Irvine Mills

Irv is a kollapsnik and blogger (http://theeasiestpersontofool.blogspot.ca/) who lives in Kincardine, Ontario, Canada, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron. Now retired, Irv spent 31 years as a switchyard maintenance electrician with Hydro One, the provincial transmission and distribution utility.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 7: More on Political Realities, Continued

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool October 13, 2017

Lake Huron Surf, A Sunny Day in October

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This post is just a continuation of Part 6 of this series. If you haven't read Part 6 it would make a lot of sense to do so now.

In Part 6, I addressed some of the comments a reader (BK) had made on Parts 4 and 5, explaining my thoughts on a slow and uneven collapse. And how while modern politics is trapped in a growth at all costs paradigm and cannot acknowledge the limits of growth, there are still varieties of politics that will do a better or worse job of navigating collapse in the age of scarcity.

(BK and I have quite a conversation going in the comments. Now that the initial misunderstandings have been cleared up, I think some real communication has happened.)

If you are new here, following the discussion below would be facilitated by going back and having a look at the last few posts in my Collapse Step by Step series.

In Collapse Step by Step, Part 3, I introduced the idea of laying out a spectrum of opinions about a particular aspect of politics, with the two ends representing opposing extremes, and most peoples' positions falling somewhere in between.

An example of something like this is the Political Compass, a website that takes two such spectrums (economic and authouritarian) and defines a plane on which there will be a point that defines your political position. For me that point is somewhere in the lower left, making me a "anarcho-communist" of some sort.

In order to gain an more nuanced understanding of politics, I have suggested using not just two, but six different spectrums to give a sufficiently nuanced view of that field.

In Collapse Step by Step, Part 4 I considered each of those six spectrums and identified what I believe to be the position on each of them best suited to coping with the challenges that face us over the next few decades.

In Collapse Step by Step, Part 5, after looking at today's political realities (growth must continue), I took a close look at how two different types of politics may fare during collapse. One of these might be called Right Wing Capitalism— an extreme version of the United States under a Republican government. The other I called Social Democracy—an idealized version of the northern European democracies when a left wing government is in power. And as you may be able to guess, I think the Social Democracies have a much better chance in the age of scarcity.

After reading that post, BK responded with, "you are stuck on the viewpoint that socialism will solve our ills. But what is the point of a viewpoint if adopting it requires jettisoning reason and deliberation at the first sign or trouble?" So, thinking positively about socialism requires jettisoning reason and deliberation? I really think not. But, in any case, a closer look at what I was saying shows I wasn't actually talking about socialism. The point I was making about Social Democracy versus Right Wing Capitalism wasn't to any great extent based on their positions on the Communist<—>Capitalist economic spectrum.

Communism (or socialism, same thing really), at the left end of this spectrum, has never actually been tried in the modern world, and probably wouldn't work on the large scale of most modern countries, or at least we currently have no idea of how to make it work. The so called communist regimes of the twentieth century ended up being just dictatorships practicing state capitalism. The people who started them (Lenin, Mao, etc.) were incredibly inept. Perhaps better men could have achieved more, or perhaps the challenge was just too great.

Social democracies occupy the space somewhat to the left of center on this spectrum, practicing a well regulated form of capitalism, with much of their vital infrastructure state owned for the sake of efficiency.

Countries which practiced ideal free market capitalism would be over at the very right end of the spectrum, but of course there really aren't any of them either. Some regulation is necessary to make a country work at all. Beyond that, capitalists don't like real competition and large capitalist concerns have power enough to avoid it. Even small businesses often voluntarily avoid getting into the kind of price wars that a free market can lead to. So Right Wing Capitalism occupies the space somewhat to the right of center on this spectrum.

What I am really doing here is comparing two political positions that both practice capitalism, just somewhat different types of it. The policies that really distinguish them are on a couple of other political spectrums altogether: Inclusive<—>Exclusive, and Fiscal Liberal<—>Fiscal Conservative. The Communist<—>Capitalist spectrum is a factor but the least important of the three.

OK, so how do these three aspects of politics work together to determine how a country manages during the age of scarcity? First let's consider the early stages of this period when there is still enough economic activity to support the operation of national and state (provincial) governments.

BK comments, "Northern European democracies lucked out in the historical roulette, with a combination of low population, resources and cheap energy/labour subsidising their particular version of overconsumption." The same could be said of many areas in the "new world" including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US. And I would agree that this was true in the age of abundance, when all these countries prospered through relentless growth fueled by cheap fossil fuels, regardless of whether their politics was a little to the left or right of center. But that's not the time period we're considering here.

The age of scarcity began for the US in the 1970s, when oil production in the continental states peaked and the economy began a long, bumpy slow down. And really, from then until the present day has been a troubled time for economic growth throughout much of the developed world. Recessions, bubbles, crashes, and growing debt have become commonplace.

OK, how does extreme right wing capitalism cope with these conditions? Its political position is "exclusivist", so its strategies are intended to benefit the rich and powerful—maintaining growth and funneling wealth to them, with little concern for the rest of the population. In the age of abundance this worked reasonably well for everyone, since workers were needed in large numbers and it wasn't too hard to get a job. This is no longer the case. When growth can't be maintained, the fall back is to ensure the rich receive a larger share of whatever surplus there is, with the rest of us left to get by on the ever shrinking leavings.

This political position is also fiscally conservative, so its main strategy has been to lower taxes on the rich and large corporations and to cut social programs and infrastructure spending. This has been justified by claiming that lowering taxes create jobs for the working man, who will then need less help. It's not true, of course. The only thing that makes a business hire more workers is increasing demand for their product, and to increase demand you have to get money into the hands of consumers. Leaving money in the hands of the rich essentially takes it out of circulation, since most of it will be invested in financial instruments that are not part of the "main street" economy where jobs are created.

Because of those tax reductions, funding for government is reduced, rendering it less effective at the work it needs to do. As is always the case for fiscal conservatives, tax reduction is much easier than cost cutting, so budget deficits increase and interest costs for carrying the accumulated deficit increase along with them, using up more of what little revue the government has.

All this results in many dissatisfied people, looking for someone to blame, and creates an opportunity for populist politicians. They claim to be on the side of the common man in order to get votes, while pursing many policies that actually hurt working class people. Dissatisfaction with the state of the country is blamed on immigrants, and religious and racial minorities, focusing attention away from the rich and powerful.

The right wing version of capitalism not as well regulated as those further left, and regulations are frequently relaxed even further with the excuse that it will stimulate growth.

The result of all this over the last several decades in the US has been increases in poverty, inequality, homelessness, self destructive drug use by demoralized people, distrust of the elite and social unrest. Educational, health care and infrastructure systems have been allowed to deteriorate due to lack of funds. In many ways, the US is now little better than a third world country. Unfortunately there is more to come, as economic contraction and climate change continue to pound away.

As the economy contracts still further and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes, which is best characterized by the term "exterminism" (root word: exterminate). People who are not actively needed are simply cast aside, with no concern as to what their fate might be, as long as they stay out of the way. In the US, this works so well because many Americans, who are not in fact rich, feel they that are just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and are distrustful of the other poor people around them, rather than feeling any solidarity with them.

BK says, "You accused me of believing that poverty is the fault of the poor, yet that isn't true. You also claim that this idea is leading America in a bad direction, yet the majority of Americans – including the elites, both liberal and conservative – don't seem to share it. All of them say they want to help the poor; they just differ on the method/s." Well yes, they do say that. But actions speak louder than words, and reducing taxes on the rich while cutting social programs leads me to believe the underlying intention is definitely not to help the poor. And just to be clear, that is aimed not at BK (who isn't an American), but at the Republican Party and the current President of the US.

Eventually, the government will have no choice but to abandon the worst affected areas. Parts of New Orleans have still not been built after hurricane Katrina, and a reasonable argument can be made that it would be a bad idea to do so, given the likelihood of further increases in sea level. It will be interesting to see how things go in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria this fall. Of course, that "abandonment" will not be official, but simply a matter of quiet neglect, due to a lack of resources to support and rebuild or even enforce the rule of law. This will start with just a few isolated areas that have suffered natural disaster or extreme infrastructure decay, and grow until the remaining governed areas become isolated enclaves in the abandoned expanses.

As the economy contracts, unemployment will grow. With cutbacks on social programs, unemployment will lead quickly to homelessness for a great many people. In the capitalist system there is no commons—no way for the poor to be self sufficient, no way for them to get away from a system that wants them to go away. The homeless will seek refuge in the abandoned areas, but with very limited resources and skills, they will have a hard time of it. Their general distrustfulness of each other will make things even worse.

My prediction is that, because of the waste inherent in funneling wealth to the rich (along with many other self destructive policies), rich wing capitalist societies will decline more quickly than Social Democracies. When they reach the point where nothing is left but small local communities, people will be left with very limited resources and will be unprepared for working together to the extent that will be required. Many won't even believe it is a good idea, much less a necessity.

So, how do Social Democracies measure up against the Right Wing Capitalists in the age of scarcity? To my way of thinking, quite well.

Social Democracies are inclusive, so their policies look out for the welfare of all their citizens. They are fiscally liberal, so they don't hesitate to tax progressively to finance their social programs, and are able to resource government at a level that allows it to do its job effectively.

There is less poverty, inequality, homelessness, drug abuse, distrust of the elite and social unrest. Those who are well off are happy to pay their taxes because of this.

Social Democracies are somewhat left of center on the communist<—>capitalist economic spectrum, so under these governments capitalism is better regulated, preventing its more unpleasant excesses. Much of the infrastructure is government run, eliminating duplication of effort, and waste in the form of unnecessary competition and profits.

Because economic surpluses are redistributed to where they are needed the most and will do the most good, economic contraction will proceed more slowly than in the Right Wing Capitalist countries, and its effects will be mitigated by the social safety net. It appears to me that surplus energy will be used more effectively and these societies can probably continue to function at a lower average EROEI than the Right Wing Capitalists.

Make no mistake, energy decline and economic contraction will still continue to happen in the Social Democracies and eventually reach the point where centralized government is no longer able to function and nothing is left but small local communities. But the fabric of society at that level will be in better shape and more resources and skills will be available. People, not having been taught that the poor are the enemy, will find it be much easier to work together effectively when they find themselves reduced to poverty.

I think there is also a good chance that as this point gets nearer, social democracies will admit what is going on and set up programs to help people prepare and adapt, where Right Wing Capitalists will struggle to support growth with their dying breath.

We can look at Social Democracy<—>Right Wing Capitalism as another political spectrum with the extreme versions I've just described out at the every ends. Of course, real countries are located somewhere along the spectrum, not at the extreme ends, and their positions will vary over time as left or right wing governments come into power. There is a tendency, as times grow harder, for politics to move "right", toward the Right Wing Capitalist end of this spectrum. From my viewpoint, this is sad, because it runs counter to the best interests of the very people who are casting their votes in that direction.

Indeed, one might say that that has been the purpose of this post—to make it clear why I think that in the immediate future we should not give up on the political process. Rather, we should be striving to oppose the movement to the right and elect governments who are closer to being Social Democracies. And, if in the process, we could get them interested in emergency preparation and collapse mitigation, it would be even better.

There are some hopeful signs. In Britain the Labour party has swung away from Tony Blair's neo-liberalism to a more traditional Labour stance and they did much better in the last election. Not a win, unfortunately. Here in Canada, in the last federal election, we voted out Harper's extremely conservative Conservatives and put the Liberal Party back in power. Their politics, on the Communist<—>Capitalist spectrum, are only slightly left of the Conservatives, but they are much more inclusive and fiscally liberal. They are also more liberal socially and they are not climate change deniers….

But enough for now about party politics. The subject of my next post will be some of the specific events that will likely drive collapse forward in discrete steps and how we'll cope with them, as centralized governments wither away and local communities become the focus of survival.

And once again, BK, be patient with me, more of the points you've raised will be addressed in that post, and probably the one after it….

Collapse Step by Step, Part 6: More on Political Realities

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool October 9, 2017

Paddle Boarding/Surfing off Kincardine's Station Beach

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When I wrote the last couple of episodes in this series of posts, I was well aware that I was expressing opinions that are quite controversial, in some circles at any rate. So I expected to get some push back from people whose political leanings are different from mine.

As it turns out, only one reader (who I'll refer to as BK for the sake of brevity) responded with such a comment, and he was reasonably polite and clear in what he had to say. Now, as it happens, I do believe there is such a thing as objective reality, and if you can show me that an opinion I hold runs counter to that reality, I'll willingly change it. I actually have done this at various point in the past, but in this instance that wasn't what happened. Just the opposite, in fact—what BK has done is give me a clearer understanding of my own politics and in the process strengthened my convictions. Overall, that's probably a good thing.

On both sides of our discussion, though, I think there may be a good bit of misunderstanding. It is very tempting now to go ahead with a rant about people replying seemingly without having read what I've actually been saying, and who address themselves to strawmen instead my actual points. But I suspect that the guy on the other side of the discussion may feel that I am doing the same thing to him. One of the most important skills to have in the hard times to come will be the ability to talk to and work with people who have different viewpoints, and that is a skill I am trying to cultivate.

One of the down sides of social media is that the connection we have out here in cyberspace is very tenuous. When talking face to face with friends there is real incentive to work at making communication happen. On the internet it's so easy to just give in to temptation and turn the discussion into an argument or maybe a flame war. But that's not why I am here, and I am certainly trying not to give in to the temptation.

When you get into politics, there is a great deal of ideology involved and people have a tendency to accept the party line and not bother checking it against reality. BK claims that in the last couple of posts I haven't even made any attempt to prove what I am saying. Pretty odd, since that was exactly what I had set out to do and quite a number of people have said that they think I did a pretty good job of it. But let's have a closer look at the details, and in the process perhaps I can do a better job of expressing my thoughts.

First of all, why would it be appropriate to talk about politics in a series of posts about the details of collapse?

As BK says, "In order for politics to determine how badly or dangerously collapse happens (if/when it does), there must be a dichotomy in political views regarding the causes of the type of collapse which provides the context of these articles. However, there is no such dichotomy. The dichotomy exists in precisely the opposite context, i.e., what would be a fair way to distribute the benefits of perpetual growth."

Modern politics, for the last couple of centuries anyway, has indeed been mainly about how to distribute the benefits of growth. That is certainly not the discussion we need to be having. Forty five years ago, while we were still not quite in overshoot, (right after the publication of The Limits to Growth) we needed to have a discussion about whether growth could go on forever or whether we should begin adapting to the limits of our finite planet. Serious consideration would have led to acceptance of those limits, and political discussion since then would have focused on the details of living within those limits.

However, it didn't happen that way—those who support BAU (business as usual) made sure that The Limits to Growth was never given serious consideration. We continued on, as usual, and are now in overshoot by about 150%—a very serious situation.

To be fair, it is hard to see how it could have happened otherwise. Because of the way our financial and business systems are set up, they rely on continuous growth. We really have no idea of how to stop economic growth without causing a catastrophic collapse. Politicians know this, so they are stuck trying to fix the system by treating the symptoms while still maintaining growth—the root cause of the problem. So instead, nature will take its course. There will be a dieoff and when things finally settle out, there will be a lot fewer people and they will be a lot poorer.

But even though I agree that politics is asking the wrong questions, and applying the wrong fixes, I still think that it is going to be an important influence on the course of collapse for a few decades yet. To make sense of this, I should explain where I think collapse is taking us.

Among collapse "enthusiasts" there are many who expect that someday soon there will be a fast collapse. This will take place essentially overnight, in a matter of days or perhaps weeks, but certainly not years or decades. The great majority of people would not be prepared for such an event. The ability to work together, solving problems for our mutual benefit that has been the key to much of mankind's success, would be very difficult to bring to bear on our problems during such a collapse. It seems likely that only a tiny and improbably lucky fraction of our species would survive. And I will grant that politics is not likely to have much influence over the outcome of this sort of collapse.

But I am another variety of "kollapsnik" altogether. I've taken to calling myself a "kollapsnik" lately to differentiate myself from "doomers", who think that mankind is facing imminent doom. They range from those who talk about near term extinction (by 2030) to those to expect a fast and hard collapse in the near future, with only a very few survivors left, who will fall back into a new stone age.

Instead, I talk about a slow collapse, which has already been going on for decades in many areas and will continue for much of the twenty-first century. I take this one step further and assert that collapse does not take place uniformly. It's progress is geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal. I do expect that this collapse will be a population bottleneck, but not an extinction event—I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few hundred million people make it through.

To borrow a the term from John Michael Greer, I call the first stage of this long period of collapse the "age of scarcity". During the last couple of centuries some parts of the world experienced an "age of abundance" due to the windfall of cheap energy from fossil fuels, and became industrially and economically developed. In the process, supplies of industrially important natural resources (particularly fossil fuels) were depleted and sinks for industrial by products (pollution) have started to fill up, with unpleasant results such as economic contraction, climate change, ocean acidification and so forth.

Many parts of the developed world have been in the age of scarcity for some decades now and their governments have struggled to keep up appearances (and growth) under less than ideal conditions. A few have been so successful that you still meet people who think these are the best of times and that we should expect things to get even better. But such an opinion can only be held by those who are very careful about where not to look.

During the rest of the age of scarcity our industrial society will gradually weaken until eventually it will be "down for the count". We will then transition into the age of salvage, making use of the materials left behind, which we will no longer have the wherewithal to make from scratch for ourselves. Of course, this transition will occur at different times in various places around the world. And while it will certainly be a big step down from current conditions in the developed nations, it will be a long way from the stone age. There will be a lot of salvage left to work with and we now know a great deal that we did not know even a few centuries ago.

Because I am expecting a slow collapse, I believe there is a lengthy period ahead of us when governments will still be in charge and have some resources available to pursue their policy objectives. What those objectives are will have a large influence on how collapse progresses, and to what extent it can be mitigated. If we are not going to just stoically accept what comes, we will need to choose between the various sorts of actually, realistically achievable politics, searching for the ones that can do the least worst job for us.

Yes, there will eventually come a day when federal, state (provincial) and, in the case of large cities, even local governments are so resource starved that they are no longer effective (or exist at all, perhaps) and local communities are left to their own devices. But it seems to me that even then the sort of politics that has been popular in a society will have a lingering effect on the workings of those communities.

Since it is now clear that it going to take two, if not three, posts to cover everything I want to talk about on this subject, I think I'll bring this post to an end. Next time we'll look in detail at how two of those political positions will differ in their approach to life in the age of scarcity.

