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.





We’ve moved in…….

7 11 2019

Yes dear reader, after years of hard yakka, and two months of renting the neighbours’ house in town to weather winter, we have moved into our new house. It’s more like glamping really, because we don’t have running water, hot or cold, we’re trampling dirt in on the bare concrete like you wouldn’t believe, but it’s home, even if it’s still a building site….. and it’s closer to where we work. and it’s definitely more comfortable than the shed…… I haven’t posted much since my last update because it’s been either frantically busy, or I’m too exhausted to post. This is in fact the first time I’ve started the laptop since moving in over a month ago. You can thank the rain….

The house is basically built now. The double glazed clerestory windows eventually turned up, the gutters are fitted (we’re even collecting rainwater in buckets (pouring rain as I write, trenches for the rainwater tank pad full of water…) to alleviate the need to cart it 300m from the shed!), and the power from the power station is finally all hooked up……. But no lights yet, except those plugged into the walls so we can see what we are saying to each other at night…..! The solar battery system is performing beyond all expectations, though of course we’re well past the equinox, and the days are now much longer. But all the same, we have to cook and heat water from them, and they haven’t even come close to going flat yet. This is not what the system was meant to do with an AGA in the kitchen supplying all the heating services.

We even have a kitchen of sorts, with a brand new black stone sink and brass flickmixer from which no water comes out because, well, we don’t have water tanks even…… As the AGA, which has partly moved in, has a black top and copper/brass finishes, we’ve decided to make that the kitchen theme. We’ve even managed to find copper light pendants, which I must put it soon so we can get rid of the cardboard boxes all over the floor!

My custom made hot water cylinder has also arrived, sitting on its platform waiting for an AGA to be plumbed to. As you may or may not remember, I ordered this stainless hot water tank from EarthWorker cooperative in Victoria. With the freight over Bass Strait, it wasn’t cheap, but it’s custom made to my specs, open to atmosphere and not requiring a TPR valve, the device that kept ejecting boiling water from the system in the Cooran house and needed replacing three times while we were there….. It was a bit of a slow trip from Hobart with this thing upright on the back of the ute, but we made it…..

Glenda and I lifted it on its platform with a ratchet strap, and it turned out far easier than I had anticipated… as expected, it just fits under the ceiling, and is just high enough to ensure proper thermosyphoning between it and the stove.

The house is performing thermally pretty well as expected. It’s still a tad cool, because the back wall is not yet insulated let alone backfilled, and at this time of year we don’t get much solar ingress. I expect that by the end of Summer, the thermal battery, which is after all what all that thermal mass is, will be charged up ready for Winter. My neighbour Matt who dug our sewer trenches came over to backfill them on a 32 degree day and wanted to see how cool it was inside. To his amazement, it was 21 inside, a whopping 11 degrees cooler than outside! Thermal mass works…….

The above mentioned trenches are now also finished, and we can actually drain the kitchen sink and wash our hands in the bathroom which is partly constructed and gives a good idea of what it will look like when finished.

Next on the list are the all important water tanks, stainless steel too for longevity and ability to remain in one piece during bushfires. Following a post bushfire meeting in town organised by the Tasmanian Fire Service, we decided to install gutter blocking valves so we can fill them with water to discourage ember attacks from burning our house down, and we will also have a special fitting on the tank for the fire brigate to access our water in an emergency.

But the best thing about having moved in is being able to see out, especially at our amazing view of the dam, in all weather, even the crappy style! I will also put up another post regarding the latest on the farm…..





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part IV: The Way Forward

7 11 2019

Kim Hill

Having published parts I II and III of Kim Hill’s excellent XR Rebellion unpacking series, I’ve really been hanging out for part IV which seemed to take forever to get published…… well, was t ever worth waiting for, it’s a rip roaring article, easily the best of the series. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Image: Roseanne de Lange

Part IPart IIPart III

As we’ve seen from the first three parts of this series, the current goals and tactics of Extinction Rebellion and the climate movement are leading us in the wrong direction. An entirely different strategy is needed if we are to have any hope of building an effective movement to end corporate control and the industries destroying the planet and all who live here.

