Climbing The Ladder Of Awareness

12 02 2019

By Paul Chefurka

Oct 20, 2012 | Society In Decline 

When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages:

  1. Dead asleep. At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behaviour and morality that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.
  2. Awareness of one fundamental problem. Whether it’s Climate Change, overpopulation, Peak Oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.
  3. Awareness of many problems. As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow.  At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems – for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion.  They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the “highest priority” problem.
  4. Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems. The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head.People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their understanding of what’s going on. These circles are necessarily small, both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of exploration, and because there just aren’t very many people who have arrived at this level of understanding.
  5. Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.  This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a “Solution” is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.

For those who arrive at Stage 5 there is a real risk that depression will set in. After all, we’ve learned throughout our lives that our hope for tomorrow lies in  our ability to solve problems today.  When no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament the possibility of hope can vanish like a the light of a candle flame, to be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.

How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves with the situation.  These are not mutually exclusive, and most of us will operate out of some mix of the two.  I identify them here as general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the other.  I call them the outer path and the inner path.

If one is inclined to choose the outer path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network and Permaculture Movement. To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability initiatives will have great appeal.  Organized party politics seems to be less attractive to people at this stage, however.  Perhaps politics is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it’s just seen as a waste of effort when the real action will take place at the local level.

If one is disinclined to choose the outer path either because of temperament or circumstance, the inner path offers its own set of attractions.

Choosing the inner path involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception.  For someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi’s message, “Become the change you wish to see in the world,” on the most profoundly personal level.  This message is similarly expressed in the ancient Hermetic saying, “As above, so below.” Or in plain language,  “In order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself.”

However, the inner path does not imply a “retreat into religion”. Most of the people I’ve met who have chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional politics.  Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized religion rarely does. It’s worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious personal difficulty at this point.  If someone cannot choose an outer path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out of this depth of despair.  If one remains stuck here for an extended period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence against either the world or oneself may begin to seem like a reasonable option.  Please keep a watchful eye on your own progress, and if you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them a supportive ear.

From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of the number people as the one before it. So while perhaps 90% of humanity is in Stage 1, less than one person in ten thousand will be at Stage 5 (and none of them are likely to be politicians).  The number of those who have chosen the inner path in Stage 5 also seems to be an order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.

I happen to have chosen an inner path as my response to a Stage 5 awareness. It works well for me, but navigating this imminent (transition, shift, metamorphosis – call it what you will), will require all of us – no matter what our chosen paths – to cooperate on making wise decisions in difficult times.

Best wishes for a long, exciting and fulfilling  journey.





This civilisation is finished: so what is to be done?

12 02 2019

Rupert Read, Environmental Philosopher and Chair of Green House Think Tank. The Paris Agreement explicitly commits us to use non-existent, utterly reckless, unaffordable and ineffective ‘Negative Emissions Technologies’ which will almost certainly fail to be realised. Barring a multifaceted miracle, within a generation, we will be facing an exponentially rising tide of climate disasters that will bring this civilization down. We, therefore, need to engage with climate realism.

This means an epic struggle to mitigate and adapt, an epic struggle to take on the climate-criminals and, notably, to start planning seriously for civilizational collapse. Dr Rupert Read is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Rupert is a specialist in Wittgenstein, environmental philosophy, critiques of Rawlsian liberalism, and philosophy of film. His research in environmental ethics and economics has included publications on problems of ‘natural capital’ valuations of nature, as well as pioneering work on the Precautionary Principle.

Recently, his work was cited by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in their landmark decision to ban the cultivation of GM aubergine. Rupert is also chair of the UK-based post-growth think tank, Green House, and is a former Green Party of England & Wales councillor, spokesperson, European parliamentary candidate and national parliamentary candidate. He stood as the Green Party MP-candidate for Cambridge in 2015.

About the series Shed A Light is a series of talks that seek to present alternative framings of future human-nature interactions and the pragmatic solution pathways that we could take to get there. By recognising the interlinkages between struggles for ecological, social and economic justice in addition to the desperate need for immediate societal transformation, Shed A Light aims to engage everyone with the green agenda and prompt broad-based discussions on sustainability issues. Filmed at Churchill College, 7 November 2018.





Collapse Is Already Here: It’s A Process, Not An Event …

30 01 2019

A great article by Chris Martenson, which omits the fires in Tassie….. as I write, collapse is very obvious down here in the Huon. Authorities have closed the road to Geeveston, and the survival of our shed and ducklings is in the lap of the gods now. Today’s conditions – air pollution index early this morning reached a staggering 1400 at home – are going to escalate to severe, with building losses expected.

Updated 30/1/2019 fire just 1000m from the Fanny Farm
Photo looking West taken by my neighbour Matt
15 months ago, that hill was covered in snow…!

By Chris Martenson

January 26, 2019 “Information Clearing House” –   

Many people are expecting some degree of approaching collapse — be it economic, environmental and/or societal — thinking that they’ll recognize the danger signs in time.

As if it will be completely obvious, like a Hollywood blockbuster. Complete with clear warnings from scientists, politicians and the media.  And everyone can then get busy either panicking or becoming the plucky heroes.

That’s not how collapse works.

Collapse is a process, not an event.

And it’s already underway, all around us.

Collapse is already here.

However, unlike Hollywood’s vision, the early stages of collapse cause people to cling even tighter to the status quo. Instead of panic in the streets, we simply see more of the same — as those in power do all they can to remain so, while the majority of the public attempts to ignore the growing problems for as long as it possibly can.

For both the elite and the majority, their entire world view and their personal sense of self depends on things not crumbling all around them, so they remain willfully blind to any evidence to the contrary.

When faced with the predicaments we warn about here at PeakProsperity.com, getting an early start on prudently shifting your own personal situation is of vital strategic and tactical importance. Tens of thousands of our readers already have taken wise steps in their lives to position themselves resiliently.

But most of the majority won’t get started until it’s entirely too late to make any difference at all. Which is sad but perhaps unavoidable, given human nature.

If everybody around you is saying “Everything is awesome!”, it can take a long time to determine for yourself that things in fact aren’t:

Real collapse happens slowly, and often without any sort of acknowledgement by the so-called political and economic elites until its abrupt terminal end.

The degree of rot within the Soviet Union went undetected until its final implosion, catching pretty much everyone in the West (as well as in the former USSR!) by surprise.

Similarly, one day people woke up and passenger pigeons were extinct.  They used to literally darken the skies for hours as they migrated past, numbering in the billions. Nobody planned on their demise and virtually nobody saw it coming.  Sure, just as there always are, a few crackpots at the fringes noticed, but they were ignored until it was too late.

Our view is that collapse of our current way of life is happening right now. The signs are all around us.  Our invitation is for you to notice them and inquire critically what the ramifications will be — irrespective of whatever pablum our leaders and media are currently spewing.

While the monetary and financial elites strain to crank out one more day/week/month/year of “market stability”, the ecosystems we depend on for life are vanishing. It’s as if the Rapture were happening, but it’s the insects, plants and animals ascending to heaven instead of we humans.

COMMITTING ECOCIDE

Be very skeptical when the cause of each new ecological nightmare is ascribed to “natural causes.”

While it’s entire possible for any one ecological mishap to be due to a natural cycle, it’s weak thinking to assign the same cause to dozens of troubling findings happening all over the globe.