And BK, please be patient. In your comments you made several other points that deserve a thoughtful response, which I hope to be making in my next post, or maybe the one after that….

Collapse Step by Step, Part 5: Political Realities

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool August 6, 2017

 

 

 

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I've been promising to write about political realities for a while now. My last couple of posts were about ways of defining political positions (political compasses) and how well various positions are adapted to life in the age of scarcity (energy decline and economic contraction). Now the time has finally come to talk about those political realities and consider why modern politics is so maladapted to the challenges we face, now and in the coming decades.

There are many aspects to being a successful politician or political party, but surely the first is getting elected. If you don't have a reasonable chance of getting elected, then it's all just cheap talk (enjoyed by many of us, I will admit). In order to get elected you need two things: votes and money to run your campaign.

If you talk to voters you'll find that most of them aren't very happy with the way things are going and they'd like you to fix things. So you need a "platform", a story about why you are the candidate best suited to do that, to convince people to vote for you. To get the word out, you'll need publicity, and that costs money. Modern elections are such media circuses that it takes big money to win one and that means those who have big money have an inordinately large influence on who gets elected.

Unfortunately, the interests of voters and those who fund political campaigns don't always line up, and when they do, they line up in the wrong direction. A closer look at this will take us to the heart of what I want to discuss in this post. But first, let's take look at the real problems that governments should be addressing and aren't.

Since early in the history of this blog, I've been talking about three problems: resource depletion (Peak Oil), pollution (Climate Change) and economic contraction. But if you look closely you'll see that this all boils down into one thing—growth.

Our resource depletion problems arise from the exponential increase in our use of natural resources as both human population and standard of living have increased exponentially over the last few centuries. Climate change, and other sorts of pollution problems, arise from the way we are filling up the available sinks with our ever growing quantity of wastes.

Economic contraction arises from the declining surplus energy of our primary energy resources, fossil fuels—part of our resource depletion problem, again caused by growth. The more fuel we burn, the greater our gross domestic product. The faster we burn it, the higher our percentage growth. In the short run, this is conventionally accepted as a good thing. Copious quantities of high quality and easy to access fossil fuels have driven exponential growth, but those days are coming to an end. Our financial and political systems are addicted to growth and woefully unprepared for its end.

Yet it is ending. Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is the main concern here—a good measure of the quality of an energy source. The remaining fossil fuels (and there are lots of them) have an EROEI too low to support growth and none of the possible alternative sources of energy is any better. Somewhere around 15 seems to be the significant level of EROEI for operating a modern growth-based industrial society—and that's an average of all the energy sources used. As your average EROEI declines toward 15, growth slows and it becomes difficult to raise capital for new projects. Below 15 it becomes difficult to maintain existing infrastructure and things start to fall apart.

Many of those who acknowledge climate change today hold great hope for renewable energy sources that don't generate CO2. But those renewables, particularly when you include the storage technology needed to compensate for their intermittent nature, have such a low EROEIs that they won't support an industrial civilization, but require one to support them. In other words, if it is not already too late, we might be able use the remaining supplies of high EROEI fossil fuels to switch over to renewables, but if we rely on the energy supplied by them, we wouldn't be able to maintain them or replace them as they wear out.

Or, we can look at it another way. For most of our prehistory and history the burden we placed upon this planet grew very slowly and we were, at any rate, far below its carrying capacity. But in the last few decades our pursuit of growth has carried us into overshoot, currently by about 150% and increasing. This is possible because we are using up the planet's non-renewable reserves, but in the process we are actually reducing its carrying capacity. At some point soon our continued growth and that shrinking capacity will meet with catastrophic results.

As I've said before, our planet is a big place, so this will happen "unevenly, unsteadily and unequally". Indeed, it is already starting to do so. And in the long run, on a geological time scale, it's really no big deal. I think it is quite likely that a reduced number of human beings, with a more modest lifestyle will even manage to pull through.

But in the short run, the systems we rely on to supply us with the necessities of life are going to quit working. Yes, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. But the ability and willingness of the developed nations to mount relief operations (even to help their own people) will dwindle. If you are at ground zero in an area where things are taking a big step downward, it will, at least for a while, seem like the end of the world. If you are rich and not too unlucky, you may manage to avoid the worst of what's going on around you, otherwise… not so much.

So, I'd like our governments to do the best job they can of arranging a graceful decline to a workable level of population and consumption. But my experience suggests that this isn't a reasonable expectation. In fact, they will probably do quite a bit to make things worse.

This is because our political systems are incapable of acknowledging that limits exist, that we are nearing them and that because of this, growth is no longer a good thing. Why this difficulty with acknowledging reality? It's pretty simple, really—we've built a system that only works when it is growing.

Modern businesses operate on credit and rely on the global financial system to supply that credit. Even money, which many of us think of as hard, cold cash, is actually just credit, loaned into existence out of thin air by the banks. And of course it must eventually be paid back to the banks, with interest.

As long as the economy is growing, that's no problem. The banks have confidence that, on average, businesses will grow, and be able to pay back their loans with interest, so they are willing to make loans. Businesses have the same confidence and are willing to go along with this because it allows them to operate, expand and improve. But in order for them to pay back their loans, with interest, the supply of money must increase. This is done by loaning out more money, creating more debt and continuing the cycle onwards and upwards.

This system was adopted because the previous system, based on precious metals, would not allow the money supply to grow quickly enough. And because growth, fueled by high EROEI fossil fuels, was so highly beneficial to both banks and businesses, a way had to be found to accommodate it.

It is ironic that the U.S. ended the "gold standard" in the early 1970s, with the result that the whole world converted to "fiat money", just as oil production was peaking in the continental U.S. and other areas, and just before the first oil shock, when OPEC proclaimed an embargo and forced the price of oil up from $3 to $12 per barrel. Our efforts to financially accommodate endless growth where instituted just as that growth first began to falter. Since then, our economic history has been a case of governments trying to maintain economic growth in the face of declining surplus energy, the very thing that actually supports that growth.

To my way of thinking, this is an example of an insoluble problem.

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits To Growth, talks about easy and hard problems. With easy problems, things start getting better as soon as you start applying some effort to solving the problem and the public can see that it is worth the effort. With hard problems, things initially get worse, but eventually, if you keep working at it, they do get better. Our political system is very poor at solving hard problems. A government that tries to solve such a problem, and can't show that things are improving before the next election, won't get re-elected. Even if, with just a little more time, things would have turned around.

But our current situation is in another class of problem altogether. In order to solve our resource depletion, pollution and carrying capacity problems, growth has to stop and indeed we need to go through a significant amount of degrowth, both in population and consumption. But this will be an economic disaster, leaving us all considerably poorer, with no prospect of things getting better. If we try to maintain economic growth, we will make the other problems, and our final situation, even worse. At best, we can aim to make things somewhat "less worse" than they would otherwise get. This is why I say there is no solution, only the prospect of various degrees of success at adapting.

The political reality is that in order to finance their campaigns, politicians rely on donations, some from private individuals, but most from banks and businesses. Banks and businesses want many things, but it all boils down to continued growth, if not in the long run, at least in the short run. If they want campaigns funds, politicians must do what they can in an attempt to guarantee this. Voters, too, want growth because they can see that the end of growth would be pretty hard on them, as well. If you want to get elected, better be strong on growth.

As I said at the start, voters can tell that things aren't going well and want politicians to do something about it. But the real problem is growth itself and we are pretty much all in denial about that, so politicians are in a difficult spot and have to come up with various creative ways out.

Those who I would characterize as "bad" politicians, for lack of a better turn of phrase, are eager to maintain the position and privilege of their supporters, the rich and powerful. They care little or nothing for the bottom 80% of the population. They deny limits, especially climate change and peak oil, reassuring everyone that business as usual can continue for the foreseeable future. For the purposes of this discussion I'll call them "exclusionist, capitalist, fiscal conservatives", using the some of the terminology from my posts on political compasses and positions.

You might think that this approach would make it hard to get many votes, but with enough money to spend it is amazing what you can convince people of.

And of course many voters are eager to hear that business as usual is a viable proposition, that with the right policies we can return to the "good old days". Add in some "trickle down" economics, promise to reduce taxes and government waste, fight an endless succession of foreign wars, blame poverty on the poor, and unemployment and crime on immigrants and visible minorities and you can come up with a winning platform.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this approach.

It's easy to reduce taxes, but harder to reduce spending, so you end up going further into debt and your government itself is crippled due to reduced revenue. It's hard to hide your lack of concern for the bottom 80%—your programs keep the top 20% in pretty good shape, but as the economy contracts, the bottom 80% suffer more and more. The ranks of the unemployed swell and with social programs cut to the bone, people aren't unemployed long before they end up homeless.

In the U.S., encampments of homeless people have sprung up in and around many cities. Sadly, when the number of homeless people increases to the point where they become quite visible, the typical response is one of distrust and even hate. The rest of the community want the homeless to simply go away, going so far in many cases as to make homelessness (and efforts to charitably help the homeless) essentially illegal. The tent cities are bulldozed and their inhabitants rounded up and sent on their way.

In capitalism societies where all the means of production (and even subsistence) are privately owned and even government owned parks do not welcome those who might seek refuge in them, there is nowhere for the homeless to turn. Eventually this will lead to large scale confrontations and riots that will be suppressed ruthlessly, temporarily diverting those who survive to privately owned prisons that are little more than a form of legalized slavery. But this will not make the problem go away in the long run—as the economy continues to contract, even the private prison system will prove unprofitable.

As collapse continues, along with economic problems like unemployment and homelessness and the social unrest arising from them, there will be continuing deterioration of infrastructure and a variety of natural disasters. The government will have no choice but to abandon the worse affected areas. Not officially of course, but simply by neglecting them due to a lack of resources to support or rebuild them, or even enforce the rule of law. This will start with just a few isolated areas and grow until the remaining governed areas become isolated enclaves in the abandoned expanses.

Strangely, I see some hope in this, as there will be no way to prevent anyone from leaving the governed areas and setting up their own communities in the abandoned areas. And the changes needed to successfully address the challenges we face can best be made by those who have nothing invested in our current system.

So, this "exclusionist, capitalist, fiscal conservatives" approach is good only for the short term interests of the rich and powerful, and bad for the short term interests of the bottom 80%. In the long run, it's bad for everybody involved, and only after it has largely dwindled away is it possible to see much hope.

On the other side things we have those who I would characterize as the "less bad" politicians. For the purposes of this discussion I'll call them "inclusionist, socialist, fiscal liberals", though this kind of socialism involves a lot of capitalist activity. They generally accept the reality of climate change, but claim that they can address it without damage to the economy or jobs, and that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels with no significant changes in the way we live. They use the term "sustainable development", an oxymoron if ever there was one, and claim that we can decouple economic growth from resource depletion and pollution. Many people are fooled by this nonsense, but the political reality is that these politicians also have rich and powerful supporters, so business as usual must be allowed to carry on.

What makes these politicians less bad is not their lip service to addressing climate change but the fact that they do care about the welfare of everyone in their societies, not just the rich and powerful. They are willing to tax progressively to keep government running efficiently and provide support to those who have been failed by the economy. This results in a society with significantly less crime and social unrest, and a higher level of social justice. Which is why the rich are willing to be taxed heavily.

In order to reassure voters that they are doing something about the problems of the day, these politicians tend to address symptoms of the real problems, which they don't want to admit exist. While this doesn't result in any lasting fixes, it does often temporarily improve things.

The "inclusionist, socialist, fiscally liberal" approach prevents the waste that occurs when the rich are allowed to become continually richer, and allows those resources to be used for the benefit of the society as a whole. It results in less war, social unrest and human suffering and can probably continue to function at lower levels of average EROEI than the alternative.

Unfortunately, because this brand of politicians doesn't acknowledge declining surplus energy as the cause of economic contraction, they frequently try to jump start the economy with large injections of borrowed cash. These efforts become ever less successful as the surplus energy problem grows, and leads to government debt. But here the money is spent on maintaining and improving infrastructure, helping the populace with training and education and other things that do some good at least in the short run.

There is enough slack in modern lifestyles to allow a considerable belt tightening before anyone really gets hurt, especially if the rich and powerful are willing to tighten their belts somewhat as well, and there are social programs to help the poor. So it may be possible to manage a more graceful energy decline even without acknowledging what is actually happening.

So, this "inclusionist, socialist, fiscally liberal" approach is not as good for the short term interests of the rich and powerful (still adequate, though), and much better for the short term interest of the bottom 80%. In the long run, it is still less than ideal. Economic contraction will still eventually make centralization of government unfeasible and countries will break up into smaller units supplying fewer services. But there is some possibly that these sorts of society may muddle through in a way that is less destructive than the "exclusionist capitalist fiscal conservative" alternative.

To sum it all up, we face an insoluble problem in the requirement to reduce our population and consumption to take us out of the current overshoot situation. Insoluble because of the political realities—politicians need the financial support of the rich and powerful to get elected and votes from the rest of society, and neither group is willing to accept the reality that growth must come to an end. This is dealt with in various maladaptive way by politicians, ranging from utterly awful to just moderately bad. And there is very little prospect of turning things around, at least at the level of global, national or state (provincial here in Canada) politics.

Given all this, it is tempting for those of us in the bottom 80% to be pretty apathetic about politics. I think this is a bad idea. It is important to remember that real politicians, political parties and countries exist somewhere on a spectrum between the two endpoints I've been talking about in this post. Have an eye to where your government lies on that spectrum, be aware of the political realities involved, and take what opportunities are within your grasp to push for improvements. Politicians love to be at the head of somebody else's parade, and even the worst ones are influenced by public opinion if it is strongly enough expressed. We need to get that parade heading in a better direction. Or be willing to accept a significantly worse outcome.

At the same time, individuals, families and communities should prepare for continued economic contraction, social unrest, war, infrastructure failure and various natural disasters. With a clear realization that help from higher levels of government will not always be forthcoming.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 4: Political Positions

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool August 6, 2017

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Adapting to energy decline and economic contraction.

 
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In my last post I talked about some ways of expressing the nuances of political positions. I started out with the basic left-right spectrum and then moved on to the "Political Compass" , which gives us a two dimensional map of our position, using the left—right axis and the libertarian—authoritarian axis. But without too much sweat I was able to come up with four more axes that, along with those two, define what I think are the most important aspects of a political position.

There are probably more, but in this post I'd like to focus on how a government's position on each of those six axes might determine how successful it is likely to be in adapting to the challenges that face us during the next few decades. Challenges that it seems very likely will lead to the collapse of industrial civilization.

Acknowledge Limits <—> Deny Limits

We are already nicely into a crisis caused by the end of economic growth and the start of economic contraction. If you accept the idea that there are limits to growth, this is not surprising and can be attributed to a reduced amount of surplus energy due to the dwindling supply of high quality, easy to access (high EROEI) fossil fuels. The obvious solution is to prepare for and adapt to a significant decline in energy usage. Yes, we will adopt alternative sources of energy, but they are not capable of supplying us with the copious amounts of surplus energy that we became accustomed to in the twentieth century

Accepting the natural limits built into our finite planet also means accepting that we are using up the sinks that have been absorbing the pollution our civilization creates. In particular, that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the climate to change, and in the process making most of our other problems that much worse. Solving this problem will necessitate abandoning the use of fossil fuels, and with that a significant decline in energy usage.

If you are in denial about the limits to growth, then the current situation is probably quite puzzling and you will be casting about, looking for something (or someone) to blame things on and a way to get "business as usual" back on track. That's not going to work, but unfortunately it is likely to be the standard mode of operation for most governments in the immediate future.

In the long run, one would hope that intimate experience with limits will lead most of us to acknowledge them. But I suspect that, even then, there will still be a few enclaves hanging on where people can delude themselves that they are living the dream of progress, blissfully unfettered by any sort of limit.

Socially Inclusive <—> Socially Exclusive

At one end of this axis we have societies who feel a responsibility for the welfare of all their citizens, and to some extent all mankind and all of the other living things on this planet. They do what they can to provide for the poor as well as the rich, including an effort to limit inequality. It also includes a welcoming attitude to immigrants and refugees, and making an effort to be kind to the environment.

When the economy is contracting, the attempt is made to spread the pain around more or less evenly. There is no doubt in my mind that societies like this will do a much better job of coping with the declining circumstances in the years to come than those at the other end of this scale. There is much room for economic contraction in the lifestyles common in the developed nations, room for a lot of decline before we get to the point of not having enough to get by on.

At the other end of this axis we have societies where the rich and powerful make every effort to hang onto their wealth and power no matter what happens, with little or no concern for the poor or even the lower middle class, the bottom 80% economically speaking. As the economy continues to contract and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes.

Every attempt will be made to replace labour with automation. Policies of "exterminism" will be applied to the poor, jobless and homeless. This term comes from Peter Frase's book Four Futures, and refers to simply getting rid of (exterminating) the "impoverished, economical superfluous rabble". I think it is pretty reasonable to expect a violent backlash from the lower classes in response to such policies. No doubt an attempt will be made to direct the dissatisfaction of the lower classes away from the upper classes using scapegoating and xenophobia, focused on one or more specific groups who are visibly different. In most of the developed world today, Muslims are shaping up to be one of the main targets.

It seems to me that U.S. is positioned at the exclusive end of this scale, with northern European social democracies at the inclusive end, and countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand somewhere in between.

Fiscally Liberal <—> Fiscally Conservative

One hears fiscal conservatives complaining about "tax and spend liberals", implying that increasing taxes will have a negative effect on the economy. Fiscal liberals respond that the economy always performs worse under "borrow and spend conservatives". It seems that the two ends of this political spectrum have the opposite effects from what you might think. The policies usually followed by fiscal conservatives lead to deficits, while fiscal liberals manage to reduce or eliminate deficits.

The things is that when the economy was growing, deficit financing worked well. Government spending increased growth and helped pull the economy out of occasional recessions. And money borrowed one year could be repaid the next year using a smaller slice of a bigger pie. Government spending on infrastructure and social programs benefited everyone, so it was hard to argue with borrowing money to do it. This mode of operation was adopted by many western democracies after WW II, and it worked very well until 70s when economic growth began to falter. It stopped working altogether in the mid 90s when real economic growth came to a halt and was replaced by growing debt and financial bubbles.

Balancing a budget has two aspects: spending and revenue, and progressive taxation is the key to making revenue match spending. The idea that taxation has a negative effect on economic growth is self serving for businesses and the rich, but it doesn't stand up to a close examination.

There are countries at the liberal end of this spectrum where taxes are progressive and quite high. Things seem to be working quite well there—so well that even most of the rich folks who are paying those very high taxes are content with the system.

