Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism

7 12 2019


Nate Hagens has written a substantial paper, four months in the writing, ten years in the making he tells me….


  1. Overview
    Despite decades of warnings, agreements, and activism, human
    energy consumption, emissions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    all hit new records in 2018 (Quéré et al., 2018). If the global economy
    continues to grow at about 3.0% per year, we will consume as much
    energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did cumulatively in
    the past 10,000. Is such a scenario inevitable? Is such a scenario possible?
  2. Simultaneously, we get daily reminders the global economy isn’t
    working as it used to (Stokes, 2017) such as rising wealth and income
    inequality, heavy reliance on debt and government guarantees, populist political movements, increasing apathy, tension and violence, and ecological decay. To avoid facing the consequences of our biophysical reality, we’re now obtaining growth in increasingly unsustainable ways. The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume.

    With this backdrop, what sort of future economic systems are now
    feasible? What choreography would allow them to come about? In the
    fullness of the Anthropocene, what does a hard look at the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense suggest about our collective future? Ecological economics was ahead of its time in recognizing the fundamental importance of nature’s services and the biophysical underpinnings of human economies. Can it now assemble a blueprint for a ‘reconstruction’ to guide a way forward?

    Before articulating prescriptions, we first need a comprehensive
    diagnosis of the patient. In 2019, we are beyond a piecemeal listing of
    what’s wrong. A coherent description of the global economy requires a
    systems view: describing the parts, the processes, how the parts and
    processes interact, and what these interactions imply about future
    possibilities. This paper provides a brief overview of the relationships
    between human behavior, the economy and Earth’s environment. It
    articulates how a social species self-organizing around surplus has
    metabolically morphed into a single, mindless, energy-hungry
    “Superorganism.” Lastly, it provides an assessment of our constraints
    and opportunities, and suggests how a more sapient economic system
    might develop.
  3. Introduction
    For most of the past 300,000 years, humans lived in sustainable,
    egalitarian, roaming bands where climate instability and low CO2 levels made success in agriculture unlikely (Richerson et al., 2001).
    Around 11,000 years ago the climate began to warm, eventually plateauing at warmer levels than the previous 100,000 years (Fig. 1).

  1. This stability allowed agriculture to develop in at least seven separate locations around the world. For the first time, groups of humans began to organize around physical surplus – production exceeding the group’s immediate caloric needs. Since some of the population no longer had to devote their time to hunting and gathering, this surplus allowed the development of new jobs, hierarchies, and complexity (Gowdy and Krall, 2013). This novel dynamic led to widespread agriculture and large-scale state societies over the next few thousand years (Gowdy and Krall, 2014).

    In the 19th century, this process was accelerated by the large-scale
    discovery of fossil carbon and the invention of technologies to use it as
    fuel. Fossil carbon provided humans with an extremely dense (but finite) source of energy extractable at a rate of their choosing, unlike the highly diffuse and fixed flow of sunlight of prior eras.

    This energy bounty enabled the 20th century to be a unique period
    in human history:
  2. more (and cheaper) resources led to sharp productivity
    increases and unprecedented economic growth, a debt
    based financial system cut free from physical tethers allowed expansive credit and related consumption to accelerate,
  3. all of which fueled resource surpluses enabling diverse and richer societies. The 21st century is diverging from that trajectory: 1) energy and resources are again becoming constraining factors on economic and societal development, 2) physical expansion predicated on credit is becoming riskier and will eventually reach a limit, 3) societies are becoming polarized and losing trust in governments, media, and science and, 4) ecosystems are being degraded as they absorb large quantities of energy and material waste from human systems.
    Where do we go from here?
  4. Human behavior
    Humans are unique, but in the same ways tree frogs or hippos are
    unique. We are still mammals, specifically primates. Our physical
    characteristics (sclera in eyes, small mouth, lack of canines etc.) are the products of our formative social past in small bands (Bullet et al., 2011; Kobayashi and Kohshima, 2008). However, our brains and behaviors too are products of what worked in our past. We don’t consciously go through life maximizing biological fitness, but instead act as ‘adaptation executors’ seeking to replicate the daily emotional states of our successful ancestors (Barkow et al., 1992). Humans have an impressive ability to process information, cooperate, and discover things, which is what brought us to the state of organization and wealth we experience today. But our stone-age minds areresponding to modern technology, resource abundance and large, fluid, social groups in emergent ways. These behaviors – summarized below – underpin many of our current planetary and cultural predicaments (Whybrow, 2013).

    3.1. Status and relative comparison Humans are a social species. Each of us is in competition for status and resources. As biological organisms we care about relative status. Historically, status was linked to providing resources for the clan, leadership, respect, storytelling, ethics, sharing, and community (Gowdy, 1998; von Rueden and Jaeggi, 2016). But in the modern culture we compete for status with resource intensive goods (cars, homes, vacations, gadgets), using money as an intermediary driver (Erk et al., 2002). Although most of the poorest 20% in advanced economies live materially richer lives than the middle class in the 1900′s, one’s income rank, as opposed to the absolute income, is what predicts life satisfaction (Boyce et al., 2010). For those who don’t ‘win’, a lack of perceived status leads to depression, drinking, stockpiling of guns and other adverse
    behaviors (Katikireddi et al., 2017; Mencken and Froese, 2019).
    Once basic needs are satisfied, we are primed to respond to the comparison of “better vs.worse” more than we do to “a little” vs. “a lot.”

    3.2. Supernormal stimuli and addiction In our ancestral environment, the mesolimbic dopamine pathways were linked to motivation, action and (calorific) reward. Modern technology and abundance can hijack this same reward circuitry. The brain of a stock trader making a winning trade lights up in an fMRI the same way a chimpanzee’s (and presumably our distant ancestors’) does when finding a nut or berry. But when trading stocks, playing video games or building shopping centers, there is no instinctual ‘full’ signal in modern brains – so we become addicted to the ‘unexpected reward’ of the next encounter, episode, or email, at an ever increasing pace (Hagens, 2011; Schultz et al., 1997). Our brains require flows (feelings) that we satisfy today mostly using non-renewable stocks. In modern resource rich culture, the ‘wanting’ becomes a stronger emotion than the ‘having’.Overview

    3.3. Cognitive biases
    We didn’t evolve to have a veridical view of our world (Mark et al.,
    2010). We think in words and images disconnected from physical reality. This imagined reality commonly seems more real than science, logic and common sense. Beliefs that arise from this virtual interface become religion, nationalism, or quixotic goals such as terraforming Mars (Harari, 2018). For most of history, we maintained groups by sharing social myths like these. Failure to believe those myths led to ostracism and death. Beliefs usually precede the reasons we use to explain them, and thus are far more powerful than facts (Gazzaniga, 2012).

    Psychologists have identified hundreds of cognitive biases whereby
    common human behaviors depart from economic rationality. These
    include: motivated reasoning, groupthink, authority bias, bystander
    effect, etc. Rationality is from a newer part of our brain that is still
    dominated by the more primitive, intuitive, and emotional brain
    structures of the limbic system. Modern economics assumes the rational brain is in charge, but it’s not. Combined with our tribal, in-group nature, it’s understandable that fake news works, and that people resist uncomfortable notions involving limits to growth, energy descent, and climate change. Evolution selects for fitness, not truth (Hoffman, 2019).

    We typically only value truth if it rewards us in the short term. Rationality is the exception, not the rule.

    3.4. Time bias (steep discount rates)
    For good evolutionary reasons (short life spans, risk of food expropriation, unstable environment, etc.) we disproportionately care
    about the present more than the future, measured by economists via a
    ‘discount rate’(Hagens and Kunz, 2010). The steeper the discount rate,
    the more the person is ‘addicted to the present.’ (Laibson et al., 2007).
    Drug users and drinkers, risk takers, people with low I.Q. scores, people who have heavy cognitive workloads, and men (vs. women) tend to more steeply discount events or issues in the future (Chabris et al., 2010).

