Fast Collapse

Collapsing Down the Plum Tree

Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on May 15, 2015

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Having recently started this From Filmers to Farmers blog, one which quite often brings up the topic of peak oil, I was recently confronted with a question that I had unintentionally been avoiding for some time: Do I envision a fast collapse or a slow collapse?

In case you aren't aware of the context here, the "collapse" being referred to is in regards to the collapse of industrial civilization, that itself being due to declining energy supplies and other resources. "Slow collapse" being in the range of decades or centuries, with "fast collapse" being in the range of decades or even just years.

First off, although I'm not a student of history and my readings on the collapse of previous civilizations are rather meagre, my readings on peak oil are much more thorough and so I'm a bit more familiar with several of the viewpoints and models out there.











Hubbert's 1956 short-term prediction of future extraction levels for the world (PDF source)


The first model that came along would be that by M. King Hubbert, the late Shell petroleum geologist who, before it was even known as peak oil, got this peak oil thing started back in the mid-1950s with his paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. However, while Hubbert imagined a fairly symmetrical bell curve of up the oil curve and down the oil curve, there's quite a bit more to this than meets the eye. While Hubbert's bell curve for the US has pretty much worked out to the T (the major aberration being the current fracking binge, but which is little more than a blip whose financial bubble is quite possibly about to burst), its gentle downwards slope may very well be due to increased supplies of oil from other countries that made up for declining domestic supplies. In other words, increasing amounts of readily available imports meant that the US wasn't forced to have to pump like crazy to maintain needed supplies (which could have induced a quick crash once its supplies were maxed out), but could instead be rather ho-hum about the whole thing and see its production levels gently decline.











Hubbert's 1956 long-term prediction of future extraction levels, & nuclear energy expectations, for the world (PDF source)


For if you take a look at Hubbert's long-term estimation for world oil peak, not only does it also have a symmetrical and gentle downward slope, but the model was based on the expectation that nuclear energy would step in to take the place of oil. And in case you haven't noticed, that's certainly not happening. It's worth wondering then what Hubbert might have envisioned, or what might very well happen, based on these updated circumstances.

Step into the present, and although collapse is spoken of only in marginal circles and remains mostly taboo for the majority of people out there as well as for the mainstream media, there are actually quite a few models out there based on various understandings (historical, geological, geopolitical, economic, and more).













While might be called the clearing house for articles of the slow collapse persuasion, the most well-known model along these lines is probably John Michael Greer's notion of a Catabolic Collapse, which rather resembles a stair-step descent.

As Greer sees it, repeated crises will be followed with, and punctuated by, repeated recoveries. The recoveries of course won't outweigh the crises, and so a descent will ensue. But rather than a quick descent where society quickly collapses into a pre-industrial state in a matter of a few years, Greer sees the collapse occurring over a long enough time-span that nobody today will be alive to witness its eventual outcomes. (However, this certainly doesn't mean that Greer sugar-coats collapse, something the "ruinmen" of his post-peak oil book Star's Reach: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future attest to.)

On the other end of the spectrum, what you might call the clearing house for articles of the fast collapse persuasion would be While more models seem to be out there which predict a fast collapse than a slow collapse (for whatever reason), one of the more well thought out ones is Ugo Bardi's notion of the Seneca Cliff.











(image courtesy of Ugo Bardi / Resource Crisis)


Bardi's model (and its name) is taken from the Roman statesmen and philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who a couple thousand years ago stated that "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Bardi has matched this Seneca Cliff to a variety of previous collapses (the Roman Empire, Mayan civilization, the North Atlantic cod fishery, and more), and is basically understood as slow growth followed by a more rapid decline. (For argument's sake, there's also the notion of a Catabolic Seneca Cliff Collapse – a fast, stair-step decline.)

So after taking a look at these and other models, having read several books on the topic, and having attended two Age of Limits conferences, the conclusion that I've drawn from all this has been, disappointingly, "I don't really a conclusion." That is, arguments from both the fast and slow spectrums bring forth valid points and can be pretty persuasive, so it's been pretty easy for me to jump back and forth between the two. Fortunately, a way to explain this recently came to me, and is what I now call my "Plum Tree Collapse" understanding ("theory" would probably be a bit too strong of a word).

A few months back I spent a couple of weeks visiting a mate of mine on New Zealand's North Island, and with one of his three plum trees (all of different varieties, and all fortuitously in fruit at the time) used simply for pollinating the other two (which are used for various kinds of preserves), a thought couldn't help but enter my noggin: "If my mate doesn't currently have any pigs to fatten up on the drops, and if they're all just going to be devoured by the birds, why don't I beat the birds to it all and make a serious pile of booze!?"

And that's exactly what I did. I grabbed his picking bag and proceeded to pick about 100 kg of fruit, and so currently have about 70 litres of wine brewing back at his place (please don't use that as a ratio for future reference – this was all off the seat of my pants).

Now here's the thing. Although I was able to pick quite a bit of fruit by just reaching up and grabbing it, as well as with a ladder on the peripheries, the densest and most copious amounts of fruit required me to climb up the middle of the tree, which is also what I did.

Like most people (I hope), I've climbed my fair share of trees, and I knew exactly what I was getting into. (Perhaps that should have stopped me, but the allure of all those extra plums and all that extra "free" booze was too much of an attraction to avoid.) What I'm getting at is that while it can be relatively easy to climb up a tree, it generally requires a lot more attention and effort to go back down.

