The Bumpy Road Down, Part 4: Trends in Collapse

27 01 2018

IrvMillsIrv Mills has just published part 4 of his Bumpy Road Down series of articles…..

This time I’m going to look at some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. If you followed what I was saying in my last post, you’ll have realized that the bumpy road will be a matter of repeatedly getting slapped down as a result of going into overshoot—exceeding our limits, crashing, then recovering, only to get slapped again as we go into overshoot yet again.

Along the way, where people have a choice, they will choose to do a range of different things (some beneficial, others not so much), according to their circumstances and inclinations. Inertia is also an important factor—people resist change. And politicians are adept at “kicking the can down the road”—patching together the current system to keep it working for little while longer and letting the guy who gets elected next worry about the consequences.

Because the world will become a smaller place for most of us, we’ll feel less influence from other areas and in turn have less influence over them. There will be a lot more “dissensus”—people doing their own thing and letting other people do theirs. I expect this will lead to quite a variety of approaches, some that fail and some that do work to some extent. In the short run, of course, “working” means recovering from whatever disaster we are currently trying to cope with. But in the long run, the real challenge is learning to live within our limits and accept “just enough” rather than always striving for more. Trying a lot of different approaches to this will make it more likely that we find some that are successful.

Anyways—changes, forces and trend…and how they will work on the bumpy road down.

I’ve included the stepped or oscillating decline diagram from my last post here to make it easier to visualize what I’m talking about.


Because I’m a “Peak Oil guy” and because energy is at the heart of the financial problems we’re facing, I’ll talk about energy first. As I said in a recent post:

“Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for the great majority of our energy needs, and those needs are largely ones that cannot be met by anything other than fossil duels, especially oil. While it is true that fossil fuels are far from running out, the amount of surplus energy they deliver (the EROEI—energy returned on energy invested) has declined to the point where it no longer supports robust economic growth. Indeed, since the 1990s, real economic growth has largely stopped. What limited growth we are seeing is based on debt, rather than an abundance of surplus energy.”

It is my analysis that there is zero chance of implementing any alternative to fossil fuels remotely capable of sustaining “business as usual” in the remaining few years before a major economic crash happens and changes everything. So the first trend I’ll point to is a continued reliance on fossil fuels. Fuels of ever decreasing EROEI, which will increase the stress on the global economy and continue contribute to climate change and ocean acidification.

Those who are mainly concerned about the environmental effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels would have us stop using those fuels, whatever the cost. But it is clear to me that the cost of such a move would be a global economic depression different only in the details from the one I’ve been predicting. Lack of energy, excess of debt, environmental disaster—take your pick….

It has been interesting to watch the governments of Canada and the US take two different approaches to this over the last couple of years.

The American approach has been based on denial. Denial of climate change on the one hand, and denial of the fossil fuel depletion situation on the other. “Drill baby, drill!” is expected to solve the energy problem without causing an environmental problem. I don’t believe that either expectation will be borne out over the next few years.

Our Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made quite a bit of political hay by acknowledging the reality of climate change and championing the Paris Climate Agreement in the international arena. Here at home, though, it is clear that Trudeau understands the role of oil in our economy and he has been quick to quietly reassure the oil companies that they have nothing to fear, approving two major pipeline projects to keep oil flowing from Alberta to the Pacific coast and, eventually, to Chinese markets.

Yes, Ottawa has set a starting price of $10 a tonne on carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, increasing to $50 a tonne by 2022. This is to be implemented by provincial governments who have until the end of the year to submit their own carbon pricing plans before a national price is imposed on those that don’t meet the federal standard. It will be interesting to see how this goes and if the federal government sticks to its plan. Canada is one of the most highly indebted nations in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if our economy was one of the first to falter.

At any rate, sometime in the next few years the economy is going to fall apart (point “c” in the diagram). As I’ve said, this may well be initiated by volatility in oil prices as the current oil surplus situation comes to an end. This will lead to financial chaos that soon spreads to the rest of the economy.

On the face of it this isn’t too different from the traditional Peak Oil scenario—the collapse of industrial civilization caused by oil shortages and sharply rising oil prices. But as you might guess by now, this isn’t exactly what I think will happen.

In fact, I think that we’ll see an economic depression where the demand for oil drops more quickly than the natural decline rate of our oil supplies and the price falls even further than it did in the last few years. We won’t be using nearly so much oil as at present, so we will once again accumulate a surplus, and we’ll even leave some reserves of oil in the ground, at least initially. This will help drive a recovery after the depression bottoms out (point “e” in the diagram). Please note that I am talking about the remaining relatively high EROEI conventional oil here. Unconventional sources just don’t produce enough surplus energy to fuel a recovery.

But the demand for oil will be a lot less than it is today and this will have a very negative effect on oil companies. Some governments will subsidize the oil industry even more than they have traditionally, just to keep to it going in the face of low prices. Other governments will outright nationalize their oil industries to ensure oil keeps getting pumped out of the ground, even if it isn’t very profitable to do so. Bankruptcy of critical industries in general is going to be a problem during and after the crash. More on that in my next post.