As they say in the military: Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. But three times is enemy action.

Right now, Australia is in the middle of the summer season and being absolutely hammered by high heat.  Sure it gets hot during an Australian summer, but not like this. The impact has been devastating:

Australia’s Facing an Unprecedented Ecological Crisis, But No One’s Paying Attention

Jan 9, 2019

It started in December, just before Christmas.

Hundreds of dead perch were discovered floating along the banks of the Darling River – victims of a “dirty, rotten green” algae bloom spreading in the still waters of the small country town of Menindee, Australia.

Things didn’t get better. The dead hundreds became dead thousands, as the crisis expanded to claim the lives of 10,000 fish along a 40-kilometre (25-mile) stretch of the river. But the worst was still yet to come.

This week, the environmental disaster has exploded to a horrific new level – what one Twitter user called “Extinction level water degradation” – with reports suggesting up to a million fish have now been killed in a new instance of the toxic algae bloom conditions.

For their part, authorities in the state of New South Wales have only gone as far as confirming “hundreds of thousands” of fish have died in the event – but regardless of the exact toll, it’s clear the deadly calamity is an unprecedented ecological disaster in the region’s waterways.

“I’ve never seen two fish kills of this scale so close together in terms of time, especially in the same stretch of river,” fisheries manager Iain Ellis from NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) explained to ABC News.

The DPI blames ongoing drought conditions for the algae bloom’s devastating impact on local bream, cod, and perch species – with a combination of high temperature and chronic low water supply (along with high nutrient concentrations in the water) making for a toxic algal soup.

Watching the video above showing grown men crying over the loss of 100-year-old fish is heartbreaking. This fish kill is described as “unprecedented” and as an “extinction level event”, meaning it left no survivors over a long stretch of waterway.

We can try to console oursleves that maybe this was just a singular event, a cluster of bad juju and worse waterway management that combined to give us this horror — but it wasn’t.

It’s part of a larger tapestry of heat-induced misery that Australia is facing:

How one heatwave killed ‘a third’ of a bat species in Australia

Jan 15, 2019

Over two days in November, record-breaking heat in Australia’s north wiped out almost one-third of the nation’s spectacled flying foxes, according to researchers.

The animals, also known as spectacled fruit bats, were unable to survive in temperatures which exceeded 42C.

“It was totally depressing,” one rescuer, David White, told the BBC.

Flying foxes are no more sensitive to extreme heat than some other species, experts say. But because they often gather in urban areas in large numbers, their deaths can be more conspicuous, and easily documented.

“It raises concerns as to the fate of other creatures who have more secretive, secluded lifestyles,” Dr Welbergen says.

He sees the bats as the “the canary in the coal mine for climate change”.

A two-day heatwave last November (2018) was sufficient to kill up to a third of all Australia’s known flying foxes, a vulnerable species that was already endangered.  As those bats are well-studied and their deaths quite conspicuous to observers, it raises the important question: How many other less-scrutinized species are dying off at the same time?

And the death parade continues:

Are these data points severe enough for you to recognize as signs of ongoing collapse?

Last summer was a time of extreme draught and heat for Australia, and this summer looks set to be even worse. This may be the country’s  ‘new normal’ for if the situation is due to climate change instead of just an ordinary (if punishing) hot cycle.

If so, these heat waves will likely intensify over time, completely collapsing the existing biological systems across Australia.

‘Like losing family’: time may be running out for New Zealand’s most sacred treeMeanwhile, nearby in New Zealand, similar species loss is underway:

July 2018

New Zealand’s oldest and most sacred tree stands 60 metres from death, as a fungal disease known as kauri dieback spreads unabated across the country.

Tāne Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) is a giant kauri tree located in the Waipoua forest in the north of the country, and is sacred to the Māori people, who regard it as a living ancestor.

The tree is believed to be around 2,500 years old, has a girth of 13.77m and is more than 50m tall.

Thousands of locals and tourists alike visit the tree every year to pay their respects, and take selfies beside the trunk.

Now, the survival of what is believed to be New Zealand’s oldest living tree is threatened by kauri dieback, with kauri trees a mere 60m from Tāne Mahuta confirmed to be infected.

Kauri dieback causes most infected trees to die, and is threatening to completely wipe out New Zealand’s most treasured native tree species, prized for its beauty, strength and use in boats, carvings and buildings.

“We don’t have any time to do the usual scientific trials anymore, we just have to start responding immediately in any way possible; it is not ideal but we have kind of run out of time,” Black says, adding that although there is no cure for kauri dieback there is a range of measures which could slow its progress.

(Source)

People are rallying to try and save the kauri trees, although it’s unclear exactly how to stop the spread of the new fungal invader or why it’s so pathogenic all of a sudden.  It could be due to another natural sort of cycle (except the fungus was thought to have been introduced and spread by human activity) or it could be a another collapse indicator we need to finally hear and heed.

It turns out that New Zealand is not alone. Giant trees are dying all over the globe. [it’s been reported that the world’s two tallest flowering trees here in the Huon have burned….]

2,000-year-old baobab trees in Africa are suddenly and rather mysteriously giving up the ghost.  These trees survived happily for 2,000 years and now all of a sudden they’re dying. Are the deaths of our most ancient trees all across the globe some sort of natural process? Or is there a different culprit we need to recognize?

In Japan they’re lamenting record low squid catches.  Oh well, maybe it’s just overfishing?  Or could it be another message we need to heed?

To all this we can add the numerous scientific articles now decrying the ‘insect Apocalypse’ unfolding across the northern hemisphere. The Guardian recently issued this warning: “Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’”. Researchers in Puerto Rico’s forest preserves recorded a 98% decline in insect mass over 35 years.  Does a 98% decline have a natural explanation? Or is something bigger going on?

Meanwhile, the butterfly die-off is unfolding with alarming speed. I rarely see them in the summer anymore, much to my great regret.  Seeing one is now as exciting as seeing a meteor streak across the sky, and just as rare:

Monarch butterfly numbers plummet 86 percent in California

Jan 7, 2019

CAMARILLO, Calif. – The number of monarch butterflies turning up at California’s overwintering sites has dropped by about 86 percent compared to only a year ago, according to the Xerces Society, which organizes a yearly count of the iconic creatures.

That’s bad news for a species whose numbers have already declined an estimated 97 percent since the 1980s.

Each year, monarchs in the western United States migrate from inland areas to California’s coastline to spend the winter, usually between September and February.

“It’s been the worst year we’ve ever seen,” said Emma Pelton, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society who helps lead the annual Thanksgiving count. “We already know we’re dealing with a really small population, and now we have a really bad year and all of a sudden, we’re kind of in crisis mode where we have very, very few butterflies left.”

What’s causing the dramatic drop-off is somewhat of a mystery. Experts believe the decline is spurred by a confluence of unfortunate factors, including late rainy-season storms across California last March, the effects of the state’s years long drought and the seemingly relentless onslaught of wildfires that have burned acres upon acres of habitat and at times choked the air with toxic smoke.

(Source)

Note the “explanation” given blames the decline on mostly natural processes: late storms, droughts and wildfires. I believe that’s because the article appears in a US paper, so no mention was permitted of neonicotinoid pesticides or glyphosate. Both of these are highly effective decimators of insect life — but they’re highly profitable for Big Ag, so for now, any criticism is not allowed.