And of course there are countries like Canada who are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with moderately high taxes and government spending. Our budgets have even been balanced occasionally, though under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, taxes were lowered and deficits went back up. We hope our current government, under young Mr. Trudeau, will have better luck.

Sitting firmly at the conservative end of the spectrum we have the U.S. where taxes are low (and headed lower) and it is political suicide to discuss increasing them. Even poor working people seem to be against the very idea of taxation. I've asked Americans what's up with this and the best answer I've gotten, the one that comes closest to making sense, is that the American government is so corrupt that its citizens just aren't willing to trust it with their money. That may be so, but the American deficit keeps growing, despite numerous efforts to cut spending.

What can we expect to happen as the economy continues to contract? It seems to me that the U.S. deficit will grow until borrowing and printing money leads to a financial disaster that will greatly hasten the collapse of the country, hurting even those in the upper classes. More fiscally liberal countries will suffer less, managing a more graceful downward spiral.

At some point in this process, no matter how well managed, tax revenues will no longer support federal organizations like the UN, Europe, Canada or the US and decentralization will become a well established trend. It can be done the easy way, through negotiation and civilized agreements, or the hard way through secession and armed conflict. No doubt there will be some of both.

Communist <—> Capitalist

It is important to remember that this axis is about economics and not to get it confused with the types of government which are often associated communism or capitalism.

The totalitarian "communist" states of the twentieth century were actually practicing capitalism at the state level. And not very successfully. Most of those countries have since switched over to some more overt form of capitalism. At the same time, democracy has functioned best when restraining and regulating capitalism's excesses.

At the left end of this axis we have Communism. In the sense I am using here, it consists of the people in a group sharing resources and working together for their mutual benefit. The words "sharing", "work" and "benefit" give us the clue that we are talking about economics. Communism works well in small groups (up to 150 or 200 people) and was how we lived for all of our prehistory, more than two million years. And quite successfully, I might add.

At the right end of the axis we have Capitalism. It consists of a small minority of the people (the capitalists) in a group owning the resources and the rest of the people working for them to produce benefits that are enjoyed primarily by the capitalists.

The relationship between the capitalists and their workers may be outright slavery, serfdom or wage slavery. Outright slaves, who by no means have it easy, are at least provided with a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Serfs in feudal cultures, don't have it easy either, but their lords do have certain obligations to them. Wage slaves, on the other hand, are provided only with a wage. Capitalist have no other responsibilities to them—in particular, when business is slow, capitalists are not responsible to provide jobs for all the workers who need them in order to live. And in modern capitalist societies there really isn't any other way to make a living.

This became particularly significant when we learned to convert heat energy into mechanical work and replace the muscle power of the workers with machinery. Initially, there was concern that many workers would be replaced by machinery and end up jobless. But workers were still needed to build, operate and maintain the machinery and for the last couple of centuries the economy grew fast enough to provide jobs for a growing work force and significantly increased their standard of living.

This is often pointed to as one of the great successes of capitalism, but it should actually be attributed to the increase in productivity made possible by the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Indeed, capitalists did everything they could to improve their profits by reducing the amount of labour needed and the wages paid for that labour. It was only through unions and the support of left leaning democratic governments that labour made the gains it did.

Unfortunately, those days are over and with the slowing of economic growth, capitalists have been forced to try a number of strategies to maintain the viability of their businesses. And there has been a move to the right in many democratic governments which has helped with this.

Globalization, as long as shipping stays cheap, provides cheaper labour and a business environment with fewer safety and environmental regulations. Automation further reduces the number of workers required. And financialization offers a way of making profit by trading "virtual" commodities related to money, instead of real products. All this has been successful to some extent, but has worsened unemployment in the developed countries, and increased economic inequality between the working classes and the rich and powerful. This is a serious problem in consumer economies where the majority of consumers are also workers and need income to function adequately as consumers, in order to support the upper classes.

This and most of the other problems caused by capitalism occur when it is allowed to pursue short term profit (or shareholder value) to the exclusion of all else. As I said earlier, capitalism has worked best when governments have acted to restrain its excesses. Democracies have been particularly effective because with one vote per person the workers have more political power. But during the last few decades there has been a move to the right in most Western democracies and political parties, and power has slipped away from the workers and back to the capitalists.

It seems likely that this trend will continue, in an attempt to compensate for economic contraction. But it will not succeed in rescuing capitalism, which will collapse more quickly where it has the fewest restraints. Those of us with leftist leanings have always assumed that it would take action to end capitalism, but it's starting to appears that capitalism will collapse on its own, without there being anything ready to replace it.

Post collapse, with very much smaller and poorer states, and with capitalism already out of the way, and having acquired a bad reputation in the process, communities may be free to return to a more communistic approach.

Social Progressive <—> Social Conservative

The thing about this axis is that it changes over time as things that were progressive are gradually accepted and become the province of conservatives, while liberals move on to new horizons.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, in the developed world at least, social progressives won victories in gaining equal rights and freedoms for people of different races (particularly blacks in the U.S.) and different religions (particularly Jews, and at least in principle, Muslims), for women and for LGBT people. No doubt there are other similar battles to be won, but given the backlash we are seeing against the gains already made, it may not be time to move on just yet.

There are good reasons to think that society as a whole benefits when equal rights and freedoms are extended to those who have previously been excluded. That exclusion has resulted over the years in the failure to develop a great deal of human potential. Given the challenges we face currently and in the future, we simply cannot afford to do this. Excluding people for traits over which they have no control, which they did not choose, is surely unjust and it should not be necessary to explain why injustice is a bad thing.

Many people feel that as times get harder, socially conservative positions are more adaptive. I think just the opposite, but not surprisingly, that opinion is common among socially conservative kollapsniks, who see collapse as an opportunity to roll back social changes which they are not comfortable with, such as feminism, racial equality, religious freedom, and LGBT rights.

At the same time, I notice a trend for socially progressive people to hold a variety of anti-science positions. It is deeply shocking and abhorrent to me that they have bought into the wrong side of issues that are being pushed by people and companies for profit. The anti-vaccine movement lead by alternative medicine practitioners and the anti-genetic-engineering movement led by organic food producers and distributors are good examples of this, neither of which is supported in the least by the scientific consensus.

Libertarian <—> Authoritarian

It is important to be clear that this axis is about personal freedom, not economics. The libertarian movement and Libertarian political parties seem to be mainly about removing restrictions on the activities of business in order to get rich, with no concern for other people or the environment. I find that sort of activity abhorrent, and it is not the sense in which I mean libertarian at all. Anarchism might be a better term (anarchists being poor libertarians), but this term also has negative connotations for many people.

At any rate, we're talking about politics in Western democracies here, so what we are really looking at is variations in an area around the middle of this axis.

In order to make large countries like the one I live in work, the citizens must be willing to accept a social contract including the rule of law, taxation, regulation of business and the government's monopoly on violence. One receives all kinds of benefits in return, and in a representative democracy you even get to help choose the people who make up your government. This is fine unless the range of parties to choose from is so narrow that it really isn't a choice at all.

I suspect that our immediate future will no doubt see a move toward increasing authoritarianism in states that are nominally democracies. We are already seeing this in the U.S. Being a dictator may seem like a fine thing, until you are confronted with actually solving the sort of thorny problems that face many nations today. It's not as easy as it looks, and more resources are required to enforce this kind of rule than one where the citizens co-operate willingly.

I think the rise of the surveillance state is also something to be worried about. Fear is being used to manipulate public opinion so those in control can get more control. It's clearly a case of exchanging freedom for security, which always turns out to be a poor deal in the long run. The expense of watching over its citizens is something governments will be less able to afford as the economy continues to contract, but I suspect they will be eager to shoulder that expense and expand upon it.

In the long run, as a lack of surplus energy makes large states impractical, we may see a move in the other direction, to less authoritarianism and less surveillance.

And in conclusion…

I guess it's not too hard to tell, from what I've said so far, that I would pick a political party that acknowledges limits, and is inclusive, fiscally liberal, economically leftist, socially liberal but pro-science, and more libertarian than authoritarian. This combination of political positions would, in my opinion, give us the best chance of navigating the collapse of industrial civilization as gracefully as possible.

Unfortunately, due to the realities of modern politics there is no such party and most of the political positions I favour are unlikely to win any elections in the near future. The details of those realities and their consequences will be the subject of my next post.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 3: Political Compasses

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Published on The Doomstead Diner August 1, 2017

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A couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts titled "A Political Fantasy", in which I talked about what might be accomplished if political realities weren't what they are and it was possible for governments to simply do what is needed to get us through the coming collapse and energy decline with as little grief as possible. I didn't think back then that many of the things I was suggesting were likely to happen and I still don't.

I've been promising to take a look at the other side of this and write about political realities for a while now. In my last post I talked about the likely end points of collapse. The rest of this series will be about how we'll get from here to there. Since politics is going to play a large part in that, this seems like a good time to address the subject.

First we'll talk about politics in the western democracies that I and (I suspect)my readers are ost familiar with. If you are a citizen of a western democracy, your view of politics is largely informed by mass media coverage of party politics in your country. This is significant as much for the issues they ignore as for the ones they focus on. If a political position is not supported by any of the mainstream parties and/or the media are not interested in it, then you'll never hear about it unless you do a lot of digging. These days, our political options are typically seen to be spread along just a single axis ranging from left to right, which is way too restrictive to represent the nuances of the real world.

The Political Compass

If you go to the Political Compass website, you can take a quiz that will attempt to locate your position along two political axes, left—right and totalitarian—libertarian. This results in a two dimensional map of politics, which is indeed capable of representing more subtleties than a single one dimensional axis. But it is, well, "two dimensional" and it omits some other axes which are also important aspects of modern politics.

The left vs. right axis is actually about economics, so we also need to consider a progressive versus conservative axis for social policy.

And even economic policy is too complex to be represented on a single axis. In addition to the spectrum that runs from communism to capitalism (left to right), there is also one that runs from fiscally liberal to fiscally conservative (concerning government spending and debt).

So, even if we are just talking about "business as usual" politics, I can see at least four dimensions that are significant. No doubt there are more. And having accepted that the limits to growth are real and collapse is a possibility, we can come up with a new political compass using a couple of new axes that are more relevant to those realities. It's vital to do this since, without it such a compass, we'll just spend our time working on symptoms without addressing the real underlying problem—like so many well meaning people today.

On one axis I would map the degree of our acceptance or denial of limits. This would run from Limits to Growth folks (like me) on one end to Cornucopians at the other end—people who refuse to admit that we will ever be limited by scarcity at all.

On the other axis I would map how we respond to limits when we inevitably run up against them, even if we don't acknowledge their existence. That response might go along several dimensions, but I'd recommend one that looks at a range from social inclusive to socially exclusive. That is, from people at one end of the axis who want to work together towards a mutual solution to people at the other end who want to save themselves and throw everyone else to the wolves.

But is all this drawing of charts anything more than just a diverting pastime?

I think so, but to understand my take on this we'll need to look at why we should be concerned with politics at all and then why it is vital to consider the limits to growth as part of our politics.

Here in North America there is a great deal of apathy toward the subject of politics. I suspect this is also true to at least some extent in Europe. Part of this is because people feel they are unlikely to have any influence in the political process. One vote counts for very little, but I'd counter that by saying that if enough people feel that way, then we are not talking about one vote, but millions.

Then there is the problem of finding a political party you can feel good about voting for. This is a problem, but remember—politicians like to be at the head of somebody elses parade. If an issue gains enough public support, the politicians will be eager to take credit for the idea.

Some will say that the way our system are set up, politicians are unlikely to fix anything and very likely to make things worse. I agree with that, but we need to do everything we can to minimize the harm they do, if nothing else. Some say that "voting just encourages them". I disagree. They get all the encouragement they need from lobbyists and those who contribute to their campaigns. It's the job of us voters to counteract that, since it is usually a push n the wrong direction.

In order to see if we should be adding the limits to growth to our political discussion, we need to know how those limits are and will continue to affect the world we live in. Our current economic, financial and political systems are based on growth fueled by copious quantities of easily accessible and high quality energy resources—primarily fossil fuels.

We've been able to have fossil fuels for little more than the cost of digging or pumping them out of the ground. That cost has been very low compared to the worth of the energy they provided. The productivity of the industries fueled by them grew dramatically, compared to industries powered by human or animal muscles alone. This is what is meant by the term "surplus energy"—the excess energy that is available for use once we've done whatever it takes to acquire the energy in the first place. A related term is "energy returned on energy invested", EROEI.

In the early twentieth century, when we first started using oil, its EROEI was around 100. But we picked the low hanging "fossil fuel fruit" first and what remains now is either of low quality or more difficult to access, with a much lower EROEI. It is estimated that to maintain a modern industrial society the overall average EROEI must be 15 or greater. The global average EROEI today is around 11.8 and falling.

The first effect of a dropping EROEI is the slowing of economic growth. This is a particular problem because of the way our banking and financial systems are set up to accommodate and encourage growth. New money is created via debt—banks lend out money that didn't previously exist and was created by the act of loaning it. Governments, businesses and individuals borrow this money on the assumption that the economy will continue to grow and they will be able to pay it back in better circumstances, with interest. In order for this to happen, of course, others must borrow more money so the interest on the first lot can be paid back along with the principle. And so on, as long as growth continues. When the economy stops growing, this system quits working. Individuals, businesses and even governments go bankrupt, people lose their jobs and so forth.

Governments have been diddling growth statistics to make things look better than they are for some time now, but in fact there has been very little real economic growth since the 1990s. Since then apparent growth has been financed by ever-growing debt and the inflation and subsequent bursting of various investment bubbles.

Meanwhile we've still been burning fossil fuels and adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and climate change is getting to the point where the problems it causes make our other problems that much worse.

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth, talks about easy problems and hard ones. Easy problems are those where implementing the solution results in immediate and obvious change for the better as soon as you start to implement it. We are good at solving such problems. Hard problems are ones where implementing the solution actually makes things worse for quite a while before they start to get better. Or sometimes things don't get better at all, but the "solution" stops them from getting significantly worse. For the most part, we do a poor job of admitting that such problems even exist. Once they have been identified, we do an even worse job of addressing them.

So it seems fair to say that things aren't going well because of the limits we are encountering. We should be doing something about this. There seems to be good reason to believe that a solution which allows us to continue on as usual isn't possible, so we need to start adapting to the new conditions. And you would think governments should have a role to play in that.

This is where all these charts of political alternatives comes in—some of those alternatives would likely be much more effective in this situation than others. By knowing what they are, we are in a better position to choose the best of them than if we don't even know what alternatives exist.

In my next post I'll have a closer look at what the political alternatives are, and how well each of them is adapted to the challenges we face.

Collapse Step by Step, Part 2: End Points

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Published on The Doomstead Diner June 26, 2017

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In a recent post I talked about how we can expect the collapse of our civilization to be slow and bumpy—uneven geographically, unsteady chronologically and unequal socially. But I was deliberately vague about what's going to happen first, where collapse will go from there and where it will end up. I suspect many of my readers found this rather unsatisfying—I know I did. In this and my next few posts I'll be getting down to the "nitty-gritty" details of collapse.

Number one on that list is that collapse is already happening, and has been since the early 1970s, when oil production in the continental United States peaked and America's shiny new world empire began to crumble.

We'll get back to that soon, but today I want to talk about the end point of the process. Or rather, I should say "end points", since I don't expect things will decline to the same level across the whole planet. Allowing for that, where will we be when collapse is complete and the dust has settled? That's hard to say for several reasons.

First, there is no such thing as a "natural state" to return to. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not living in harmony with nature, indeed nature doesn't live in harmony with itself. Nature, and human society within it, are dissipative structures—never in balance, relying on inputs of energy and materials to maintain them in a steady state. Death is the only real equilibrium state such structures have access to, and even after death decay continues to change things.

For the last few hundred years, the energy bonanza of fossil fuels has propelled our civilization to hitherto unheard of heights, a "steady" state chiefly characterized by growth. Collapse will entail a significant energy decline as we give up fossil fuels and nuclear fission as energy sources. We'll be left with solar energy, including its indirect forms (biomass, wind and falling water), and in a few locations things like geothermal and tidal energy, to the extent that we have the wherewithal to access them.

The quantity and quality of energy available will determine, among other things, the kind of energy infrastructure that can be built and maintained. And the kind of energy infrastructure we can support will determine the quantity and quality of energy that will be available. When everyone in a group is struggling just to get enough food to stay alive, there aren't enough spare manhours to work on energy projects beyond obtaining food itself, our most basic energy source. But as things periodically get better, a few tinkerers will have time to get some previously abandoned infrastructure working again. So I expect there will be a good deal of bouncing up and down as this dissipative system works its way toward a new, more or less steady state determined by the lower availability of energy. And because there are different amounts of energy and materials available in different areas, they will end up in different states.

Second, climate change also makes it hard to predict what things will be like when the collapse dust settles. There is a significant lag built into climate change and even after we quit adding CO2 to the atmosphere it will take decades at least before the warming process stops and begins to reverse. It will possibly be hundreds or even thousands of years before things reach a new normal. In the meantime, the climate will keep changing and behaving erratically. So it is hard to say which parts of the world and how much of it will be able to support human life. Even the level of energy use and technology in areas where people do live will be effected by changing climate.

Third, social organization will degrade as collapse progresses and do so in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

Having said all this, I am still feeling adventurous and I think there are some things that can be predicted—that are obvious enough that even an old tradesman like me can make them out.

Population

It's my guess that the human population will settle out at around a few hundred million. This may seem odd to many of my readers.

The UN's population experts say that our population will be between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of the century and then, due to the ever spreading demographic transition things will peak out between 10 and 11 billion before the end of the century. But this assumes that we will find a way not just to feed all these people, but to bring them prosperity in order to lower the birth rate. It's nothing but a dream.

The most realistic estimates I read say we are already in overshoot to the tune of 150%—that would mean paring our 7.5 billion back below 5 billion to get out of overshoot. The demise of oil based agriculture and large scale international shipping will reduce the number of people that our planet can support to a significantly lower number, I suspect around 2 billion. But we must also remember that climate change and various other eco-disasters are going to reduce the planet's carrying capacity even further, and thus I say a few hundred million if things go moderately well. I would be surprised to see the population settles out to more than 1 billion and shocked if it was less than 10 million.

There's nothing really special about these numbers—I certainly don't think there is any such thing as an ideal number of people. Like any successful species, we will always tend to maximize our numbers as far as our environment allows. But with a damaged planet and the high quality, easily accessible fossil fuels gone, there will only be so much we can do.