During the upcoming crash and depression fossil fuel use may well decline enough to significantly reduce our releases of CO2 into the atmosphere—not enough perhaps to stop climate change, but enough to slow it down. As we continue down the bumpy road, though, our use of fossil fuels and the release of CO2 from burning them will taper off to essentially nothing, allowing the ecosphere to finally begin a slow recovery from the abuses of the industrial age.

The other trend involving fossil fuels, as we go further down the bumpy road, will be their declining availability as we gradually use them up. Eventually our energy consumption will be determined by local availability of renewable energy that can be accessed using a relatively low level of technology. Things like biomass (mainly firewood), falling water, wind, passive solar, maybe even tidal and wave energy. Since these sources vary in quantity from one locality to another, the level of energy use will vary as well. Where these sources are intermittent, the users will simply have to adapt to that intermittency.

No doubt some of my readers will be wondering why I don’t think high tech renewables like solar cells and large wind turbines will save the day. The list of reasons is a long one—difficulty raising capital in a contracting economy, low EROEI, intermittency of supply and difficulty of operating, maintaining and regularly replacing such equipment once fossil fuels are gone—to mention just a few.

Large scale storage of power to deal with intermittency will in the long run prove unfeasible. Certainly batteries aren’t going to do it. There are a few locations where pumped storage of water can be set up at a relatively low cost, but not enough to make a big difference. And on top of all that, I very much doubt that large electrical grids are feasible in the long run (and I spent half my life maintaining on one such grid).


The next trend I can see is in the FIRE (financial, insurance and real estate) sector of the economy. During the growth phase of our economy over that last couple of centuries the FIRE industries embodied a wide range of organizational technologies that facilitated business, trade and growth. Unfortunately, because they were set up to support growth, they were unable to cope with the end of real growth late in the twentieth century. They have supported debt based growth for the last couple of decades as the only alternative that they could deal with. This led to the unprecedented amount of debt that we see in the world today. Much of this debt is quite risky and will likely lead to a wave of bankruptcies and defaults—the very crash I’ve been talking about.

The FIRE industries will be at the heart of that crash and will suffer horribly. Many, perhaps the majority, of the companies in that sector won’t survive. In today’s world they wield a great deal of political power. During the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2007-8 that power was enough to see them through largely unscathed. This is unlikely to be the case in the upcoming crash, creating a desperate need for their services and an opportunity to fill that need which will be another factor in the recovery after the crash bottoms out. But of course there is more than one way it can be done.

In the 3rd4th5th6th and 7th posts in my ” Collapse Step by Step” series, I dealt with the political realities of our modern world, which limit what can be done by democratic governments. I identified a political spectrum defined by those limits. At the left end of this spectrum we have Social Democratic societies, which still practice capitalism, but where those in power are concerned with the welfare of everyone within the society. At the right end we have Right Wing Capitalist societies where the ruling elite is concerned only with accumulating more wealth and power for itself.

Since the FIRE industries are crucial to the accumulation and distribution of wealth in our societies, the way they are rebuilt following the crash will be largely determined by the political goals of those doing the rebuilding.

At the left end of the spectrum there is much that can be done to regulate the FIRE industries and stop their excesses from leading immediately to further crises.

At the right end of the political spectrum the elite is so closely tied to the FIRE industries and so little concerned with the welfare of the general populace, that those industries will likely be rebuilt on a plan very similar to their current organization. A policy of “exterminism” is likely to be followed, where prosperity for the elite and an ever shrinking middle class is seen as the only goal and the poor are a burden to be abandoned or outright exterminated.(Thanks for Peter Frase, author of Four Futures—Life After Captialism for the term “exterminism”.)

In the case of either of these extremes, or anywhere along the spectrum between them, there are some common things I can see happening.

The whole FIRE sector depends on trust. In the last few decades (since the 1970s) we have switched from currencies based on precious metals to “fiat money” which is based on nothing but trust in the governments issuing it. This was done to accommodate growth fueled by abundant surplus energy and then to facilitate issuing ever more debt as the surplus energy supply declined. I don’t advocate going back to precious metals—what we need is a monetary system that can accommodate degrowth, of which a great deal lies in our future. Unfortunately we don’t yet know what such a system might look like.

It is clear, though, that the coming crash is going to shake our trust in the FIRE industries to its very roots. Since central banks will have been central to the monetary problems leading to the crash, they may well be set up as scapegoats for that crash and their relative lack of success in coping with it. People will be very suspicious after watching the FIRE industries fall apart during the crash and their lack of trust will force those industries to take some different approaches.

I think governments will take over the functions of central banks and stop charging themselves interest on the money they print. Yes, I know that printing money has often led to runaway inflation, but the conditions during the crash and its aftermath will be so profoundly deflationary that inflation will not likely be a problem.

The creation of debt will be viewed much less favourably and credit will be much harder to get. And of course this will make the crash and following depression that much worse. In response to this many areas will create local banks and currencies to provide the services that local businesses need to get moving again.

During the last couple of decades there has been a move to loosen regulations in the FIRE industries, to let single large entities become involved in investment banking, business and personal banking, insurance and real estate. Most such entities began as experts in one of those areas, but one has to question their expertise in the new areas they moved into. In any case they became “too big to fail” and their failure threatened the stability the whole FIRE sector. Following the GFC there was only minor tightening of regulations to discourage this sort of thing, but after the upcoming crash I suspect many governments, especially toward the left end of the political spectrum, will institute a major re-regulation of the FIRE industries and a splitting up of the few “too big to fail” companies who didn’t actually fail.

