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

27 11 2019

Richard Heinberg

August 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

12 10 2018

Jeremy LentJeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.


In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than doubleby mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecologypractices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.

George Monbiot’s “Out of the Wreckage”: A friendly critique.

7 05 2018

By my old mate monbiotTed Trainer

Few have made a more commendable contribution to saving the planet than George Monbiot. His recent book, Out of the Wreckage, continues the effort and puts forward many important ideas…but I believe there are problems with his diagnosis and his remedy.

The book is an excellent short, clear account of several of the core faults in consumer-capitalist society, and the alternatives advocated are admirable.  George’s focal concern is the loss of community, and the cause is, as we know, neo-liberalism. He puts this in terms of the “story” that dominates thinking. Today the taken for granted background story about society is that it is made of competitive, self-interest-maximizing individuals, and therefore our basic institutions and processes are geared to a struggle to accumulate private wealth, rather than to encouraging concern for each other and improving the welfare of all. Thatcher went further, instructing us that there is not even any such thing as society, only individuals. George begins by rightly contradicting such vicious nonsense, pointing out that humans are fundamentally nice, altruistic, caring and cooperative, but we have allowed these dispositions to be overridden primarily by an economic system that obliges us to behave differently.

He gives heavy and convincing documentation of- this theme. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with several indicators of the sad state of affairs.  “ … this age of atomization  breeds anxiety, discontent and unhappiness.” (p. 18.) “An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world.” (p. 16.) Chapter 3 deals with the way neoliberalism has caused the social damage that has accumulated over the last forty years.

But my first concern with the book is that disastrous as it is, neo-liberalism isn’t the main problem confronting us and likely to destroy us.  The main problem is sustainability.  George does refer to this briefly and rather incidentally (e.g., p. 117) and again it seems to me that what he says is correct… it’s just that he doesn’t deal adequately with the magnitude or centrality of the problem or it’s extremely radical implications.

I need to elaborate here.  Few seem to grasp that the “living standards” enjoyed in rich countries involve per capita use rates for resources and environmental impact are around ten times those that all people expected to be living on earth by 2050 could have.  For fifty years now a massive “limits to growth” literature has been accumulating. For instance the Australian per capita use of productive land is 6 – 8 ha, so if the almost 10 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2050 were to live as we do now, up to 80 billion ha would be needed.  But there are only about 8 billion ha of productive land available on the planet and at present loss rates more than half will be gone by 2050. Many other areas, such as per capita minerals use, also reveal the largely unrecognized magnitude of the overshoot. (For a summary of the situation see TSW: The Limits to Growth.)

The inescapable implication is that we in rich countries should accept the need to shift to lifestyles and systems which involve enormous reductions in resource use and ecological impact.  A De-growth movement recognizing this has now emerged. Yet the supreme goal in this society remains economic growth, i.e., increasing production, consumption, sales, and GDP without limit. To refuse to face up to the absurdity of this, which is what almost everyone does, is to guarantee the onset of catastrophic global breakdown within decades.

Thus the sustainability problem cannot be solved unless we abandon affluence and growth […the title of Ted’s 1985 book which changed my life and is the reason you are now reading this…]  Just getting rid of neo-liberal doctrine and exploitation is far from sufficient.  Even a perfect socialism ensuring equity for all would bring on just about the same range of global problems as that we face now if the goal was affluence for all.

When all this is understood it is clear that the solution has to be transition to some kind of “Simpler Way”.  That is, there can be no defensible option but to shift to lifestyles and systems that involve extremely low per capita throughput.  This cannot be done unless there is also historically unprecedented transition to new economic, political and value systems. Many green people fail to grasp the magnitude of the change required; reforming a system that remains driven by market forces, or growth or the desire for wealth cannot do it. Just getting rid of capitalism will not be enough; the change in values is more important and difficult than that. Yet we advocates of simplicity have no doubt that our vision could be achieved while providing a very high quality of life to everyone.  (For a detailed account of how thing might be organised see TSW: The Alternative.)

George doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of the limits, the magnitude of the overshoot, or therefore the essential nature of the sustainability problem and its extremely radical implications.  Above all he does not stress the need to happily embrace extremely frugal “lifestyles”. Sustainability cannot be achieved unless the pursuit of affluence as well as the dominance of neo-liberalism ceases, and he therefore does not deal with what is in fact the main task for those wishing to save the planet; i.e., increasing general awareness that a Simpler Way of some kind must be taken. George does not discuss the simplicity theme.

This has been a criticism in terms of goals. I think the book also has a problem regarding means.  The book is primarily about politics.  It is a sound critique of the way the present decision making system works for the rich and of the need for us to take control of it into our hands via localism. But George is saying in effect, ”Let’s get out there and build community and take control and then we can fix things.” Unfortunately I think that advice is based on a questionable analysis of the situation and of how to fix it.

My case requires some discussion of what I see as perhaps the book’s major problem, which is to do with the nature of community, more accurately with the conditions required for it to exist or come into existence. Again George’s documentation of the sorry state of community today is to be applauded.  But I think his strategic recommendations mostly involve little more than a plea for us to just come together and commune, as if we have made the mistake of forgetting the importance of community and all would be well if we just woke up and knocked on our neighbour’s door.

Firstly George’s early pages give us powerful reasons to believe that such “voluntaristic” steps are not going to prevail against the massive and intensifying forces at work driving out community.  Economic reality gives most people no choice but to function as isolated, struggling, stressed, time-poor, insecure individuals competing against all others to get by, having to worry about unemployment, the mortgage and now the robots. Mobility obliges the individual to move through several careers in a lifetime, “development” eliminates stable neighbourhoods and rips up established support networks. Developers and councils prosper most when high rise units are thrown up everywhere, and the resulting land prices weigh against allocating space to a diverse landscape of mini-farms and firms and community gardens and leisure facilities likely to increase human interaction. Smart phones preoccupy with trivia and weaken parental control. Commerce and councils takes over functions families and neighbourhoods once performed for themselves, making us into privatized customers with fewer social responsibilities.  People understandably retreat to TV and IT screens for trivial distraction, and to drugs and alcohol. No surprise that the most common illnesses now are reported to be depression and loneliness.

Just ask yourself what proportion of national productive capacity and investment is explicitly targeted to building cohesive and mutually supportive communities … try finding that line item in the Budget Papers. Now how much goes into trying to increase business turnover and consumption. I rest my case.  George is more aware of all this than most of us but he falls far short of explaining how it can be overcome … or that it can be overcome. In my firm view it cannot be overcome until the capitalist system and several other unacceptable things have been scrapped, and that will take more than knocking on your neighbour’s door.

More important than recognizing the opposing forces, George’s recommendations for action seem to me to be based on a questionable understanding of community, leading to mistaken ideas about how to create it.  As I see it community is most important for a high quality of life, but it is strange, very complicated, and little understood.  It involves many intangible things including familiarity, a history of interactions, close personal relations, habits and customs, a sense of common interests and values, helping and being helped, giving and receiving, sharing, lending, debt, gratitude, reciprocity, trust, reliability, shared tasks, resilience, concern for the community and readiness to act collectively to achieve common goals.  It is analogous to an ecosystem, a network of established dynamic interrelationships in which a myriad of components meshing spontaneously contribute to the “health” of the whole …  without which the components couldn’t do their thing.  But the community ecosystem also involves consciousness, of others and of the whole, and it involves attitudes and bonds built by a history of interactions.  This history has established the values and dispositions that determine the communal behavior of individuals and groups. Community is a “property” that emerges from all this.