When going up a tree it's often just a matter of getting your foot wedged in the right place and then using your legs to push while your grip on an upper branch or two is used to pull yourself up. As well, your vision is focused upwards, so everything not only looks just fine but is also relatively easy to see. However, coming back down is a whole other story.

First off, one problem that can result from simply turning your gaze downwards is that you get spooked out once you notice how high you actually are, and how far down you have to go. Secondly, once you do attempt to make your way down, your body and other parts of the tree can obstruct your vision and hamper you from seeing where you're trying to get your foot or feet a purchase upon. You might also feel a few butterflies in your stomach or even a slight weightlessness and queasiness in your leg(s) which you have doubts about.

On top of that, if you've accumulated stuff on your way up (and who hasn't accumulated piles of stuff?), it means your girth for your way down can be significantly larger and restrict you from squeezing through the same nooks and crannies that you got up through in the first place (me, I repeatedly had about five or ten kilos of plums in a picking bag).











Plums, or booze berries? (photo: Starmaid Products)


In other words, going down – collapsing – requires a different kind of effort than what is required going up. On top of that, much potential energy is built on the way up, and to release that energy relatively slowly requires not only a very careful and attentive effort, but a greater amount of energy must be expended to release that potential energy if the idea is to expend it slowly rather than quickly.

As John Michael Greer often reminds us, energy is required to collect dispersed energy into more concentrated forms – such as collecting disperse sunlight into fossil-fueled batteries via fossil-fueled solar panels. Similarly, the slow release of potential energy requires more energy than a fast release – the careful effort of climbing down trees versus the non-effort of falling down.

Bringing all this over to the situation of modern civilization, this may very well imply not only a different kind of effort required for collapse, but that a slow collapse requires extra effort (read: energy) to prevent a fast collapse. (On top of that, it's worth noting that the extra energy needed for a slower collapse versus a faster collapse is required at, and has been put off to, a time when energy supplies are beginning to shrink.)

I mention this because this is something I've seen glossed over a few times too many in eco-circles, particularly in respect to the Montreal Protocol.

For those who aren't aware, the Montreal Protocol was an agreement reached between nations in 1987 to eliminate the use of ozone-hole creating chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). With CFCs since then banned, the Montreal Protocol has been ballyhooed by more than a few as an example of how with enough political support and funding, our problems can be readily solved (in this case I'm specifically referring to peak oil, but climate change is also mentioned by these go-getters).

This, I've figured, could hardly be further from the truth, so to confirm my suspicions, and while at the 2014 Age of Limits conference, I threw this comparison by none other than Dennis Meadows, co-author of the seminal Limits to Growth study. Suffice to say, he didn't bother mincing his words in reply: "Completely different. Completely different!"

Now, putting aside the recent discovery that the replacements for CFCs, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are unfortunately rather potent greenhouse gases, the difference here is that peak oil is not a simple problem of which we can legislate or invisibly hand(le) our way out of by substituting one input for another. Not with biofuels, not with hydrogen "energy," not with Tesla Powerwalls, nor with any combination of these and/or other alternatives. They can certainly help us out on our descent, but there's no chance that they'll be able to make up for the 90 million or so barrels of oil that we use every day (on top of all the coal, natural gas, etc.).

What is in fact needed then are not so much techno solutions or bureaucratic workings, but behavioural changes. This, however, ideally requires actual effort on the part of pretty much all of us, and much more than simply enlightened purchases and voting habits.

To put this a bit differently, while a small problem can be solved with a small solution, big problems are not however solved with big solutions – they are solved with many small solutions. In other words, what is needed is a lot of effort, not by a few "experts" and with a bunch of money thrown at them, but by many regular people. That being the case, the issue then is not how we can figure out how to maintain our current ways of living, but how we can learn to restrain ourselves and create the systems amenable to that.

In the meantime, and as already mentioned, while we may or may not go about any of this, there are a slew of factors that will make unfolding circumstances hard to predict: geological ones, geopolitical ones, and most perplexing of all to me, economic ones. That is, how does an economic system which is based on interest-bearing debt and fractional-reserve banking – namely, growth – function amidst declining energy supplies which cannot spur on growth anymore? How "low" can negative interest rates go? How long can the "extend and pretend" shenanigans of bankers and their political shills continue? How many rabbits can they pull out of the hat, and for how long?

Frankly, I have no idea.

But what I do know (or at least think I know), is that while a slow collapse can happen, it is by no means pre-ordained, any more than a fast collapse is. However, if these issues are left up to the "experts," then a faster collapse is more than likely to occur.

Therefore, if one is stuck up a tree and either (a) won't put in the effort to come down, (b) avoids looking down and pretends they aren't up a tree, or (c) denies that they're up a tree in the first place (!), then the sun is eventually going to set, things will get dark, one will fall asleep, and then quite possibly fall out of the tree and break their neck, and possibly even the neck of somebody below who has already managed to make their way down.

"So," you might be wondering, "how did Allan get down the tree?" Well, I knew there wasn't a chance I was going to make it back down with the plums with me, either because the straps would catch on a branch and the fruit would come pouring out, or, on trying to squeeze my way down I'd misstep, fall, and possibly break my back (I know of backpacking apple pickers who have broken their backs).











"Double darn." (photo courtesy of Jack Milchanowski)


So instead, and metaphorically speaking, I kind of cheated. I tied the bag's opening somewhat in a knot, tossed it down, and rather than carefully try and make my way down, I said "stuff this," got myself into a good position, and jumped the few metres down – "Collapse now, avoid the rush," as John Michael Greer put it, although my plum tree collapse was certainly not of the slow variety.

