, it soared to an historically unprecedented 27 years. Projecting this forward, the size of the fleet will decline AND age simultaneously since most vehicles don’t last anywhere near 27 years on the road.

Since most vehicles won’t last this long, unless situation turns around the size of the fleet will decline AND age simultaneously. (But of course it won’t, because of impending energy shortages).

This is a completely rational development from a peakist perspective, of course. Even though generally more fuel efficient on paper, a lot of energy needs to be spent manufacturing them; since these initial energy costs have already been spent in old vehicles, it makes sense to prolong their lifespans instead of trying to increase the turnover of the fleet. So unless oil magically remains cheap and plentiful in the years ahead, or hybrids / battery-powered vehicles become far more successful than they are currently, expect the cars on our roads to gradually get older, creakier and dirtier like in Third World places – albeit with much better, cheaper and more intelligent electronics (due to Moore’s Law and its siblings).

(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.