    Unfortunately, most of our modern challenges are ‘in the future’.
    Recognition that the future exists and that we are part of it springs from a relatively new brain structure, the neocortex. It has no direct connection to deep-brain motivational centers that communicate urgency. When asked to plan a snack for next week between chocolate or fruit, people chose fruit 75% of the time. When choosing a snack for today, 70% select chocolate. When choosing a movie to watch next week 63% choose an educational documentary but when choosing a film for tonight 66% pick a comedy or sci-fi (Read et al., 1999). We have great intentions for the future, until the future becomes today. Our neocortex can imagine them, but we are emotionally blind to long-term issues like climate change or energy depletion. Emotionally, the future isn’t real.

    3.5. Cooperation and group behavior Group behavior has shaped us as much as individual behavior (Wilson and Wilson, 2008). Humans are strongly ‘groupish’ (Haidt, 2013), and before agriculture were aggressively egalitarian (Pennisi, 2014 Boehm, 1993). Those historic tribes that could act as a cohesive unit facing a common threat outcompeted tribes without such social cohesion. Because of this, today we easily and quickly form ingroups and outgroups and
    behave favorably and antagonistically towards them respectively. We are also primed to cooperate with our in-group whether that is a small
    business, large corporation, or even a nation-state – to obtain monetary (or in earlier times, physical) surplus. Me over Us, Us over Them.

    3.6. Cultural evolution, Ultrasociality and the Superorganism
    “What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something
    that had never happened before and never will again. Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the other’s institutions. When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.” Ronald Wright, A
    Short History of Progress (2004, pp50-51)

    “Ultrasociality refers to the most social of animal organizations, with full time division of labor, specialists who gather no food but are fed by others, effective sharing of information about sources of food and danger, self-sacrificial effort in collective defense.” (Campbell, 1974; Gowdy and Krall, 2013).

    Humans are among a small handful of species that are extremely
    social. Phenotypically we are primates, but behaviorally we’re more
    akin to the social insects (Haidt, 2013). Our ultrasociality allows us to
    function at much larger scales than as individuals. At the largest scales, cultural evolution occurs far more rapidly than genetic evolution (Richerson and Boyd, 2005). Via the cultural evolution that began with agriculture, humans have evolved into a globally interconnected civilization, ‘outcompeting’ other human economic models along the way to becoming a defacto ‘superorganism’ (Hölldobler and Wilson, 2008).

    A superorganism can be defined as “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective”(Kelly, 1994). Via cooperation (and coordination), fitness transfers from lower levels to higher levels of organization (Michod and Nedelcu, 2003). The needs of this higher-level entity (today for humans; the global economy) mold the behavior, organization and functions of lower-level entities (individual human behavior) (Kesebir, 2011). Human behavior is thus constrained and modified by ‘downward causation’ from the higher level of organization present in society (Campbell, 1974).

    All the ‘irrationalities’ previously outlined have kept our species
    flourishing for 300,000 years. What has changed is not ‘us’ but rather
    the economic organization of our societies in tandem with technology,
    scale and impact. Since the Neolithic, human society has organized
    around growth of surplus, initially measured physically e.g. grain, now measured by digital claims on physical surplus, (or money) (Gowdy and Krall, 2014). Positive human attributes like cooperation have been coopted to become coordination towards surplus production. Increasingly, the “purpose” of a modern human in the ultrasocial global economy is to contribute to surplus for the market (e.g. the economic value of a human life based on discounted lifetime income, the marginal productivity theory of labor value, etc.) (Gowdy 2019, in press).

    3.7. Human behavior – summary
    Our behavioral repertoire is wide, yet informed, and constrained by
    our neurological heritage and the higher level of organization exhibited by our economic system. We are born with heritable modules prepared to react to context in predictable ways. “Who we are” as a species is highly relevant to issues of ecological overshoot, sustainability and our related cultural responses.





You won’t like downsizing

7 12 2019

Or maybe you will.....

Norman Pagett
Aug 24, 2018 · 7 min read

‘Downsizing’ isn’t going to be a gradual shift into a state of bucolic peasantry where life carries on as it always has, with a few minor changes.
The slightest slowdown of our current economy by just a few percentage points brings an immediate chaos of unemployment and global destabilisation.

Transport

In the face of imminent global chaos, whether through climate change, overpopulation or energy depletion, vast amounts of money are being poured into development of alternative methods of transportation. Elon Musk, though producing a first class electric car, proposes it to be a vehicle for the ‘post oil’ age.

The basic reality is ignored, that no road vehicle in the context of modern usage can function without an infrastructure that is itself a construct of hydrocarbon. But the electric car adds to the socio-economic complexity of our over-stressed life support system, it does not simplify it.

Yet our focus on such dead ends as the electric car shows that humankind does not have the means to rid itself of dependence on the wheel. While the electric car might appear to be a bright shiny symbol of continuing wealth and prosperity, it is in fact a block of embodied energy, as subject to the laws of thermodynamics as any other construction.

No industrialised nation can maintain its road transport system without the constant input of oil.

And there are no alternatives.

Healthcare

When advocating downsizing, there is rarely, if ever, any mention of the healthcare we currently enjoy, which has given us a reasonably fit and healthy 80 year average lifespan.

A prime safeguard for the health of citizens throughout the developed world is the ability to remove and dispose of human waste and provide an inflow of fresh water. But to do it there must be constant availability of cheap energy. Electricity will enable you to pump water and sewage but it cannot provide the infrastructure needed to build or maintain a fresh water or waste treatment plant; for that you need oil, coal and gas.

Modern domestic plumbing systems are now made largely of plastic, which is manufactured exclusively from oil feedstock, while concrete main sewer pipes are produced using processes that are equally energy intensive. In a downsized society fresh water will have to be carried from its source, and sewage will not be moved.

MY COMMENT: This is why we don’t do sewerage, and all our water will be off the roof into ‘last forever’ stainless steel tanks. There’s no plastic in our plumbing, it’s all copper, and expensive too in this age of near peak copper… even the hot water cylinder is stainless steel.

Doctors

But we are even more deluded when it comes to the medical profession and all the advanced treatments and technologies it has provided to keep us in good health and make our lives as comfortable as possible.

While ‘downsizing’ — a somewhat bizarre concept in itself — might affect other aspects of our lives, it is not supposed to apply to doctors, medical staff, hospitals and the vast power-hungry pharmaceutical factories and supply chains that give them round the clock backup. Without that backup, your medical practitioner might know what ails you, but unlikely to be able to offer you any more help than a tribal witch doctor.

Like our forebears, we also will not have the means to make it otherwise.

Since the introduction of modern drugs and the availability of products that can kill bacteria, we have set out to do just that. Bacteria have had a bad press, but they keep us alive, if only to serve their own ends.

In our haste to kill off or control almost every microscopic form of life, as well as larger species, we have forgotten that bacteria have been around in one form or another for about 2 billion years and possess a collective survival capacity that is far in advance of ours.

MY COMMENT: as someone who relies on blood pressure pills and eye drops to stave off glaucoma, I’m well aware that if I live long enough I’ll probably go blind, or I’ll die of a stroke or heart attack. But no one gets out alive in any case. Looking at the old cemetery in Geeveston, it appears the locals lived to incredibly ripe old ages, 80’s and 90’s, without modern medicines, hot and cold running water, or sewerage…..

The Top Predator

(It’s not us)

On that basis, which is the dominant species? Our attempts at eradication have merely caused them to retreat for a while and given them the means to mutate into new and more deadly forms.