Granted, such a fast collapse is not advised, as this can easily end up in disaster – a twisted or broken ankle, or worse. But I'm still a bit nimble and so could readily pull it off.

But putting off acknowledging and acting upon the onset of peak oil, and expecting a last-minute, safe collapse?

Not advised.

The Next 10 Billion Years

Off the keyboard of RE

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on September 8, 2013

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This week on his Blog The Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer took a look at the REAL long term outcomes of Collapse, on a 10 Billion Year long scale for Homo Sapiens, which basically takes us right to the end of the Working Lifespan of the Sun, the main source of Energy driving forward all life on Earth, not just Humanity.

This is not the first set of such speculations, in fact it is a direct response to a similarly titled article by Ugo Bardi on his Blog Cassandra’s Legacy last year.  Ugo in fact did a bit more in his treatment of the issue, first he chronicled the LAST 10B years up to today, and then presented 2 possible long term scenarios, one more upbeat and hopeful, the other a bit more doomy and gloomy.

The question is, WHY are both these Collapse Bloggers concerning themselves with such long term outcomes anyhow?  Generally speaking at best most people are only concerned with what will occur to them in what remains of their lifetimes, perhaps at most extending into the lifetime of their Children &  Grandchildren.  After that, what does it really MATTER how long Homo Sapiens survives here?  EVENTUALLY we will die out under almost any scenario you care to dream up.  So how different is it for YOU if Extinction comes in 100, 1000 or 1,000,000 Years? Unless you believe in Reincarnation and that said Reincarnation can only occur on THIS planet, in THIS corner of the Universe, it doesn’t matter at all when Homo Sapiens goes the way of the Dinosaur here.

The lengths of time being bandied about in both Ugo and JMGs posts are quite enormous, Geological Time Scales really.  In fact we have nowhere near 10B years possible for continuation of Homo Sapiens on this Planet, the Sun goes Red Giant and consumes the Earth long before that, and even long before THAT as the Sun burns up its fuel supply of Hydrogen and starts burning more Helium, it will get hot enough to boil off all the oceans on the planet and make it quite unlivable for ALL carbon based life forms we know, INCLUDING my favorite Extremophiles, the Tardigrades.

The Main Sequence
The Sun, like most stars in the Universe, is on the main sequence stage of life. Every second, 600 million tons of hydrogen are converted into helium in the Sun’s core, generating 4 x 1027 Watts of energy. For the Sun, this process got going 4.6 billion years ago, and it has been generating energy this way every since. But there isn’t an unlimited amount of hydrogen in the core of the Sun. In fact, it’s only got another 7 billion years worth of fuel left.

As the Sun creates more helium at its core, the Sun burns a little more hydrogen. This causes the output of the Sun to go up. You won’t notice it now, but in about a billion years, the output from the Sun will have increased by 10%.

A more luminous Sun is bad news for Earth.

In 1.1 billion years from now, the Sun will be 10% brighter than it is today. This extra energy will cause a moist greenhouse effect in the beginning, similar to the runaway warming on Venus. But then the Earth’s atmosphere will dry out as the water vapor is lost to space, never to return.

In 3.5 billion years from now, the Sun will be 40% brighter than it is today. It will be so hot that the oceans will boil and that water vapor will be lost to space as well. The ice caps will permanently melt, and snow will be ancient history; life will be unable to survive anywhere on the surface of the Earth. The Earth will resemble dry hot Venus. really, you are talking MAX about 1B years from today for life to exist on earth in any form at all, because once the water boils off, life of any sort we are familiar with cannot exist.  Indeed, Tardigrades can remain Viable near Absolute Zero and throughly dehydrated and Pop Back to Life once back in an environment with liquid water around, but they don’t “live” while they are dehydrated in the near absolute zero temps of space.  Liquid Water is ESSENTIAL for life as we know it, all the chemistry which life is organized around occurs in Aqueous Solution of one sort or another.

When you consider this fact of life (sic), its actually probably long before all the Water actually Boils Off the surface of the Earth that life disappears in 1-3B years, it really just has to get hot enough that most of the water is Vapor and whatever tough little Tardigrades remain can’t cool themselves enough and end up dehydrating.  So maybe good Outside Possibility for some higher plant & animal life forms is another 500M years.  When you look at how long it took Dinosaurs and other Vertebrates to develop originally, this timescale is on the order of 100sM of years.

File:Geologic Clock with events and periods.svg you can see, this whole Biz began back there in the Pre-Cambrian period around 600M years ago, culminating in anatomically modern Homo Sapiens only in the last 100K years or so, though Proto-Homos existed a good deal earlier than that going back maybe 2M years.  So what do you think the odds are that say our good friends and co-inhabitants of the Earth right now, the Tardigrades who are capable of handling a good deal tougher environmental situation than we can will have enough TIME and good fortune to evolve toward Sentience before the planet becomes uninhabitable even for THEM?  IMHO, the likelihood is quite small.  JMG does overcome this barrier by starting with Raccoons and Crows as the progenitors of sentient species, but based on the current spin out it seems unlikely that any higher organisms have a real good chance of survival when multiple Nuke reactors go super-critical and/or there is a phytoplankton collapse due to ocean acidification.

John Michael Greer thinks at least SOME Homo Sapiens will last a good deal longer than Nature Bats Last’s Guy McPherson’s mid-21st Century prediction for Near Term Human Extinction, he’s projecting out numerous Civilizations of Homo Sapiens rising and falling here over the next bundle of Millenia before finally sputtering out a million or so years down the line.