Sure a 97% decline since the 1980’s might be due to fires, droughts and rains. But that’s really not very likely.  There have always been fires, droughts and rains.  Something else has shifted since the 1980’s. And that “thing” is human activity, which has increased its willingness to destroy habitat and spray poisons everywhere in pursuit of cheaper food and easier profits.

The loss of insects, which we observe in the loss of the beautiful and iconic Monarch butterfly, is a gigantic warning flag that we desperately need to heed.  If the bottom of our billion-year-old food web disintegrates, you can be certain that the repercussions to humans will be dramatic and terribly difficult to ‘fix.’  In scientific terms, it will be called a “bottom-up trophic cascade”.

In a trophic cascade, the loss of a single layer of the food pyramid crumbles the entire structure.  Carefully-tuned food webs a billion years in the making are suddenly destabilized.  Life cannot adapt quickly enough, and so entire species are quickly lost.  Once enough species die off, the web cannot be rewoven, and life … simply ends.

What exactly would a “trophic cascade” look like in real life?  Oh, perhaps something just like this:

Deadly deficiency at the heart of an environmental mystery

Oct 16, 2018

During spring and summer, busy colonies of a duck called the common eider (Somateria mollissima) and other wild birds are usually seen breeding on the rocky coasts around the Baltic Sea. Thousands of eager new parents vie for the best spots to build nests and catch food for their demanding young broods.

But Lennart Balk, an environmental biochemist at Stockholm University, witnessed a dramatically different scene when he visited Swedish coastal colonies during a 5-year period starting in 2004. Many birds couldn’t fly. Others were completely paralyzed. Birds also weren’t eating and had difficulty breathing. Thousands of birds were suffering and dying from this paralytic disease, says Balk. “We went into the bird colonies, and we were shocked. You could see something was really wrong. It was a scary situation for this time of year,” he says.

Based on his past work documenting a similar crisis in several Baltic Sea fish species, Balk suspected that the birds’ disease was caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Thiamine is required for critical metabolic processes, such as energy production and proper functioning of the nervous system.

This essential micronutrient is produced mainly by plants, including phytoplankton, bacteria, and fungi; people and animals must acquire it through their food.

“We found that thiamine deficiency is much more widespread and severe than previously thought,” Balk says. Given its scope, he suggests that a pervasive thiamine deficiency could be at least partly responsible for global wildlife population declines. Over a 60-year period up to 2010, for example, worldwide seabird populations declined by approximately 70%, and globally, species are being lost 1,000 times faster than the natural rate of extinction (9, 10). “He has seen a thiamine deficiency in several differ phyla now,” says Fitzsimons of Balk. “One wonders what is going on. It’s a larger issue than we first suspected.”

(Source)

This is beyond disturbing. It should have been on the front pages of every newspaper and TV show across the globe.  We should be discussing it in urgent, worried tones and devoting a huge amount of money to studying and fixing it.  At a minimum, we should stop hauling more tiny fish and krill from the sea in an effort to at least stabilize the food pyramid while we sort things out.

If you recall, we’ve also recently reported on the findings showing that phytoplankton levels are down 50% (these are a prime source for thiamine, by the way). Again, here’s a possible “trophic cascade” in progress:

(Source)

Fewer phytoplankton means less thiamine being produced. That means less thiamine is available to pass up the food chain. Next thing you know, there’s a 70% decline in seabird populations.

This is something I’ve noticed directly and commented n during my annual pilgrimages to the northern Maine coast over the past 30 years, where seagulls used to be extremely common and are now practically gone.  Seagulls!

Next thing you know, some other major food chain will be wiped out and we’ll get oceans full of jellyfish instead of actual fish.  Or perhaps some once-benign mold grows unchecked because the former complex food web holding it in balance has collapsed, suddenyl transforming Big Ag’s “green revolution” into grayish-brown spore-ridden dust.

To add to the terrifying mix of ecological news has been the sudden and rapid loss of amphibian species all over the world.  A possible source for the culprit has been found, if that’s any consolation; though that discovery does not yet identify a solution to this saddening development.

Ground Zero of Amphibian ‘Apocalypse’ Finally Found

May 10, 2018

MANY OF THE world’s amphibians are staring down an existential threat: an ancient skin-eating fungus that can wipe out entire forests’ worth of frogs in a flash.

This ecological super-villain, the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has driven more than 200 amphibian species to extinction or near-extinction—radically rewiring ecosystems all over Earth.

“This is the worst pathogen in the history of the world, as far as we can tell, in terms of its impacts on biodiversity,” says Mat Fisher, an Imperial College London mycologist who studies the fungus.

Now, a global team of 58 researchers has uncovered the creature’s origin story. A groundbreaking study published in Science on Thursday reveals where and when the fungus most likely emerged: the Korean peninsula, sometime during the 1950s.

From there, scientists theorize that human activities inadvertently spread it far and wide—leading to amphibian die-offs across the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

(Source)

Frogs, toads and salamanders were absolutely critical parts of my childhood and I delighted in their presence. I cannot imagine a world without them. But effectively, that’s what we’ve got now with so many on the endangered species list.

This parade of awful ecological news is both endless and worsening. And there is no real prospect for us to fix things in time to avoid substantial ecological pain.  None.

After all, we can’t even manage our watersheds properly. And those are dead simple by comparison. Water falls from the sky in (Mostly) predictable volume and you then distribute somewhat less than that total each year.  Linear and simple in comparison to trying to unravel the many factors underlying a specie’s collapse.

But challenges like this are popping up all over the globe:

Fear And Grieving In Las Vegas: Colorado River Managers Struggle With Water Scarcity

Dec 14th, 2018

On stage in a conference room at Las Vegas’s Caesars Palace, Keith Moses said coming to terms with the limits of the Colorado River is like losing a loved one.

“It reminds me of the seven stages of grief,” Moses said. “Because I think we’ve been in denial for a long time.”

Moses is vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a group of four tribes near Parker, Arizona. He was speaking at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association meeting.

The denial turned to pain and guilt as it became clear just how big the supply and demand gaps were on the river that delivers water to 40 million people in the southwest.

For the last six months Arizona’s water leaders have been experiencing the third stage of grief: anger and bargaining.

Of the seven U.S. states that rely on the Colorado River, Arizona has had the hardest time figuring out how to rein in water use and avoid seeing the river’s largest reservoirs — Lakes Mead and Powell — drop to extremely low levels.

Kathryn Sorenson, director of Phoenix’s water utility, characterized the process this way: “Interesting. Complicated. Some might say difficult.”

One of the loudest voices in the debate has been coming from a small group of farmers in rural Pinal County, Arizona, south of Phoenix.

Under the current rules those farmers could see their Colorado River supplies zeroed out within two years.

The county’s biggest grower of cotton and alfalfa, Brian Rhodes, is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. The soil in his fields is powder-like, bursting into tiny brown clouds with each step.

“We’re going to have to take large cuts,” Rhodes said. “We all understand that.”

(Source)

Oh my goodness. If we’re having trouble realizing that wasting precious water from the Colorado River to grow cotton is a bad idea, then there’s just no hope at all that we’ll successfully rally to address the loss of ocean phytoplankton.

That’s about the easiest connection of dots that could ever be made.  As Sam Kinison, the 1980’s comedian might have yelled – IT’S A DESERT!! YOU’RE TRYING TO GROW WATER-INTENSIVE CROPS IN THE FREAKING DESERT!  CAN’T YOU SEE ALL THE SAND AROUND YOU?!? THAT MEANS “DON’T GROW COTTON HERE!!”