It is all very well to talk about business and even governments failing when their debt load becomes too great. But there is also a lot of personal debt that is, at this point, unlikely ever to get paid back. What does it mean, in this context, for a person to fail? What I carry as debt is an asset for someone else—probably the share holders of a bank. They are understandably reluctant to watch their assets evaporate, and I have to admit that there is a moral hazard involved in just letting people walk away from their debts. That feeling was so strong in the past that those who couldn’t pay their debts ended up in debtors’ prisons. Such punishment was eventually seen as futile and the practice was abandoned and personal bankruptcies were allowed.

One suspects that in the depression following the coming crash it will be necessary to declare a jubilee, forgiving large classes of personal debt. What might become of all the suddenly destitute people depends on where their country lies on the political spectrum. I wouldn’t rule out debtors prisons or work camps, the sort of modern slavery that is already gaining a foothold in the prison system of the United States.

If we were willing to give up growth as the sole purpose of our economic system, there are many changes that could be made to the FIRE industries that would allow them to provide the services needed by businesses and individuals without stimulating the unchecked growth that leads to collapse. I think we are unlikely to see this happen after the upcoming crash—we will be desperate for recovery and that will still mean growth at destructive levels.

I think the crash following that recovery will involve the food supply and still unchecked population growth and sadly a lot of people won’t make it through (more on this in my next post). Following that, it’s even possible that in some areas people may reach the conclusion that growth is the problem and quit sticking their heads up to get slapped down again. They’ll have to find a more sustainable way to live, but with it will come a less bumpy road forward.


In the aftermath of the next crash, I think we’ll see an increase in authoritarianism in an attempt to optimize the systems that failed during the crash—to make them work again and work more effectively. Free market laissez faire economics will be seen to have failed by many people. Others will hang tight, claiming that if they just keep doing yet again the same thing that failed before, it will finally work.

As is always the case with this sort of optimization, it will create a less resilient system, much more susceptible to subsequent crashes. And after those crashes governments will be reduced to such a small scale affair that authoritarianism won’t be so much of an issue.

Fortunately, beyond authoritarianism, there are some other trends that will lead to increased resilience and sustainability. We’ll take a look at those in my next post.


What it would take for the US to run on 100% renewable energy

11 06 2015

The internet never ceases to amaze me as a source of hopium.  This article on vox, Here’s what it would take for the US to run on 100% renewable energy, manages to knock the wind out of the techno-utopian belief that we could run Business as Usual with renewables, even though it totally misses the most important point about why it can’t be done…....

It sets the scene with:

It is technically and economically feasible to run the US economy entirely on renewable energy, and to do so by 2050. That is the conclusion of a new study in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, authored by Stanford scholar Mark Z. Jacobson and nine colleagues.

Jacobson is well-known for his ambitious and controversial work on renewable energy. In 2001 he published, with Mark A. Delucchi, a two-part paper (one, two) on “providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power.” In 2013 he published a feasibility study on moving New York state entirely to renewables, and in 2014 he created a road map for California to do the same.

This road map looks like this:

jacobson-us-renewables-2015At least, this road map shows a decline in total energy use over the period to 2050, which is fine, we absolutely have to reduce energy consumption.  Except of course I think we need to do this by at least 90%, but who’s splitting hairs…?

The author, , then goes on to explain what is required to do this:

The core of the plan is to electrify everything, including sectors that currently run partially or entirely on liquid fossil fuels. That means shifting transportation, heating/cooling, and industry to run on electric power.

Electrifying everything produces an enormous drop in projected demand, since the energy-to-work conversion of electric motors is much more efficient than combustion motors, which lose a ton of energy to heat. So the amount of energy necessary to meet projected demand drops by a third just from the conversion. With some additional, relatively modest efficiency measures, total demand relative to BAU drops 39.3 percent. That’s a much lower target for WWS to meet.

Fine……. so far.

So how could the economy be electrified on this ambitious timeline? Brace yourself:

Heating, drying, and cooking in the residential and commercial sectors: by 2020, all new devices and machines are powered by electricity. …

Large-scale waterborne freight transport: by 2020–2025, all new ships are electrified and/or use electrolytic hydrogen, all new port operations are electrified, and port retro- electrification is well underway. …

Rail and bus transport: by 2025, all new trains and buses are electrified. …

Off-road transport, small-scale marine: by 2025 to 2030, all new production is electrified. …

Heavy-duty truck transport: by 2025 to 2030, all new vehicles are electrified or use electrolytic hydrogen. …

Light-duty on-road transport: by 2025–2030, all new vehicles are electrified. …

Short-haul aircraft: by 2035, all new small, short-range planes are battery- or electrolytic-hydrogen powered. …

Long-haul aircraft: by 2040, all remaining new aircraft are electrolytic cryogenic hydrogen … with electricity power for idling, taxiing, and internal power….

Electrolytic cryogenic hydrogen?  My eyes glazed over here……….

Here’s what the paper says:

Power plants: by 2020, no more construction of new coal, nuclear, natural gas, or biomass fired power plants; all new power plants built are WWS.