A hundred thousand years from now:
Carbon dioxide levels drop below preindustrial levels as the oceanic anoxic event finishes its work, and the complex feedback loops that govern Earth’s climate shift again: the thermohaline circulation restarts, triggering another round of climatic changes. Humanity’s seventy-ninth global civilization flourishes and begins its slow decline as the disruptions set in motion by a long-forgotten industrial age are drowned out by an older climatic cycle. The scholars of that civilization are thrilled by the notions of fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration; they have no idea that we dreamed the same dreams before them, being further in our future than the Neanderthals are in our past, but they will have no more luck achieving those dreams than we did.
A million years from now:
The Earth is in an ice age; great ice sheets cover much of the northern hemisphere and spread from mountain ranges all over the world, and sea level is 150 meters lower than today. To the people living at this time, who have never known anything else, this seems perfectly normal. Metals have become rare geological specimens—for millennia now, most human societies have used renewable ceramic-bioplastic composites instead—and the very existence of fossil fuels has long since been forgotten. The 664th global human civilization is at its peak, lofting aerostat towns into the skies and building great floating cities on the seas; its long afternoon will eventually draw to an end after scores of generations, and when it falls, other civilizations will rise in its place.
We are a tough bunch of Survivors JMG prognosticates, hammering it out for the next Million Years before finally succumbing to environmental stressors that wipe us out!  Ugo also projects manifest toughness and adaptability for Homo Sapiens in his more Positive Scenario.  While we do suffer a massive Population Knockdown in the Ugo+ Scenario, the Survivors do real well colonizing the Solar System here:
1000 years from now. In the year 3000 A.D. the ecosystems of the planet have completely recovered from the damage done by human activities during the second millennium. A sophisticated planetary control system manages solar irradiation by means of space mirrors and the concentration of greenhouse gases by means of CO2 absorbing/desorbing plants. The planet is managed as a giant garden, optimizing its biological productivity. The Sahara desert is now a forest and the thermohaline currents pump oxygen in the northern regions, full of life of all kinds. The solar and wind plants used during the previous millennium have been mostly dismantled, although some are still kept as a memory of the old times. Most of the energy used by humankind is now generated by space stations which capture solar energy and beam it to the ground in forms easily usable by humans. Research in controlled fusion energy continues with the hope that it will produce usable energy in 500 years. Humans are now less than one billion, they have optimized both their numbers and their energy use and they need enormously less than they had needed in the more turbulent ages of one thousand years before. The development of artificial intelligence is in full swing and practically all tasks that once had been in the hands of humans is now in the “hands” of sophisticated robotic systems. These robots have colonized the solar system and humans now live in underground cities on the Moon. The new planetary intelligence starts considering the idea of terraforming Mars and Venus. The first antimatter powered interstellar spaceships have started their travel to far away stars.10.000 years from now. There are now less than a billion human beings on Earth who live in splendid cities immersed in the lush forest that the planet has become. Some of them work as a hobby on controlled nuclear fusion which they hope will produce usable energy in a few thousand years. The New Intelligence has now started terraforming Mars. It involves similar methods as those used for controlling the Earth’s climate: giant mirrors and CO2 producing plants that control the Martian atmosphere, increasing its pressure and temperature. The terraforming of Venus has also started with similar methods: giant screens that lower the planetary temperatures and immense flying plants that transform CO2 into oxygen and solid carbon. That will take a lot of time, but the New Intelligence is patient. It is also creating new races of solid state beings living on the asteroids and orbiting around the Sun. The exploration of the galaxy is in progress, with spaceships from the solar system now reaching a “sphere” of about a thousand light years from the sun.
Of these two Sci-Fi scenarios, Ugo’s is slightly more grounded in real science with a better grasp of the numbers and timelines involve, but really in both cases the speculation out there past 1000 years is just an exercise in creative imagination.  Obviously none of us will be around to verify if either of them even came CLOSE to the truth, at least not from this side of the Great Divide anyhow.
So what is the underlying motivation for making these WAG projections?  I think it stems from the fact both authors have no real solution to the near term problems we face and so speculate on these long term outcomes, which all eventually end up in Extinction, except for a few REALLY WAGs which have Homo Sapiens leaving earth to go Star Trekking in one way or another.  Going back a few months here, I actually wrote a short such positive outcome in a thread run by Diner Dirdy Birdy:

My best case scenario:The monetary system crashes and Da Goobermint organizes quickly to keep food production and distribution going.  Shortages of fuel take all private carz off the road and people adapt utilizing more bicycles and walking, along with various public transport systems that are kept running a while with the diminished fuel supply.  JIT Trucking is also kept running by conserving fuel, long enough for transition to be made to local production.

A huge Public Works Project is undertaken with people educated in permaculture and small scale renewable energy construction, and a Land Reform Act is passed with Groups of People issued Land Grants all over the country.  Groups can either self-organize or a computer program puts people together based on a questionnaire they fill out about their belief system.  The Land Grants are issued in a Random Order via Lottery, and you get to pick your spot when your number comes up.  The size of the Land Grant depends on the current resources available where it is located in terms of Water and Soil Fertility.  The size is calculated to support the Group size +20% (to allow for fluctuation in reproduction).

Metal Tools and Farm Implements are produced and distributed out as long as possible, and die off is gradual and organic mostly from Old Age as the population returns to the land.