Humanity, at least our ‘western’ developed segment of it, is enjoying a phase of good health and longevity that is an anomaly in historical terms. There is a refusal to recognize that our health and wellbeing will only last as long as we have cheap hydrocarbon energy available to support it. While there are those who profess to welcome a return to the freedom of a frontier society with minimal or non-existent law enforcement, the ravages of the diseases that were an everyday part of frontier life will not be accepted as part of it.

Emergency services

Nor does downsizing appear to apply to the other emergency services we might want to call on if our home is on fire or those of criminal intent wish to relieve us of what is rightfully ours. We might put solar panels on the roof, and banks of batteries to supply power, but a downsized society will not have the engineering complexity available to manufacture a single lightbulb, heating element or the basic components of an electric motor.

Without those, any electricity production system is useless. A downsized lifestyle means a dark lifestyle, or put more bluntly a naked flame society.

Alternative lifestylers seem to have blanked out the detail that fire engines, ambulances and police cars need fuel, and the people who man them need to get paid, fed and moved around quickly. They will not have time to indulge in the fantasy of self sufficiency. In other words ‘we’ might reduce our imprint on the environment, as long as those who support our way of life do not.

The deniers will vent their frustration and anger, and apportion blame and demand that diseases be cured. But there are just too many humans to allow the possibility of a human solution. On a planet with 7 billion people, which has a carrying capacity of around 1 billion, we may not want to admit to an impending die off, but it will come, and within this century.

MY COMMENT: make no mistake, during the last bushfires, with helicopters everywhere lifting water out of dams including ours it quickly occurred to me that next time, there may well be no fuel. Hence building a fireproof house….

Without oil our food sources will end.

And with it the sustenance of six billion people, and the hopes of billions yet unborn.

The infrastructure of modern healthcare hasn’t given us immortality, but it has provided the next best thing: long, safe and comfortable lives. But it relies entirely on hydrocarbon energy, and in the future a range of problems will make it progressively more difficult for us to exert control over disease as that energy source goes into irreversible decline. Disease will become more prevalent, not only in localized outbreaks, but at epidemic and even pandemic levels. Modern healthcare systems cannot downsize, they are either there or they are not.

Democracy

The greatest loss in a downsized economy will be our democracy.

You don’t think much about the democratic state you live in. A few gripes about it sometimes, but other than that, things coast along reasonably well. You vote one lot of useless politicos in, and another lot out. Or maybe don’t vote at all. They never change anything, being swept along by the tide of circumstance just like everybody else.

Your democratic state is an unnatural state.

Through almost all of recorded history mankind has lived under autocratic rule to a greater or lesser degree, always enforced by the threat of violence, either on a personal or collective level.
In the sense that we know it democracy has been selectively planted only during the last 2 centuries, with universal suffrage appearing in different places at different times. But it has not in any sense taken root. It is a fragile concept that we are going to lose as our environment alters and degrades with climate change and energy depletion. Before the industrial revolution, the concept of democracy and human rights did not exist. It may not seem immediately obvious that our democratic state is dependent on surplus energy, but it is.

We look to Ancient Greece, or more specifically Athens itself for the origins of our democracy, but while Athens in the 4th century BCE had a population of 100,000, living in what we think of as democratic harmony, they also had an underclass of about 150,000 slaves who supported their economy. Slaves had no part in the Athenian democratic process, but they allowed the free time for their owners (men only, women were not part of it) to go about their leisurely democratic business.

Our time differs only through the surplus energy of fossil fuel that has allowed us to enjoy the luxury of democracy.

Democracy is a fragile concept and we cannot claim this as a fundamental human right.
When our coal, oil and gas has finally been used up, our comfortable environment will vanish with it, together with our democratic niceties as we strive to survive.

An energy depleted economy will mean a downsized state and a breakup of established law, because no government can exist outside the boundaries of its own energy range. In that situation you can have no control over your position within your future state or nation, and the way in which you will be governed. The individual details might be open to question, but millennia of past history supplies the outline of our future: weakened states submit to whichever despot can hold power. We will not only have a downsized economy, we will have autocratic rule by someone who has seized the opportunity of weakness and used it for his own ends.

It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see that happening right now.





The Collapse of Civilization May Have Already Begun

27 11 2019

Scientists disagree on the timeline of collapse and whether it’s imminent. But can we afford to be wrong? And what comes after?

Another long, but as always very well researched post by Nafeez Ahmed
Nov 23 2019

“It is now too late to stop a future collapse of our societies because of climate change.”

These are not the words of a tinfoil hat-donning survivalist. This is from a paper delivered by a senior sustainability academic at a leading business school to the European Commission in Brussels, earlier this year. Before that, he delivered a similar message to a UN conference: “Climate change is now a planetary emergency posing an existential threat to humanity.”

In the age of climate chaos, the collapse of civilization has moved from being a fringe, taboo issue to a more mainstream concern.

As the world reels under each new outbreak of crisis—record heatwaves across the Western hemisphere, devastating fires across the Amazon rainforest, the slow-moving Hurricane Dorian, severe ice melting at the poles—the question of how bad things might get, and how soon, has become increasingly urgent.

The fear of collapse is evident in the framing of movements such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and in resounding warnings that business-as-usual means heading toward an uninhabitable planet.

But a growing number of experts not only point at the looming possibility that human civilization itself is at risk; some believe that the science shows it is already too late to prevent collapse. The outcome of the debate on this is obviously critical: it throws light on whether and how societies should adjust to this uncertain landscape.

Yet this is not just a scientific debate. It also raises difficult moral questions about what kind of action is warranted to prepare for, or attempt to avoid, the worst. Scientists may disagree about the timeline of collapse, but many argue that this is entirely beside the point. While scientists and politicians quibble over timelines and half measures, or how bad it’ll all be, we are losing precious time. With the stakes being total collapse, some scientists are increasingly arguing that we should fundamentally change the structure of society just to be safe.

Jem Bendell, a former consultant to the United Nations and longtime Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria’s Department of Business, delivered a paper in May 2019 explaining how people and communities might “adapt to climate-induced disruption.”

Bendell’s thesis is not only that societal collapse due to climate change is on its way, but that it is, in effect, already here. “Climate change will disrupt your way of life in your lifetimes,” he told the audience at a climate change conference organized by the European Commission.

Devastating consequences, like “the cascading effects of widespread and repeated harvest failures” are now unavoidable, Bendell’s paper says.

He argues this is not so much a doom-and-gloom scenario as a case of waking up to reality, so that we can do as much as we can to save as many lives as possible. His recommended response is what he calls “Deep Adaptation,” which requires going beyond “mere adjustments to our existing economic system and infrastructure, in order to prepare us for the breakdown or collapse of normal societal functions.”

Bendell’s message has since gained a mass following and high-level attention. It is partly responsible for inspiring the new wave of climate protests reverberating around the world.

In March, he launched the Deep Adaptation Forum to connect and support people who, in the face of “inevitable” societal collapse, want to explore how they can “reduce suffering, while saving more of society and the natural world.” Over the last six months, the Forum has gathered more than 10,000 participants. More than 600,000 people have downloaded Bendell’s paper, called Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating our Climate Tragedy, published by the University of Cumbria’s Institute of Leadership and Sustainability (IFALS). And many of the key organizers behind the Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaign joined the protest movement after reading it.

“There will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers,” concludes that paper, released in 2017.

Catastrophe is “probable,” it adds, and extinction “is possible.” Over coming decades, we will see the escalating impacts of the fossil fuel pollution we have already pumped into the atmosphere and oceans. Even if we ceased emissions tomorrow, Bendell argues, the latest climate science shows that “we are now in a climate emergency, which will increasingly disrupt our way of life… a societal collapse is now inevitable within the lifetimes of readers of this paper.”

Bendell puts a rough timeline on this. Collapse will happen within 10 years and inflict disruptions across nations, involving “increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict, and war.”