More effective solutions

A movement that is serious about extinction and climate change needs to address the root problems: capitalism, the industrial system, a culture that sees life as a resource to be exploited, and the infrastructure that holds it all together. It needs to have clear goals, that can’t be diluted or used to manipulate and misdirect the movement. It needs to take action immediately, not in several years’ time. And it needs to target the weak points in the system, where it can have the most impact for the least effort.

The misdirection of Extinction Rebellion has come about because most urban dwellers have only an abstract idea of nature, as they don’t depend on it directly for their food, water and shelter. Their relationship with nature is mediated by the economic system, which provides for their needs by stealing resources from elsewhere and selling them on for profit. The rebels are led to believe that the extractive economy is necessary for survival, and that new industries and investments offer benefits to humans and wild nature. So city folks are more than willing to take to the streets to defend the very system that is crushing the life out of us all. It’s a form of collective Stockholm syndrome, on a global scale.

Effective solutions require rebels to have a direct relationship with the natural world. To defend nature requires love, which is a constant, reciprocal relationship, which means listening, observing, giving and receiving, and being in communion on a daily basis.

To be effective, rebels need to identify not as a citizen, consumer or worker, demanding action from business and government, but as a living being, interdependent with all life. To identify with the living world is to see the entire planet as an extension of the self, so action taken to defend nature is an act of self-defence.

Demanding that governments and corporations change will only lead (and has already led) to changes that give them more power. The entire social and legal structure that puts them in a position of power needs to be dismantled. This violent arrangement is not deserving of the respect of polite demands and peaceful protest.

Being effective requires a healthy mistrust of anyone offering technological or market-based solutions, and requires asking a whole lot of uncomfortable questions. The capture of this rebellion has depended on the lack of questioning (and probably more to the point, lack of answers) as to what net-zero emissions actually means, what the rebellion aims to achieve, and what the proposed solutions really entail. Always respond to any proposal with ‘what does this mean in practice? and who benefits from this?’

The burning of fossil fuels needs to stop. Not because it is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but because it is powering an industrial economy that is wiping out all life. The impacts of industrialism cannot be offset, decarbonised, decoupled from economic growth, exported to the third world, or made sustainable. Fossil fuels power mining, agriculture, shipping, aviation, road and rail transport, land clearing, manufacturing, plastics, the electricity grid, and imperialist wars. Dismantling the infrastructure of oil and gas would drastically reduce the impacts of these industries. Some possible approaches to achieve this are offered by Stop Fossil Fuels, which “researches and disseminates strategies and tactics to halt fossil fuel combustion as fast as possible.”

The goal needs to be not to Make Your Voice Heard, or cause a temporary, symbolic disruption to industrial activity, but to permanently shut down the industries that are causing harm. A single drone attack on a Saudi oil processing facility this September reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 50%, an action which has had more impact on the fossil fuel industry than the environmental movement ever has. No-one was harmed. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), by sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure in Nigeria, have been able to reduce the country’s oil production by half. Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, in burning holes in the Dakota Access Pipeline, were 1000 times more efficient in terms of material impact on oil production than the entire #NoDAPL campaign. And to demonstrate that government and business will never be on board with efforts that genuinely reduce fossil fuel extraction, they are facing more than 100 years in prison, despite harming no-one.

Principles for effective action

Be on the side of the living. The biosphere, endangered species, indigenous cultures and the third world don’t need development, investment, technology, corporate ambition and sustainable infrastructure. They don’t need business opportunities and economic growth. They need all these things to stop. Those on the side of industry advocate for sustainability, aiming to sustain the destructive system for as long as possible, and have brought environmentalists across to their side. The industrial system is a war on people and planet, and taking the side of the living means being willing to fight in defence of life, and oppose efforts to sustain industry and growth.

Learn from history. The rebellion has become disconnected from the struggles of the past, which has limited its tactics to civil disobedience, cutting off the possibilities of using tactics that have been successful in historical campaigns for justice. The book Full Spectrum Resistance offers lessons from movements of the past, and principles and strategies that can be applied to current struggles for social and ecological justice.

Ancient wisdom offers ways to live in harmony with the natural world. Learning about the traditional cultures of your ancestry, as well as those of the land where you live, can provide guidance towards rebuilding a genuinely sustainable land-based culture, and strategies for land and community defence.

Drop the attachment to nonviolence. The culture of industrial capitalism is based on systemic violence. To adhere to individual nonviolence in this context is to be complicit in the ongoing violence of imperialism, patriarchy, and resource extraction. The primary goal of an effective environmental movement needs to be to stop the violence.