2020 is just FIVE YEARS away………  but who’s counting?

…to meet most energy demand with wind and solar, you have to radically overbuild electrical generation capacity. To wit: the authors estimate that total US energy demand in 2050 will average 2.6 terawatts. To produce that much energy, they propose building power plants with a total of 6.5 TW of capacity. By way of comparison, the US currently has about 1.2 TW of installed electric generation capacity, so this plan would involve expanding generation capacity fivefold in 35 years.

Here’s what that would require:

… 328,000 new onshore 5 MW wind turbines (providing 30.9% of U.S. energy for all purposes), 156,200 off-shore 5 MW wind turbines (19.1%), 46,480 50 MW new utility-scale solar-PV power plants (30.7%), 2,273 100 MW utility-scale CSP power plants (7.3%), 75.2 million 5 kW residential rooftop PV systems (3.98%), 2.75 million 100 kW commercial/government rooftop systems (3.2%), 208 100 MW geothermal plants (1.23%), 36,050 0.75 MW wave devices (0.37%), 8,800 1 MW tidal turbines (0.14%), and 3 new hydroelectric power plants (all in Alaska).

That will meet average demand. Then you need 1,364 additional new CSP plants and 9,380 50 MW solar-thermal collection systems (“for heat storage in soil”) “to produce peaking power, to account for additional loads due to losses in and out of storage, and to ensure reliability of the grid.”

Is that realistic? asks Roberts……

Uh, no says Roberts….. No it isn’t. The authors inadvertently give away the game:

We do not believe a technical or economic barrier exists to ramping up production of WWS technologies, as history suggests that rapid ramp-ups of production can occur given strong enough political will. For example during World War II, aircraft production increased from nearly zero to 330,000 over five years.

The phrase “given strong enough political will” is open-ended enough to allow virtually anything through. But what would create this political will, equal to what gripped the US in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack? The authors don’t say much about it, other than a hopeful note at the end that their quantification of the benefits of such a transition “should reduce social and political barriers to implementing the roadmaps.”

But here’s the key thing for me.  exactly how would the US build an increasing quantity of renewables, growing year after year, while reducing fossil fuel use, year after year, at the same time..?  And we all know how much fossil energy it takes to build all those wind turbines…..

Something major would have to be abandoned.  Like maybe the US military?  After all, once the Arabs’ oil is no longer needed, it won’t need ‘defending’!  Dream on.  This is no Pearl Harbor.  This is civilisational change…..  and the only other time we’ve had change on this scale was when…..  fossil fuels were discovered and exploited!  I’m definitely not holding my breath, but you already knew this.

Wind Blowing Nowhere

24 01 2015

I’ve just found this amazing post on Euan Mears’ excellent Energy Matters blog that clearly demonstrates, with real data, that anyone who believes renewables can run Business as Usual are just plain dreaming.

In much of Europe energy policy is being formulated by policymakers who assume that combining wind generation over large areas will flatten out the spikes and fill in the troughs and thereby allow wind to be “harnessed to provide reliable electricity” as the European Wind Energy Association tells them it will:

The wind does not blow continuously, yet there is little overall impact if the wind stops blowing somewhere – it is always blowing somewhere else. Thus, wind can be harnessed to provide reliable electricity even though the wind is not available 100% of the time at one particular site.

Here we will review whether this assumption is valid. We will do so by progressively combining hourly wind generation data for 2013 for nine countries in Western Europe downloaded from the excellent data base compiled by Paul-Frederik Bach, paying special attention to periods when “the wind stops blowing somewhere”. The nine countries are Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, Spain and the UK, which together cover a land area of 2.3 million square kilometers and extend over distances of 2,000 kilometers east-west and 4,000 kilometers north-south:

Figure 1:  The nine countries

We begin with Spain, Europe’s largest producer of wind power in 2013. Here is Spain’s hourly wind generation for the year. Four periods of low wind output are numbered for reference:

Figure 2:  Hourly wind generation, Spain, 2013

Now we will add Germany, Europe’s second-largest wind power producer in 2013. We find that Spanish low wind output period 4 was more than offset by a coincident German wind spike. Spanish low wind periods 1, 2 and 3, however, were not.

Figure 3:  Hourly wind generation, Spain + Germany, 2013

Now we add UK, the third largest producer in 2013. Wind generation in UK during periods 1, 2 and 3 was also minimal:

Figure 4:  Hourly wind generation, Spain + Germany + UK, 2013

As it was in France, the fourth largest producer:

Figure 5:  Hourly wind generation, Spain + Germany + UK + France, 2013

And also in the other five countries, which I’ve combined for convenience:

Figure 6:  Hourly wind generation, nine countries combined, 2013

Figure 7 is a blowup of the period between February 2 and 15, which covers low wind period 2. According to these results the wind died to a whisper all over Western Europe in the early hours of February 8th:

Figure 7: Wind generation, nine countries combined, February 2013

These results are, however, potentially misleading because of the large differences in output between the different countries. The wind could have been blowing in Finland and the Czech Republic but we wouldn’t see it in Figure 7 because the output from these countries is still swamped by the larger producers. To level the playing field I normalized the data by setting maximum 2013 wind generation to 100% and the minimum to 0% in each country, so that Germany, for example, scores 100% with 26,000MW output and 50% with 13,000MW while Finland scores 100% with only 222MW and 50% with only 111MW. Expressing generation as a percentage of maximum output gives us a reasonably good proxy for wind speed.