Yet this diagnosis opens up far more questions than it answers. I was left wondering: Which societies are at risk of collapsing due to climate change, and when? Some societies or all societies? Simultaneously or sequentially? Why some rather than others? And how long will the collapse process take? Where will it start, and in what sector? How will that impact others sectors? Or will it take down all sectors of societies in one fell swoop? And what does any of this imply for whether, or how, we might prepare for collapse?

In attempting to answer these questions, I spoke to a wide-range of scientists and experts, and took a deep dive into the obscure but emerging science of how societies and civilizations collapse. I wanted to understand not just whether Bendell’s forecast was right, but to find out what a range experts from climate scientists to risk analysts were unearthing about the possibility of our societies collapsing in coming years and decades.

The emerging science of collapse is still, unfortunately, a nascent field. That’s because it’s an interdisciplinary science that encompasses not only the incredibly complex, interconnected natural systems that comprise the Earth System, but also has to make sense of how those systems interact with the complex, interconnected social, political, economic, and cultural systems of the Human System.

What I discovered provoked a wide range of emotions. I was at times surprised and shocked, often frightened, sometimes relieved. Mostly, I was unsettled. Many scientists exposed flaws in Bendell’s argument. Most rejected the idea of inevitable near-term collapse outright. But to figure out whether a near-term collapse scenario of some kind was likely led me far beyond Bendell. A number of world leading experts told me that such a scenario might, in fact, be far more plausible than conventionally presumed.

Science, gut, or a bit of both?

According to Penn State professor Michael Mann, one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists, Bendell’s grasp of the climate science is deeply flawed.

“To me, this paper is a perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness,” he told me.

Bendell’s original paper had been rejected for publication by the peer-reviewed Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal. According to Bendell, the changes that editorial reviewers said were necessary to make the article fit for publication made no sense. But among them, one referee questioned whether Bendell’s presentation of climate data actually supported his conclusion: “I am not sure that the extensive presentation of climate data supports the core argument of the paper in a meaningful way.”

In his response, sent in the form of a letter to the journal’s chief editor, Bendell wrote: “Yet the summary of science is the core of the paper as everything then flows from the conclusion of that analysis. Note that the science I summarise is about what is happening right now, rather than models or theories of complex adaptive systems which the reviewer would have preferred.”

But in Mann’s view, the paper’s failure to pass peer review was not simply because it didn’t fit outmoded academic etiquette, but for the far more serious reason that it lacks scientific rigor. Bendell, he said, is simply “wrong on the science and impacts: There is no credible evidence that we face ‘inevitable near-term collapse.’”

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who is also world-famous, was even more scathing.

“There are both valid points and unjustified statements throughout,” he told me about Bendell’s paper. “Model projections have not underestimated temperature changes, not everything that is non-linear is therefore ‘out of control.’ Blaming ‘increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere’ for anything is silly. The evidence for ‘inevitable societal collapse’ is very weak to non-existent.”

Schmidt did not rule out that we are likely to see more instances of local collapse events. “Obviously we have seen such collapses in specific locations associated with extreme storm impacts,” he said. He listed off a number of examples—Puerto RicoBarbudaHaiti, and New Orleans—explaining that while local collapses in certain regions could be possible, it’s a “much harder case to make” at a global level. “And this paper doesn’t make it. I’m not particularly sanguine about what is going to happen, but this is not based on anything real.”

Jeremy Lent, systems theorist and author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaningargues that throughout Bendell’s paper he frequently slips between the terms “inevitable,” “probably,” and “likely.”

“If he chooses to go with his gut instinct and conclude collapse is inevitable, he has every right to do so,” Lent said, “but I believe it’s irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial.”

When I pressed Bendell on this issue, he pushed back against the idea that he was putting forward a hard, scientifically-valid forecast, describing it as a “guess”: “I say in the original paper that I am only guessing at when social collapse will occur. I have said or written that every time I mention that time horizon.”

But why offer this guess at all? “The problem I have with the argument that I should not give a time horizon like 10 years is that not deciding on a time horizon acts as a psychological escape from facing our predicament. If we can push this problem out into 2040 or 2050, it somehow feels less pressing. Yet, look around. Already harvests are failing because of weather made worse by climate change.”

Bendell points out that such impacts are already damaging more vulnerable, poorer societies than our own. He says it is only a matter of time before they damage the normal functioning of “most countries in the world.”

Global food system failure

According to Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, Principal Investigator at Lund University’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate Program, the risk of near-term collapse should be taken far more seriously by climate scientists, given the fact that so much is unknown about climate tipping points: “I am not saying that Bendell is right or wrong. But the criticism of Bendell’s points focuses too much on the detail and in that way studiously tries to avoid the bigger picture. The available data points to the fact that some catastrophic climate change is inevitable.”

Bendell argues that the main trigger for some sort of collapse—which he defines as “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope”—will come from accelerating failures in the global food system.

We know that it is a distinct possibility that so-called multi-breadbasket failures (when major yield reductions take place simultaneously across agricultural areas producing staple crops like rice, wheat, or maize) can be triggered by climate change—and have already happened.

As shown by American physicist Dr. Yaneer Ban Yam and his team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, in the years preceding 2011, global food price spikes linked to climate breakdown played a role in triggering the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. And according to hydroclimatologist Dr. Peter Gleick, climate-induced drought amplified the impact of socio-political and economic mismanagement, inflicting agricultural failures in Syria. These drove mass migrations within the country, in turn laying the groundwork for sectarian tensions that spilled over into a protracted conflict.

In my own work, I found that the Syrian conflict was not just triggered by climate change, but a range of intersecting factors—Syria’s domestic crude oil production had peaked in the mid-90s, leading state revenues to hemorrhage as oil production and exports declined. When global climate chaos triggered food price spikes, the state had begun slashing domestic fuel and food subsidies, already reeling from the impact of economic mismanagement and corruption resulting in massive debt levels. And so, a large young population overwhelmed with unemployment and emboldened by decades of political repression took to the streets when they could not afford basic bread. Syria has since collapsed into ceaseless civil war.

This is a case of what Professor Thomas-Homer Dixon, University Research Chair in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, describes as “synchronous failure”—when multiple, interconnected stressors amplify over time before triggering self-reinforcing feedback loops which result in them all failing at the same time. In his book, The Upside of DownCatastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, he explains how the resulting convergence of crises overwhelms disparate political, economic and administrative functions, which are not designed for such complex events.

From this lens, climate-induced collapse has already happened, though it is exacerbated by and amplifies the failure of myriad human systems. Is Syria a case-study of what is in store for the world? And is it inevitable within the next decade?

In a major report released in August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that hunger has already been rising worldwide due to climate impacts. A senior NASA scientist, Cynthia Rosenzweig, was a lead author of the study, which warned that the continued rise in carbon emissions would drive a rise in global average temperatures of 2°C in turn triggering a “very high” risk to food supplies toward mid-century. Food shortages would hit vulnerable, poorer regions, but affluent nations may also be in the firing line. As a new study from the UK Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee concludes, fruit and vegetable imports to countries like Britain might be cut short if a crisis breaks out.

When exactly such a crisis might happen is not clear. Neither reports suggest it would result in the collapse of civilization, or even most countries, within 10 years. And the UN also emphasizes that it is not too late to avert these risks through a shift to organic and agro-ecological methods.

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt acknowledged “increasing impacts from climate change on global food production,” but said that a collapse “is not predicted and certainly not inevitable.”

The catastrophic ‘do-nothing’ scenario

A few years ago, though, I discovered first-hand that a catastrophic collapse of the global food system is possible in coming decades if we don’t change course. At the time I was a visiting research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, and I had been invited to a steering committee meeting for the Institute’s Global Research Observatory (GRO), a research program developing new models of global crisis.