The other part of the Public Works Project involves decommissioning and removing the spent fuel from Nuke Plants.  The fuel si all collected, vitrified and shipped to the Marianna Trench where it is sunk in a subduction zone at the ocean floor.  Specialized Boring Capsules are designed which gather speed during the fall to the ocean floor and begin to spin rapidly.  When they hit bottom, they bore into the crust at the subduction zone.

Industrial plants are shut down and cleaned up also as small scale cottage industries take hold around the country.  Mother Nature does her part also, gradually degrading and rinsing out pollutants.  Ecosystems recover, and carbon content in the atmosphere begins to fall.  Extreme Weather events begin to lessen in frequency.

A century from now, a remaining 1B or so people on the planet live in Harmony with Nature, maintaining a relatively steady state of human biomass.  Story Tellers travel around the country on Horseback and around the World by Sailboat, and information is passed on verbally throughout the world.  Memory spans are vastly increased, and Wisdom is selected for naturally, and Homo Sapiens evolves to Homo Superioris, eventually gaining paranormal abilities with the ability to leave the body at will and travel the cosmos as a Quantum Flux able to instaneously appear anywhere in the Universe, visiting other planets with the ability to Incarnate in a symbiotic fashion with other life forms on these planets.

Human Sentience persists for Eternity, as the Quantum Flux can also jump from Universe to Universe in the Multiverse, once this Universe either cools to Absolute Zero in perpetual expansion, or Collapses back on itself for another Big Bang.

This particular scenario makes just about everybody HAPPY, including George Mobus of Question Everything since Homo Stupidus finally does achieve Wisdom in the end.  LOL.  It resolves the Die Off problem without resorting to Violence or explicit Eugenics making the Peaceniks Happy, and GAIA returns to a lush Green Garden of Eden making all the Tree Huggers very Happy too!  If I wrote more shit like this, I would be a WAY more popular Blogger!  LOL.  Of course, at the end of this exercise in Fantasy Thinking, I ranked the Probability of this outcome around .00000000001% or so.
The theme in JMGs article right from the beginning though is to Poke Holes in Peak Oil theory; the general idea is to demonstrate that we aren’t going to have a massive FAST Collapse, but rather a long Slow Catabolic Collapse where our lives will change only incrementally; and beyond that to express the Belief that Homo Sapiens will NOT go Extinct in the Near Term per Guy McPherson, but rather will persist a good long while Walking the Earth, and in fact have something of a Resurgence before finally giving up the ghost and making way for a New and Still BETTER Sentient Species which will last a whole lot longer before itself going extinct.
If you notice also, JMGs Sci-Fi fantasy also has archetypes in it that make HIM happy, there are future Historians and Anthropologists amongst the Corvins who go out and discover remnants of Human Civilization on the Moon, so the Knowledge of the Ages never gets Lost long as there are SOME Sentient beings around.  For JMG, the WORST possible outcome is not the Extinction of the Human Race, but the idea that all that Knowledge, all those years of tedious research in the Card Catalogues and Stacks of University Libraries would be LOST FOREVER!  Accckkkkk!  In the end, Sentience & Ingenuity Wins the Day in JMGs story, as it does in Ugo’s Positive Scenario also.  JMGs story of Sentience on Earth does come to a close finally, but not until after a real long run through many more Homo Sapiens Civilizations, then Raccoon and Crow Civilizations.  This puts off the inevitable “End of History” (and Historians! lol) for a mighty long time.  He also pops in a nice Upbeat Ending with some other NEW Sentient Species popping up spontaneously on some other planet floating around there out in the Universe, before IT either cools to Absolute Zero in perpetual expansion or Implodes on itself in another Big Bang.
What is noticeably speculative in JMGs post is where the Corvins get their Energy to run a Complex Society, he’s got sufficient Oil reserves rebuilding here inside 100M years to get the Corvins to the Moon and Back, sans any speculative energy technology of the future.  The problem here is that the Oil supply we got to burn up over the last 200 or so years if created in the typically accepted biotic origination goes back right to the beginning of the pre-Cambrian Era, and took a good 700M years to collect up all the Solar Energy and store it in all the dead life forms that existed over this time period.  Generating up the same amount of Oil over 100M years would require 6-7X as many life forms to be born and die over 100M years, and that is not inside the energetic parameters of what the Sun would provide over that time period.  Not to mention the problems of environmental degradation for producing more biomass, already evident. relies on the old Star Trek meme of Matter-Antimatter Engines to drive this type of society Star Trekking in the long distant future, glossing over the small problem of precisely where we will get hold of the copious amounts of Antimatter necessary to annihiliate Matter in the Perfect Matter-to-Energy Transform.  Dilithium Crystals aren’t Ubiquitous on Earth, not even at Chinese Strip Mining Operations for Rare Earth Minerals.  LOL. Here on Earth Ugo does come up with the slightly more plausible idea of huge space based solar collectors,  however exactly how we will jack that much hardware up into space over the next century or two with depleting fossil fuel supplies is left unexplained.
Assuming Homo Sapiens did die out in a Million Years or so, rebuilding Fossil Fuel resource would take the same 100s of Millions of years it took on the first go-round, bringing you right up to the time the Sun is Vaporizing the Water on the Planet.  Unless you buy into an a-biotic theory of Oil and project a slow refill of the near surface reservoirs, you just won’t have this type of resource around for the next sentient species to exploit, no matter how smart they are.  Even if Infants are capable of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, without the massive energy necessary to get stuff up OFF the surface of the Earth into Orbit, and then further to power said Starships in the vast and cold interstellar void, no sentient life of any sort is ever leaving this Solar System.  Projecting such on outcome is simply an exercise in HOPIUM for people concerned that in the end all the knowledge disappears, and so the whole exercise of Evolution over lo these long Eons has no real purpose to it at all.
Religions circumvent this problem in all sorts of ways, the most popular being to postulate some type of Afterlife, and/or the existence of some sort of disembodied Soul which can exist and persist in the absence of a corporeal host.  I am OK with this kind of belief structure, in fact I buy into it myself these days in my own idiosyncratic sort of way.  Imagining the Universe to be Purposeless doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and beyond that the Random beginning for Life without some sort of Intelligent Design also seems highly unlikely.  However, you most certainly cannot PROVE anything beyond what can be sensed and perceived, so whatever it is you do believe about this it is in the end just a Belief System which makes sense to you. from the world of Sci-Fi and fantasy thinking to the REAL WORLD of Collapsing Economic Structures, Depleting Resources and Population Overshoot, the real questions worth pondering on are not 10B Year Long Timelines for Universal Existence, but much shorter timelines in the lengths of Years, Decades, Centuries and maybe as far out as Millenia, but further than that is really a moot point, since the eventual Extinction of Homo Sapiens is a virtual Lock.  If you can answer the question of what the World will be like in YOUR neighborhood in a Decade’s time, this knowledge people living now can actually USE to better prepare for the world to come for them.  The outcomes won’t be precisely the same everywhere, there are different parameters in different locations clearly.  So being able to make a fairly decent prediction on this timeline also allows people to make better choices in Migration, if they indeed even have the ability and economic resources to migrate at all, which most really do not.  I mean really, if you currently are living on $2/day in a Mumbai Slum, you’re not going to be buying a Plane Ticket to New Zealand to find a better life.  Most people are pretty well stuck where they are, at least on the nation-state level.
A good understanding of the possible Century Long Timeline outcomes is also quite important in the Real Sense, because if these outcomes can be generally distributed and understood, it is possible still that Homo Sapiens could make some better choices now that would lead to better outcomes later.  So it is my belief that it is these timelines we need to focus on, not the long term existential ones.  I would look forward to articles from both JMG and Ugo Bardi which make some informed Projections on these timelines.  In both their 10B Year articles, they do cover the nearer term decades and centuries long outcomes, but they are of necessity Brief in this sort of treatment and not very well fleshed out.  You can make the fairly obvious predictions of lots of Wars taking place, but what will be the political and ecological outcomes of those wars?  What are the best means & method to be one of the SURVIVORS of those Wars?
I will look at some of these questions myself in a follow-up article to this, though next week’s Sunday Brunch article will be about a more current issue, the Submergent Economies of the BRICS nations, currently having some extraordinary currency collapse issues ongoing.  In the intervening time though, I look forward to chatting with Ugo and perhaps JMG on the Collapse Cafe about the various possible long term outcomes on the 10 Billion Year timescale.