Replotting Figure 7 using these percentages yields the results shown in Figure 8 (the maximum theoretical output for the nine countries combined is 900%, incidentally). We find that the wind was in fact still blowing in Ireland during the low-wind period on February 8th, but usually at less than 50% of maximum.

Figure 8:  Percent of maximum wind generation, February 2013

But even Ireland was not blessed with much in the way of wind at the time of minimum output, which occurred at 5 am. Figure 10 plots the percentage-of-maximum values for the individual countries at 5 am on the map of Europe. If we assume that less than 5% signifies “no wind” there was at this time no wind over an area up to 1,000 km wide extending from Gibraltar at least to the northern tip of Denmark and probably as far north as the White Sea:

Figure 9:  Map of percent of maximum wind generation, February 2013

During this period the wind was clearly not blowing “somewhere else”, and there are other periods like it.

Combining wind generation from the nine countries has also not smoothed out the spikes. The final product looks just as spiky as the data from Spain we began with; the spikes have just shifted position:

Figure 10: Spain wind generation vs. combined generation in all nine countries, 2013 (scales adjusted for visual similarity)

Obviously combining wind generation in Western Europe is not going to provide the “reliable electricity” its backers claim it will. Integrating European wind into a European grid will in fact pose just as many problems as integrating UK wind into the UK grid or Scottish wind into the Scottish grid, but on a larger scale. We will take a brief look at this issue before concluding.

Integrating the combined wind output from the nine countries into a European grid  would not have posed any insurmountable difficulties in 2013 because wind was still a minor player, supplying only 8.8% of demand:

Figure 11: Wind generation vs. demand, nine countries combined

But integration becomes progressively more problematic at higher levels of wind penetration. I simulated higher levels by factoring up 2013 wind generation with the results shown on Figure 12, which plots the percentage of demand supplied by wind in the nine countries in each hourly period. Twenty percent wind penetration looks as if it might be achievable; forty percent doesn’t.

Figure 12:  Percent of hourly demand supplied by wind at different levels of wind penetration using 2013 data

Finally, many thanks to Hubert Flocard, who recently performed a parallel study and graciously gave Energy Matters permission to re-invent the wheel, plus a hat tip to Hugh Sharman for bringing Hubert’s work to our attention.

Call to Action: Reclaim the Climate Movement

23 09 2014

Kari-photoby Kari McGregor, co-founder of the Australian grassroots non-profit, Sustainability Showcase, where she manages various degrowth-oriented projects. Kari is also editor of SHIFT magazine, an independent advertising-free magazine that provides a platform for voices of the degrowth movement and deep ecology. A committed downshifter herself, Kari devotes much of her time to volunteering for the movement, and is a passionate environmental activist.

I’m sure you’ve heard that everyone – or, at least, everyone who cares – will be marching for the climate this weekend. If you’re not marching, then you’re not doing anything at all, or so we’re told.

False dichotomies aside though, I won’t be marching this weekend. I’ll be taking action instead. I agree with Chris Hedges: the march is nothing more that street theatre. It won’t lead to any policy changes; it won’t wave a magic wand over corporate ecocide; and it sure as hell won’t get middle-class white folk to give up their privilege and downshift. It will be a colourful (well, mainly blue t-shirts) climate-themed street parade, complete with back-slapping and high-fiving over how amazing the climate movement is for managing to get so many people outside on a weekend for a stroll around a city.

Where the climate movement has got us so far

Here in Australia we’ve watched the situation go from bad to worse in the year since we elected the worst of all possible governments to power. To say Australia lacks the political will to address ‘the greatest moral and social challenge of our time’ is to state the obvious. Instead of being shocked, perhaps our response should be disgust, followed by action.

We should be disgusted by  the scrapping of the Climate Commission, the repeal of the carbon tax and mining tax, and the removal of funding for the Environmental Defender’s Offices. The irony of these backward steps, taken while greenhouse gas emissions are increasing faster than at any point in the last three decades, should not be lost on anyone with a finger on the pulse.

For all our polite letter-writing campaigns and clicktivist petitions, for all our colourfully theatrical street rallies, these policy backslides are evidence that this government doesn’t give a damn what ‘we the people’ think, or want. They’re not intimidated – they know there’s no ‘or else’ clause in any of those letters or petitions. They know the rallying troops will never threaten direct action, or show up on their doorsteps to demand action.

Approvals for mega-mining projects in Queenland’s Galilee Basin – including the largest coal mine in Australia, Indian company Adani’s Carmichael mine – and for dredging and dumping on the Great Barrier Reef are a poignant reminder that we are ‘in the coal business’. So much so, in fact, that Queensland’s newly passed Mineral and Resources bill prohibits anyone not ‘directly affected’ from objecting to carbon-intensive mining proposals while also prohibiting all objections to so-called low-impact mining, effectively exempting some 90% of operations. Concerned citizens have effectively been legislated out of the conversation in an appalling attack on democracy.