One particular model, the Dawe Global Security Model, was focused on the risk of another global food crisis, similar to what triggered the Arab Spring.

“We ran the model forward to the year 2040, along a business-as-usual trajectory based on ‘do-nothing’ trends—that is, without any feedback loops that would change the underlying trend,” said institute director Aled Jones to the group of stakeholders in the room, which included UK government officials. “The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

Jones was at pains to clarify that this model-run could not be taken as a forecast, particularly as mitigation policies are already emerging in response to concern about such an outcome: “This scenario is based on simply running the model forward,” he said. “The model is a short-term model. It’s not designed to run this long, as in the real world trends are always likely to change, whether for better or worse.”

Someone asked, “Okay, but what you’re saying is that if there is no change in current trends, then this is the outcome?”

“Yes,” Jones replied quietly.

The Dawe Global Security Model put this potential crisis two decades from now. Is it implausible that the scenario might happen much earlier? And if so why aren’t we preparing for this risk?

When I asked UN disaster risk advisor Scott Williams about a near-term global food crisis scenario, he pointed out that this year’s UN flagship global disaster risk assessment was very much aware of the danger of another global “multiple breadbasket failure.”

“A projected increase in extreme climate events and an increasingly interdependent food supply system pose a threat to global food security,” warned the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction released in May. “For instance, local shocks can have far-reaching effects on global agricultural markets.”

Climate models we’ve been using are not too alarmist; they are consistently too conservative, and we have only recently understood how bad the situation really is.

Current agricultural modelling, the UN report said, does not sufficiently account for these complex interconnections. The report warns that “climate shocks and consequent crop failure in one of the global cereal breadbaskets might have knock-on effects on the global agricultural market. The turbulences are exacerbated if more than one of the main crop-producing regions suffers from losses simultaneously.”

Williams, who was a coordinating lead author of the UN global disaster risk assessment, put it more bluntly: “In a nutshell, Bendell is closer to the mark than his critics.”

He pointed me to the second chapter of the UN report which, he said, expressed the imminent risk to global civilization in a “necessarily politically desensitized” form. The chapter is “close to stating that ‘collapse is inevitable’ and that the methods that we—scientists, modellers, researchers, etc—are using are wholly inadequate to understand that nature of complex, uncertain ‘transitions,’ in other words, collapses.”

Williams fell short of saying that such a collapse scenario was definitely unavoidable, and the UN report—while setting out an alarming level of risk—did not do so either. What they did make clear is that a major global food crisis could erupt unexpectedly, with climate change as a key trigger.

Climate tipping points

A new study by a team of scientists at Oxford, Bristol, and Austria concludes that our current carbon emissions trajectory hugely increases this risk. Published in October in the journal Agricultural Systems, the study warns that the rise in global average temperatures is increasing the likelihood of “production shocks” affecting an increasingly interconnected global food system.

Surpassing the 1.5 °C threshold could potentially trigger major “production losses” of millions of tonnes of maize, wheat and soybean.

Right now, carbon dioxide emissions are on track to dramatically increase this risk of multi-breadbasket failures. Last year, the IPCC found that unless we reduce our emissions levels by five times their current amount, we could hit 1.5°C as early as 2030, and no later than mid-century. This would dramatically increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures, food production shocks and other devastating climate impacts.

In April this year, the European Commission’s European Strategy and Policy Analysis System published its second major report to EU policymakers, Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe. The report, which explores incoming national security, geopolitical and socio-economic risks, concluded: “An increase of 1.5 degrees is the maximum the planet can tolerate; should temperatures increase further beyond 2030, we will face even more droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people; the likely demise of the most vulnerable populations—and at worst, the extinction of humankind altogether.”

But the IPCC’s newer models suggest that the situation is even worse than previously thought. Based on increased supercomputing power and sharper representations of weather systems, those new climate models—presented at a press conference in Paris in late September—reveal the latest findings of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report now underway.

The models now show that we are heading for 7°C by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue unabated, two degrees higher than last year’s models. This means the earth is far more sensitive to atmospheric carbon than previously believed.

This suggests that the climate models we’ve been using are not too alarmist; they are consistently too conservative, and we have only recently understood how bad the situation really is.

I spoke to Dr. Joelle Gergis, a lead author on the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, about the new climate models. Gergis admitted that at least eight of the new models being produced for the IPCC by scientists in the US, UK, Canada and France suggest a much higher climate sensitivity than older models of 5°C or warmer. But she pushed back against the idea that these findings prove the inevitability of collapse, which she criticized as outside the domain of climate science. Rather, the potential implications of the new evidence are not yet known.

“Yes, we are facing alarming rates of change and this raises the likelihood of abrupt, non-linear changes in the climate system that may cause tipping points in the Earth’s safe operating space,” she said. “But we honestly don’t know how far away we are from that just yet. It may also be the case that we can only detect that we’ve crossed such a threshold after the fact.”

In an article published in August in the Australian magazine The Monthly, Dr. Gergis wrote: “When these results were first released at a climate modelling workshop in March this year, a flurry of panicked emails from my IPCC colleagues flooded my inbox. What if the models are right? Has the Earth already crossed some kind of tipping point? Are we experiencing abrupt climate change right now?”

Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral system has been wiped out at current global average temperatures which are now hovering around 1°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Gergis describes this as “catastrophic ecosystem collapse of the largest living organism on the planet.” At 1.5°C, between 70 and 90 percent of reef-building corals are projected to be destroyed, and at 2°C, some 99 percent may disappear: “An entire component of the Earth’s biosphere—our planetary life support system—would be eliminated. The knock-on effects on the 25 percent of all marine life that depends on coral reefs would be profound and immeasurable… The very foundation of human civilization is at stake.”

But Gergis told me that despite the gravity of the new models, they do not prove conclusively that past emissions will definitely induce collapse within the next decade.

“While we are undeniably observing rapid and widespread climate change across the planet, there is no concrete evidence that suggests we are facing ‘an inevitable, near term society collapse due to climate change,’” she said. “Yes, we are absolutely hurtling towards conditions that will create major instabilities in the climate system, and time is running out, but I don’t believe it is a done deal just yet.”

Yet it is precisely the ongoing absence of strong global policy that poses the fatal threat. According to Lund University climate scientist Wolfgang Knorr, the new climate models mean that practically implementing the Paris Accords target of keeping temperatures at 1.5 degrees is now extremely difficult. He referred me to his new analysis of the challenge published on the University of Cumbria’s ILFAS blog, suggesting that the remaining emissions budget given by the IPCC “will be exhausted at the beginning of 2025.” He also noted that past investment in fossil-fuel and energy infrastructure alone will put us well over that budget.

The scale of the needed decarbonization is so great and so rapid, according to Tim Garrett, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, that civilization would need to effectively “collapse” its energy consumption to avoid collapsing due to climate catastrophe. In a 2012 paper in Earth System Dynamics, he concluded therefore that “civilization may be in a double-bind.”

“We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency”

In a previous paper in Climatic Change, Garrett calculated that the world would need to switch to non-carbon renewable energy sources at a rate of about 2.1 percent a year just to stabilize emissions. “That comes out [equivalent] to almost one new nuclear power plant per day,” Garrett said. Although he sees this as fundamentally unrealistic, he concedes that a crash transition programme might help: “If society invests sufficient resources into alternative and new, non-carbon energy supplies, then perhaps it can continue growing without increasing global warming.”

Gergis goes further, insisting that it is not yet too late: “We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency. The question is, can we muster the best of our humanity in time?”

There is no straightforward answer to this question. To get there, we need to understand not just climate science, but the nature, dynamics, and causes of civilizational collapse.

Limits to Growth

One of the most famous scientific forecasts of collapse was conducted nearly 50 years ago by a team of scientists at MIT. Their “Limits to Growth” (LTG) model, known as “World3,” captured the interplay between exponential population and economic growth, and the consumption of raw materials and natural resources. Climate change is an implicit feature of the model.