Community is therefore not a “thing” that can be set up artificially at a point in time, nor is it a property or ingredient that can be added like curry powder or a coat of paint.  It cannot be brought in or installed by well-intentioned social workers, council officers or government agencies.  It is about deep-seated ideas, memories, feelings, habits and social bonds. It therefore has almost nothing to do with money and economists can tell us almost nothing about it. You could instantly and artificially raise the “living standards” of a locality just by adding dollars, but you can’t just add social bonds. They can only grow over time, and under the right conditions. George explains clearly why neo-liberalism eliminates those conditions – my problem is that he doesn’t explain how to get them back and he proceeds as if it is simply a matter of individual will or choice, of volunteering to go out and connect. As I see it we won’t get far until social conditions make us connect. George’s urging will prompt some few to make the effort, and he refers to many admirable initiatives underway including community gardens, local currencies and cooperatives. I see these “Transition Towns” ventures as extremely important and George is right to encourage people to get involved in them. They are the beach-heads, establishing the example local institutions that must eventually become the norm and that people will be able turn to when the crunch comes, but I do not think they will grow beyond the point where a relatively few find them attractive … until macro conditions change dramatically.

Here is a brief indication of how Simpler Way transition theory sees it.

There is now no possibility of heading off an extremely serious multifactorial global breakdown.  For instance, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be reduced at maybe 8% p.a., and yet they are rising.  Renewable energy would have to replace fossil fuels in a few decades … but presently it contributes only 1.5% of world energy use. There are strong reasons to think that oil will become very scarce within ten years. (See Ahmed, 2017.) Global debt levels are so high now and rising so fast that the coming CFC 2.0 will dwarf the previous GFC1. Did you know that global insect populations have suddenly begun to plunge? Forget about your white rhino, it’s the little fellows at the base of food chains that really matter. Need I go on.

There are many other accelerating problems feeding into what Mason (2003) described as the coming 2030 spike. What we have to pray for is a slow-onset terminal depression, not a sudden one, giving people time to wake up and realize that we must move to The Simpler Way.  The Transition Towns movement is the beginning of this but I do not think it will really take off until the supermarket shelves thin out.  Then people will be forced to come together in their suburbs and towns to work out how they can build cooperative local self-sufficiency. They will realize this must be done collectively, that the market must be prevented from determining what happens, and above all that the competitive quest for wealth is suicidal and that frugal “lifestyles” must be embraced. In other words, if we are lucky and the breakdown in global systems is not too rapid, the coming conditions of intense scarcity will force us to create local economies, committees, cooperatives, working bees, commons etc. … and these conditions will produce community … out of the wreckage.

But community is not the crucial goal. What matters most at this early stage of this revolution is people coming together to take collective control of their town, that is, to go beyond setting up a local swap shop here, a community orchard there a cooperative bakery somewhere else, and to start asking questions like, “What are our most urgent needs in this town … bored teenagers, homeless people, lonely older people, too few leisure activities…well let’s get together to start fixing the problems.” Essential to The Simpler Way vision is citizens in direct participatory control of their own situation, i.e., the classic Anarchist form of government.  The big global problems cannot be solved any other way because only settlements of this kind can get the resource and ecological impacts right down while providing well for all.  For thousands of years people have taken for granted being governed. That is not just political immaturity, it is not viable now. Distant, central agencies like the state cannot run the kinds of settlements that will enable per capita resource rates to be decimated. These can only be run by conscientious, cooperative citizens aware of their local needs and keen to work together to build and maintain their own local water, energy, agricultural, social etc. systems. (There will still be a remnant role for central agencies.)

In TSW: The Transition it is argued that this taking of control at the town level must be seen as the beginning of a process that in time could lead to revolutionary change at the level of the national and international economies, and of the state itself. As townspeople realize they must prevent the global economy from determining their fate and as they find they must build their power to take control of their own situation they will increasingly pressure state policies to be geared primarily to facilitating local economic development…and in time they will replace state power by citizen assemblies.

The activities and projects George advocates could be most important contributors to this process, but I don’t think they will add up to the required revolution unless they are informed by a basically Anarchist vision whereby people come to understand that the main goal is not a town containing nice things like community orchards, nor indeed one with robust community, but a town we run on principles of frugal, cooperative, needs-focused, local self-sufficiency.

Ahmed, N. M., (2017), Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer.

Mason, C., (2003), The 2030 Spike, Earthscan Publications.

Monbiot, G., (2018), Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, London, Verso.