One can criticize the incumbent government for many things, but not for failing to cover all bases. A return to witch-hunts against environmental NGOs looms large on the horizon, with a number of organizations facing legal and financial ruin by the very government whose policy gaps they are working so hard to close. Recommendations to strip environmental NGOs of their ability to receive tax-deductible donations and the proposed repeal of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) are effectively moves to de-claw the climate movement, and ensure that business as usual proceeds without so much as a hiccup.

So what can a climate movement with no backbone achieve?

Time to reclaim the movement

Historically, gaps in policy have been met with strong civil society action. It’s time we rose to our historic moment, as Naomi Klein urges. ‘We the people’ need to reclaim the climate movement.

While mainstream climate activists emphasize market-dependent initiatives such as divestment from fossil fuels, getting behind renewable energy, and putting in place carbon-pricing mechanisms, there are a handful of voices from the margins promoting alternative strategies, including the controversial and challenging measures of economic degrowth, and direct action. A few pariahs are even urging preparation for the tough times ahead.

But these alternative voices are weak, drowned out by the mainstream mantras of ‘we’ve got to put a price on carbon’, ‘move your money!’, and ‘100% renewable for the win!’ What the climate needs right now is for transitioners, degrowthers, permaculturists, and other resilience-oriented folk to stop watching from the sidelines as the movement is declawed at best, and at worst, co-opted by spurious sales reps for greenwashed industry.

So this weekend [20&21 September 2014] I won’t be marching for the climate. And I won’t be sitting around doing nothing either. I’ll be at the sixth annual Australian Climate Action Summit held this year in Queensland, our Sunshine State. And I’ll be delivering some inconvenient truths. My presentation on degrowth is my offering as an apostate from the churches of economic growth and techno-optimism. The climate movement needs to hear this – that the pursuit of perpetual growth is what got us into this mess, and that tech-fixes won’t get us out of it. We are going to have to make major changes to our way of life.

A call to action for Australians to engage with opportunities and solutions, the Summit is also an invitation to debate which tactics will actually work to reduce our collective carbon footprint. Most transitioners, degrowthers and permies are just as guilty of groupthink and huddling together with like-minds, in my view, as the mainstream climate movement is. If we never emerge from our silos then what do we really stand to achieve? Preaching to the choir is a reassuring experience, well within the comfort zone, but it’s not going to get those inconvenient truths across to the movement in the tiny window of time we have available. We have to transcend comfort zones and network with unlike minds if we are to have a shot at making a real difference. And the more people we can work with, the better chance we’ll all have.

I’m not alone in this view, thankfully.

Challenges and controversy

The climate movement’s pet projects receive plenty of scrutiny and critique from climate deniers and right-wing political pundits, but these are not the only folk who have questions, or challenges. The movement is not without its controversy, and the Summit is an excellent opportunity to law a few cards on the table and get talking about tactics that will really slash emissions.

Consumer actions such as ethical investment and divestment from the fossil fuel industry are presented as simple, empowering moves that anyone can make. Money talks – and those who have the most are heard above all others, thanks to their well-paid lobbyists – so it makes sense to put your money where your mouth is. But divestment as a tactic is not without its critics, and questions need to be asked regarding how far it will get us, and how quickly it will get us there.

The market forces of supply and demand hold sway, revealing two inconvenient truths: fossil fuel supply must be disrupted, and demand must be reduced or eliminated. The extent to which divestment can disrupt supply hinges upon how much money can be pulled out of the industry, while failure to impact demand renders divestment moot. An industry that is still profitable is vulnerable to share buy-outs at fire-sale prices by unscrupulous investors who stand to make a killing. The divestment debate is clearly one that needs to be teased out, and Sustainability Showcase’s David Zwolski will do just that at the Summit.

The push for 100% renewable energy is a major aspect of the climate movement, touted as not only essential, but also entirely possible to achieve within a mere decade. Renewable energy lobby group Beyond Zero Emissions has achieved rock star status in the Australian climate movement with bold claims that 100% renewable energy is achievable, affordable, and can launch Australia to the status of renewable energy superpower. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

The climate movement is not without its renewable energy skeptics, although they are generally considered apostates in the church of fossil-free energy. The skeptics have a point though. Renewable energy delivers low returns on energy invested, is dependent on fossil fuels for its implementation, and brings a series of environmental hazards of its own. Replacing one environmental disaster with another is an approach that would have many old-school environmental activists spinning in their graves. Radical environmental group Generation Alpha’s Ben Pennings may make himself less than popular at this year’s Climate Action Summit by calling into question the ecological viability of aiming for 100% renewable energy in lieu of slashing our energy requirements. He won’t be alone in doing so.

Non-violent direct action is a controversial last resort in our most civilized of civil societies, but let’s not beat about the bush. Wins were inarguably achieved by the Suffragettes, the American Civil Rights movement, and Gandhi’s Indian independence movement, thanks to the willingness of a few brave activists to go a step beyond begging the powers that be to instigate change. Make no mistake: the suffragettes would not have won votes for women had they not taken direct action; they had no recourse through the electoral system. The Civil Rights movement would have achieved little if they’d waited for sympathetic white folks to recognize the rights of African-Americans. India would still be under the rule of the Raj had Gandhi opted for simply imploring the colonial overlords to play nice.