LTG implied that business-as-usual would lead to civilizational breakdown, sometime between the second decade and middle of the 21st century, due to overconsumption of natural resources far beyond their rate of renewal. This would escalate costs, diminish returns, and accelerate environmental waste, ecosystem damage, and global heating. With more capital diverted to the cost of extracting resources, less is left to invest in industry and other social goods, driving long-term economic decline and political unrest.

The forecast was widely derided when first published, and its core predictions were often wildly misrepresented by commentators who claimed it had incorrectly forecast the end of the world by the year 2000 (it didn’t).

Systems scientist Dennis Meadows had headed up the MIT team which developed the ‘World3’ model. Seven years ago, he updated the original model in light of new data with co-author Jorgen Randers, another original World3 team-member.

“For those who respect numbers, we can report that the highly aggregated scenarios of World3 still appear… to be surprisingly accurate,” they wrote in Limits to Growth: the 30 year update. “The world is evolving along a path that is consistent with the main features of the scenarios in LTG.”

One might be forgiven for suspecting that the old MIT team were just blowing their own horn. But a range of independent scientific reviews, some with the backing of various governments, have repeatedly confirmed that the LTG ‘base scenario’ of overshoot and collapse has continued to fit new data. This includes studies by Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey, an economics advisor to the British government and Ministry of Defense; Australia’s federal government scientific research agency CSIRO; Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute; and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in London.

“Collapse is not a very precise term. It is possible that there would be a general, drastic, uncontrolled decline in population, material use, and energy consumption by 2030 from climate change,” Meadows told me when I asked him whether the LTG model shines any light on the risk of imminent collapse. “But I do not consider it to be a high probability event,” he said. Climate change would, however, “certainly suffice to alter our industrial society drastically by 2100.” It could take centuries or millennia for ecosystems to recover.

But there is a crucial implication of the LTG model that is often overlooked: what happens during collapse. During an actual breakdown, new and unexpected social dynamics might come into play which either worsen or even lessen collapse.

Those dynamics all depend on human choices. They could involve positive changes through reform in political leadership or negative changes such as regional or global wars.

That’s why modelling what happens during the onset of collapse is especially tricky, because the very process of collapse alters the dynamics of change.

Growth, complexity and resource crisis

What if, then, collapse is not necessarily the end? That’s the view of Ugo Bardi, of the University of Florence, who has developed perhaps the most intriguing new scientific framework for understanding collapse.

Earlier this year, Bardi and his team co-wrote a paper in the journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, drawing on the work of anthropologist Joseph Tainter at Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society. Tainter’s seminal book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, concluded that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Tainter studied the fall of the Western Roman empire, Mayan civilization, and Chaco civilization. As societies develop more complex and specialized bureaucracies to solve emerging problems, these new layers of problem-solving infrastructure generate new orders of problems. Further infrastructure is then developed to solve those problems, and the spiral of growth escalates.

As each new layer also requires a new ‘energy’ subsidy (greater consumption of resources), it eventually cannot produce enough resources to both sustain itself and resolve the problems generated. The result is that society collapses to a new equilibrium by shedding layers of complex infrastructure amassed in previous centuries. This descent takes between decades and centuries.

In his recent paper, Bardi used computer models to test how Tainter’s framework stood-up. He found that diminishing returns from complexity were not the main driver of a system’s decline; rather the decline in complexity of the system is due to diminishing returns from exploiting natural resources.

In other words, collapse is a result of a form of endless growth premised on the unsustainable consumption of resources, and the new order of increasingly unresolvable crises this generates.

In my view, we are already entering a perfect storm feedback loop of complex problems that existing systems are too brittle to solve. The collapse of Syria, triggered and amplified partly by climate crisis, did not end in Syria. Its reverberations have not only helped destabilize the wider Middle East, but contributed to the destabilization of Western democracies.

In January, a study in Global Environment Change found that the impact of “climatic conditions” on “drought severity” across the Middle East and North Africa amplified the “likelihood of armed conflict.” The study concluded that climate change therefore played a pivotal role in driving the mass asylum seeking between 2011 and 2015—including the million or so refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 alone, nearly 50 percent of whom were Syrian. The upsurge of people fleeing the devastation of their homes was a gift to the far-right, exploited by British, French and other nationalists campaigning for the break-up of the European Union, as well as playing a role in Donald Trump’s political campaigning around The Wall.

To use my own terminology, Earth System Disruption (ESD) is driving Human System Destabilization (HSD). Preoccupied with the resulting political chaos, the Human System becomes even more vulnerable and incapable of ameliorating ESD. As ESD thus accelerates, it generates more HSD. The self-reinforcing cycle continues, and we find ourselves in an amplifying feedback loop of disruption and destabilization.

Beyond collapse

Is there a way out of this self-destructive amplifying feedback loop? Bardi’s work suggests there might be—that collapse can pave the way for a new, more viable form of civilization, whether or not countries and regions experience collapses, crises, droughts, famine, violence, and war as a result of ongoing climate chaos.

Bardi’s analysis of Tainter’s work extends the argument he first explored in his 2017 peer-reviewed studyThe Seneca Effect: When Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid. The book is named after the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who once said that “fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid.”

Bardi examines a wide-range of collapse cases across human societies (from the fall of past empires, to financial crises and large-scale famines), in nature (avalanches) and through artificial structures (cracks in metal objects). His verdict is that collapse is not a “bug,” but a “varied and ubiquitous phenomena” with multiple causes, unfolding differently, sometimes dangerously, sometimes not. Collapse also often paves the way for the emergence of new, evolutionary structures.

In an unpublished manuscript titled Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth, due to be published by science publisher Springer-Nature next year, Bardi’s examination of the collapse and growth of human civilizations reveals that after collapse, a “Seneca Rebound” often takes place in which new societies grow, often at a rate faster than preceding growth rates.

This is because collapse eliminates outmoded, obsolete structures, paving the way for new structures to emerge which often thrive from the remnants of the old and in the new spaces that emerge.

He thus explains the Seneca Rebound as “as an engine that propels civilizations forward in bursts. If this is the case, can we expect a rebound if the world’s civilization goes through a new Seneca Collapse in the coming decades?”

Bardi recognizes that the odds are on a knife-edge. A Seneca Rebound after a coming collapse would probably have different features to what we have seen after past civilizational collapses and might still involve considerable violence, as past new civilizations often did—or may not happen at all.

“Very little if anything is being done to stop emissions and the general destruction of the ecosystem”

On our current trajectory, he said, “the effects of the destruction we are wreaking on the ecosystem could cause humans to go extinct, the ultimate Seneca Collapse.” But if we change course, even if we do not avoid serious crises, we might lessen the blow of a potential collapse. In this scenario, “the coming collapse will be just one more of the series of previous collapses that affected human civilizations: it might lead to a new rebound.”

It is in this possibility that Bardi sees the seeds of a new, different kind of civilization within the collapse of civilization-as-we-know-it.

I asked Bardi how soon he thought this collapse would happen. Although emphasizing that collapse is not yet inevitable, he said that a collapse of some kind within the next decade could be “very likely” if business-as-usual continues.

“Very little if anything is being done to stop emissions and the general destruction of the ecosystem,” Bardi said. “So, an ecosystemic collapse is not impossible within 10 years.”

Yet he was also careful to point out that the worst might be avoided: “On the other hand, there are many elements interacting that may change things a little, a lot, or drastically. We don’t know how the system may react… maybe the system would react in a way that could postpone the worst.”

Release and renewal

The lesson is that even if collapse is imminent, all may not be lost. Systems theorist Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, draws on the work of the late University of Florida ecologist C. S. Holling, whose detailed study of natural ecosystems led him to formulate a general theory of social change known as the adaptive cycle.