Nonviolence is a tactic that is only available to the privileged, those who are not personally experiencing the effects of ecocide. Those who are directly under attack from destructive industries don’t have that option, and need to defend themselves and their land with weapons. Solidarity means being willing to fight alongside them, to follow their leadership and support their tactics.

Adults need to take the lead. The targeting of young people by the corporate-led climate movement has been deliberate. It is easier to manipulate their fears, and they can be convinced that the campaigning tactics used in the past have been ineffective, and that the new way of campaigning is better. This creates a separation between the generations, and interferes with any learning about historical movements. It also presents adults as incapable of taking action themselves, requiring young people to take responsibility for guiding them.

This is not the way to build a healthy culture of resistance. Adults need to take responsibility, and create a world that nurtures the next generation. Teaching young people about all the world’s problems and expecting them to take it all on is morally awful, and also repeating this same tactic for generations is clearly not going to work, if everyone just keeps passing their problems down the line. Children need to enjoy their childhood in a healthy culture. Young people are of course welcome to get involved in resistance work, and their energy and new ideas are essential, but they shouldn’t be made to feel it is their responsibility to guide adults.

Get political. Creating meaningful change requires a solid foundation of understanding of how political power works, and how change happens. By adhering to a principle of being non-political, XR shuts down any discussion of the politics influencing the movement, and prevents rebels from engaging in any political change. Rebels who engage in political discussion or advocate for political goals or strategies get excluded, which of course serves the interests of those who are manipulating the rebellion for their own political goals. Goals that no-one is allowed to talk about, because that would be political. See how this works? Only people with limited awareness of politics can realistically comply with the principle of remaining non-political, and these are the people who are most easily led into supporting goals that oppose their interests.

Set clear goals. Having vague goals that can appeal to a wide range of people is useful if the only purpose of the movement is to appeal to a wide range of people, but those who actually want to get things done need to be specific on what they want to get done. The goals need to be clear so that they can’t be used to redirect the movement, and there needs to be a realistic strategy for how they will be achieved.

You don’t have to include everyone. The principle of inclusion is promoted by the corporate campaigners because it prevents any real change. When all political views are included, there is no possibility of forming shared goals or effective strategies. Serious activism requires people who are dedicated and willing to take risks for the cause, and should only include people who have integrity and can take on the responsibilities. Everyone is of course welcome to support and contribute, but including people who are not fully committed will only hold back those who are.

Being included in the climate movement has set back indigenous struggles, as indigenous people are expected to set aside their own causes to focus on the goals of climate action, which are often in opposition to their interests. Rather than aiming to include indigenous people, third world movements, and other marginalised groups, predominantly white movements would do well to instead offer support and solidarity to autonomous struggles, to avoid co-opting or reinforcing existing power dynamics. A principle of inclusion is embraced by the white middle-class people leading the rebellion as it makes them feel good about their identity as inclusive people, but this comes at the expense of those being included. Inclusion of marginalised people in white-led capitalist movements is colonisation. White people need to position themselves as the back-up rather than the centre.

It should go without saying that the inclusion of corporations, the World Economic Forum, banks, and the military and police force that exist to defend them, is a barrier to forming a movement that can dismantle these institutions. When ‘we’re all in this together’, those who are being exploited by capitalism are required to align themselves with those who are profiting from their exploitation. This arrangement only serves the interests of those in power, and perpetuates the system. XR claims that “we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame”, which renders invisible the industries and structures of power that created the toxic system, and refuses to acknowledge that there are individuals who benefit from keeping it in place. Which leaves ordinary people identifying with the destructive economic system and blaming themselves, rather than collectively detoxifying by eradicating the entire capitalist economy.

Noticeably absent from all this performative inclusivity are the billions of living beings under threat of extinction, those whose interests XR claims to represent, yet whose names and needs for defence I’ve never heard mentioned in any of the rebellion’s discussions.

Abandon climate as an issue to rally around. Climate change is an effect of capitalism and the industrial system, and only one of many. It is not a separate issue that can be addressed on its own. Effective action needs to address the root causes. The climate issue has been thoroughly obfuscated by those who seek to benefit from manipulating the discussion. Studying and debating climate change is distracting us from taking action to address the underlying structural causes of ecological collapse.