A WORLD ON THE BRINK

The bottom line is this: We are destroying the natural world. And that means that we are destroying ourselves. 

I know that the mainstream news has relegated this conversation to the back pages (when they covered it at all) and so it’s not “front and center” for most people.  But it should be.

Everything we hold dear is a subset of the ecosphere. If that goes, so does everything else. Nothing else matters in the slightest if we actively destroy the Earth’s carrying capacity.

At the same time, we’re in the grips of an extremely dangerous delusion that has placed money, finance and the economy at the top spot on our temple of daily worship.

Any idea of slowing down or stopping economic growth is “bad for business” and dismissed out of hand as “not practical”, “undesirable” or “unwise”.  It’s always a bad time to discuss the end of economic growth, apparently.

But as today’s young people are increasingly discovering, if conducting business” is just a lame rationale for failed stewardship of our lands and oceans, then it’s a broken idea. One not worth preserving in its current form.

The parade of terrible ecological breakdowns provided above is there for all willing to see it. Are you willing?  Each failing ecosystem is screaming at us in urgent, strident tones that we’ve gone too far in our quest for “more”.

We might be able to explain away each failure individually. But taken as a whole?  The pattern is clear: We’ve got enemy action at work.  These are not random coincidences.

Nature is warning us loudly that it’s past time to change our ways.  That our “endless growth” model is no longer valid. In fact, it’s now becoming an existential threat

The collapse is underway. It’s just not being televised (yet).

DAVOS AS DESTINY

And don’t expect the cavalry to arrive.

Our leadership is absolutely not up to the task. If the Davos conference currently underway in Switzerland is a sign of anything at all, it’s that we’re doomed.

The world has been taken over by bankers and financiers too smitten by their love of money to notice much else or be of any practical service to the world.

By way of illustrative example, here’s the big techno-feel-good idea unveiled on the second day of the conference.  The crowds there loved it:

Yes, folks, this is what the world most desperately needs at this time! /sarc

While I’m sure drone-delivered books is a heartwarming story, it’s completely diversionary and utterly meaningless in the face of collapsing oceanic and terrestrial food webs.

Sadly, this is exactly the sort of inane distraction most admired by the Davos set in large part because it helps them feel a tiny bit better about their ill-gotten wealth. “Look!  We’re supporting good thngs!”  The ugly truth is that big wealth’s main pursuit is to distort political processes and rules to assure they get to keep it and even amass more.

Drones carrying books to Indonesian children provides the same sort of dopamine rush to a Davos attendee as Facebook ‘like’ gives to a 14-year-old. Temporary, cheap, superficial and ultimately meaningless.

The same is true of their other feel-good theme of the day. “Scientists” have discovered an enzyme that eats plastics:

That’s swell, but you know what would be even better?  Not using the bottles in the first place. Which could be accomplished by providing access to safe, potable water as a basic human right and using re-usable containers.  Of course, that would offer less chances for private wealth accumulation so instead the Davos crowd is fixated on the profitable solution vs. doing the right thing.

In viritually every instance, the Davos crowd wants to preserve industry and our consumer culture as it is, using technology and gimmicks in attempt to remedy the ills that result.  There’s money to be made on both ends of that story.

The only thing that approach lacks is a future. Because it’s not-so-subtly based on continued “growth”. Infinite exponential growth. The exact same growth that is killing ancient trees, sea birds, insects, amphibians, and phytoplankton.

Who wants more of that? Insane people.

In other words, don’t hold out any hope that the Davos set representing the so-called “elite” from every prominent nation on earth are going to somehow bravely offer up real insights on our massive predicaments and solutions to our looming problems. They’re too consumed with their own egos and busy preening for prominence to notice the danger or care.

As they pointlessly fritter away another expensive gathering, the ecological world is unraveling all around them. The oceans are becoming a barren wasteland.  The ancient trees are dying.  Heatwaves are melting tar and killing life.  The web of life is snapping strand by strand and nobody can predict what happens next.

In other words, if you held out any hope that “they” would somehow rally to the cause you’d best set that completely aside. It’s no wonder social anger against tone-deaf and plundering elites is breaking out right now.

From here, there are only two likely paths:

(1) We humans simply cannot self-organize to address these plights and carry on until the bitter end, when something catastrophic happens that collapses our natural support systems.

(2) We see the light, gather our courage, and do what needs to be done.  Consumption is widely and steeply curtailed, fossil fuel use is severely restrained, and living standards as measured by the amount of stuff flowing through our daily lives are dropped to sustainable levels.

Either path means enormous changes are coming, probably for you and definitely for your children and grandchildren.

In Part 2: Facing Reality we dive into what developments to expect as our systems continue further along their trophic cascade. Which markers and milestones should we monitor most closely to know when the next breaking point is upon us?

To reiterate: Massive change is now inevitable and in progress.

Collapse has already begun.

This article was originally published by Peak Prosperity





2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

10 01 2019

Posted on January 9, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

Another incisive self explanatory article by Gail Tverberg explaining the recent volatility and what outcomes we can expect from that this coming year (and next) MUST READ.

Financial markets have been behaving in a very turbulent manner in the last couple of months. The issue, as I see it, is that the world economy is gradually changing from a growth mode to a mode of shrinkage. This is something like a ship changing course, from going in one direction to going in reverse. The system acts as if the brakes are being very forcefully applied, and reaction of the economy is to almost shake.

What seems to be happening is that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as predicted in the computer simulations modeled in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. In fact, the base model of that set of simulations indicated that peak industrial output per capita might be reached right about now. Peak food per capita might be reached about the same time. I have added a dotted line to the forecast from this model, indicating where the economy seems to be in 2019, relative to the base model.

Figure 1. Base scenario from The Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil with dotted line at 2019 added by author. The 2019 line is drawn based on where the world economy seems to be now, rather than on precisely where the base model would put the year 2019.

The economy is a self-organizing structure that operates under the laws of physics. Many people have thought that when the world economy reaches limits, the limits would be of the form of high prices and “running out” of oil. This represents an overly simple understanding of how the system works. What we should really expect, and in fact, what we are now beginning to see, is production cuts in finished goods made by the industrial system, such as cell phones and automobiles, because of affordability issues. Indirectly, these affordability issues lead to low commodity prices and low profitability for commodity producers. For example:

  • The sale of Chinese private passenger vehicles for the year of 2018 through November is down by 2.8%, with November sales off by 16.1%. Most analysts are forecasting this trend of contracting sales to continue into 2019. Lower sales seem to reflect affordability issues.
  • Saudi Arabia plans to cut oil production by 800,000 barrels per day from the November 2018 level, to try to raise oil prices. Profits are too low at current prices.
  • Coal is reported not to have an economic future in Australia, partly because of competition from subsidized renewables and partly because China and India want to prop up the prices of coal from their own coal mines.

The Significance of Trump’s Tariffs

If a person looks at history, it becomes clear that tariffs are a standard response to a problem of shrinking food or industrial output per capita. Tariffs were put in place in the 1920s in the time leading up to the Great Depression, and were investigated after the Panic of 1857, which seems to have indirectly led to the US Civil War.