OK, clearly I'm talking about a significant decline in population. Where are all those extra people going to go?

We are going to see further lowering of birth rates in the developed world, especially as the economy continues to contract and people get discouraged as they did in Russia following the collapse of the USSR. Then we'll see rising death rates, first in the developing world and finally everywhere. Things will fall below the new, reduced carrying capacity and then recover, bouncing up and down a few times until a more or less steady state is reached.

Famine, pandemic and war will all contribute to this. But we tend to forget that we are all going to die anyway, at some point. If that schedule gets moved forward somewhat it can make a big difference and not just to the individual. Over a period of generations even small decreases in birth rate or increases in death rate can make for large changes in population.

In some areas, including, but not limited to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and the American Southwest, desertification will continue and eventually take the decline in population all the way to zero. That is not just due to lack of water, but also due to extremely high temperatures, not so much on average but in the form of heat waves.

Similarly, due to rising sea level and more frequent and violent storm surges, much of the area currently near sea level will be submerged and people will be forced to move inland to higher elevations. In developed areas (and there are a great many of them near sea level) every effort will be made to stave off the rising seas, to hang on as long as possible, but due to economic contraction, energy decline and continued rising seas, those effort will eventually fail.

Unreliable weather will make most ways of life more difficult than they are now. It's tempting to say that rural people who are still engaged in various forms of subsistence agriculture will simply carry on as at present. And that will be true, where the climate co-operates. Where it doesn't they too will be forced to migrate to in search of greener pastures.

Some countries import much of their food, and couldn't switch over to growing it even if they desperately needed to. They are faced with a crisis when the price of food goes up and will be faced with an even larger one when oil supply problems make international transportation prohibitively expensive or downright unfeasible.

Migration, whether it is spurred by climate, economics or conflict will be the defining feature of the next few decades and will itself be the source of much conflict. Even the most welcoming of countries will eventually be overwhelmed with refugees, who will back up into ever growing refugee camps behind various choke points. Of course, some will not make it as far as the camps and for some of those who do, the camps will eventually prove to be death traps.

It is also pretty clear to me that large cities with many millions of people, that rely on modern transportation systems to supply them with the necessities of life, are not going to be viable. They will fall apart in various unpleasant ways and we'll end up living in much smaller communities.

Energy

Some of the energy end points here are pretty easy to predict: we won't end up getting any significant amount of energy from fossil fuels and none from nuclear fission. I don't believe we'll ever achieve nuclear fusion as a practical power source, and if we do, we won't hang on to it for long.

Some (chiefly climate change deniers) will point to coal as an energy source with centuries of supply left. But a closer look shows that peak coal is nearer than we think, and much of the remaining coal is of low quality—not a good source of surplus energy. No doubt there will be a surge in coal use as the availability of oil and natural gas diminishes, but then the same thing will happen with coal.

We'll be solar powered again, as we were for all but the last bit of our history and all of our prehistory. And most of that will be solar power in its indirect forms: biomass (including food), wind and falling water. Solar photovoltaics and large electricity generating wind turbines will be beyond the reach of the available technology for almost everyone. Even solar thermal energy will be quite rare because of the amount of glass required. Sure, you can get the kind of thermal energy required for large scale glass making from charcoal or probably even from wood gasification. But if heat is what you need that solar power installation for, it would be better to use the biomass directly instead.

In most areas human and animals muscles, powered by food, will once again will be the main source of mechanical energy. These will be supplemented by wind mills and waterwheels. Only rarely will there been enough fuel of any sort available to burn in heat engines. Burning biomass will be the main source of heat. And overall there will be much less energy available than we have access to today, perhaps by a factor of 10. That's on the average, of course. My background with Ontario's electrical utility leads me to think it may be possible to do much better than this in a some areas, harnessing falling water to generate electricity using fairly simple technology. Such set ups have quite a high EROEI, producing generous amounts of surplus energy. This is what got the province of Ontario off to its start in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Canada's industrial heartland. Admittedly, the thermal energy cost of steel reinforced concrete is such that large dams won't be feasible, but there are quite a number of locations around the world where hydro power can, and frequently has been, developed with relatively small and simple civil engineering projects.

Keeping such projects running or refurbishing them after they have been shut down or abandoned for a while will be much easier than the development process that went on in the 1800s.

Technology

When people hear about my interest in collapse, they frequently ask, "How far down do you think we'll go?" They are thinking in the sense of what historical level of development will we descend to.

But it is overly simplistic to say that we'll "go back" to a certain period in the past.

Things have changed since then and you simply can't go back. The environment in particular has been damaged in ways that would make many historical lifestyles unfeasible. There is much to be said for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, for instance, but it requires a high level of skill and detailed knowledge of the area one is living in, things that very, very few of us have or could learn quickly if we suddenly needed them. And stocks of wild game and food plants have been depleted so much in most areas that hunting and gathering simply isn't feasible.

On the other hand, unlike our ancestors, we already know that a great many things are possible. Even if we find them temporarily beyond our reach, re-acquiring them will be much easier than developing them from scratch was in the first place. Where collapse has been fairly complete it will still be possible to salvage many useful things—knowledge, tools and materials. Where collapse is less devastating we'll keep many things working for a long time even if we've lost the ability to recreate them from scratch. And because our population will be much lower, there will be a great deal of left over stuff per capita and, I suspect, a brisk business in refurbishing and repurposing that stuff.

Remember, I've been saying I expect a slow collapse, taking several decades. That's slow compared to what some expect to happen, but pretty quick if you're think in terms of, for example, how long steel exposed to the elements takes to turn to rust. I've heard people saying that in twenty years after a fast collapse all the iron on the planet will have rusted away to nothing and survivors would be using stone tools. From my own personal experience with farm machinery abandoned in the open, I can say that even after fifty years all that has happened is the formation of a patina of rust on any part thicker than a few millimeters. Unprotected sheet metal goes fairly fast, but thicker sections are more durable. Since people will start collecting scrap metal and storing it out of the weather, it seems clear to me that our civilization will leave a legacy of refined metals that should supply post-collapse metal workers with most of what they need for the next few centuries.

So, we'll see some strange mixtures of different technological levels. I expect we'll see even the few remaining post-collapse hunter/gathers using tools made of iron instead of stone.

The limiting factor will be energy. The level of technology that can be supported is determined by the decisions you make about what to do with the surplus energy you have available to you. Note that's not energy, but surplus energy. Problems with low quality hydrocarbons, diffuse and intermittent sunlight, unpredictable wind and so forth mean that we'll have much less surplus energy than we have today. Given the unpredictable climate and weather that we'll be coping with, we'll probably make some fairly conservative decisions—a full belly comes first, especially if you are working hard, and most of us will be.

But once we have electricity, all sorts of manufacturing possibilities open up. Decisions will have to be made about how much of a society's available surplus should be put into setting up the infrastructure necessary to produce electricity and what kind of manufacturing to pursue. Many of these areas where hydroelectric power is available may be able to retain a level of technology roughly equivalent to the early 1900s, for a few million people all told.

Some will no doubt be surprised by what they see as my overly optimistic outlook. There is a large part of our population for whom most technology is essentially magic—they just have no idea how it works or how to make it work if it was broken and they had to fix it on their own. For them, moving down to anything short of our current level of technology is a total collapse. When things start to break down these folk will be out of luck.

But there are many other people who do have a pretty good grasp of how one or more areas of technology work and how to keep them working. As long as you don't have your heart set on the latest high tech toys, it really isn't that hard.

Do I think anyone will be able to hang onto or recover the ability to manufacture semiconductors, computers and possibly even an internet of some sort? The kind of worldwide manufacturing network we have today is not absolutely necessary to attain to scaled down versions of this sort of technology. But I think it is fair to say that it will be rare if attainable at all, and concentrating on this sort of technology will probably prove to be a mistake.

What we'll need to adopt is "appropriate tech"—technology that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive instead of energy intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous (not critically dependent on materials or tools that cannot be made or salvaged locally).

"Local" and "decentralized" come up in this discussion because transportation without fossil fuels will be much more arduous than it is today.

There are a number of other technology related areas that are big enough subjects for another post and will have to wait until then:

  • How will we manage to feed ourselves when fossil fuel based agriculture is no longer possible? There is no doubt in my mind that, with a sufficiently small number of people to feed, this will be possible.
  • What will be the future of medicine? One thing I am sure of is that even though many people will turn to alternative medicines, they will not be any more effective than they ever have been. In other words, not at all.
  • Genetic engineering has the potential to be very useful in the kind of future that lies ahead of us. I know, I've said this before. It's soon time I explained what I mean and why I am not afraid of genetically engineered organism that are intended to be beneficial. Coming soon in another post…. Of course, there is also the possibility that GE will be weaponized, and that's another story altogether.

Many people are concerned about the legacy of toxic hazards (chemical, biological and nuclear) that modern technology is leaving to future generations. This is mainly a result of fear and misinformation, which often takes the form of a monotonic view of toxicity. That is, the fear that if something is toxic in large doses, it will eventually prove to be toxic in even the tiniest doses, given long enough exposure. The scientific consensus simply doesn't support this, telling us instead that the dose determines the poison. Many things people are afraid of, including radiation and pesticides, are quite harmless in small doses and the levels allowed by current regulations include a ridiculously large margin for safety.

Social Organization

In many ways the level of social organization retained during a collapse is a better indicator of the degree of collapse than the level of technology.

I think it is clear that there will be much less organization, and that it will be in simpler in nature and less centralized. Another major defining feature of the years ahead (along with migration) will be the breakup of various political and economic federations, until the remaining political entities are small enough that they can hope to work with the existing transportation, communication and information infrastructure and the limited energy available to power it.

Many writers, when talking about collapse, fall into pipe dreams about their favorite political and social systems rising to a higher level of prominence that they currently enjoy, and the ideologies that they oppose falling on hard times. I find this quite improbable.

There will be a greater degree of isolation between communities than we have today and a lack of the wherewithal for these communities to force their ideas on others. Because of this, "dissensus" will be easier to do than it is today and many different approaches will be tried. This is a good thing—there is a chance that at least some of these approaches will be successful adaptations to the new conditions.

Having said all this about the end points of collapse, I should make it clear that the paths we'll take to get there are anything but straightforward—they will have some interesting twists and turns that I think most people aren't expecting. That will be a recurring theme in my next few posts.

Collapse Step-by-Step, Part 1: Unevenly, Unsteadily and Unequally

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Published on The Doomstead Diner June1, 2017

My Front Yard Garden in Kincardine, Ontario, Canada — May 23, 2017
Recently planted and freshly rained on.

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Some months ago I promised to finally get around to writing a set of posts dealing with the specific nature of the collapse that lies ahead of us, and how we might best cope with it. In the meantime I had a few things to cover to lay the foundation for such a discussion. Well, I have finished that foundation, and the time has finally come for a closer look at collapse.

Out there in the real world, it's gardening time and I've just finished getting the majority of my gardens planted. Beans and squash will have to wait until it warms up just a little more. But now I have more time to work on this blog.

I've just finished a series of four posts ( 1, 2, 3, 4 ) on threats to mankind's continued existence which brought me to the conclusion that there is around one chance in five that we'll be extinct by the end of this century, and almost a certainty that we'll experience at least some degree of societal collapse during that time period.

So I think my readers could be forgiven for getting the impression that I am expecting some sort of apocalypse. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The collapse I am expecting is of the slow, bumpy and "yucky" variety. I've talked about this before, but always briefly, trying to squeeze a lot of information into a few sentences. It's a topic that I think deserves to be looked at in more detail.

I was listening to one of KMO's C-Realm Vault podcasts (#247) the other day and he gave a very clear exposition of what I also happen to think about mankind's future. So full credit to KMO for putting the seeds of the next couple of paragraphs in my mind. How they grew once they got there is entirely my responsibility. And by the way, do consider subscribing to the C-Realm Vault, those podcasts are definitely worth the price of admission.

I think it likely (80%) that we will avoid extinction during this century. Eventually of course, like almost all species, our days will come to an end. But that's most likely some hundreds of thousands of years away.

I do expect we will see a significant drop in our population during this century. Also a big decline in the amount of energy we use on a per capital basis, and along with that the level of organization and technology we have at our finger tips will be reduced considerably. That's what I mean when I'm talking about collapse.

But I have to admit that the idea of apocalypse has quite an attraction. If you're a romantic kind of day dreamer (or a writer of apocalyptic science fiction), a quick and dramatic end of civilization does have a certain appeal. You can easily imagine you and your loved ones facing the challenges of survival, in a world from which have been removed all the irritating elements of modern life. You no longer have a job, you don't have to go to work and many other irritating demands on your time have disappeared. You can concentrate on what's important and the situation makes it pretty clear what that is. Further, your debts have been wiped out and along with them all those monthly bills.

If you've been anticipating something like this, perhaps you've even been developing useful skills and squirreling away just the sort of tools and supplies you need to get you through the rough parts. You might even end up being the hero of the piece. And in this sort of day dream it's easy to gloss over the unpleasant (indeed horrific) aspects of such a situation.

In contrast, I think my version of collapse is already nicely underway. Reality is already quite "yucky" for a great many people and can be expected to get worse as collapse continues and picks up momentum. The irritating parts of modern life seem to be getting worse and can be expected to continue in that direction. You may well lose your job, but the banks aren't going to go away just yet and neither are the bill collectors. And the whole thing is likely to take decades to unwind. Currently, and probably during much of what lies ahead, it won't be completely clear that a collapse is actually taking place and can be blamed for you troubles. More and more people will become intimately acquainted with what it means to be poor and for those of us who are first and foremost good consumers, this will be a bitter pill.

No doubt we will often ask, "Why me?" In large part the answer is that we've had the misfortune to be born into the period in history when the supply of high quality fossil fuels that has fueled the growth and increasing complexity of our civilization for the last few centuries is running out. And along with it the ability of the biosphere to absorb the byproducts of that burning without deleterious changes, especially to the climate. For more details, see my last post.

But why do I think the collapse will proceed slowly? Some writers who are aware of these issues point to the complex network of connections that is our modern global society and say that because those connections are so vital, that once a few of them break the whole thing will fall down like a house of cards, "apocalyptically". Perhaps, on a timescale of millennia, a collapse like this can be viewed as talking place "quickly", but for those who are living through the experience, far from it. A planet such as ours is a big place, and a society such as ours is a large and tenacious organization, with a huge amount of inertia. Powerful people, more than anyone else, have a vested interest in keeping things going more or less as they are. So we can be sure that every effort will be made to do just that. In the short term I think those efforts will often be somewhat successful. In the long run, of course, they may prove more harmful than beneficial.

Other's will point to the concept embodied in Seneca's curve, named for the Roman philosopher who noted that things take a long time to get going but fall apart quickly. I have no quarrel with this, but I must point out that our present society took hundred of years to get going—from the European Renaissance in the 1300s, to the late1900s when things started to fall apart. That's not quite 700 years. Or if you want to take it from the invention of the steam engine, starting around 1700, that's still around 300 years. So a collapse that takes decades, even most of a century, is still following Seneca's curve. Thanks, by the way, to Ugo Bardi for the graphic and a clear explanation of what's involved in making that curve asymmetrical.

What do I mean by unevenly, unsteadily and unequally? I'm talking here about the irregular progress of collapse on three different scales: geographical, chronological and social. So, geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal.

First, let's look at geography. Natural resources are not spread out evenly, nor are they becoming exhausted in any sort of regular pattern. The human population is also spread out very unevenly. The effects of climate change and other ecological disasters vary from place to place as well. It is a large planet and it's various parts are separated by physical distance and the artificial distance enforced by political borders, so what happens in one place does not necessarily or immediately effect another. I fully expect to see some countries in an advanced stage of collapse while (a few) others, or at least parts of them, are still very much living in the twenty-first century and successfully pursuing advances that seem like science fiction today.

Second, there's time. Events are going to proceed at different speeds over time, even reversing themselves occasionally. Sometimes things will get worse so slowly that only by looking back over a period of years will we be able to detect any changes. At other times it will seem like the bottom has suddenly fallen out of our lives in a single day or hour. And sometimes, to the delight of those who don't believe in collapse, things will recover to some degree. The argument will then be made that this is just part of an economic cycle—the sort that "happens all the time".

Third there's society, or class within society. This is largely a matter of power and wealth, which are clearly related.

Those with power and wealth have the ability, to some degree at least, to isolate themselves from negative changes. Of course, when things finally catch up with them, they are probably less mentally prepared to cope with the situation, having become accustomed to a high standard of living and having copious resources close to hand with which to solve problems.

The poor, on the other hand, have long experience coping with the sort of circumstances that occur as collapse takes a step forward. To them it's just more of the same old shit. What can't be changed must be endured and they are good at that. But some things are beyond endurance and if you are without the resources to respond, you're out of luck and it may be the end of the story for you.

One of the obvious responses of the rich and powerful to a contracting economy is to make sure they get a larger share of the shrinking pie. As a consequence those outside of their select circle are left with a smaller share of that smaller pie. Inequality between the various strata of society will keep increasing, in fits and starts of course (staying with the theme of this post).

And of course we'll see combinations of all three sorts of variation—things collapsing at different rates in different places and differently for those in different socioeconomic classes. Some areas, as desertification or sea level rise progresses, will be largely abandoned. In the cities, more and more people will join the ranks of the homeless, abandoned as worthless by the society around them.

For those of us in the middle and upper classes (the top 20%), living in peaceful and economically successful western countries, it may be hard to tell that collapse is even happening—certainly not right now, not locally and not to the people we associate with. Even though things aren't going nearly so well in other parts of the world or for less fortunate people in our own area.

It is very easy not to look beyond our horizons (geographically, socially or chronologically), and live within a false cocoon of security. People living in such a cocoon are unlikely to take collapse seriously, to prepare for what is coming or to respond quickly enough when it starts to happen to them. Nor are they likely to offer much help to people who are farther along the collapse curve.

The conventional mass media do a good job of reinforcing our sense of security by largely ignoring "collapse-like" events in other parts of the world. Examples that come immediately to mind are the triple-digit inflation, rising crime, and shortages of food and medicine in Venezuela and the famines in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, which, so far, have been almost completely ignored in the western media. Syria is, I suppose, something of a counter example, although the news coverage we've had has missed important points about what is really going on there.

Of course, if you go looking on the internet, you can find lots of information about things you hear hardly a word about in the conventional media.