TSW: The Limits to Growth, thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm

TSW: The Alternative, thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

TSW: The Transition.  thesimplerway.info/TRANSITION.htm

Jack Alpert on Overshoot……

30 04 2018

jack alpert's pictureI have just listened (twice) to what I now consider to be Jim Kunstler’s best podcast ever…… it can be downloaded here, and I highly recommend it.

I’ve featured Jack Alpert once before by showcasing his “losing our energy slaves” video. Alpert is an engineer with expertise in systems analysis….  I find his arguments so compelling, I can’t see how he could be wrong. His thinking is sometimes hard going…. so hard in fact, I think once or twice even Jim lost the plot, trying to steer the conversation back to his favorite subjects, the Kardashians and the financialisation of civilisation. Mercifully, Alpert extricates himself from Kunstler’s biases, such as they are, and continues developing the themes he holds dear and need to be shared everywhere, so important I think they are…..

Alpert has a website where more videos are available (see below) as well as pdf’s of papers he has written.

Whichever way you look at it, civilisation is screwed. But you already knew that, right……?


The Bumpy Road Down, Part 5: More Trends in Collapse

21 02 2018

IrvMillsIrv Mills has published the fifth and last part of his 5 part series called ‘The Bumpy Road Down’, previous instalments being available here.





In my last post I started talking about some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. (The bumpy road down being the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity). These changes will be forced on us by circumstances and are not necessarily how I’d like to see things turn out.

The trends I covered last time were:

  • our continued reliance on fossil fuels
  • the continuing decline in availability, and surplus energy content, of fossil fuels
  • the damage the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) will suffer in the next crash, and the effects this will have
  • the increase in authoritarianism, as governments attempt to optimize critical systems and relief efforts during and after the crash

Oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

I’ve once again included the stepped or “oscillating” decline diagram from previous posts here to make it easier to visualize what I’m talking about. This diagram isn’t meant to be precise, certainly not when it comes to the magnitude and duration of the oscillations, which in any case will vary from one part of the world to the next.

The trends I want to talk about today are all interconnected. You can hardly discuss one without referring to the others, and so it is difficult to know where to start. But having touched briefly on a trend toward increased authoritarianism at the end of my last post, I guess I should continue trends in politics.


Currently there seems to be a trend towards right wing politics in the developed world. I think anyone who extrapolates that out into the long run is making a basic mistake. Where right wing governments have been elected by those looking for change, they will soon prove to be very inept at ruling in an era of degrowth. Following that, there will likely be a swing in the other direction and left wing governments will get elected. Only to prove, in their turn, to be equally inept. Britain seems to be heading in this direction, and perhaps the U.S. as well.

Another trend is the sort of populism that uses other nations, and/or racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities at home as scapegoats for whatever problems the majority is facing. This strategy is and will continue to be used by clever politicians to gain support and deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Unfortunately, it leads nowhere since the people being blamed aren’t the source of the problem.

During the next crash and following recovery governments will continue to see growth as the best solution to whatever problems they face and will continue to be blind to the limits to growth. Farther down the bumpy road some governments may finally clue in about limits. Others won’t, and this will fuel continued growth followed by crashes until we learn to live within those limits.

One thing that seems clear is that eventually we’ll be living in smaller groups and the sort of political systems that work best will be very different from what we have now.

Many people who have thought about this assume that we’ll return to feudalism. I think that’s pretty unlikely. History may seem to repeat itself, but only in loose outline, not in the important details. New situations arise from different circumstances, and so are themselves different. Modern capitalists would never accept the obligations that the feudal aristocracy had to the peasantry. Indeed freeing themselves of those obligations had a lot to do with making capitalism work. And the “99%” (today’s peasantry) simply don’t accept that the upper classes have any right, divine or otherwise, to rule.

In small enough groups, with sufficient isolation between groups, people seem best suited to primitive communism, with essentially no hierarchy and decision making by consensus. I think many people will end up living in just such situations.

In the end though, there will still be a few areas with sufficient energy resources to support larger and more centralized concentrations of population. It will be interesting to see what new forms of political structure evolve in those situations.