Whenever an economy produces less industrial or food output per capita there is an allocation problem: who gets cut off from buying output similar to the amount that they previously purchased? Tariffs are a standard way that a relatively strong economy tries to gain an advantage over weaker economies. Tariffs are intended to help the citizens of the strong economy maintain their previous quantity of goods and services, even as other economies are forced to get along with less.

I see Trump’s trade policies primarily as evidence of an underlying problem, namely, the falling affordability of goods and services for a major segment of the population. Thus, Trump’s tariffs are one of the pieces of evidence that lead me to believe that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth.

The Nature of World Economic Growth

Economic growth seems to require growth in three dimensions (a) Complexity, (b) Debt Bubble, and (c) Use of Resources. Today, the world economy seems to be reaching limits in all three of these dimensions (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Complexity involves adding more technology, more international trade and more specialization. Its downside is that it indirectly tends to reduce affordability of finished end products because of growing wage disparity; many non-elite workers have wages that are too low to afford very much of the output of the economy. As more complexity is added, wage disparity tends to increase. International wage competition makes the situation worse.

growing debt bubble can help keep commodity prices up because a rising amount of debt can indirectly provide more demand for goods and services. For example, if there is growing debt, it can be used to buy homes, cars, and vacation travel, all of which require oil and other energy consumption.

If debt levels become too high, or if regulators decide to raise short-term interest rates as a method of slowing the economy, the debt bubble is in danger of collapsing. A collapsing debt bubble tends to lead to recession and falling commodity prices. Commodity prices fell dramatically in the second half of 2008. Prices now seem to be headed downward again, starting in October 2018.

Figure 3. Brent oil prices with what appear to be debt bubble collapses marked.

Figure 4. Three-month treasury secondary market rates compared to 10-year treasuries from FRED, with points where short term interest rates exceed long term rates marked by author with arrows.

Even the relatively slow recent rise in short-term interest rates (Figure 4) seems to be producing a decrease in oil prices (Figure 3) in a way that a person might expect from a debt bubble collapse. The sale of US Quantitative Easing assets at the same time that interest rates have been rising no doubt adds to the problem of falling oil prices and volatile stock markets. The gray bars in Figure 4 indicate recessions.

Growing use of resources becomes increasingly problematic for two reasons. One is population growth. As population rises, the economy needs more food to feed the growing population. This leads to the need for more complexity (irrigation, better seed, fertilizer, world trade) to feed the growing world population.

The other problem with growing use of resources is diminishing returns, leading to the rising cost of extracting commodities over time. Diminishing returns occur because producers tend to extract the cheapest to extract commodities first, leaving in place the commodities requiring deeper wells or more processing. Even water has this difficulty. At times, desalination, at very high cost, is needed to obtain sufficient fresh water for a growing population.

Why Inadequate Energy Supplies Lead to Low Oil Prices Rather than High

In the last section, I discussed the cost of producing commodities of many kinds rising because of diminishing returns. Higher costs should lead to higher prices, shouldn’t they?

Strangely enough, higher costs translate to higher prices only sometimes. When energy consumption per capita is rising rapidly (peaks of red areas on Figure 5), rising costs do seem to translate to rising prices. Spiking oil prices were experienced several times: 1917 to 1920; 1974 to 1982; 2004 to mid 2008; and 2011 to 2014. All of these high oil prices occurred toward the end of the red peaks on Figure 5. In fact, these high oil prices (as well as other high commodity prices that tend to rise at the same time as oil prices) are likely what brought growth in energy consumption down. The prices of goods and services made with these commodities became unaffordable for lower-wage workers, indirectly decreasing the growth rate in energy products consumed.

Figure 5.

The red peaks represented periods of very rapid growth, fed by growing supplies of very cheap energy: coal and hydroelectricity in the Electrification and Early Mechanization period, oil in the Postwar Boom, and coal in the China period. With low energy prices,  many countries were able to expand their economies simultaneously, keeping demand high. The Postwar Boom also reflected the addition of many women to the labor force, increasing the ability of families to afford second cars and nicer homes.

Rapidly growing energy consumption allowed per capita output of both food (with meat protein given a higher count than carbohydrates) and industrial products to grow rapidly during these peaks. The reason that output of these products could grow is because the laws of physics require energy consumption for heat, transportation, refrigeration and other processes required by industrialization and farming. In these boom periods, higher energy costs were easy to pass on. Eventually the higher energy costs “caught up with” the economy, and pushed growth in energy consumption per capita down, putting an end to the peaks.

Figure 6 shows Figure 5 with the valleys labeled, instead of the peaks.

Figure 6.

When I say that the world economy is reaching “peak industrial output per capita” and “peak food per capita,” this represents the opposite of a rapidly growing economy. In fact, if the world is reaching Limits to Growth, the situation is even worse than all of the labeled valleys on Figure 6. In such a case, energy consumption growth is likely to shrink so low that even the blue area (population growth) turns negative.

In such a situation, the big problem is “not enough to go around.” While cost increases due to diminishing returns could easily be passed along when growth in industrial and food output per capita were rapidly rising (the Figure 5 situation), this ability seems to disappear when the economy is near limits. Part of the problem is that the lower growth in per capita energy affects the kinds of jobs that are available. With low energy consumption growth, many of the jobs that are available are service jobs that do not pay well. Wage disparity becomes an increasing problem.

When wage disparity grows, the share of low wage workers rises. If businesses try to pass along their higher costs of production, they encounter market resistance because lower wage workers cannot afford the finished goods made with high cost energy products. For example, auto and iPhone sales in China decline. The lack of Chinese demand tends to lead to a drop in demand for the many commodities used in manufacturing these goods, including both energy products and metals. Because there is very little storage capacity for commodities, a small decline in demand tends to lead to quite a large decline in prices. Even a small decline in China’s demand for energy products can lead to a big decline in oil prices.

Strange as it may seem, the economy ends up with low oil prices, rather than high oil prices, being the problem. Other commodity prices tend to be low as well.

What Is Ahead, If We Are Reaching Economic Growth Limits?

1. Figure 1 at the top of this post seems to give an indication of what is ahead after 2019, but this forecast cannot be relied on. A major issue is that the limited model used at that time did not include the financial system or debt. Even if the model seems to provide a reasonably accurate estimate of when limits will hit, it won’t necessarily give a correct view of what the impact of limits will be on the rest of the economy, after limits hit. The authors, in fact, have said that the model should not be expected to provide reliable indications regarding how the economy will behave after limits have started to have an impact on economic output.

2. As indicated in the title of this post, considerable financial volatility can be expected in 2019if the economy is trying to slow itself. Stock prices will be erratic; interest rates will be erratic; currency relativities will tend to bounce around. The likelihood that derivatives will cause major problems for banks will rise because derivatives tend to assume more stability in values than now seems to be the case. Increasing problems with derivatives raises the risk of bank failure.

3. The world economy doesn’t necessarily fail all at once. Instead, pieces that are, in some sense, “less efficient” users of energy may shrink back. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the countries that seemed to be most affected were countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy that depend on oil for a disproportionately large share of their total energy consumption. China and India, with energy mixes dominated by coal, were much less affected.

Figure 7. Oil consumption as a percentage of total energy consumption, based on 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 8. Energy consumption per capita for selected areas, based on energy consumption data from 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy and United Nations 2017 Population Estimates by Country.