Complex systems, whether in nature or in human societies, pass through four phases in their life cycle, writes Lent. First is a rapid growth phase of innovation and opportunity for new structures; second is a phase of stability and consolidation, during which these structures become brittle and resistant to change; third is a release phase consisting of breakdown, generating chaos and uncertainty; the fourth is reorganization, opening up the possibility that small, seemingly insignificant forces might drastically change the future of the forthcoming new cycle.

It is here, in the last two phases, that the possibility of triggering and shaping a Seneca Rebound becomes apparent. The increasing chaos of global politics, Lent suggests, is evidence that we are “entering the chaotic release phase,” where the old order begins to unravel. At this point, the system could either regress, or it could reorganize in a way that enables a new civilizational rebound. “This is a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order.”

So as alarming as the mounting evidence of the risk of collapse is, it also indicates that we are moving into a genuinely new and indeterminate phase in the life cycle of our current civilization, during which we have a radical opportunity to mobilize the spread of new ideas that can transform societies.

I have been tracking the risks of collapse throughout my career as a journalist and systems theorist. I could not find any decisive confirmation that climate change will inevitably produce near-term societal collapse.

But the science does not rule this out as a possibility. Therefore, dismissing the risk of some sort of collapse—whether by end of century, mid-century, or within the next 10 years—contravenes the implications of the most robust scientific models we have.

All the scientific data available suggests that if we continue on our current course of resource exploitation, human civilization could begin experiencing collapse within coming decades. Exactly where and how such a collapse process might take off is not certain; and whether it is already locked in is as yet unknown. And as NASA’s Gavin Schmidt told me, local collapses are already underway.

From Syria to Brexit, the destabilizing socio-political impacts of ecosystemic collapse are becoming increasingly profound, far-reaching and intractable. In that sense, debating whether or not near-term collapse is inevitable overlooks the stark reality that we are already witnessing climate collapse.

And yet, there remains an almost total absence of meaningful conversation and action around this predicament, despite it being perhaps the most important issue of our times.

The upshot is that we don’t know for sure what is round the corner, and we need better conversations about how to respond to the range of possibilities. Preparation for worst-case scenarios does not require us to believe them inevitable, but vindicates the adoption of a rational, risk-based approach designed to proactively pursue the admirable goal for Deep Adaptation: safeguarding as much of society as possible.

Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation approach, he told me, is not meant to provide decisive answers about collapse, but to catalyze conversation and action.

“For the Deep Adaptation groups that I am involved with, we ask people to agree that societal collapse is either likely, inevitable or already unfolding, so that we can have meaningful engagement upon that premise,” he said. “Deep Adaptation has become an international movement now, with people mobilizing to share their grief, discuss what to commit to going forward, become activists, start growing food, all kinds of things.”

Confronting the specter of collapse, he insisted is not grounds to give-up, but to do more. Not later, but right now, because we are already out of time in terms of the harm already inflicted on the planet: “My active and radical hope is that we will do all kinds of amazing things to reduce harm, buy time and save what we can,” he said. “Adaptation and mitigation are part of that agenda. I also know that many people will act in ways that create more suffering.”

Most of all, the emerging science of collapse suggests that civilization in its current form, premised on endless growth and massive inequalities, is unlikely to survive this century. It will either evolve into or be succeeded by a new configuration, perhaps an “ecological civilization”, premised on a fundamentally new relationship with the Earth and all its inhabitants—or it will, whether slowly or more abruptly, regress and contract.

What happens next is still up to us. Our choices today will not merely write our own futures, they determine who we are, and what our descendants will be capable of becoming. As we look ahead, this strange new science hints to us at a momentous opportunity to become agents of change for an emerging paradigm of life and society that embraces, not exploits, the Earth. Because doing so is now a matter of survival.





A cool idea revisited

27 11 2019

It’s quite amazing what difference a few years make….. I often dump on technology as a problem within itself, but occasionally I find something that truly astonishes me. Anyone who’s been here long enough will remember my cool idea, now a staggering ten years old….. I wonder if that old freezer is still going as well as it did back then?

Anyhow, shortly before moving into Mon Abri in Tassie, we needed a new fridge, and I started shopping around for a suitable energy efficient freezer that we could run off our batteries. There aren’t anywhere near as many freezers to choose from as there are refrigerators, and thank goodness for that, it took me long enough to find what I wanted!

In the end, I opted for the same brand as the Cooran unit, which was discontinued many years ago. The brand is Haier, and interestingly, it seems they make a dual range of appliances; one is OK, the other is outstandingly better… Our new freeedge is a 220L upright unit. It’s actually a bit bigger than the previous one which was 175L. It’s a bit smaller than your average fridge, but you know me, I think everyone else’s fridge is way too big!

Remarkably, while searching for a clean photo of it, it no longer appears on Haier’s website, with the nearest freezer like it being 258L… We bought it online, which necessitated driving the ute to Hobart to pick it up, but I had to get our tiles at the same time so not such a waste of fuel.

Me being me, I immediately plugged it into an extension cord, the power station having not yet been connected to the house, via the usual thermostat switch I’ve been using for years, and my trusty energy monitor which I brought down from Queensland four years ago. To my amazement, the motor only draws 60W….. I was truly gobsmacked, because every other freezer I’ve used around the country has consumed at least 175W, and some as much as 250…..

The end result is that 39 days later when I finally wired the power station up and had power coming out of all the power points, I discarded the extension cord and moved the freedge to its final position in the new kitchen. The monitor said that it averaged 0.1kWh/day, and that at 30c/kWh (which I think is pretty average for grid pricing these days, it would cost $11 a year to run as it currently is.

The proof is, as they say, in the pudding. The battery bank, even in the current spate of bad weather we are experiencing, with winter refusing to go away except for a day or three now and again, are behaving as though there is no fridge in the house! After all, 0.1kWh is hardly a load at all…….

It can be argued that that it’s significantly cooler here than in Cooran, but the previous freedge consumed 0.25kWh/day, which even that was, I thought outstanding.

Not being a fridge, it doesn’t have all the convenient – and in my opinion un-necessary – fancy door trays etc, but it does have a light, and the drawers inside keep all the cold air where it belongs when you open the door.

Unrelated to the above, our first water tank pad is in place. Matt from next door finished cutting the footing trenches, I put all the steel in, and Caleb came back with his father Trev, an old hand at concreting, to help me pour the truckload of panic into the void. I was again lucky with the weather, not too hot, not too cold, and no rain, which I have to tell you is a bit rare this year for the cusp of summer….

Now all we need is for Mark to come back and lay the blocks we need to retain all that soil in the banks, and a stainless steel tank sitting atop the new pad to give us running water…… everything comes to those who wait, and I’m getting very good at waiting!





Problems, Predicaments, and Technology

27 11 2019

ERIK MICHAELS·FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2019·

We often see people bring out certain ideas that they claim are some sort of “solution” or that “they work” and I want to try to explain why (once again) these ideas are nothing more than ideas and not “solutions” of any sort. One of the things I most would like to get others to see is the bigger picture. Many people focus on reductionist ideas such as non-renewable “renewable” energy, or alternative energy ideas such as hydrogen, or technological ideas, but fail to see how those ideas don’t really change anything and only allow for continued environmental destruction (and consolidate capital in the hands of the elite) instead.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that climate change (and most of the topics in our files) is a predicament. A predicament has an outcome, not a solution or answer. Solutions and answers are reserved for PROBLEMS. Many people get these two mixed up and tend to see predicaments as problems. Wikipedia calls a predicament a “wicked problem” but this doesn’t change the simple fact that predicaments or dilemmas do not have solutions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem).