Another thing that varies is the social acceptability of the idea of collapse. I remember reading books back in the 1970s that predicted collapse, then the subject was largely unheard of for years, until the first few years of the new millennium when it appeared in the guise of "Peak Oil". This really got going after the economic crash in 2008 and continued until 2012 or '13. Then it petered out—with the "success" of fracking, Peak Oil was declared dead and the concept of collapse was once again not something to discuss in polite company. And now in 2017, perhaps spurred by events in the USA, collapse is once more being discussed by ordinary people, not just us dedicated kollapsniks.

At this point I find myself in danger of straying into areas that are the subjects of my next few posts. So, not wishing to trip over my own feet, I'll bring this to an end, and wait until my next post to continue talking about the bumpy path that lies ahead of us.

Note: in my last post, I was a little confused about the exact relationship between EROEI and "surplus energy". I have now edited that post to correct the problem. Thanks to Anti Troll at the Doomstead Diner for pointing this out. And thanks to RE at the Diner for allowing me to cross post to his site.

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 4: Conclusions

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Originally Published on The Easiest Person to Fool  May 6, 2017

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Sunset Over Lake Huron, May 3, 2017

In the first 3 posts in this series ( 1, 2, 3) I talked about global catastrophic risks (the kind of things that threaten human well being on a global scale), and existential risks (which threaten us with extinction). Of course, the distinction between the two is only a matter of degree. We looked at how to evaluate such threats in general and then evaluated a number of specific threats, looking at:

  1. Risk: what is the likelihood of this happening?
  2. Severity: what are the consequences if this does happen?
  3. Difficulty: how hard will it be to do something about this?
  4. Timescale: how soon will this happen?

Just to get us quickly up to speed, here is the list of threats that I classified as worth worrying about:

  • collision with an asteroid (or comet)
  • massive solar flare (coronal mass ejection)
  • economic singularity
  • human sourced pandemic
  • biotechnology
  • ecological disaster
  • climate change
  • resource depletion
  • population and agricultural crises
  • warfare

The first two are not manmade (non-anthropogenic), although our vulnerability to the effects of a massive solar flare is mostly a result of our love of cheap electronics, and electrical grids and an internet that are not sufficiently hardened. For the non-anthropogenic threats I looked at all four of the factors to determine if there is cause for concern.

The rest of the list are manmade (anthropogenic). All of them present a high degree of risk and a high severity, and all but two (a human sourced pandemic and biotechnology) are already happening and very likely to intensify in the near future.

The Wikipedia article on catastrophic and existential risks that I've been referencing in this series of post adds up all the various risks and concludes that the likelihood of human extinction by 2100 is around 19%. This seems fairly reasonable to me, though I'd place lower probabilities on risks like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology and higher probabilities on climate change, resource depletion, ecological disaster, and population and agricultural crises.

But there is a big range of outcomes between extinction and business as usual, including various degrees of societal collapse, entailing loss of life, organization and technology. I would argue that some sort of collapse is very likely—essentially a certainty if we don't take some corrective action soon.

What I haven't done as yet, for these anthropogenic threats, is look at the difficulty of mounting such a response or the likelihood of its being successful. In order to do this, I think it would be helpful if we could make some sense of all these threats and how they fit together in an interconnected, systemic context. And that is the subject of this post.

If indeed there is nothing that can be done, then we should relax, quit worrying and try to enjoy the ride. But remember, these threats are manmade. We are causing the problems, so can't we just stop whatever it is we are doing wrong? I think we should at least consider it. If that won't work, another alternative would be to accept what is coming and take steps to adapt. And it seems to me that the things we might do to adapt are also things that will reduce the severity of the situation we are facing.

In addition to the major threats listed above, there are also a great many minor economic, social and political disruptions happening these days which do not seem catastrophic on a global scale but may well lead us to the "death of a thousand cuts". With all this going on it is very difficult to sort out cause and effect and determine what our response should be. Conventional wisdom would have us treat the symptoms, the surface disruptions, but remains unwilling to consider that there might be anything fundamentally wrong with the system as a whole.

As we shall see shortly, much of the activity that is causing our problems is economic activity. At the same time, as more and more aspects of our lives become "monetized", we are giving up the last vestiges of self sufficiency and becoming ever more dependent on the monetary economy for our continued survival. To be so dependent on the very thing that is causing our problems is not a good situation.

This being the case, I think it would be helpful to look to the science of economics for a deeper understanding of what's going on. Unfortunately conventional economics (Neo-classical economics or Chicago School economics, henceforth referred to as NCE) is hardly fit to be called a science at all. It violates a number of physical laws and is inconsistent with actual human behaviour. These folks would have us look at the economy as a perpetual motion machine, in which money and goods go around and around, with no reference to the physical and biological aspects of the world, or the realities of friction and entropy.

Figure 1

There a number of myths being propagated by NCE, and since policy decisions are based on these myths, they represent a serious handicap in our attempts to cope with the challenges facing us.

  • The real economy is subject to the forces and laws of nature, including thermodynamics, the conservation laws and various environmental requirements. NCE ignores these issues.
  • Economic production requires physical work and the energy required to perform that work is a significant input to the process. NCE counts only capital and labour as inputs and when it finds that these inputs don't add up to match the outputs, it attributes the difference to "technological change". But in fact, the discrepancy is nicely accounted for by including energy as a third input.
  • NCE ignores the economy's boundaries with the real world, disregarding the flow of energy and materials into the system and waste heat and degraded materials out of it, and any effects that those flows may have.
  • NCE holds that a successful economy must grow, despite the fact that we live on a finite planet. It refuses to acknowledge the existence of real limits to growth.
  • It is basic to the scientific method that theoretical models are tested and proved or modified to match reality before gaining acceptance. In NCE this is often not the case—policy is based on models that simply have not been validated.
  • NCE is based on the idea that human beings always behave in their own best interests. In fact this is clearly not so—people are both far more altruistic and far more vindictive than NCE allows for.
  • NCE equates consumption of market goods with human well-being. In fact, once basic needs are taken care of, further material acquisitions contribute relatively little to happiness.
  • NCE fails to consider the importance of how wealth is distributed in a society and the negative effects of inequality.

But there is a another branch of economics—"biophysical economics"—that I think has a lot more promise. It takes into account all the factors that are involved in the existential threats we are talking about, and does not commit the ideological errors about human beings that plague NCE. Figure 2 below is the biophysical version of Figure 1.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is the "interconnected, systemic context" that links all the anthropogenic threats together and makes sense of them. Before we talk in detail about how this works, we need to have a closer look at some ideas that may not be obvious from the diagram.

1) We are looking at a complex adaptive system here—it is complex in that its behavior as a whole is not predicted by the behavior of the components. It is adaptive in that the individual and collective behaviors change and self-organize in response to events, adapting to the changing environment and attempting to increase their survivability. It is not easy to predict the behaviour of such a system, especially from the inside. Nor is there any guarantee that this behaviour will always lead to positive outcomes. Especially in a case like ours, where the individuals are human beings and groups of human beings who are not well informed about the overall situation.

2) Both the Earth Systems and the Human Systems depicted in Figure 2 are also dissipative structures. Indeed, I would say that the key to understanding what is going on in our world is to realize that this is the case, and to grasp what it implies.

Living organisms (including human beings), ecologies and economies are dissipative structures. So are human societies. All these structures maintain themselves by taking in energy and materials and giving off waste of various sorts. They maintain a reproducible steady state, but this state is not a matter of equilibrium, indeed it is definitely not in an sort of "balance" at all. If the supply of energy and materials falls below the appropriate level, this state cannot be maintained—death and dissolution follow. On the other hand, if a surplus of energy is available, these systems grow and become more complex.

Perhaps the simplest analogy I can give is that of a toy balloon with a small leak. As long as we can keep pumping in air, we can keep the balloon inflated. To accomplish this it takes material resources (air) and energy (to pump the air). If either of these is not available the balloon soon deflates.

3) When you see the economy as a dissipative structure, it becomes clear why energy plays such a critical role. What may not be quite so clear is why cheap fossil fuels are particularly important. We'll get to that shortly.

Years ago I started out thinking that money was what made the economy work. And money certainly has it's uses—as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. But money is really just a set of tokens representing something much more fundamental—energy.

There was a time when almost all the energy used to make goods came from muscles, human and/or animal. We gradually developed tools and machines which made better use of that muscle power, but the industrial revolution didn't really get going until we learned to convert other forms of energy into mechanical energy to drive those machines. Primarily the energy of falling water and moving air (wind) and the chemical energy stored in biomass and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a very concentrated source of energy and easy to move to where that energy is needed, so they quickly become very popular.

The other great thing about fossil fuels was that their price (basically just the cost of getting them out of the ground) was only a tiny fraction of their value in terms of the goods they could be used to produce. Thus the productivity of coal fired factories was much higher than that of muscle powered cottage industry. This led to a couple of centuries of unprecedented growth, fueled first by coal and then by oil and natural gas. And if that was the whole story, our industrial civilization would be doing just fine.

Unfortunately, there are some other things about fossil fuels that we need to consider:

  • They are not renewable on any sort of timescale that is useful to the human race.
  • We have already used up most of the easy to get at, high quality sources, the "low hanging fruit", so to speak. In the oil business this is known as "conventional oil", as if that sort of oil is the rule, rather than the exception.
  • There are lots of hydrocarbons left to dig/pump out of the ground, seemingly enough to last us a very long time. But they are either harder to access (tight oil and gas, deep offshore oil) or lower quality (heavy oil, tar sands, lignite coal).
  • We have recently developed technology that allows us to access and use more of these fuels. But this technology is expensive, both in terms of capital investment and the amount of energy needed to build, operate and maintain it.
  • Convenient as they are, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which causes climate change with all its negative consequences.

For the purposes of the economy "surplus energy" is what's actually important. The "surplus energy" of an energy source is what's left over when we subtract the amount of energy required to access the source. This is quantified as EROEI, "energy returned on energy invested".

In the "good old days" of oil, it only took one barrel's worth of energy to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground, leaving a surplus energy of 99 barrels. This corresponds to an EROEI of 99, and it means that in energy terms, that oil was cheap. Today, even conventional oil has a much lower EROEI, in the range of 10 to 30, and "fracked" oil or tar sands oil has a EROEI in the range of 3 to 5. As far as fossil fuels go, this ongoing reduction in EROEI is a pretty definite trend.

If we look at the average EROEI of all the energy sources used by an economy, it can tell us a good deal the current state of the economy as a consequence of the availability of surplus energy. When the average EROEI drops toward 15, economic growth slows. As it drops further, it becomes difficult to raise capital for new construction or maintenance of existing infrastructure. Below 10 it is unlikely that a modern industrial economy can be maintained at all, and we would be forced to change to something less energy intensive.

To put this in perspective, the average EROEI of the world today is around 11 and it is headed lower. It looks to me like all those low EROEI hydrocarbons in the ground aren't going to do us much good.
Note: it appears that the pdf file with world economic data is no longer at that link.
Here is a link to the file on my Google drive.
Here is the blog post by Tim Morgan where the file was referenced.

Switching over to renewables has been suggested as a solution to the depletion of fossil fuels and to climate change, but there are several problems with this:

  • Renewables themselves have a low EROEI.
  • When you add in storage equipment to level out the energy supply from intermittent renewables (wind and solar) you roughly cut the EROEI in half.
  • Renewables generate energy in the form of electricity. But electricity only accounts for something less than 20% of our energy use. The rest is currently powered directly by fossil fuels. Some of this energy use promises to be very difficult to convert to electricity.
  • Renewables might seem to solve the climate change problem, but the change over to renewables itself would require burning a whole lot of extra fossil fuels, with the increased release of CO2 which that would entail.
  • And of course, when an economy has a low average EROEI, raising capital for new projects is hard to do.

All in all it seems unlikely that we'll manage to install anywhere near enough renewable energy sources to allow us to continue with "business as usual". Even our current relatively small scale efforts are contributing to "energy sprawl" (fields of wind turbine and solar panels popping up everywhere) and diverting capital from other important efforts.

EROEI is a good sort of measure, in that it lets us avoid talking in terms of money, and provides a good indicator for the "health" of the economy. Energy prices in dollars (or whatever) can be quite misleading, as they are affected by many other things than the availability of surplus energy.

During the last half of the 20th century almost every recession was preceded by a spike in the price of oil, which makes sense—cheap energy makes the economy grow and expensive energy slows it down.

In the 1990s, though, the EROEI of oil had declined enough to stop real economic growth. Governments responded by adjusting the way GDP is calculated, to make the economic situation look better than it really was. Those same governments intensified their use of debt to stimulate the economy.

In the financial sector of the economy, investors in search of high yielding investments substituted bubbles for real growth, first with the dotcom bubble and then with the housing and derivatives bubbles that led to the financial crash of 2008. Since then despite the creation of huge amounts of government and private debt, there has been no real return to vigorous economic growth.

It's interesting to note what was going on with the price of oil while this was happening. In the late 1990s, the price of oil was around $12 per barrel. From there it went up more or less steadily to around $140 in August of 2008. With the financial crash, the price of oil fell off to about $30 per barrel and then with the so called recovery, came back up to around $100 per barrel. Then in late 2013 the price of oil started to fall, went below $40 per barrel and has not gone above $60 per barrel since then. Currently (May 2017) the price is just below $50 per barrel.

Several things seem to be happening:

  • Demand destruction: the combination of low EROEI and high prices 2009 to 2013 slowed the economy down and reduced the demand for oil (and other bulk materials like steel). With average EROEI getting continually worse, the economy is not recovering, even with the current low oil prices.
  • Price wars: both the US and OPEC are pumping as much oil out of the ground as possible, keeping oil prices low.
  • The low oil prices are having a destructive effect on fossil fuel companies, lowering their profits and reducing the development of fossil fuel resources.
  • As Nafeez Ahmed explains, there is a lot of misleading information about amount of conventional oil that is left:

     

     

     

     

    According to Professor Michael Jefferson of the ESCP Europe Business School, a former chief economist at oil major Royal Dutch/Shell Group. “… the five major Middle East oil exporters altered the basis of their definition of ‘proved’ conventional oil reserves from a 90 percent probability down to a 50 percent probability from 1984. The result has been an apparent (but not real) increase in their ‘proved’ conventional oil reserves of some 435 billion barrels.”
    "Global reserves have been further inflated by adding reserve figures from Venezuelan heavy oil and Canadian tar sands— despite the fact that they are "more difficult and costly to extract" and generally of "poorer quality" than conventional oil. This has brought up global reserve estimates by a further 440 billion barrels."
    “…the standard claim that the world has proved conventional oil reserves of nearly 1.7 trillion barrels is overstated by about 875 billion barrels.”

  • This and a lack of understanding of the economic results of low EROEI, have led some to believe (especially in the US) that "drill baby drill" is the right strategy.
  • Resources needed elsewhere are being used on low quality fossil fuel projects.

In my opinion, it would be better not to waste capital on accessing lower EROEI fossil fuels, to accept the inevitable energy decline and try to make the remaining fossil fuels last longer, especially for uses that don't involve burning them.

Now you may have been wondering what all this has to do with catastrophic/existential threats, but as we shall see shortly, the anthropogenic threats listed at start of this post can be viewed as disruptions to the Earth Systems and Human Systems shown in Figure 2. And interactions between our economy and its energy supplies are at the heart of those disruptions.

They can be classified as primary, secondary and tertiary effects, based on their position in a cascading stream of cause and effect. It has taken us a while to get here but now, at last, we will take a look at those threats and how they fit into the biophysical economy. The individual threats appear in bold in the discussion below.

Primary Threats

To my way of thinking, the primary threat is resource depletion.

The diversion of resources for our use disrupts the ecologies which rely on those resources. Examples would be our over use of water, arable land, forests and fisheries. Note that we ourselves depend on those ecologies, so we suffer as well.

The use of those resources has led to a good deal of success for the human race and this, in the form of overpopulation and over consumption is a problem in itself.

Then there are all the immediate consequences of the depletion of resources on which we rely. This certainly applies to non-renewable resources, in particular fossil fuels, on which we rely to keep our economy running. As the resources become depleted we are forced to move to lower EROEI energy sources, and the economy suffers as a result.

But even renewable resources are also being depleted as we use them at a rate faster than they are being renewed.

And lastly, there are the effects from the degraded byproducts of our industrial processes, especially the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture and forestry.

Secondary Threats

The secondary threats are consequences of our profligate use of resources and their resulting depletion.

Earth Systems are disrupted by the downstream consequences of resource use. We use the environment as a sink for the byproducts of our industrial processes. Pollution, in other words. And when there is a sufficiently large amount of pollution, the Earth Systems can no longer cope and start to be damaged. This contributes to ecological disasters. While there are many different types of pollution, carbon dioxide and the resulting climate change is the one that is currently of greatest concern.

These are just some of the effects of climate change:

  • more extremely hot days, fewer extremely cold days
  • currently wet areas getting more and heavier rain (flooding)
  • currently dry areas getting less rain (drought)
  • intensification of tropical storms
  • less winter snow pack
  • retreating mountain glaciers
  • melting polar ice caps
  • warming oceans
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification

These changes are already having disruptive effects on our global civilization, which will only get worse as they intensify:

  • agriculture grows less productive with the disappearance of the reliable weather it relies on, in some areas it becomes impractical to continue farming
  • health effects of heat waves and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate areas
  • damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure due to increasingly heavy weather and rising sea level

There is much that could be done to reduce CO2 emissions and slow and eventually stop climate change, but most all of this involves reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, resulting in even less surplus energy to drive an already stressed economy.

Inside the economy, the decreasing EROEI of the fossil fuels we are using causes economic contraction, which has a whole bunch of downstream consequences.

  • reduced profits for businesses, leading to closings and bankruptcies
  • unemployment, and lower wages and more precarious situations for those who still are employed
  • a reduced tax base makes it harder for governments to maintain the social safety net, fund their obligations, and keep their election promises in general

Our current financial system is optimized to facilitate economic growth and it does not work at all well when the economy starts to shrink.

Businesses turning to automation to counteract the effects of economic contraction cause even more unemployment (economic singularity).

The depletion of fossil fuels, fossil water and plant nutrients like phosphorous, along with climate change, are leading us towards an agricultural crisis. This is intensified by an ever growing population. The first sign of this happening is the increasing cost of food. which hits the poor first and hardest, leading to some of the tertiary threats.