In the 2002-2008 period, oil prices were rising faster than prices of other fossil fuels. This tended to make countries using a high share of oil in their energy mix less competitive in the world market. The low labor costs of China and India gave these countries another advantage. By the end of 2007, China’s energy consumption per capita had risen to a point where it almost matched the (now lower) energy consumption of the European countries shown. China, with its low energy costs, seems to have “eaten the lunch” of some of its European competitors.

In 2019 and the years that follow, some countries may fare at least somewhat better than others. The United States, for now, seems to be faring better than many other parts of the world.

4. While we have been depending upon China to be a leader in economic growth, China’s growth is already faltering and may turn to contraction in the near future. One reason is an energy problem: China’s coal production has fallen because many of its coal mines have been closed due to lack of profitability. As a result, China’s need for imported energy (difference between black line and top of energy production stack) has been growing rapidly. China is now the largest importer of oil, coal, and natural gas in the world. It is very vulnerable to tariffs and to lack of available supplies for import.

Figure 9. China energy production by fuel plus its total energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 data.

A second issue is that demographics are working against China; its working-age population already seems to be shrinking. A third reason why China is vulnerable to economic difficulties is because of its growing debt level. Debt becomes difficult to repay with interest if the economy slows.

5. Oil exporters such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria have become vulnerable to government overthrow or collapse because of low world oil prices since 2014. If the central government of one or more of these exporters disappears, it is possible that the pieces of the country will struggle along, producing a lower amount of oil, as Libya has done in recent years. It is also possible that another larger country will attempt to take over the failing production of the country and secure the output for itself.

6. Epidemics become increasingly likely, especially in countries with serious financial problems, such as Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela. Historically, much of the decrease in population in countries with collapsing economies has come from epidemics. Of course, epidemics can spread across national boundaries, exporting the problems elsewhere.

7. Resource wars become increasingly likely. These can be local wars, perhaps over the availability of water. They can also be large, international wars. The timing of World War I and World War II make it seem likely that these wars were both resource wars.

Figure 10.

8. Collapsing intergovernmental agencies, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund, seem likely. The United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union in 2019 is a step toward dissolving the European Union.

9. Privately funded pension funds will increasingly be subject to default because of continued low interest rates. Some governments may choose to cut back the amounts they provide to pensioners because governments cannot collect adequate tax revenue for this purpose. Some countries may purposely shut down parts of their governments, in an attempt to hold down government spending.

10. A far worse and more permanent recession than that of the Great Recession seems likely because of the difficulty in repaying debt with interest in a shrinking economy. It is not clear when such a recession will start. It could start later in 2019, or perhaps it may wait until 2020. As with the Great Recession, some countries will be affected more than others. Eventually, because of the interconnected nature of financial systems, all countries are likely to be drawn in.

Summary

It is not entirely clear exactly what is ahead if we are reaching Limits to Growth. Perhaps that is for the best. If we cannot do anything about it, worrying about the many details of what is ahead is not the best for anyone’s mental health. While it is possible that this is an end point for the human race, this is not certain, by any means. There have been many amazing coincidences over the past 4 billion years that have allowed life to continue to evolve on this planet. More of these coincidences may be ahead. We also know that humans lived through past ice ages. They likely can live through other kinds of adversity, including worldwide economic collapse.





Big Picture article

14 12 2018

It’s so nice reading an article that joins the dots….  I get so sick of people concentrating on one issue or another, ignoring everything else troubling civilisation.  From Consciousness of Sheep, who else….?

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.

Two far greater symptoms of our predicament have gained at least some public traction this year.  First was an all too visible plastic pollution crisis that is increasingly difficult to ignore now that China has ceased acting as the West’s rubbish dump.  Second is the somewhat less visible insect apocalypse that has seen the near extinction of a raft of pollinating insect species; without which we humans are doomed to starvation.  Interestingly, while these two symptoms are only tenuously related to climate change, they have tended to be included under that shorthand heading.  Plastic certainly damages the environment, but its build up owes far more to the ongoing power of the petrochemicals industry and the myth of recyclingthan to changes in climate.  The same goes for the insects.  While there may have been some climactic impact on migrations and reproduction, the main cause is the vast quantities of chemical insecticides required by an industrialised agriculture tasked with feeding 7.5 billion humans on a planet that could barely feed one seventh of that without fossil fuels and agrochemicals.

In the affected areas, local populations have been stunned by a series of “red tide” events that result in the mass deaths of fish and other marine creatures.  Climate change is indirectly involved in these events because of the increased rainfall from warmer storms.  But once again it is our industrial agriculture that is the primary cause – the giant oxygen-free zones beneath algae and phytoplankton blooms that form because of artificial fertilisers washed off the land when it rains.  When marine creatures stray into these oxygen-free zones (which are pinkish-red in colour due to concentrated hydrogen sulphide) they suffocate before they can swim to safety.

Off most people’s radar is the ongoing sixth mass extinction, as we lose thousands of species every year.  Again, while some of this is directly due to the changing climate, the larger part is due to human activities like agriculture, deforestation and strip mining simply chewing up natural habitats to make way for the creation of the various resources – including food – required to sustain a human population that is projected to reach 10 billion by mid-century.

The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.

This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.

To be clear, since 1980 the western economic system has inflated a series of asset bubbles, each of which has subsumed and outgrown its predecessor.  In the 1980s companies bailed out failing companies to save themselves.  In the 1990s stock markets bailed out companies to save stock markets.  In the 2000s banks bailed out stock markets and then states and central banks bailed out banks.  Next time around it will be states and currencies that need bailing out.  And in the absence of space aliens, it is not clear who is going to be riding to the rescue.  What that means, dear reader, is that everything you depend upon (but didn’t know it) for life support – inter-bank lending systems, letters of credit and freight insurance, international trade arrangements, employment, state pensions, etc.  – is going to go away (at least until some kind of debt-write-off (either directly or via “helicopter money”) and a new currency system can be put into place.

The other legacy from this period of debt-based asset inflation is a series of grossly unequal societies; divided, ultimately, between those who get to spend the (uninflated) debt-based currency first and those (the 99 percent) who only get the currency after its value has been inflated away – primarily those who depend upon a wage/salary from employment rather than an income from shares and other investments.  Most people accept some inequality.  However a lack of economic growth (outside banking and tech) has created deep hostility to those political parties that cling to the pre-2008 neoliberal orthodoxy.  The result has been a growth in populist movements claiming to know how to restore the economy to rates of growth last seen in the 1990s.  Political economist Mark Blyth summed up the difference between the left and right wing variants of populism thus:

  • The right says neoliberalism ruined the economy and immigrants took your jobs
  • The left says neoliberalism ruined the economy and capitalists took your jobs.

Needless to say – as the boy Macron is learning to his cost – now is not a happy time to be a neoliberal politician.  The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.

Most green growth advocates imagine a switch from extraction and manufacturing to (largely digital) services that will somehow decouple resource and energy growth from GDP.  That is, we can all continue to prosper even as our use of planetary resources falls back to something like the amounts consumed in the 1750s.  Writing in Resilience, Jason Hickel gives the lie to this:

“This sounds reasonable on the face of it. But services have grown dramatically in recent decades, as a proportion of world GDP — and yet global material use has not only continued to rise, but has accelerated, outstripping the rate of GDP growth. In other words, there has been no dematerialization of economic activity, despite a shift to services.