One of the first things I constantly harp about is technology. Technology has been great for those of us who can afford to use it, but it came at a huge cost to the environment AND to us over the long haul. It is our use of technology which CONTINUES the exponential expansion of the predicaments we face and it is our insistence upon not only using existing technology but on developing NEW technology to “solve” the predicaments technology caused to begin with that is itself one of the biggest parts of our predicaments.

Technology REQUIRES three things: mining (extraction), energy use (fossil fuel burning in most cases), and industrial civilization (the entire system we are embedded within and live within). Because these three things (along with technology use itself) are unsustainable and are killing all life on this planet, it is technology use which itself is unsustainable. This makes ANYTHING requiring technology under today’s conditions only capable of further destruction of our biosphere. Technology includes the wheel, fire, and agriculture and modern agriculture combines all three of these. Some folks have brought up regenerative agriculture as one of these so-called “solutions” that they believe will help. Regenerative agriculture can indeed “work” to do things like sequestering small amounts of carbon in soil, but what these folks have forgotten is that it does nothing to stop industrial civilization upon which agriculture is the bedrock of to begin with. As long as industrial civilization continues, so too does the continuing worsening of the biosphere upon which we depend. This makes agriculture of ALL types guilty of allowing the continuation of the very system destroying us. In addition, as the climate changes and extreme weather events worsen, ALL agriculture will suffer as a result.

This is where the fault of logic is – it is similar to the smoker who decides to treat his addiction to nicotine with more nicotine in a different form (such as a “patch” or “lozenge” or e-cigarette or chewing tobacco). The same thing can be said of utilizing different energy sources to “replace” fossil fuels. We are simply treating our addiction to energy with more energy in a never-ending vicious circle. As long as we don’t recognize our addiction, we wind up continuing the hamster wheel in a slightly different form while continuing to cause yet more damage.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater and claim that none of these ideas have any redeeming qualities, as many of them do. Provided the right conditions are met with regenerative ag, it CAN sequester carbon in the soil. In the nicotine example, reducing nicotine intake by utilizing other sources and then reducing the amount of nicotine gradually CAN help a smoker quit permanently. Ocean fertilization CAN help promote phytoplankton growth if several other conditions are met at the same time. But none of them stop industrial civilization, so the ongoing damage to the environment continues unabated.

Not until society realizes that technology itself is part of the predicaments in and of itself will people come to realize that technology can never solve what it has caused – it can only make conditions worse.

Techno-fix futures will only accelerate climate chaos—don’t believe the hype:

https://phys.org/news/2019-10-techno-fix-futures-climate-chaosdont-hype.html





Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us

27 11 2019

Richard Heinberg

August 17, 2017


Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity. The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species, and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion, and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: if climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion, and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind, and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers, and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation, and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity, and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating, and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”).  Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines won’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.





What Would Net Zero Emissions by 2025 Look Like?

16 11 2019

Another guest post by Dave Pollard…. and it’s a doozy.


graph by Our World in Data

The latest IPCC report says that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change global net CO2 emissions will have to reach net zero by 2050, from their current levels of 33-38B tons rising by nearly 2%/year. The IPCC’s past reports have been almost laughably conservative and optimistic, which is just one of the reasons Extinction Rebellion have set a net-zero deadline of 2025, just 6 years from now.

It should be noted that total greenhouse gases will continue to rise for at least another 15-20 years after net zero CO2 is achieved, due to the ongoing run-on effects of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, that have been unleashed ‘naturally’ as a result of the damage we have already done to the atmosphere. And it is at best a long shot that even if we were to achieve net zero CO2 by 2025, it isn’t already too late to prevent climate collapse. Our knowledge of the science remains abysmal and every new report paints a bleaker picture. Expect a fierce anti-science, anti-reality backlash as more and more climate scientists concur that runaway, civilization-ending climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, or don’t do.

So what would be required to reduce the course of the hockey-stick trajectory shown in the chart above and achieve net zero CO2 in just 6 years, for a population that will at current rates be 7% (at least 1/2 billion people) greater than it is now?

I think the reason that, while parliaments and political parties and scientists will readily accept XR’s first demand of proclaiming a climate emergency “and communicating the urgency for change”, for most the second demand of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss to zero by 2025 is simply absurd. Western economies have merely shifted production to Asia; their accelerating consumption of CO2-produced goods continues unabated. Our global economy depends utterly on cheap hydrocarbon energy. It’s completely preposterous to think a short-term shift is even vaguely possible. Renewables won’t help us; as the chart below shows, new solar energy isn’t even keeping up with the annual increases in demand, let alone cutting into the still-accelerating need for hydrocarbon energy:

graph by Pedro Prieto, cited by Bill Rees

So let’s be preposterous. What would have to happen, at a minimum, to achieve this valiant goal? Based on what I’ve read and on my understanding of complex systems, here’s just a few of the things that I think would have to happen:

  1. An immediate, complete and permanent grounding of all air traffic. That means no executive jets, no flying for diplomatic or business meetings or emergency family reasons — or military adventures. Achieving meaningful carbon reductions is simply impossible as long as planes are flying.
  2. Immediate rationing of liquid/gas hydrocarbons for essential and community purposes only. To get all the hydrocarbon-fuelled cars and trucks off the road in six years no more travel in personal hydrocarbon-burning vehicles could be permitted. And we’d have to work hard to convert all public buses, trains and ships to non-CO2 producing vehicles in that time. If you look at supply/demand curves for gasoline, we’d be looking at carbon taxes in the area of 1000% to ‘incent’ such conversions. My guess is that most shipping and much ‘privatized’ public transit would not be able to stay in business with these constraints. So say goodbye to most imported goods.
  3. All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.
  4. Industrial manufacturing based on fossil fuel use would have to convert in equal steps over the six year timeframe, and any plants failing to do so would have to be shuttered.
  5. Construction of new buildings and facilities would have to stop entirely. Existing buildings would have to phase out use of fossil fuels over the six years through rationing and cut-offs for non-compliance, and they would have to be remodelled to meet stringent net-zero energy standards and to accommodate all new building needs.
  6. Trillions of trees would have to be planted, and all forestry and forest clearing stopped entirely. Likewise, production of other new high-energy-use building materials (especially concrete) would have to cease. We’d have to quickly learn to re-use the wood and other building materials we have now.
  7. All this centralized, ‘unprofitable’ activity (and enforcement of the restrictions) would need to be funded through taxes. As during the great depression, the rich could expect tax rates north of 90% on income. And a very large wealth tax would be needed to quickly redistribute wealth so that the poor didn’t overwhelmingly suffer from the new restrictions.
  8. The consequences of the above would be an immediate and total collapse of stock and real estate markets and the flow of capital. The 90% of the world’s wealth that is purely financial and not real (stocks, bonds, pensions etc) would quickly become substantially worthless in a ‘negative-growth’ economy, adding a complete economic collapse to the crises the governments trying to administer the transition to net-zero were trying to manage. In such an economic collapse, many governments would simply fail, leaving communities in their jurisdictions to fend for themselves, and making it likely that much of the world would abandon the constraints of net-zero transition because they wouldn’t have the power or resources to even begin to enforce them.

Of course, none of this will happen. Even if governments had the power and wisdom to understand what was really required to make the net-zero transition, it would be political suicide for them to implement it. It won’t happen by 2025. It won’t happen by 2050. It won’t and wouldn’t happen by 2100 even if we had that long, which we do not.

The message of all this is that we cannot save our globalized civilization from the imminent end of stable climate, affordable energy, and the industrial economy — all of which are interdependent. No one (and no group) has the power to shift these massive global systems to a radically new trajectory, without which (and perhaps even with which) our world and its human civilization are soon going to look very different.

No one knows how and how quickly this will all play out, and the scenarios under which collapse will occur vary from humane, collaborative and relatively free from suffering, to the very dystopian. There is therefore no point dwelling on them, or even trying to plan for them. As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.