Tertiary Threats

Climate change, economic contraction and agricultural crises lead to political and social disruptions: protests, revolution, terrorism (including use of biotechnology), food riots, famine, migrations, war and so forth. People squeezed together into slums breed human sourced pandemics. (There, I've managed to tie the whole list of anthropogenic threats together.)

Populist politicians with overly simplistic solutions gain power by making promises they have no idea how to keep and which largely couldn't be kept in any case. Right wing extremists in the west and Islamic extremists in the Middle East both react to economic stress and take violent actions which allow them to feed off each other. The mass media perpetuate misconceptions about what is going on and what it would take to fix it. And so on.

And if, as all this disruption progresses, should there be a massive solar flare or an asteroid strike, we'll be hard pressed to do anything but take it on the chin.

Conclusion

So, to get back to where we started, is there any action we can take to prevent this perfect storm of threats? Well, if you mean any action that will allow us to keep business as usual rolling along with "good" growth numbers, I think the answer is pretty clearly no. Our industrial civilization is going to collapse, to some greater or lesser extent. We can't prevent this, but we could take action to mitigate its effects, turning it into a slow and relatively gentle crash. I've written a series of posts called "A Political Fantasy" that goes into detail on that. As you might guess from that title, I think there's a big difference between what "could" be done and what is actually likely to be done.

Still, I don't think the situation is beyond hope. What we can't avoid, we can adapt to.

We need to drastically reduce the human population, and it looks like events will take care of this for us. We need to drastically reduce the amount of energy we are using, and again, it looks like events are going to do the job for us. Those with problems taken care of all we need to do is find ways to keep some fraction of the human population alive through all these events. And again, we won't have to make any horrible decisions about who to get rid of. Even with all of us trying as hard as we can, only a few of us will succeed.

It would we helpful to have a rough idea of what's ahead and the sort of things that will help to see us through. And, perhaps even more importantly, a clear idea of what won't help so we can avoid wasting time and effort where it would do no good. My next series of post, Collapse Step by Step will deal with exactly those issues.

To leave you something to chew on, I will say that forward looking people should be considering a move to a better location: well above sea level, out of the path of tropical storms, where it rains regularly, it isn't too hot and the population density is already low. If such a location was beyond walking distance from large urban centres, it would be ideal. And if you can make such a move before the majority of the population catches on, have time to get set up and reduce your reliance on the monetary economy, and become part of the local community, so much the better.

Credit is are due to the authors of three books which influenced me considerably in the writing of this post:

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 3: Anthropogenic Threats

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Originally Published on The Easiest Person to Fool  April 12, 2017

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Discuss this article at the Kitchen Sink inside the Diner

Lake Huron Sunset, at the entrance to Kincardine Harbour, April 12, 2017

In my last post in this series I referred to an article on Wikipedia about "Global catastrophic risk" which I had stumbled upon while researching existential risks for this series of posts. A good article, which gave me the idea of dividing those risks into non-manmade and manmade varieties to spread them over two posts. It has a pretty thorough list of non-anthropogenic threats (which I covered in that post). And it lists most of the major anthropogenic threats that I want to discuss in this post. But it fails to to tie those risks together in the way that I think is necessary if one is going to arrive at any sort of deep understanding of what is going on in the world today. I'll be addressing this in my next post —"Evaluating Existential Threats, Conclusions."

Artificial intelligence

There are two different threats in this area.

1) A Technological Singularity

The idea here is that we will develop general artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on itself, and that it will do so at an ever increasing rate, quickly out stepping human intelligence and continuing to grow beyond what we can even imagine (thus the term "singularity"). Such intelligence could constitute an existential threat if it doesn't have our best interests at heart or it it is confused about what those interest may be.

Based on this, several notable people (Stephen Hawkin, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others) have expressed concern about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. This is probably not a bad thing, in that it will likely make AI researches more cautious.

But I see several problems with the idea that general AI is a credible threat, mainly to do with the limits that exist in the real world.

But first, is general artificial intelligence even possible? Since I am a monistic materialist (there is only one thing, the material world that we see around us) I see my own consciousness as a software process running on the "meatware" computer between my ears. So, in principle at least, I can see no reason why similar software can't be developed to run on manmade hardware.

In practice, though, it will neither be simple or easy. "Singularitarians" point to the "law of accelerating progress", and it is true that technological progress has been accelerating for the last couple of centuries. They assume that progress will continue at an exponential rate. But they are disregarding the "law of diminishing returns", which we talked about in my posts on "The Collapse of Complex Societies." (1 2).

The advances in computer science and AI research are clearly a case of problem solving by adding complexity, and with that comes increases in cost which will eventually slow down the process and bring it to a halt. Essentially they are looking at the upward leg of a logistic curve and mistaking it for an exponential curve, jumping to the conclusion that it will continue upward forever instead of leveling off. In the real world, spurts of exponential growth always run out of steam and level off.

(Left: exponential curve  —  Right: logistic curve)

Graphic of exponential curve, Peter John Acklam—Own work
Graphic of logistic curve By Qef Created from scratch with gnuplot, Public Domain
Creative Commons Licence

We already see this happening with "Moore's Law", a favourite phenomenon of the technological optimists. This is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The death of Moore's Law is already happening, making it seem unlikely that there will be a singularity based on growth in the power of computing hardware.

It will be interesting to see where the growth in the capability of software tops out, but I would say there is no guarantee we will achieve artificial intelligence even equaling human intelligence. And that is without considering the problems I expect over next few decades as decreasing surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction reduce the resources available for research. But that will happen very unevenly and I have no doubt that there will be a few institutions (universities, corporations) who hang on for quite some time and keep working on AI.

So let's assume for the moment that we do develop general artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on itself, and that it does out step human intelligence by a significant amount before it encounters limits and tops out. Before such an intelligence could do much harm it would have to have accurate knowledge of the physical world and some agency to act in that world (through robotics, presumably). But even then, we must remember is that intelligence is not a magic solution to all problems, it will not automatically be able to develop technology that can do whatever it and/or we want. It will be subject to the same limits as we are, since those limits are not some human failing, but are actually built into the nature of reality.

The main idea of this blog is that the problems we face are caused by our encountering those limits and cannot be solved, by intelligence or anything else, but are simply conditions that we must adapt to. I really do believe this is true, so I expect that a hypothetical artificial intelligence of a sufficiently high degree would reach the same conclusion.

So, it seems to me that the risks here are small, and the supposed negative consequences of AI are by no means certain. Accordingly, a technological singularity is just not a big worry for me.

2) An Economic Singularity

The whole history of the industrial revolution has been one of industries improving their productivity by replacing human labour with powered machinery. Over the last few decades, as the surplus energy available to our society decreased, business desperate for productivity gains to maintain their profitability have taken this process to new heights. Long before general AI becomes a problem, "narrow" artificial intelligence and robotics will have replaced most human workers. Many of us are quite worried about what will happen to the consumer economy when most consumers cannot find jobs. And more important, what will happen to the ex-consumers themselves.

Others argue that this is the beginning of a world without scarcity —that we will start with a guaranteed minimum income and go on from there to create a workers' paradise. I don't think this is likely for a number of reasons.

First of all, scarcity exists because we live on a finite planet and there really is a limited supply of the resources (energy and materials) needed to run our industrial civilization. Scarcity is not caused by high labour costs, and is unlikely to be cured by automation. We are experiencing a shortage of energy, not labour, and we would do better to adopt a policy of "rehumanization" —replacing automation with people, rather than the reverse.

In any case, those who are running the world's industries do not, for the most part, care in the least about their unemployed former workers. If you don't have a part to play in the BAU world, at the bare minimum if you have no money in your pocket to spend as a consumer, then you had best just go away. Of course, with fewer industrial workers, there will be fewer consumers and less of a market for the products of those industries. It would appear that the industrial/consumer economy will continue to contract, flying backwards in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up its own…. And as the ranks of the unemployed and homeless swell, they will have more and more reason to take things into their own hands and resort to violence against the system.

This is especially true in countries where lowering of taxes on corporations and the rich is seen as the primary way of stimulating the economy. It is true that lowering taxes can somewhat protect corporations and the rich from economic contraction in the short run. But it leaves the rest of the population even more exposed. And it leaves the government no alternative but to go further into debt to maintain its commitments.

Progressive taxation to fund infrastructure and social programs can, it is pretty clear, slow economic contraction and shield more of the population from the initial effects of collapse. But this too is a limited solution, as economic contraction continues and the tax base grows ever smaller.

The "economic singularity" is something that is already happening and is almost certain to get worse. It is definitely something to worry about.

Biotechnology

I see biotech (genetic engineering) as an area with a lot of room for advancement and a good deal of promise in helping mankind cope with the challenges ahead of us. So it pains me considerably to say that it is also a technology with a large potential for harm. I say this in particular because advances in technique are in the process of making genetic engineering accessible to people without proper training and who work in an unregulated environment. This increases the both chance of accidents and the opportunities for deliberate misuse.

I have no doubt we will see the biotech equivalent of improvised explosive devices used in terrorist attacks at some point in the not too distant future. These could take many forms but basically what we are talking about is an engineered pandemic, with the potential to spread rapidly and harm far more people than a conventional IED.

The risk is high and the potential for harm is great. So this is a threat that I would definitely worry about. It will be difficult to make preventative measures effective as techniques like CRISP become widely available. About all we can do is beef up the organizations that detect, quarantine and develop vaccines for communicable diseases.

Human Sourced Pandemic

Another similar threat not covered in the Wikipedia article is a pandemic originating from within human society. In my post on non-anthropogenic threats, I touched brief on the possibility of a pandemic arising from nature, but concluded I wouldn't be worrying about this because the risk was small. There is a significantly larger risk of a pandemic originating in the disease factories of hospitals, refugee camps and cities.

According to the evolutionary epidemiologist Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville, the most dangerous infectious diseases are almost always not animal diseases freshly broken into the human species, but diseases adapted to humanity over time: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, yellow fever, polio. In order to adapt to the human species, a germ needs to cycle among people —from person to person to person. In each iteration, the strains best adapted to transmission will be the ones that spread. So natural selection will push circulating strains towards more and more effective transmission, and therefore towards increasing adaptation to human hosts. This process necessarily takes place among people….

Looking at epidemics and pandemics through this evolutionary lens makes it clear that the most important condition necessary for the evolution of virulent, transmissible disease is the existence of a human disease factory. Without social conditions that allow the evolution of virulent, transmissible disease, deadly outbreaks are unlikely to emerge.

In the next few decades we are going to see more refugee camps and cities (and slums) growing ever larger. This is one to worry about.

Global warming (anthropogenic climate change)

There is simply no doubt left that human activities releasing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) into the atmosphere are causing global warming. There was 0.6 degrees of warming during the twentieth century and since the turn of the century that has gone up to a total of almost 1 degree. By the end of the century there is expected to be a total of between 2.4 to 6.4 degrees of warming, depending on the level of emissions between now and then. Of course, those numbers of average over the whole planet. In fact, the warming is taking place unevenly, with more warming at high latitudes than near the equator.

This warming is causing many changes:

  • more extremely hot days, fewer extremely cold days
  • currently wet areas getting more and heavier rain (flooding)
  • currently dry areas getting less rain (drought)
  • intensification of tropical storms
  • less winter snow pack
  • retreating mountain glaciers
  • melting polar ice caps
  • warming oceans
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification

These changes are already having disruptive effects on our global civilization, which will only get worse as they intensify:

  • agriculture grows less productive with the disappearance of the reliable weather it relies on, in some areas it becomes impractical to continue farming
  • health effects of heat waves and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate areas
  • damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure due to increasingly heavy weather and rising sea level

There are those who argue that the effects of anthropogenic climate change will be much more severe:

  • rendering much, if not all, of the planet unfit for human habitation
  • with further heating, much of the planet might become unfit for life of any kind
  • runaway climate change could eventually transform Earth into another Venus

Lots here to worry about, even if (like me) you take those last three points as unlikely. The rest of it is almost certain to happen. Another one to worry about.

Ecological disaster

This would consist of failure of ecosystems and loss of the services they provide us due to trends such as overpopulation, economic development, and non-sustainable agriculture.

This is already underway and it is definitely something worry about.

Mineral resource exhaustion

From Wikipedia:

Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and the paradigm founder of ecological economics, has argued that the carrying capacity of Earth — that is, Earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels — is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth's finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use; and consequently, that the world economy as a whole is heading towards an inevitable future collapse, leading to the demise of human civilization itself.

Because we use the easy to access part of a resource first (the low hanging fruit), when we get to using the not-so-low hanging fruit, it is not just less plentiful, but harder to access as well. Even though we have developed techniques for refining minerals from much lower grade ores, it takes more energy to access each unit of such resources, making them prohibitively expensive long before they run out in any absolute sense.

The term "mineral resources" includes the fossil fuels that power our civilization, and for which there really isn't any practical substitute. Unfortunately, the authors of the Wikipedia article do not seem to be aware of the critical link between energy and the economy.

Resource depletion is a serious problem that is actually happen and will have even more severe consequence down the road. Definitely something to worry about.

Experimental technology accident

I find this pretty hard to take seriously. Those working with such technologies are very aware of the risks involved and go to great lengths to avoid them, since they themselves would be a ground zero if there is an accident. And measures are in place to reduce the seriousness of such accidents if they do take place. A small risk is thus rendered much smaller —insignificant, to my way of thinking, provide we continue to take the appropriate precautions.

Nanotechnology

I read Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology shortly after it came out in 1986. The heart of the idea was that we would soon develop nano-scale computers and robots which could accomplish fantastic things one atom at a time that could not otherwise be done at all. Presumably such powerful machines could be used to do great harm, or could do great harm if they got out of control.

Here we are over 30 years later and this is an area of technology that has not lived up what its promoters saw as its promise, for good or ill. I'm not worrying about this one.

Warfare and mass destruction

Since the end of the Cold War, we have had a few decades of relative relief from the fear of nuclear war. But the arsenals still exist and it is beginning to seem that international relations are deteriorating. With climate change and resource depletion as stressors they may continue to do so.

This is another one to worry about. We need to do whatever we can to discourage politicians with itchy trigger fingers.

World population and agricultural crisis

From Wikipedia:

The 20th century saw a rapid increase in human population due to medical developments and massive increases in agricultural productivity such as the Green Revolution. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. The Green Revolution in agriculture helped food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth or actually enabled population growth. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their 1994 study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.

The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will begin to impact us after 2020, and will become critical after 2050. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before. Wheat is humanity's 3rd most produced cereal. Extant fungal infections such as Ug99 (a kind of stem rust) can cause 100% crop losses in most modern varieties. Little or no treatment is possible and infection spreads on the wind. Should the world's large grain producing areas become infected then there would be a crisis in wheat availability leading to price spikes and shortages in other food products.

 

Definitely one to worry about.

My Analysis

I will have a great deal more to say about what this all means in my next few posts. But I think it is clear from what we've looked at so far, that the universe is a relatively benign place. True, there are a couple of non-anthropogenic threats that are worthy of our attention, but the threats we have created ourselves are numerous, they are not hypothetical—they are already happening and certain to continue, and they have as much or more potential for harm than anything nature seems likely to throw at us.

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 2: Non-anthropogenic Threats

 

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Originally Published on The Easiest Person to Fool  March12, 2017

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Last time, I talked about worry as a driver to action, and how to evaluate problems as to whether they are worth worrying about or not. I think that my approach does work for smaller scale, day-to-day problems, but I was mainly focusing on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. And I promised to go into detail about some such threats.

 

Today we'll look at a number of "non-anthropogenic" (non-manmade) threats. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think it is a good introduction to the subject.

 

Non-anthropogenic threats tend to be large scale—forces of nature. In many cases there is little we can do but run away and/or try to be well prepared to cope with their effects. Fortunately, when it comes to coping, similar preparations work for many different types of threats.

For those who like the precise use of terminology I admit to being a little sloppy in my use of the term "existential". As Wikipedia would have it:

A "global catastrophic risk" is any risk that is at least "global" in scope, and is not subjectively "imperceptible" in intensity. Those that are at least "trans-generational" (affecting all future generations) in scope and "terminal" in intensity are classified as existential risks. While a global catastrophic risk may kill the vast majority of life on earth, humanity could still potentially recover. An existential risk, on the other hand, is one that either destroys humanity (and, presumably, all but the most rudimentary species of non-human lifeforms and/or plant life) entirely or prevents any chance of civilization recovering.

They actually have a pretty good article on "global catastrophic risks"

.

A nearby supernova

And for this first one we'll look at all four of the criteria I mentioned in my last post.

From Wikipedia:

A near-Earth supernova is an explosion resulting from the death of a star that occurs close enough to the Earth (roughly less than 10 to 300 parsecs (30 to 1000 light-years) away[2]) to have noticeable effects on its biosphere.

On average, a supernova explosion occurs within 10 parsecs (33 light-years) of the Earth every 240 million years. Gamma rays are responsible for most of the adverse effects a supernova can have on a living terrestrial planet. In Earth's case, gamma rays induce a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere, converting molecular nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, depleting the ozone layer enough to expose the surface to harmful solar and cosmic radiation (mainly ultra-violet). Phytoplankton and reef communities would be particularly affected, which could severely deplete the base of the marine food chain.

Risk

Once in 240 million years? But actually, a closer look shows that the occurrence of supernovas is not a random event that can happen to just any star.

Type II supernovas mark the end of the life of certain massive stars that are bright enough so that they are hard to miss, especially if they are nearby. And it is possible to identify when they are nearing to end of their lives, to within some thousands of years, anyway. The good news is that the nearest of them is over 500 light years away, far enough not to be a concern.

Again from Wikipedia:

Type Ia supernovae are thought to be potentially the most dangerous if they occur close enough to the Earth. Because Type Ia supernovae arise from dim, common white dwarf stars, it is likely that a supernova that could affect the Earth will occur unpredictably and take place in a star system that is not well studied. The closest known candidate is IK Pegasi. It is currently estimated, however, that by the time it could become a threat, its velocity in relation to the Solar System would have carried IK Pegasi to a safe distance.

 

Even if a Type Ia candidate is lurking nearby, the odds of it being at the end of its life during my lifetime are small.

Severity

Earth's upper atmosphere, in particular the ozone layer, is very effective at blocking x-ray and gamma rays, so radiation from a supernova is not the main concern at ground level. But gamma rays can cause chemical reactions between nitrogen and ozone and deplete the ozone layer. There is the possibility that this effect of radiation from a nearby supernova could result in a mass extinction, and may have done so in the past.