Now that we have been stripped of our policy safety-nets and the right to even object to carbon-intensive mining projects, imploring politicians and polluters to maintain a safe climate threshold seems less than adequate. Generation Alpha’s call for extensive non-violent direct action tactics regarding Queensland’s Galilee basin could well come in handy.

Business as usual is not an option

With the recent vindication of the 1970’s Limits to Growth study an even more inconvenient truth than climate change looms large. It’s not news to transitioners and degrowthers that we are set to hit hard limits in the not-too-distant future, relegating perpetual growth to the realm of fantasy. Apostates from the church of economic growth, Sustainability Showcase will explain, in no uncertain terms, that it is precisely our pursuit of infinite growth on this finite planet that is the cause of our climate change predicament. Mother Nature does not negotiate, so it is we who will have to change our ways.

Reaching limits to growth poses a double-edged sword, however – one that can effectively slash our emissions, but also one that poses immense challenges for our economic future, and one that starkly defines techno-fixes as mere wishful thinking. This tough news will be inconvenient indeed for pro-growth true believers and techno-optimists. But one must ask: if we so readily accept what science tells us about climate change, then why is it so hard for us to accept what science tells us about limits to growth, the carrying capacity of our finite planet, and the ability of our biosphere to absorb all that we shock it with?

The future belongs to the adaptable

14 08 2014

Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss was back recently, on a speaking tour with, this time David Holmgren.  You may remember that the two disagree on how to handle the future, with David asking for ‘Crash on Demand’, while Nicole believes the crash will occur soon enough without any of our assistance…..

I seriously considered going to listen to her again, because I have rarely found a better speaker anywhere, but in the end felt I knew her message well enough, and so decided not to.  Nicole is a Master Communicator, and explains things in a manner that anyone, even me, can understand!  I reported on this, but relying on my memory to tell you what she said isn’t a good idea……  what memory?

This time, we are all lucky.  Her talk was taped and broadcast on Radio National for all to listen to, and in my case digest many times over as I downloaded it, and saved it to a SD card I can play on my car stereo when I drive!  I may bag technology all the time, but sometimes it sure comes in handy..

Several things Nicole mentioned are worth emphasising here, so I have taken the time to itemise the more salient points as I see them.

  1. The Trust Horizon.  I’ve heard no one else use this concept, and it’s more than interesting, because I believe that these days, trust is a fast disappearing commodity as people become more and more disjoined.  More to the point, if you’re going to start a revolution, something I say all the time, you need to know you can trust those you are revolting with, and they need to know they can trust you.  Which more than likely explains the lack of a revolution so far…….
    And yet, we – well, some of us! – trust financial and government institutions to do the right thing by us…
  2. The great collateral grab by the filthy rich is already underway; this involves the disappearance of a lot of virtual value, happening in Greece right now where ports, railways, islands, and beaches, and even the Parthenon are being sold off….  the Greeks will soon own very little of their country and will end up being renters.
  3. We’re going to see falling prices; unfortunately, it doesn’t mean things will become more affordable.  If the amount of money in your pocket disappears faster than prices come down, you’re going to find things difficult.
  4. Places that had bubbles burst significantly, like Iceland, Ireland, Spain, looked very much like Australia before their bubbles burst…..
  5. Local government may end up being the only level at which governance will still work because of the trust horizon.  Nicole even suggest a coup of sorts by standing in local elections to change the rules to allow more people to become self sufficient, something I have had personal experience with here as you would not believe the stupid rules that are in place to stop you from disconnecting from the Matrix……
  6. Australia’s business plan is utterly reliant on what’s happening in China, and that makes us very vulnerable.  China has already overbuilt infrastructure, and it has also stockpiled huge amounts of everything and could stop buying our resources at very short notice……  China’s economy is the biggest ponzi scheme on the face of the planet.
  7. If Energy Profit Ratio falls by a factor of ten (as it is doing…) then gross production needs to rise by a factor of ten just to keep you in the same place.  Gross production is however flat to falling.  When BOTH energy profit ratio AND production fall simultaneously, that means a serious energy crunch.  This will lower our levels of complexity substantially, and our lives will have to simplify…
  8. Dependency equals vulnerability, replace brittleness with resilience.  We have to decentralise everything…….  from money supply, to control over the essentials of your very existence, the future belongs to the adaptable.  Local grassroots initiatives will not give us Business as Usual which is a phenomenon caused by cheap energy and credit which are both going to disappear……

If you’ve never heard Nicole speak, you will relish this presentation.  Enjoy.

If we can’t save Society, we must save ourselves

15 10 2012

This is a guest post by Dr Geoff Chia.  I first met Geoff some five years ago when he invited me to talk to his group of doctors and scientists in Brisbane.  A couple of weeks ago, I made another presentation to his group D3SJ (which stands for Doctors & Scientists for Sustainability and Social Justice) on the merits of moving to Tasmania.  This is an essay Geoff wrote as a result of the discussion which ensued from my talk.

If we can’t save Society, we must save ourselves

During our recent October 2012 meeting when Mike Stasse was outlining his rationale for moving to Tasmania, I found one particular comment from the audience rather unsettling.