Asking the Hard Questions

Published on the Archdruid Report on July 10, 2013


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There are nights, now and then, when I sit up late with a glass of bourbon and look back over the long strange trip that’s unfolded over the last thirty years or so. When a substantial majority of Americans straight across the political landscape convinced themselves in the early 1980s that mouthing feel-good slogans and clinging to extravagant lifestyles over the short term made more sense than facing up to the hard choices that might have given our grandchildren a livable future, that choice kickstarted a flight into fantasy that continues to this day.

Over the seven years that I’ve been writing and posting essays here on The Archdruid Report, in turn, a tolerably good sample of the resulting fantasies have been dumped on my electronic doorstep by readers who were incensed by my lack of interest in playing along. There’s a certain amusement value in reviewing that sample, but a retrospective glance that way has another advantage: the common threads that unite the fantasies in question form a pattern of central importance to the theme that this sequence of posts is trying to explore.

Back in 2006, when I made my first posts suggesting that the future waiting for us on the far side of Hubbert’s peak was a long, ragged descent punctuated by crises, there were three common ways of dismissing that prediction. The first insisted that once the price of petroleum got near $100 a barrel, the sheer cost of fueling the industrial economy would trigger the economic crisis to end all economic crises and bring civilization crashing down at once. The second insisted that once that same price threshold was met, any number of exciting new renewable energy technologies would finally become profitable, resulting in a green-energy boom and a shiny future. The third insisted that once that price threshold was met, the law of supply and demand would flood the market with petroleum, force prices back down, and allow the march of economic growth to continue merrily on its way.

A case could be made that those were reasonable hypotheses at the time. Still, the price of oil went soaring past $100 a barrel over the next few years, and none of those predictions panned out. We did have a whopping economic crisis in 2008, but emergency actions on the part of central banks kept the global economy from unraveling; a variety of renewable energy technologies got launched onto the market, but it took massive government subsidies to make any of them profitable, and all of them together provide only a very small fraction of our total energy use; and, of course, as prices rose, a certain amount previously uneconomical oil did find its way to market, but production remains locked into a plateau and the price remains stubbornly high.

That is to say, the perfect storms weren’t, the game-changing events didn’t, and a great many prophets ended up taking a total loss on their predictive investments. It’s the aftermath, though, that matters. By and large, the people who were making these claims didn’t stop, look around, and say, “Hmm, clearly I got something wrong. Is there another way of thinking about the implications of peak oil that makes more sense of the data?” Instead, they found other arguments to back the same claims, or simply kept repeating them at higher volume. For a while there, you could go visit certain peak oil bloggers every January and read the same predictions of imminent economic doom that appeared there the year before, and then go to another set of peak oil bloggers and read equally recycled predictions that this would be the breakthrough year for some green energy source or other, and in neither case was there any sign that any of them had learned a thing from all the times those same predictions had failed before.