Difficulty of Mounting a response

It is difficult to see how we could do much about the effects of a nearby supernova. As I've said before, it seems likely that our capacity for global scale responses to such challenges is either at of just past its peak. In other words, in my opinion, they are in the realm of science fiction—fun to dream about, but unlikely to happen.

Timeframe

It appears that there the likelihood of a nearby supernova in the near future is quite small.

Conclusions

The rarity of the event and the difficulty of doing anything about it would seem to make this a threat that there is no point in worrying about.

A Nearby Gamma Ray Burst

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. A nearby one (thousands instead of billions of light years away) would affect our upper atmosphere in the same way as a nearby supernova.

My evaluation is that we need not worry—the risk is small and there is little we could do in any case.

A change in the sun's output

Our Sun is a remarkably constant star, its output varying only by 0.1% over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. NASA has a good article about how this can affect our climate. And while it is true that the changes during the solar cycle do seem to be amplified beyond what one might expect, their impact is far from existential.

A large solar flare

From Wikipedia:

A solar flare is a sudden flash of brightness observed near the Sun's surface. It involves a very broad spectrum of emissions, an energy release of typically 1 × 1020 joules of energy for a well-observed event. A major event can emit up to 1 × 1025 joules (the latter is roughly the equivalent of 1 billion megatons of TNT…. Flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day or two after the event.

The Carrington Event (Solar Storm of 1859), from Wikipedia:

The Solar storm of 1859—known as the Carrington Event—was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm during solar cycle 10 (1855–1867). A solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth's magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record, September 1–2, 1859. The associated "white light flare" in the solar photosphere was observed and recorded by English astronomers Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875) and Richard Hodgson (1804–1872).

Studies have shown that a solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause more widespread problems for a modern and technology-dependent society. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth's orbit without striking the planet….

The probability of a solar storm striking Earth in the next decade with enough force to do serious damage to electricity networks could be as high as 12 percent.

Again from Wikipedia:

In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the U.S. alone at $0.6–2.6 trillion.

This cost would result from damage to electrical and electronic equipment that isn't sufficiently hardened against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). In and of itself, this would cause relatively few human deaths. But it would cause widespread and serious damage to our power grid, and our transportation, communication and computing infrastructure, which could leave many of us without the necessities of life while the damage was being repaired. And it would take many months to replace damaged power transformers which are a critical part of the power grid.

Both the risk and the level of severity seem quite high, and measures to mitigate the effects of such an event are definitely within our grasp, albeit at some considerable cost. I would say that this is definitely something to worry about. For the individual two actions come to mind immediately:

  1. Prepare for extended outages of the power grid, the phone systems, the internet and GPS and expect that many of your electronic devices will not survive the EMP associated with the flare.
  2. When your local grid authority announces that power prices will be going up due to measures being taken to harden the grid against large solar flares, rather than complaining, support them. The same goes for other infrastructure that may be affected.

A collision with an asteroid

From Wikipedia:

Small objects frequently collide with Earth. There is an inverse relationship between the size of the object and the frequency of such events. The lunar cratering record shows that the frequency of impacts decreases as approximately the cube of the resulting crater's diameter, which is on average proportional to the diameter of the impactor. Asteroids with a 1 km (0.62 mi) diameter strike Earth every 500,000 years on average. Large collisions – with 5 km (3 mi) objects – happen approximately once every twenty million years. The last known impact of an object of 10 km (6 mi) or more in diameter was at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.

Based on the odds quoted above, large collisions are rare enough to disregard but asteroids large enough to survive their trip through the atmosphere (larger than 35 m in diameter) and less than 1 km. in diameter are more common and can still do enough damage on a local or regional scale that it may be worth doing something about them.

As is often the case, though, this threat is not completely random. Astronomers have already identified a large number of asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth and efforts are underway to identify the rest of them, map their orbits and determine if/when they are likely to constitute a threat. Because an asteroid's orbit is changed by the Earth's gravity when it passes nearby, this is an ongoing task. And occasionally large asteroids, that have been missed previously, do show up on surveys.

Several methods have been proposed to divert an asteroid and prevent it from hitting Earth. Some of these are within our current technological and economic grasp, at least for now. If we were to make preparations ahead of time and have the appropriate hardware standing by in orbit, we could even divert asteroids on fairly short notice.

Conclusion

This is one to worry about. There is appropriate action which an individual can support when voting, if nothing else. A comprehensive and on-going asteroid survey would be relatively inexpensive and would allow us to evacuate the population from the area where a small to medium size asteroid is about to strike. And if it turns up a larger asteroid that is headed our way, it would give us the option of trying to do something about it.

A reversal of the earth's magnetic field

The Earth's magnetic field does reverse on a regular though seemingly random basis. Since the magnetic field goes to zero during the reversal and that field plays a role in diverting cosmic radiation and solar flares, there is some chance that more radiation would reach the Earth's surface during that period. Currently, expert opinion says this is unlikely to be an existential or even catastrophic threat.

There is some (less creditable) chance that seismic activity might increase during a magnetic reversal, causing earthquakes and tsunamis. My guess is that if you live in an earthquake or tsunami zone, the preparations you should already be making would suffice.

An eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano

If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park ever had another massive eruption, it could spew ash for thousands of miles across the United States, damaging buildings, smothering crops, and shutting down power plants. It would be a huge disaster.

From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they "see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable." This conclusion was reiterated in December 2013 in the aftermath of the publication of a study by University of Utah scientists finding that the "size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought." The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a statement on its website stating, "Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a 'supereruption' in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not 'overdue' for a supereruption."

That's good enough for me, so I won't be worrying about this one.

A Pandemic arising from nature

From Wikipedia:

The death toll for a pandemic is equal to the virulence (deadliness) of the pathogen or pathogens, multiplied by the number of people eventually infected. It has been hypothesised that there is an upper limit to the virulence of naturally evolved pathogens. This is because a pathogen that quickly kills its hosts might not have enough time to spread to new ones, while one that kills its hosts more slowly or not at all will allow carriers more time to spread the infection, and thus likely out-compete a more lethal species or strain. This simple model predicts that if virulence and transmission are not linked in any way, pathogens will evolve towards low virulence and rapid transmission. However, this assumption is not always valid and in more complex models, where the level of virulence and the rate of transmission are related, high levels of virulence can evolve. The level of virulence that is possible is instead limited by the existence of complex populations of hosts, with different susceptibilities to infection, or by some hosts being geographically isolated. The size of the host population and competition between different strains of pathogens can also alter virulence. However, a pathogen that only infects humans as a secondary host and usually infects another species (a zoonosis) may have little constraint on its virulence in people, since infection here is an accidental event and its evolution is driven by events in another species. There are numerous historical examples of pandemics that have had a devastating effect on a large number of people, which makes the possibility of global pandemic a realistic threat to human civilization.

The Wikipedia article on Global Catastrophic risk estimates the chance of a naturally occurring disease causing the extinction of the human race before 2100 is .05%, or 1 chance in 2,000. So it seems that this threat is worthy of some degree of worry. But existing public health organizations are on watch for diseases spreading from animals to humans, and quarantines can be put into effect to control the spread of such a disease until vaccines can be developed. In case one finds oneself under quarantine, a well stocked pantry would be handy to have, and that is also a basic preparation for many other sorts of disaster.

Small scale threats

While volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and so forth may not be existential threats for the human race as a whole, they can be quite serious to the individuals who find themselves at ground zero. And in many areas the degree of risk is fairly high. Being prepared for emergencies is always a good idea, in my opinion.

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a couple of posts on emergency preparation, and I think they have stood the test of time.

The only thing I might add is that in some locations, taking the progress of climate change and/or growing political unrest into account may lead you to think about moving to a less hazardous location. This is best done sooner, rather than later, while the infrastructure to support your move is still intact and you can still get a least some of the value out of your home.

Looking back over this list of non-anthropogenic threats, it's interesting to note that the majority of them are not something to worry about. Of those that are worthy of our concern, a few observations can be made in the light of the collapse that I expect is coming during the next few decades:

  • A large solar flare in only dangerous because of the unprotected high-tech infrastructure that we have become dependent on.
  • Asteroid collisions, on the other hand, will continue to be a threat regardless of the level of technology we are using. An effective response to the approach of a large asteroid requires the capability to conduct operations in space, and an economy that is doing well enough to finance such expensive endeavours. Evacuating people from the areas where smaller asteroids will touch down would require some intermediate level of technology and financial support.
  • Pandemics are another thing again. Crowding millions of people together in large cities and making it easy to travel between those cities certainly makes it easier for a pandemic to spread. A smaller and less connected "post-collapse" population would be less vulnerable, but without the full force of modern medicine and public health infrastructure, they would be less resistant to infectious diseases in general.

In my next post I'll look at anthropogenic (manmade) threats and explain why I think some of them are more serious than the threats we've looked at this time.

Note on Wikipedia as a source:
some will no doubt have noted with distain that I have used Wikipedia as a reference throughout this blog post. But I was not trying to write an academic article, and I can assure you I do approach the information I find in Wikipedia with a skeptical eye. I've noticed that the biggest critics of Wikipedia are those who are disappointed that they can't find support therein for their favourite brand of pseudoscience. To me, that is a pretty good recommendation, and it supports what I have found, i.e. that Wikipedia does a pretty good job of excluding pseudoscience, and of presenting the current scientific consensus on most subjects.

Evaluating Existential Threats

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Originally Published on The Easiest Person to Fool  March 5, 2017

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In a recent post, I talked about how most people are loath to discuss collapse, some even believing that talking about it makes it more likely to happen. After all, Business As Usual is working just fine and everything is going to be alright. Right?

In contrast to this sort of head-in-the-sand optimism there are people (admittedly a much smaller number of us) who like to focus on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. When you start looking into this you'll find that there are quite a variety of such threats. In my next two posts, I'll take a look at a selection of them. I'll explain why I think that the kind of collapse that I've been talking about is the threat most worthy of most of our attention. And in the process we'll get a clearer picture of what kind of collapse that is.

This post, though, is about the virtues of worrying and how to evaluate existential threats.

What "virtues of worrying", you ask? Worry certainly isn't in fashion these days. On social media one frequently sees this little flowchart about when to worry. All paths seem to leads to the same conclusion—"don't worry".

Now, I admit to being somewhat of a worry wart. Perhaps because of that I can see several things wrong with this flowchart. First, when you don't know, you need to find out. While you are finding out, worry serves as an incentive. And at the bottom of the chart the possibility that there is a problem, and that you can do something about it, is very much under emphasized. Worry serves as an incentive to find out what you can do, make a plan and then execute it. When you've set that in motion, I guess maybe you could quit worrying, but instead I would swing back around to the top left of the chart and see if there is anything else to worry about.

On the other hand, it is true that you can waste a great deal of time and mental anguish worrying about things over which you have no real influence. You have to identify problems that you can actually do something about and concentrate your efforts there. Of course, different people will reach different conclusions—it's a big world and there is lots of room for disagreement. We can't really determine what the right thing to do is without a lot of trial and error, so a diversity of response is a good thing in that it makes it more likely that some of those responses will be more or less successful.

I'll borrow a "new word" from John Michael Greer—"dissensus". The opposite of consensus, dissensus means agreeing to disagree and wishing the other guy all the best even if you think his ideas are outright crazy or stupid. Provided, of course, that he extends a similar courtesy to you. I've noticed that when people are willing to do this, and then find themselves faced with a serious threat, it often turns out that on important points like "what the heck do we do next" there is a remarkable degree of agreement. Ideological differences can be set aside when we are dealing with more immediate problems.

What I am expressing here on this blog is my own point of view, which you are free to disagree with. I do wish you all the best in pursuing your own point of view. And if we find ourselves coming up with similar plans, it may be that we can help each other to put them into action.

What is my point of view? Well, I have a great deal of faith in the scientific consensus—we really don't have any better way than science of finding out about the world around us, and in the last few hundred years science has built up a pretty useful picture of that world.

Some will no doubt ask, "How can you question BAU and expect it to collapse and yet still be in favour of the scientific consensus?"

It is a common error to conflate the scientific consensus with the "official stories" that are the basic myths of Business As Usual. You can hardly blame anyone for jumping to the conclusion that BAU and science are on the same side, since every effort is made to use science to legitimize the ideas of BAU. Those myths are pushed by politicians, economists and business. They are dressed up in the kind of pseudoscientific costumes that make them hard to distinguish from reality. The "Biggest Lie" that I talked about recently, the idea that our population and consumption can go on growing forever on a finite planet, is at the heart of this false worldview.

There are lots of people who don't completely buy into BAU. And there are multi-billion dollar per year businesses (organic farming, health food, and alternative medicine to name just a few) who take advantage of that, spending a great deal on propaganda and doing a good job of positioning themselves as being in opposition to Business as Usual. There is money to be made in that business, but the pseudoscience they are selling is just as bad as the myths from regular BAU. The people pushing both of these ideologies are very adept at finding the parts of science that happen to agree with their positions and flogging them for all they are worth to further their cause.

The idea of these two conflicting ideologies, both of which are wrong, is central to what I am talking about on this blog and you'll find it coming up again and again. Last year I wrote a series of posts on the subject:

If anybody can suggest a better term than "Crunchy", something less pejorative and more mellifluous, I'd sure be happy to use it. Setting aside all the pseudoscience for a moment, Crunchiness, in its opposition to BAU, is on the right track.

Anyway, if you actually take the time and make the effort to understand how science works and what the current scientific consensus is, you'll realize that it does not particularly support either of these ideologies. But for a great many people, who don't have any real background in science, the combination of conflicting ideologies and pseudoscience is extremely misleading.

One unfortunate side effect of this is that a great deal of worry and effort is wasted on problems that nothing need be done about (because the risk is vanishingly small), or that nothing can be done about (because solutions are beyond our reach). Risk assessment is the key to avoiding this sort of thing.

Ask yourself four things when considering any particular problem or threat:

  1. Risk: what is the likelihood of this happening?
  2. Severity: what are the consequences if this does happen?
  3. Difficulty: how hard will it be to do something about this?
  4. Timescale: how soon will this happen?

If you study up on any existential threat, you'll find reliable experts who have already considered the problem and have a lot of wisdom to offer.

Based on the answers you find to each of those questions, you will decide to worry or not:

  • If risk is small, there isn't much to worry about and little need to plan a response.
  • If the severity is small, same conclusion.
  • If it would be easy to do something about the threat, you may want to take some action even if the risk and/or severity are small. If response is difficult then it will require detailed planning and the mobilization of forces beyond yourself. And you will need time to mount a response.
  • Sometimes it is simply not possible to stop a threat from happening, so the action we can realistically take consists of preparing to cope its effects.
  • If the timescale is short, you'll want to plan and act immediately. Preferably to draw on resources you already have in place.
  • If the timescale is long then you may use that time to plan and mobilize your response, or, you may decide to just watch and wait until it is more clear what's going to happen and when. Of course, ignoring threats that are on a long timeline is a tempting but dangerous approach. Eventually that timeline will get a lot shorter.

You'll plan a response based on the nature of the threat and follow up with action, or go and look for something else to worry about. After the first few times you run through your list of threats, you will already have made plans and started to implement them, so the time for worry is over. Of course, you'll always want to keep a "weather eye" out for trouble that you haven't anticipated, or established threats that have changed and now require a different response.

There are a few challenges involved with this approach that we should consider here.

How to identify a reliable expert is certainly one of those challenges. Unfortunately the letters "Dr." in front of a name is no guarantee that someone is either an expert or reliable. I can recommend only skepticism, critical thinking and learning to identifying the many types of bias and the sort of dirty tricks used by those producing pseudoscience. After a while you will develop at sort of "BS" detector that goes off when you are confronted with pseudoscience. A big part of that is knowing what the current scientific consensus says and being skeptical about claims that contradict that consensus. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And it is reassuring to find many researchers turning up the same findings, and interpreting them in similar ways.

Some will be eager to point out that scientists working for business concerns are certainly not reliable and their work just can't be trusted, as it will be biased to the advantage of the company. Sometimes this is true, but just as often it is not true. Your evaluation of that work must be based on the evidence, not on ideology—theirs, or yours.

Evaluating risk can also be quite challenging. In my experience there are a couple of particular pitfalls that people encounter. There are probably more, but these are the ones I know personally.

People often look at risk as being "monotonic". That is, if something is dangerous in large quantities, it must also be dangerous in small quantities—it may take longer for the harm to become evident, but there is still harm. This certainly sounds reasonable, but in most cases it is simply not true. Take radiation as an example. There is no doubt that ionizing radiation can kill in large quantities. This makes it frightening and since it can't be seen and is poorly understood, many people don't want to have anything to do with it, assuming that any release of radiation will affect them negatively.

But life on earth has been dealing with small quantities of radiation since day one and has evolved mechanisms for coping with the "background radiation". Most releases of radiation result in a barely detectable increase in the background and are not a serious concern. Of course, if you work in the nuclear industry, where there is the chance of exposure to significant amounts of radiation, you should take safety procedures seriously. And that brings me to my second risk evaluation pitfall.

The majority of the people I worked with during my career in the electrical transmission and distribution industry were quite brave. We often worked in close proximity to serious hazards and while a healthy respect was vital, outright fear would have been crippling. So far, so good. But some of the hazards we encountered were less straightforward. If there is a one in ten chance of serious injury, essentially everyone will take the appropriate precautions. But at some level of decreasing risk, many people will decide to just accept the risk, rather than do much about it. Especially if the precautions they are expected to take (procedures and protective equipment) are rather onerous.

At what level of risk is that a reasonable response? One in a million? Probably. But what about one chance in a thousand? My experience is that there is a range of risk that is significant, but many people find hard to take seriously. The trouble is, if a large population is exposed to the risk on a regular basis, the odds good are that someone is going to get hurt fairly soon. That's why the safety rules are written and why supervisors (me at one point) have to enforce them, even if they didn't take them so serious when they were workers. Something to keep in mind when evaluating risks.

One final thing I should point out—it seems to me that mankind as a whole is at or just past the peak of our ability to respond to large existential threats. From here on in, as collapse proceeds, it's all a bumpy downhill ride. The best we will be able to do, in a great many cases, is to mitigate the effects of what is coming. And since it appears that governments aren't interested in, and increasing don't have the resources to organize such a response, this will have to be done on an individual, family, or at most, community level.

So, what are some of these threats? I've divided them into two groups: non-anthropogenic (not manmade) and anthropogenic (manmade), and I'll be covering them in my next two posts.