Organise, not mobilise. XR’s strategy is predominantly based on mobilising — getting large numbers of people to come together in mass actions as individuals, rather than organising collectively on creating change on issues that directly affect them in their own neighbourhoods. The majority of rebels are simply part of a crowd at an action, rather than participating in political education, developing personal agency and leadership skills, and engaging with the wider community. Mobilising has some value as a tactic, but needs to be just one part of a broader strategy, and is unlikely to be effective on its own. Focusing exclusively on mobilising reinforces power structures and doesn’t lead to the necessary social changes.

Engage in decisive rather than symbolic actions. Standing in the street holding a banner and shouting slogans at no-one is not going to change the world. XR’s strategy of civil disobedience by blocking traffic has the effect of disrupting the lives of ordinary people on their way to work to earn a living. Effective action needs to target not working people, but the corporations and industries that are causing environmental and social devastation. Capitalism is already making people’s lives difficult enough without the rebels’ contribution. Making people aware of the issues doesn’t lead to change in itself. Decisive action means directly targeting the physical infrastructure of the industrial system, and undermining the legal and social structures that sanction it.

Create the future. Stopping the destructive system and creating a better world starts with believing that things can get better, and collectively we have the power to make that happen. Grieving the future is not going to get us there. Grieve for what has been lost, sure, but getting stuck in negativity about the future can create a global nocebo effect: if enough people genuinely believe we’re all going to die, then that’s probably what will happen. We don’t have to stay trapped in a culture of violence, isolation, suburbia, employment, junk food, debt, electricity, toxicity, traffic jams, social media and antidepressants. We can envision and create a world without these things, where humans live in healthy communities within their natural environments, not separate and imposed over top of them.

The way forward

Many people involved in XR are seeing the cracks in the green façade. There are some in the rebellion who support the goals of economic growth and the fourth industrial revolution, and don’t care about the natural world. But there are many more who care deeply, and are willing to take direct action and risk their own lives in defence of the greater web of life.

Every rebel needs to make a choice: are you on the side of the industrial economy, or on the side of the living planet? Because you can’t have both, and if you choose the economy, you’re taking away the future of every living being (including yourself), and that’s really not very nice. And there’s no room for half measures. More than 90% of the world’s rainforests have been lost to deforestation. Over 300 tons of topsoil are lost every minute. Corporations dump five million gallons of toxins into the ocean every day. One species goes extinct every 15 minutes. More than 90% of large fish in the oceans are gone, and there is 10 times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans. There’s definitely no space here for economy-saving Climate Action.

The movement is already huge, and momentum is building. The economy is failing, and on the brink of collapse. An organised, committed, strategic movement that targets the critical nodes of the economic system has the potential to take it down completely.

We have millions of years of evolution on our side. Our ancestors have fought off predators and forces that could have destroyed them, and survived long enough to reproduce. Every person reading this has this heritage. We can fight for our lives and survive this. We’ve been doing it for millions of years, and with a collective act of self-defence, we can keep on for millions more.

Be guided by the courage of your wild heart, not the fears of your domesticated mind. Ask the wild creatures what they would do if they had your resources. And listen. Then act. Always, always, speak and act on behalf of those who can’t. Those who would take down all the structures that stand in the way of life.

No expectations that the government or business will save us. No demands. No compromise. No shiny illusions of net-zero, carbon-neutral, future-proofing, renewable, climate-friendly bullshit. No green capitalism, clean growth, decarbonised economies or whatever other meaningless marketing slogans corporations use to sell fake protests.

An effective movement to reverse the trend of ongoing extractivism that’s leading us toward total extinction won’t be dependent on governments and businesses taking action in response to street protests. It will require communities to work together to take down the infrastructure of the extractive industries in their own neighbourhoods, and rebuild a culture based on living in harmony with the land that sustains us. It requires an allegiance to the living world, not to the system of laws and proper channels that exist to protect those who benefit from extraction, exploitation and extinction.

The path to a better world won’t come from a fear of atmospheric gases, and demands for investment in infrastructure and industry. It needs to come out of a place of love for the natural world, and from ancient wisdom. It will come from listening to the land where you live, and taking action to defend it. Let the Earth and those who maintain relationships with their land be our teachers and guides.