Nor were they alone—far from it. When I think about the number of arguments that have been posted here over the last seven years, in an effort to defend the claim that the Long Descent can’t possibly happen, it’s enough to make my head spin, even without benefit of bourbon. I’ve fielded patronizing lectures from believers in UFOs, New Age channelers, and the fake-Mayan 2012 prophecy, airily insisting that once the space brothers land, the New Age dawns, or what have you, we’ll all discover that ecological limits and the laws of thermodynamics are illusions created by lower states of consciousness. Likewise, I’ve received any number of feverish pronouncements that asteroids, solar flares, methane burps from the sea floor or, really, just about anything you can imagine short of titanic space walruses with photon flippers, are going to wipe out humanity in the next few years or decades and make the whole issue moot.

It’s been a wild ride, really. I’ve been labeled dogmatic and intolerant for pointing out to proponents of zero point energy, abiotic oil, and similar exercises in wishful thinking that insisting that a completely unproven theory will inevitably save us may not be the most sensible strategy in a time of crisis. I’ve been dismissed as closed-minded by believers in artificial intelligence, fusion power, and an assortment of other technological will-o’-the-wisps for asking why promises of imminent sucess that have been repeated word for word every few years since the 1950s still ought to be considered credible today I’ve been accused of being a stooge for the powers of evil for questioning claims that Bush—er, make that Clinton—uh, well, let’s try Dubya—um, okay, then, Obama, is going to suspend the constitution, impose a totalitarian police state and start herding us all into camps, and let’s not even talk about the number of people who’ve gotten irate with me when I failed to be impressed by their insistence that the Rapture will happen before we run out of oil.

Not one of these claims is new, any more than the claims of imminent economic collapse, green-energy breakthroughs, or oceans of petroleum just waiting to be drilled. Most of them have been recycled over and over again, some for over a century—the New Age, for example, was originally slated to arrive in 1879, and in fact the most popular alternative spirituality magazine in 1890s Britain was titled The New Age—and the few that have only been through a few seasons’ worth of reruns follow familiar patterns and thus fail in equally familiar ways. If the point of making predictions in the first place has anything to do with anticipating the future we’re actually likely to get, these claims have flopped resoundingly, and yet they remain wildly popular.

Now of course there are good reasons why they should be popular. All the claims about the future I’ve listed are, in practical terms, incentives to inaction and evasions of responsibility. If rising oil prices are guaranteed to bring on a rush of new green energy options, then we don’t have to change our lifestyles, because pretty soon we’ll be able to power them on sun or wind or what have you; if rising oil prices are guaranteed to bring on a rush of new petroleum sources, well, then we don’t need to change our lifestyles, either, and we can make an extra donation to the Sierra Club or something to assuage any lingering ecological guilt we might have. The same goes for any of the other new technologies that are supposedly going to provide us with, ahem, limitless energy sometime very soon—and you’ll notice that in every case, supplying us with all that energy is someone else’s job.

On the other hand, if the global economy is sure to go down in flames in the next few years, or runaway climate change is going to kill us all, or some future president is finally going to man up, impose a police state and march us off to death camps, it’s not our fault, and there’s nothing we can do that matters anyway, so we might as well just keep on living our comfortable lifestyles while they’re still here, right? It may be impolite to say this, but it needs to be said: any belief about the future that encourages people to sit on their backsides and do nothing but consume scarce resources, when there’s a huge amount that could be done to make the future a better place and a grave shortage of people doing it, is a luxury this age of the world can’t afford.

Still, I’d like to cycle back to the way that failed predictions are recycled, because it leads straight to the heart of an unrecognized dimension of the predicament of our time. Since the future can’t be known in advance, attempts to predict it have to rely on secondhand evidence. One proven way to collect useful evidence concerning the validity of a prediction is to ask what happened in the past when somebody else made that same prediction. Another way is to look for situations in the past that are comparable to the one the prediction discusses, in order to see what happened then. A prediction that fails either one of these tests usually needs to be put out to pasture; one that fails both—that has been made repeatedly in the past and failed every time, and that doesn’t account for the way that comparable situations have turned out—ought to be sent to the glue factory instead.

It’s in this light that the arguments used to defend repeatedly failed predictions can be understood. I’ve discussed these arguments at some length in recent posts: the endlessly repeated claim that it’s different this time, the refusal to think about the implications of well-documented sources of negative feedback, the insistence that a prediction must be true if no one’s proved that it’s impossible, and so on. All of them are rhetorical gimmicks meant to stonewall the kind of assessment I’ve just outlined. Put another way, they’re attempts to shield repeatedly failed predictions from the normal and healthy consequences of failure.

Think about that for a bit. From the time that our distant ancestors ventured out onto the East African savannas and started to push the boundaries of their nervous systems in ways for which millions of years of treetop living did little to prepare them, their survival and success have been a function of their ability to come up with mental models of the world that more or less correspond to reality where it counts. If there were ever australopithecines that couldn’t do the sort of basic reality testing that allows food to be distinguished from inedible objects, and predators from harmless animals, they didn’t leave any descendants. Since then, as hominids and then humans developed more and more elaborate mental models of the world, the hard-won ability to test those models against the plain facts of experience with more and more precision has been central to our achievement.