What I Believe

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Originally Published on The Easiest Person to Fool  April, 2012 (now updated)

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With this article, the Diner welcomes Irv Mills to the pantheon of Diner cross posting bloggers.  Irv began his blog almost precisely when the Diner was launched.  I'll periodically go back into his archives for some old stuff, as well as publih his latest entries, if they fit the Diner blog spin.  This article is a page on his blog introducing himself, so you know where he is coming from.  In the next 2 weeks, we will feature articles from his recent series Evaluating Existential Threats. -RE

I posted the original version of this page in April of 2012 and added to it in a post on Feb. 26, 2013. Based on statistics, it looks like a lot of people who visit this blog have a look at this page, so it's probably worth keeping it up to date. I have a few new ideas that need to be put down on "paper", so I guess it is time for just such an update. Here we go.

In one of the early posts on this blog, I said that beliefs are a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer your questions. Beliefs should be avoided—much better to admit that we don't yet know and just continue searching. But, the world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be made in a timely fashion and must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief.

Based on that you might expect that I don't believe much. But as I said, the world being what it is, one often has no choice but to formulate a belief, based on little more than a gut feeling—intuition, if you will. There is actually quite a bit to be said for intuition in the many cases where there is no better way of knowing. And so, over time one does develop a set of beliefs. This is OK, as long as you're prepared to revise them when new evidence indicates it is time to do so.

Because beliefs are, by my definition, not based on solid knowledge of reality one should not really take them too seriously. Actions are more important than words. People say they believe in all sorts of things, but when they act they tend to be more pragmatic and do what they know will actually work. So if your actions suit me, I'm willing to overlook your beliefs. And I'd appreciate it if you'd do me the same favour.

So, I guess it's time that I 'fessed up and shared some of those beliefs with you.

To put a name to it, I am a monistic materialist (or materialistic monist, which is the same thing). This means I believe there is only one thing, and that is the material world that we see around us and that we are part of. That's where the materialistic part comes from. It does not, by the way, mean that I am a materialist in the sense of "he who dies with the most toys, wins."

The wonderful thing about the material world is we have a very good tool for figuring out how it works: the scientific method. Our findings thus far indicate that the operation of the material world is governed by unbroken patterns, the laws ofnature.

Of course the scientific method is only good for investigating material things. You might say that if we are only going to use science to investigate the world, that of course we will only find the material part of the world. I simply don't agree.

If the supposed non-material parts of the world were as significant and powerful as many people hold them to be, then it would be impossible for science to avoid stumbling over them. Just as it unintentionally discovered many aspects of the material world. Not all scientists are as skeptical as I. Extensive efforts have been made to establish the existence of the supernatural. All have failed, and many have uncovered outright fraud, rather than just a lack of evidence. This is one of the reasons I am such a skeptic.

On the other hand, if the non-material is so thoroughly isolated from the material world that we can't detect it, then just how important can it be? Indeed, what is to distinguish its existence from non-existence?

The "monistic" part of "monistic materialist" is important too — there really is only that one thing and everything is part of it. It seems to me that the many "dualisms" that people believe in are serious errors in thought, with big and nasty consequences. Here are a few of them:

1) That there is a transcendent god, separate from and outside of the material universe, who is its creator. This unnecessarily complicates one's thinking. If the universe had to be created by a god, then so did that god, and whoever created god had to be created by something else and so on in an infinite regression that gets harder and harder to believe. Stop at just one hard thing to believe: that the universe simply is. Furthermore the idea that the world was "designed", that the way things are is "meant to be", is a fallacy. The way things are is a combination of natural law and chance. When applied to life, we call this evolution. But something very similar has been going with the inanimate part of the universe as well. And it is very important not to start making value judgments about how things are. Because there is no creator and no "intention", one way is not inherently superior to another.

2) That mankind is a special part of nature, created to have dominion over it. This is the source of much of our current abuse of the environment. I would say we are a part of nature, with no special status or role. Actually, we are totally dependent on nature — it feeds, waters and clothes us and provides for us to continue breathing. When I was younger I thought that we would someday have the technology to overcome this dependence, but now it's looking pretty unlikely. If it is possible, it would be so complex and expensive that it would be better to just rely on nature.

3) That there is a material universe and a separate mystical or supernatural one. Nope, there is only one universe—the material one. Our brains, however, can generate many experiences internally which seem "real" in some sense, but are not in fact experiences of any sort of external world. Having an active internal life is a necessary consequence of being able to think, but a great many people have made the mistake of thinking that their internal experiences are putting them in touch with another, perhaps higher, level of reality. Such experiences can be brought on in their most powerful form by using psychoactive chemicals of various sorts and can leave the most skeptical user convinced that they are real in a very concrete sense. Prayer, meditation, fasting, oxygen deprivation and rhythmic activities like chanting, drumming and dancing can also be used to cultivate such experiences. The important thing to realize is that the only thing you are getting in contact with through these practices is the inside of your own head. Now, I am willing to acknowledge the inside of our own heads is a good place to be in contact with, but only if kept in the right perspective.

In my own life I have worked very hard to maintain that perspective, avoiding most sorts of ritual and psychoactive practice, except for a bit of meditation which I can't really say had any particular effect . Some might say that I have taken this to an extreme, but it is what feels right to me. There have been times when I was somewhat at loss for a direction, but I found it by looking outward to my family and community.

4) That our soul is a separate thing from our bodies with an independent existence that is eternal. Rather, I would say our consciousness is essentially a computing process running on the biological computer between our ears. As long as that "meatware" is running, our consciousness (or spirit or soul) exists as an emergent property of that process. It is not separate from our brain and can perceive and act on the material world only through our bodies. When the meatware stops running, the soul ceases to exist.

5) That the naturally occurring part of the world and the synthetic/manmade part are two different things and that "natural things" are inherently superior to manmade things. This is basically the "naturalistic fallacy", or "the appeal to nature" argument, which is also a fallacy.

It is false—humankind and our creations are very much a part of nature. Many of us have what we think is a good idea of what is "natural", but when we look closer, we see that the reality is not nearly so clear cut. Or to look at it another way, we've been altering nature for two to three millions years and essentially nothing about the way we live or the environment we live in is "natural" anymore.

Since this is about what I believe, I will say that I do believe a certain amount of exposure to "nature" as oppose to the constructed human world has a beneficial effect on human health and sanity, and that the modern built environment is probably not the best place for people to live. There are a few studies that seem to support this, but nothing like a scientific consensus, as yet.

Perhaps even more important than nature is having a place in a human community. For most, if not all, of our prehistory we lived in small groups where we knew everyone, had a role to play that matched our abilities (in other words, we were needed) and could rely on the support of the people around us when we needed it.

In the modern world most everyone has been reduced to the role of a consumer and too many people find themselves in the position of being completely redundant. Even if you are lucky enough to have your minimum material needs are met by a social safety net, this is still a very challenging situationm. Of course adaptability is the essence of being human, but it seems to me that modern life stretches that adaptability very close to its limits. For a significant portion of the population, perhaps well beyond those limits.

There is quite a bit of research to support this, but seemingly not yet enough of a consensus to seriously suggest we should be making major social changes. I believe we probably should and I am concerned that most of what is being suggested is pointing in the wrong direction.

After hearing all of the above, it will surprise many conventionally religious people that an "atheist" like me is big on spirituality. Though what I mean by spirituality, since it doesn't include the supernatural, may be a little different from what you'd expect. Over the last few hundred years, science has displaced religion in providing our understanding of how more and more things work. For those who accept science, the realm of spirituality has shrunk and shrunk to almost nothing. Even our consciousness is understood as just a property of the computing processes going on in our brain. All that is left to the religious is some sort of supernatural essence whose existence is not even falsifiable—I would say it is simply imaginary. But I would also say that it is time to expand our understanding of the soul back to include what it properly should. Here I'll borrow an idea from Plato, via John Michael Greer (who gave it some modern twists) and add a few more of my own. Liken the soul to a chariot, which has three active parts. The driver is your mind or intellect, which is in charge of two unruly horses. One is your body with all it physical sensations and appetites — pain, thirst, hunger, the sex drive and so forth. The other is the world outside your skin, which you are part of and which influences you in many ways. Since we are a species which lives in groups this very much includes the obligations, influences and pressures from the people around us, but it also includes the rest of nature. If it sounds like I am saying that our souls are made up of our minds, our bodies and the surrounding universe, that is exactly right. We are part of nature and it is part of us. Everything is indeed connected together—not mean in some mystical, supernatural sense—but in straightforward chains of physical cause and effect.

We must learn to use the mind to control and balance both internal desires and external pressures — not just to rein them in, but also to give them their heads when appropriate. All without letting the intellect itself get out of control. This endeavour is what spirituality is all about.

But our souls don't come with either an operating or a maintenance manual, so this is quite a challenge. Especially since so much of the supposed wisdom on this subject is complete bunk. How can it be that so much of the world's sacred knowledge is actually nonsense? That is a question that deserves an answer, and I think I have one.

Remember that for most of mankind's history one came to know things by accepting what older and wiser people told you. Only since classical times (a couple of thousand years) have ideas been required to be internally consistent. Only since the enlightenment (a couple of hundred years) has the practice of rigorously checking our ideas against reality been seen as a necessity. And even now there are still a great many people who aren't anywhere near that disciplined in their thinking. Of course, there are some pretty big advantages to accepting traditional knowledge. Much of our success as a species comes from not having to rely solely on inherited instinct, being able benefit from what previous generations have learned and to pass what we have learned on to future generations.

But there are also some disadvantages to this, the foremost being that those older and wiser people are in a position to seriously take advantage of you, especially if you've been brought up to blindly accept rather than question and test what you are being told. Religion has traditionally held a monopoly on spiritual guidance. The leaders of your religion may have the best interests of you and your soul at heart, or maybe that's a secondary concern for a large and complex organization whose chief goal is to maintain and extend its position of power in society, which is based on its having power over you.

If our spiritual guidance is not to come from religion, then where? There certainly no lack of spiritual guidance out there, the trick is to sift the good bits from the chaff. I believe in using my intellect to do this, and this means striving to master and use the best thinking tools available. This starts with logic, critical thinking, the scientific method and skepticism. A skeptical attitude is extremely useful, and constitutes the basis of true spirituality in my opinion.

As with any tool, it is important to be aware of the limitations of these methods. Mechanistic, reductionist science does a fine job of dividing natural phenomena into manageable bits and then describing and predicting their behaviour. But when it comes to understanding how these bits fit together into systems and predicting the behaviour of those systems, our current methods have limitations. It's worth discussing this a bit more, since so much of our Western worldview is based on it.

Take celestial mechanics, which applies the principles of physics to predict the motion of celestial bodies such as stars, planets and moons. 150 years ago this was viewed as one area in which mechanistic science ruled supreme and it did much to advance the idea of a clockwork universe. The idea was that if we know the current state of a system and the physical laws that govern it, we could predict its future behaviour. But we were kidding ourselves. Even now we haven't solved the three body problem in celestial mechanics. That is, predicting the movements of three masses in each others' gravitational fields. For two bodies we have a clean, precise mathematical solution. But for three or more, a complete solution has thus far eluded us. Given time and sufficient computing power, we can use "numerical methods" to come up with reasonable accurate approximations in most situations. But as systems grow more complex this becomes more difficult. Some of the moons of Saturn move in "chaotic" orbits. In this sense, chaos refers to the behaviour of a system where small differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes. This renders long-term prediction impossible in general because you'd have to determine those initial conditions with infinite accuracy in order to know where the system is going. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This happens in some pretty simple systems. Most of the really interesting systems such as weather, organisms and ecologies are interconnected, complex and non-linear which makes them very difficult even to describe, much less predict. This should bring us up short whenever we talk about controlling or “fixing” those kind of systems. Our continued survival on this planet is utterly dependent on the continued functioning of such systems and while they can stand a little bit of tinkering, they don't respond well to the sort of wholesale exploitation that has been going on recently.

So analytical thought, using present day tools, has limitations. Maybe someday we'll develop better tools (it's happened before), or we'll learn to cope better in an uncertain universe—that's where my efforts are focused. I'm not saying that logical thinking is useless, far from it. Or that we should give up on critical thought and wildly accept any sort of bizarre notion. Just that we shouldn't get overly cocky about what we can understand and control. But analytical thought is not the only thing our intellects are good at—creative thought is also important, and without it life is sterile and meaningless. We should occupy ourselves not just with sorting through existing ideas, but also with generating new ideas which can then be sorted. There are tools for this kind of thought as well, and it is worth studying up on them.

Beyond that, there is much more to life than just thinking. The intellect may steer the chariot, but our motivations, the things that get us up in the morning and keeps us carrying on with life, come primarily from our physical desires and the connections we have with the world around us and the other living beings in it. Curiosity and creativity are just about the only intellectual motivations. Other than that, if you think that you are doing something for logical reasons, you're probably kidding yourself.

Look a little deeper and you'll find that your real motivation is a physical desire, or more likely, a connection that you feel to another living thing or things, usually another human being. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, often it is a very good thing. But if you aren't even aware of it you certainly won't be able to decide whether it really is a good thing or not. You'll just be along for the ride.

This brings me to the issue of free will. Current research on the workings of the human mind leads us to believe that free will may be an illusion. You decide to move your hand, but in fact the nerve impulse telling your hand to move left your brain a fraction of a second before you experienced making that decision. It appears that your consciousness is building a narrative of what's going on in your head after the fact, that the ability to make a decision is an illusion, or maybe a reflection of something going on at a much deeper level, of which we aren't directly conscious. This places all the traditional thinking on morality on very shaky ground. But regardless of the underlying reality, we do have the experience of being able to make choices and even deciding not to choose is in itself a choice. So best to proceed as if you have free will and choose to do the right thing. But wait a minute, I just chucked out millenia of wisdom on what the right thing might be. What do I use to guide my decisions?

The thing to do is to think about consequences. If you do, or don't do, something, what will the result be? Of course, many people are very good at taking the first step in this direction. If we do such and such, then the result will be what we planned and all will be well. But actions don't usually have just that one intended result, but other unintended results as well, and beyond that the world tends to react to what we have done, and in ways we never expected. Be aware of this, plan for it, but try not to be paralyzed by it either.

When dealing with other human beings, two principles can be appled: benevolence and universality. Do no harm and when possible, actually help. and apply this not just to people in your own "in group" but to all others, as well.

I think that this should probably be extended to the rest of nature. But one must be aware that benevolence may take different forms when applied to nature than to humans. Specifically, I am thinking here of the circle of life, and the fact that we as omnivores are part of that circle, naturally causing death so that we can eat and then dying in our own turn and returning to the soil.

Of course, what I believe is a work in progress, and I don't mean to tell other people how to live. In fact, I don't believe that I should. So it is almost time to stop, but just to stir things up a bit, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on some of the current standard controversial issues. Let me preface this by saying that I don't believe in "inalienable rights", but there definitely are privileges that a society should attempt to guarantee its members if it is to be successful. So I'll use the term "right" below, but that's what I really mean by it.

GLBT(That's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender for those who haven't been following this one too closely.) This is the latest civil rights issue, not that racism has been eliminated or feminism achieved its goals, either. But I'm against racism, in favor of feminism (or more properly humanism), and definitely in favour of GLBT rights. Love is rare enough and I wouldn't outlaw it in any form it might take. The Wiccans have a couple of good sayings about this: 1) “any act of love is an act of worship of the goddess”, and 2) “and it hurt no one, do as you will.” Good advice, though the second part is a lot more restrictive than it might appear at first glance. Unfortunately, the patriarchal religions have used sex and love as a way of controlling people, restricting them to heterosexual marriage sanctioned by the church, on pain of eternal damnation. Talk about using “spiritual guidance” as a way of manipulating people.

Abortion. What this is really about is a choice between murder and slavery. Yes, abortion is clearly the murder of an unborn child. But forcing a woman to carry that child if she does not wish to do so is clearly slavery. As is so often the case, we must choose the lesser of two evils. For me, the lesser evil is to murder an unborn child who exists mainly in potential. Enslaving women is a much more serious evil. Unfortunately, it is one that we (even women) have become accustomed to and do not take as seriously as we should.

Capital punishment. Seems to me taking irreversible action on limited information is a bad idea. The real world is a messy place and very rarely do we know all the circumstances surrounding a crime. I'd always rather let one guilty man go free rather than execute one innocent man. And why not address the root causes of crime for a change?

Gun control. Technology is designed by people, deliberately, with an aim in mind. It is NOT neutral. In the case of guns, that aim is to kill. This is not an unintended consequence—it is the very heart of their being. It is fairly hard to imagine what else one might do with a gun (use it as a club, perhaps?), and most shots fired during history have been fired at other people. We use a lot of euphemisms in connection with guns. We say “put” down suffering animals, or “control” pests, but we mean kill them. We talk about “hunting”, but we mean killing wildlife, perhaps for food that we need to live, but more likely for sport, trophies and some very high priced luxury meat. We say we need a gun for safety, but what we mean is to kill anyone who we perceive to be threatening us. It’s all killing, all death. Some of these deaths can be justified, others not so much…. But gun control is a done deal in most countries except the US, where guns are readily available and the public is very much inclined to use them. Seems to be a feeling there that violence is the solution to your problems (though obviously, not everyone in the United States fits that stereotype). To someone from Canada, this is a bizarre situation without an immediately obvious solution. But making it harder to get guns has got to do some good. And while illegal guns won't go away immediately, over a period of decade, their numbers will dwindle significantly.

War. War between states is all about building and maintaining empires. Or opposing empires, if you are on the other side. While war doesn't benefit people, it certainly can benefit the states who use it to maintain and expand their empires. Accordingly they do their best to convince us that there are good reasons for going to war. Don't be fooled.

All this talk about controversial issues reminds me of what I call The "Not Two" Thing. This is related, I suppose, to those erroneous dualisms I mentioned earlier. Basically, whenever you hear someone presenting an issue as consisting of two opposing sides, alarm bells should go off in your head. Pick one side or the other and you have already been manipulated into taking sides and accepting a simplified version of things. The odds are that someone benefits from this, and it's probably not you. This binary thinking is a form of laziness. Whenever you find yourself falling into the old binary groove, try a little harder to see that there are many sides to the issue and many possible solutions.

In another sense, there is only one thing, one universe, one planet we're living on, one human race. Those supposed opposing sides may actually have many common interests. Many or one, but not two.

I said earlier that our soul comes without either an operating or a maintenance manual. So far we've been talking about operations, but maintenance is also important. Occasionally it is important to give the intellect a rest, exercise the body and enjoy some contact with nature and our friends and family.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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