“The same is true of high-income nations as a group — and this despite the increasing contribution that services make to GDP growth in these economies. Indeed, while high-income nations have the highest share of services in terms of contribution to GDP, they also have the highest rates of resource consumption per capita. By far.

“Why is this? Partly because services require resource-intensive inputs (cinemas and gyms are hardly made out of air). And partly also because the income acquired from the service sector is used to purchase resource-intensive consumer goods (you might get your income from working in a cinema, but you use it to buy TVs and cars and beef).”

And, of course, without the income derived from making all of that stuff for service providers to consume, nobody can afford to buy the services and the economy will collapse.  Not that anyone has noticed this for now, as we are descend into the politics of blame in which widening inequality and poverty at the bottom is blamed on one or other of a culture’s preferred out groups – Tories, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, migrants, the banks, the European Union, Israel, Angela Merkel, the Rothschild family, Donald Trump… choose your favourite pantomime villain; but don’t expect to be going anywhere but down.

Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.





The shape of things to come…..?

30 11 2018

Consciousness of Sheep keeps coming up with magnificent articles, like this one…..  

I know I keep saying this too, but the Matrix can’t continue lurching about for too much longer….

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

Despite a series of stock market scares, see-sawing oil prices and central banks jacking up interest rates, it seems likely that we are going to get through 2018 without experiencing the economic crash that many expected at the start of the year.  But while we may breathe a sigh of relief to have got to the festive season without a complete meltdown, the odds of another crash are still high.

Understanding what might go wrong is a particular problem according to Helen Thompson at the New Statesman.  Not least because 10 years on, we still cannot agree on what caused the last one:

“In July 2008 the then president of the European Central Bank (ECB), Jean-Claude Trichet, declared while announcing an increase in interest rates that the Eurozone’s fundamentals were sound. In fact, a recession had begun in the first quarter of that year.

“The causes of recessions are also sometimes wrongly diagnosed – even in retrospect. For instance, the impact of exceptionally high oil prices and the response of central banks to those prices are still routinely ignored as causes of the US and European recessions in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.”

Thompson’s article sets out a range of weaknesses across the global economy where a new economic meltdown could begin.  China, the (albeit anaemic) growth engine of the global economy for the last decade, has developed debt problems not dissimilar to those in the west in 2008:

“Economic growth in China has been slowing since the second half of 2017, and even the growth of the first half of that year was an interruption of a downward slope that began in 2013. Predictions of a Chinese financial crisis, owing to the country’s huge accumulation of debt since 2008, are made too readily. But China is now caught between a policy shift towards deleveraging to try to avoid such a debt-induced financial crisis, and another debt-financed push for higher growth amid an economic slowdown and a fierce trade war with the US. The Chinese government is struggling under these conflicting imperatives as the country’s dollar reserves fall.”

The Eurozone is also in trouble:

“Growth in the third quarter was the weakest since the second quarter of 2014. Germany’s economy contracted and Italy’s experienced no growth. If the Eurozone’s troubles were confined to Italy, there would be less cause for concern. But even Germany’s powerhouse economy is weakening: retail sales and exports have fallen for several successive months.”

Canada – like the UK – is a basket case just waiting the central bank to add that last interest rate hike to push it over the edge.  Things are more complicated across the border in the USA:

“The official US unemployment rate stands at 3.7 per cent, the lowest since 1969. But this masks a notably low participation rate (62.9 per cent), as significant numbers of people have withdrawn from the labour market. Ever-fewer jobs sustain middle-class lifestyles, especially in cities where housing costs have risen over the past decade.”

Of course, a “black swan” event beyond the areas that Thompson points to might also prove to be the trigger for the next meltdown.  A collapse in the Australian property market, renewed conflict in one of the successor states of the Soviet Union or an oil shock in the Middle East are not beyond the bounds of possibility in 2019.

What is clear, however, is that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to understanding and having any chance of fixing the next meltdown.  As Thompson points out:

“Central banks cannot fix what they set in motion after 2008. There appears to be no way forward that would let this economic cycle play out without risking much more disruption than the typical recession would bring. What is at stake is compounded by the problem of oil: shale production must be sustained by one or more of the following: high prices, extremely cheap credit or investors’ indifference to profitability.

“When a recession does come, central banks are unlikely to be able to respond without wading even further into uncharted monetary and political waters. And major economies will have significantly higher levels of debt than in 2008, interest rates will already be low and central banks will have enormous balance sheets. As a consequence, a policy response comparable to that of 2008 is likely to be more dangerous and insufficient to restore sustained growth. In times of fear, high debt ensures that, beyond a certain point, consumers simply cannot be incentivised to spend more. Even if they were to be tempted with ‘helicopter money’ from central banks – new money distributed freely to citizens – there is no guarantee at all that the money would do much for aggregate demand.”

Unusually for a mainstream academic Thompson – who is a professor of political economy at Cambridge University – grasps the impact of energy on the economy; particularly the hard choices that face politicians and central bankers as we transition from energy growth to energy decline:

“It has become impossible to confront the economic predicaments in the global economy without contemplating sacrifice, whether that be politicians and central bankers choosing where the heavy costs of the next policy response will fall, or recognising the role that energy sustainability has in maintaining material living standards and a liberal international politics…”

Tighter energy, coupled to the central bank policies that have kept business as usual limping along since the last meltdown, has given rise to a populist revolt that has thus far focused on the democratic pathways in liberal democracies, but has also favoured an emboldened nationalist right that has successfully targeted immigration as the cause of people’s woes.  Worse still, via social media, contrarian economists like Steve Keen, campaign groups like Positive Money and even central bank economists themselves, far more people understand that zero percent interest rates and quantitative easing were designed to favour the already wealthy at the expense of the majority of the population.  It would be lunacy for politicians and central bankers to attempt to do the same thing again this time around:

“The 2007-09 recessions exposed the political discontent that had grown in Western democracies over the previous decade. The next recession will begin with that discontent already bringing about substantial political disruption – from Brexit to Trump’s election to the Lega-Five Star coalition in Italy – which in itself has become a source of economic fear. The economic dangers that lurk are only likely to increase political fragmentation, especially when there is little understanding of the structural economic forces that serve to divide people.”

Unfortunately, the political left are like so many rabbits caught in the headlights in relation to the crisis that is coming.  Rather than the right wing economic and social policies of Trump or the European nationalist parties, the left is most opposed to the populism that these movements harness.  The opposite of populism, of course, is elitism… and that puts the political left on the same platform that Marie Antoinette found herself on in October 1793.

There is no written law that says that the political left or even benign liberals have to win in the end – that storyline only works in Hollywood movies.  In the crisis that we are about to face – whether it be 2019 or 2020 – responding with more policies that favour the wealthy while driving the faces of the poor into the dirt can only end one way, as Thompson reminds us:

“History is full of grisly episodes, usually in eras of revolution, when the politics of sacrifice have come to the fore. Indeed, in many ways, the whole ideal of Western liberal democracies in the postwar world has been about the importance of avoiding such a politics, even as the policies governments pursued unavoidably created winners and losers.

“But the conditions for politics have now become much harder, and the collective and individual question of our times has become how we can confront the inescapable political conflict generated by deep economic dysfunctionality without losing the democratic and liberal foundations of political order as we know it?”

The answer to this question might be the same as the answer to the two other existential crises facing us – How can we prevent runaway climate change without undermining our civilisation? And how can we prevent resource depletion and energy decline undermining it?  The answer is very likely to be that we can’t.