No, it wasn’t the comment that we are on the verge of global economic collapse – we all know that¹

No, it wasn’t the comment that Society is exactly on course to suffer the death of billions of
people this century – we all know that².

It was this comment: that it was disgraceful for us, the pro-sustainability advocates, to attempt to save ourselves, because this somehow made us no better than the anti-sustainability “business as usual” corporate fraudsters and banksters. The implication was that we were no different from the very people we oppose, the ones who are the principal architects of our demise, the ones who are pushing us ever faster towards the brink (but who are themselves building fortified communities surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire to protect themselves).

According to such criticism, what then are we, the pro-sustainability advocates, the Aware, supposed to do? Knowing the turmoil we face ahead and knowing how to mitigate personal harm, should we do nothing? Should we simply join the herds of passive, gormless, clueless sheeple and allow ourselves to be swept away by the tsunami of chaos, deprivation and carnage to come? Follow the lemmings over the cliff?
Does an attempt to save ourselves amount to an abandonment and betrayal of greater Society? If you were in a room with a gang of arsonists hellbent on setting the drapes on fire and despite vigorous and repeated attempts at persuasion you were unable to deter them, would it be noble or would it be stupid for you to stay in the room and burn to death with them? Or would it be more sensible to leave the room, even as it is being consumed by flames, knowing that you did everything in your power to prevent or mitigate the harm to them, but they rejected your efforts at every turn?

Quite apart from the insult of equating us, the Aware, to the psychopathic perpetrators of the impending collapse, it is factually wrong. There is only one way in which we are similar and it is this: we consume. As such, even the most ardent environmentalist contributes to carbon emissions and to resource depletion by virtue of the fact that he/she is alive. We, the Aware, acknowledge the harm we are causing, which we are trying to minimise and repair. We are however diametrically opposed to the BAUAUs (business as usual acolytes and underlings) who, far from acknowledging or trying to prevent or mitigate harm, are furiously pouring accelerant over the fire, even as they themselves are abandoning the room and making off with the profits of those accelerants.

I have convened our D3SJ meetings for more than six years now, the main goal being to promote the idea that policy should be determined by evidence, reason and fairness to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people on a long term basis. Above all I am a realist and am able to acknowledge that I have failed miserably in my efforts to spread the message, not only to greater society but also to my own medical colleagues, supposedly intelligent people who remain in adamant denial. We have achieved
some worthwhile outcomes however, by networking with likeminded people and educating ourselves about important issues.

I would argue that not only is it natural, according to the instincts of self preservation, for us, the Aware, to save ourselves, we have a duty to do so. Why? For one simple reason. We carry the seeds of a new civilisation. We hold the key to the greatest prize humanity has ever known, without which there can be only recurring darkness, ignorance, suffering and misery. We bear the hope that arising from the ashes of this failed rapacious, destructive, consumerist, military-industrial complex will ultimately be a civilisation which has learned the bitter lessons of history and shapes itself according to the principles of sustainability and social justice, which creates a steady state economy, which shapes policy according to
evidence, reason and fairness to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people on a long term basis.

The alternative is a return to the brutality of tribal societies run by parasitic despots who extract their wealth off the backs of feudal serfs and slaves, no longer having the option of fossil fuels and unable to build a renewable energy infrastructure. Societies which continue to follow the boom and bust pattern of plague species, while eking out a paltry existence from a devastated hothouse hell of a planet. Here is another reason why we, the Aware, must take action now to save ourselves:

people³ judge you more by your actions than by your words. If others know you are taking serious action to prepare for the impending collapse, that in itself may be your strongest argument to them that humanity is wrecking the planet and our present course is unsustainable.

Am I saying that it is all too late, that humanity has passed the point of no return and we should stop wasting our time trying to spread our message to greater Society? The updated Limits to Growth projections indicate that it is indeed too late: all repeated runs with even the most optimistic (but realistic) inputs result in “overshoot” (the LtG euphemism for “the death of billions”). However future projections are not absolute, it is all about probabilities. There may be perhaps a 1% chance that the majority of people in the world may suddenly come to their senses, that they will finally “get it”, that the power of the fossil fuel corporations will be broken and we will urgently move in the direction of energy efficiency, 100% renewable energy and humane population reduction. Hence we should keep pushing our message. I cannot emphasize enough my admiration for people who are willing to place their bodies, their liberty and their financial security at risk to stand up for what they believe in. Those of us too cowardly to emulate him (myself included) must at least respect and support them.

The overwhelming probability however is that the stable world we are familiar with is cactus, that we will be experiencing systemic breakdowns very soon. It will be silly not to plan for this.

Geoff Chia

2. See abstract:
3. That is, sensible people value actions over words. Sensible people value evidence over rhetoric. On the
other hand, stupid people can be convinced by rhetoric alone, particularly rhetoric crafted to match their
prejudices. Such people are the fans of Tony Abbott, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt and unfortunately make up a large proportion of this Society. They are the fans of Sarah Palin and are the Tea Party members in America. They are the war criminals who murdered Iraqis to steal their oil on the basis of lies. Do such people deserve to be saved in the first place? Or is it best we get out of the way and let those greedy, bigoted, self serving and innately violent people kill each other in a Hobbesian war of “all against all”?