In the modern West, we’ve inherited two of the great intellectual revolutions our species has managed—the creation of logic and formal mathematics in ancient Greece, and the creation of experimental science in early modern Europe—and both of those revolutions are all about reality testing. Logic is a system for making sure that mental models make sense on their own terms, and don’t stray into fallacy or contradiction; experimental science is a system for checking some mental models, those that deal with the quantifiable behavior of matter and energy, against the facts on the ground. Neither system is foolproof, but then neither is anything else human, and if both of them survive the decline and fall of our present civilization, there’s every reason to hope that future civilizations will come up with ways to fill in some of their blind spots, and add those to the slowly accumulating body of effective technique that provides one of the very few long-term dynamics to history.

It remains true, though, that all the many methods of reality testing we’ve evolved down through the millennia, from the most basic integration of sense inputs hardwired into the human brain right on up to the subtleties of propositional logic and the experimental method, share one central flaw. None of them will work if their messages are ignored—and that’s what’s going on right now, as a vast majority of people across the modern industrial world scramble to find reasons to cling to a range of popular but failed predictions about the future, and do their level best to ignore the evidence that a rather more unpopular set of predictions about the future is coming true around them.

Look around, dear reader, and you’ll see a civilization in decline, struggling ineffectually with the ecological overshoot, the social disintegration, the institutional paralysis, and the accelerating decay of infrastructure that are part and parcel of the normal process by which civilizations die. This is what the decline and fall of a civilization looks like in its early-to-middle stages—and it’s also what I’ve been talking about, very often in so many words, since not long after this blog got under way seven years ago. Back then, as I’ve already mentioned, it was reasonable to propose that something else might happen, that we’d get the fast crash or the green-energy breakthrough or all the new petroleum that the law of supply and demand was supposed to provide us, but none of those things happened. (Of course, neither did the mass landing of UFOs or any of the other more colorful fantasies, but then that was never really in question.) It’s time to recognize that the repetition of emotionally appealing but failed predictions is not a helpful response to the crisis of our time, and in fact has done a great deal to back us into the corner we’re now in. What was Ronald Reagan’s airy twaddle about “morning in America,” after all, but another emotionally appealing failed prophecy of the kind I’ve just been discussing?

Thus I’d like to suggest that from now on, any claim about the future needs to be confronted up front by the two hard questions proposed above. What happened at other times when people made the same prediction, or one that’s closely akin to it? What happened in other situations that are comparable to the one the prediction attempts to address? Any prediction that claims to be about a future we might actually encounter should be able to face these two questions without resorting to the kind of rhetorical evasions noted above. Any prediction that has to hide behind those evasions, in turn, needs to be recognized as being irrelevant to any future we might actually encounter. My own predictions, by the way, stand or fall by the same rule, and I encourage my readers to ask those questions of each prediction I make, and answer them through their own research.

Yes, I’m aware that those two questions pack an explosive punch that makes dynamite look weak. It’s embarrassingly common in contemporary life for theories to be embraced because of their emotional appeal, and then defended with every rhetorical trick in the book against any inconvenient contact with unsympathetic facts. As suggested in last week’s post, that’s a common feature of civilizations toward the end of their rationalist period, when abstract reason gets pushed to the point of absurdity and then well beyond it. Fantasies about the shape of the future aren’t uncommon at such times, but I don’t know of another civilization in all of recorded history that has put as much energy as ours into creating and defending abstract theories about the shape of the future. With any luck, the civilizations that come after ours will learn from our mistakes, and direct their last and most overblown abstractions in directions that will do less harm.

In the meantime, those of us who are interested in talking about the kinds of future we might actually encounter might find it useful to give up the standard modern habit of choosing a vision of the future because it’s emotionally appealing, demanding that the world fulfill whatever dream we happen to have, and filling our minds with defensive gimmicks to keep from hearing when the world says “no.” That requires a willingness to ask the questions I mentioned above, and to accept the answers, even when they aren’t what we’d like them to be. More generally, it requires a willingness to approach the universe of our experience from a standpoint that’s as stunningly unfashionable these days as it is necessary—a standpoint of humility.

What would it mean if, instead of trying to impose an emotionally appealing narrative on the future, and shouting down any data that conflicts with it, we were to approach the universe of our experience with enough humility to listen to the narratives the universe itself offers us? That’s basically what I’ve been trying to suggest here all along, after all. That’s the point to my repeated references to history, because history is our species’ accumulated body of knowledge of the way human affairs unfold over time, and approaching that body of knowledge with humility and a willingness to listen to the stories it tells is a proven way to catch hints about the shape of the future as it unfolds.

That’s also the point to my equally frequent references to ecology, because history is simply one subset of the behavior of living things over time—the subset that deals with human organisms—and also because ecological factors have played a huge and all too often unrecognized role in the rise and fall of human societies. Whether humans are smarter than yeast is less important than the fact, and of course it is a fact, that humans, yeast, and all other living things are subject to the same ecological laws and thus inevitably experience similar processes over time. Attentive listening to the stories that history tells, and the even richer body of stories that nature tells, is the one reliable way we’ve got to figure out what those processes are before they clobber us over the head.

That act of humility, finally, may be the best ticket out of the confusion that the collective imagination of our time has created around itself, the proliferation of abstractions divorced from reality that makes it so hard to see the future looming up ahead of us. By turning our attention to what actually happens in the world around us, and asking the hard but necessary questions about our preferred notions concerning that world and its future, we might just be able to extract ourselves far enough from that confusion to begin to grapple with the challenges of our time. In the process, we’ll have to confront once again the issues with which this series of posts started out—the religious dimension of peak oil and the end of the industrial age. We’ll proceed with that discussion next week.



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