Heavy Oil Shock……

25 11 2018

paris fuel riots 2.jpg.jpg

As the French government increases taxes on petrol and diesel to encourage people to switch to ‘cleaner’ transport, as if they can afford to just dump the cars they now own to buy something really expensive…..  this is what collapse looks like, no doubt about it. And it’s spreading to Belgium…

paris fuel riots.jpg

How long before Alice’s “When Trucks Stop” scenario comes to realisation..?

For all the talk about electric cars and renewable electricity, global oil production rose above 100 million barrels a day last month.  For all the policy pronouncements to the contrary, the stark reality remains that our insatiable demand for oil, the products of oil, and all of the stuff that we transport with oil continues to drive up demand.

From Consciousness of Sheep…..

There is, however, a big problem with that 100mbb/d figure that has yet to make it to the forefront of media and political debate.  This is that not all oil is equal.  This ought to be obvious enough to anyone living in my part of the world; where our economic history was shaped by the difference between the low-quality bituminous coal at the east of the South Wales coalfield and the high-quality anthracite coal in the west.  The same issues are true for oil.  On the one hand there is the sweet crude from fields in Texas, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; on the other there are the ultra-light condensates fracked out of the shale plays, the bitumen boiled out of Canadian tar sands and the high-sulphur toxic stew being extracted in Kazakhstan.  The former powered the unprecedented burst of global industrial expansion between 1953 and 1973.  The latter are the dregs that humanity will have to get by on in the future.

Not, of course, that this has been a problem so far.  Those older oil fields are still producing – although many are past their peak – and with a little tweaking of the set-up, refineries can manage blends of heavy and light oils that approximate the sweet crude they were designed for.  But there are limits to the tweaking.  And as the world comes to depend increasingly on blends of too light and too heavy oils, refineries will not be able to supply enough of the fuels that we have built the global economy upon.

Refining uses a combination of heat and chemistry to “crack” the molecule chains in the crude oil into various lengths according to the fuel being produced – butane and petrol (gasoline) are the lightest, kerosene and diesel in the middle and the heaviest are fuel oils used in shipping and building heating.  And while you and I might value the lighter fuels for sparking up a barbecue or powering a car, for the global transportation system it is the middle and heavier fuels that are the most important.  Most important of all, of course, is the diesel oil that powers all of the heavy machinery and trucks that are essential to the extractive processes that convert naturally occurring materials into the resources used to manufacture all of the stuff – including our food – which we consume.

Simply looking at total global oil production, then, is only part of the story.  What we also need to know is what fuel products those 100 mbb/d are being converted into.  This is where a recent post on The Oil Crash blog should ring alarm bells.  Drawing on data from the JODI database, they show that:

“Since 2007 (and therefore before the official start of the economic crisis) the production of other [heavy] fuel oils is in decline and also seems perfectly consolidated…

“The fact is that if you have made changes in the refineries to crack more oil molecules and get other lighter products (and that is why less heavy fuel oil is produced), those molecules that used to go to heavy fuel oil should now go to other products. It follows, taking into account the added value of fuels with longer molecules, that these heavy fuel oils are being cracked especially to generate diesel and possibly more kerosene for airplanes and eventually more gasoline.”

Heavy oil production
Heavy fuel production

Concern about peak oil was always, ultimately a concern about peak diesel because of its central role in the global economy.  However, producing ever less heavy oils to maintain the output of diesel and kerosene (and eventually petrol) can only be a temporary solution.   Indeed, the JODI data shows an alarming decline in diesel fuel production since 2015:

Diesel fuel production

“That is why, dear reader, when you are told that the taxes on your diesel car will be raised in a brutal way, now you will know why.  Because they prefer to adjust these imbalances with a mechanism that seems to be a market (although this is actually less free and more intervened) to explain the truth. The fact is that from now on what can be expected is a real persecution against cars with internal combustion engines (gasoline will continue for a few years longer than diesel).”

To add to our woes, the decline in heavy oil production is compounded by new regulations that will dramatically increase demand for diesel just as the industry’s ability to produce it is in decline.  As Nick Cunningham at Business Insider reported back in July:

“A research paper from economist and oil market watcher Philip K. Verleger predicts there could be a shortage of low-sulfur diesel fuel in 2020 as a result of regulations from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) aimed at cutting sulfur emissions…

“Up until now, the maritime industry has been burning the residual fuel oil left over after the refining process. Fuel oil is the bottom of the barrel – it’s the cheapest, most viscous and dirtiest part of the barrel.”

The choice facing the shipping industry is whether to invest in expensive scrubbers and filters designed to capture sulphur that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere or whether to make much cheaper engine alterations in order to run ships on diesel.  It is difficult to argue with Cunningham assessment:

“By 2020, diesel production will need to rise by at least seven percent, according to Philip K. Verleger, on top of the three percent increase needed for road transport and other uses. All of it will need to be low-sulfur.”

If ship owners switch fuels, we are looking at a global oil price above $200 per barrel; with diesel fuel being priced well above anything ordinary working people can afford for powering cars; and other fuels following close behind.  This will impact British and American motorists far harder than those in Europe because of our systematic neglect of public transport and our insistence in building out into the suburbs.  The broader question, however, is whether the current strategy of relying on a combination of fuel taxes and higher prices is a sensible approach to diesel shortages.

Prices and taxes most often result in the misallocation of resources.  This is most obvious when we contrast the suffering of millions of people in poorer countries against the frivolous consumption of the fortunate top ten percent of the global population living in the G7 states.  However, because the growth in global energy consumption has allowed billions of people to experience an increase in their standard of living in the years since World War Two, the misallocation has appeared to be less urgent (to those in the developed states).  In the event that strategic fuel production falls – as it appears to be doing – continued misallocation will accelerate the process of collapse.

For example, most farmers depend upon diesel-powered machinery to maintain yields.  Unfortunately, many of those same farmers are already struggling to remain in business despite already receiving subsidies from the state.  And while there are some alternative power sources (batteries, biogas, hydrogen) for light vehicles, there is no means by which heavy diesel machinery and haulage vehicles can be substituted.  Thus, if diesel prices rise, either food prices rise accordingly or (and most likely both) farmers go out of business.  At the same time, however, the very richest one percent of the population is likely to regard the rise in diesel prices as a good thing since it will remove much of the road congestion they experience without preventing them from driving and flying.

The alternative would be to develop and implement a rationing scheme based on the need to maintain critical infrastructure (including food production) even if this comes at the expense of limiting private vehicle use and severely restricting commercial air travel.  In practice, unfortunately, our response to this looming fuel crisis is more likely to follow the pattern of our response to climate change; with powerful lobbies paying to distract our attention, large numbers denying the crisis exists, and most of those who acknowledge the crisis grasping at techno-utopian pseudo-solutions like electric cars and windmills.

All I can say is hold onto your hats because when oil prices spike above $200 and our ability to consume collapses, we are going to witness economic and social dislocation on a scale that will make Brexit and the policies of Donald Trump that everyone seems so exercised about look trivial.

As an aside, I currently have three French wwoofers, and you better believe they are right on top of collapse and planning all sorts of things to get ready, not least coming here to learna trick or two. I’m so proud of being able to teach them stuff…..

If the embedded video doesn’t show English subtitles, they are available at youtube….