For the last couple of decades declining surplus energy has caused contraction of the real economy. Large corporations have responded in various ways to maintain their profits: moving industrial operations to developing countries where wages are lower and regulations less troublesome, automating to reduce the amount of expensive labour required, moving to the financial and information sectors of the economy where energy decline has so far had less effect.

The remaining “good” industrial jobs in developed nations are less likely to be unionized, with longer hours, lower pay, decreased benefits, poorer working conditions and lower safety standards. The large number of people who can’t even get one of those jobs have had to move to precarious, part time, low paying jobs in the service industries. Unemployment has increased (despite what official statistics say) and the ranks of the homeless have swelled.

Since workers are also consumers, all this has led to further contraction of the consumer economy. We can certainly expect to see this trend continue and increase sharply during the next crash.

Our globally interconnected economy is a complex thing and that complexity is expensive to maintain. During the crash and the depression that follows it, we’ll see trends toward simplification in many different areas driven by a lack of resources to maintain the existing complex systems. I’ll be discussing those trends in a moment, but it is important to note that a lot of economic activity is involved in maintaining our current level of complexity and abandoning that complexity will mean even more economic contraction.

At the same time, small, simple communities will prove to have some advantages that aren’t currently obvious.


All this economic contraction means that almost all of us will be significantly poorer and we’ll have to learn to get by with less. As John Michael Greer says, “LESS: less energy, less stuff, less stimulation.” We’ll be forced to conserve and will struggle to get by with “just enough”. This will be a harshly unpleasant experience for most people.


For the last few decades globalization has been a popular trend, especially among the rich and powerful, who are quick to extol its many supposed advantages. And understandably so, since it has enabled them to maintain their accustomed high standard of living while the economy as a whole contracts.

On the other hand, as I was just saying, sending high paying jobs offshore is a pretty bad idea for consumer economies. And I suspect that in the long run we’ll see that it wasn’t really all that good for the countries where we sent the work, either.

During the crash we’ll see the breakdown of the financial and organizational mechanisms that support globalization and international trade. There will also be considerable problems with shipping, both due to disorganization and to unreliable the supplies of diesel fuel for trucks and bunker fuel for ships. I’m not predicting an absolute shortage of oil quite this soon, but rather financial and organizational problems with getting it out of the ground, refined and moved to where it is needed.

This will lead to the failure of many international supply chains and governments and industry will be forced to switch critical systems over to more local suppliers. This switchover will be part of what eventually drives a partial recovery of the economy in many localities.

In a contracting economy with collapsing globalization there would seem to be little future for multi-national corporations, and organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. While the crash may bring an end to the so called “development” of the “developing” nations, it will also bring an end to economic imperialism. At the same time, the general public in the developed world, many of whom are already questioning the wisdom of the “race to the bottom” that is globalization, will be even less likely to go along with it, especially when it comes to exporting jobs.

Still, when the upcoming crash bottoms out and the economy begins to recover, there will be renewed demand for things that can only be had from overseas and international trade will recover to some extent.


Impoverished organizations such a governments, multi-national corporations and international standards groups will struggle to maintain today’s high degree of centralization and eventually will be forced to break up into smaller entities.

Large federations such as Europe, the US, Canada and Australia will see rising separatism and eventually secession. As will other countries where different ethnic groups have been forced together and/or there is long standing animosity between various localities. If this can be done peacefully it may actually improve conditions for the citizens of the areas involved, who would no longer have to support the federal organization. But no doubt it will just as often involve armed conflict, with all the destruction and suffering that implies.


The cessation of services from the FIRE industries and the resulting breakdown of international (and even national) supply and distribution chains will leave many communities with no choice but to fend for themselves.

One of the biggest challenges at first will be to get people to believe that there really is a problem. Once that is clear, experience has shown that the effectiveness of response from the victims of disasters is remarkable and I think that will be true again in this case. There are a lot of widely accepted myths about how society breaks down during disaster, but that’s just what they are: myths. Working together in groups for our mutual benefit is the heart of humanity’s success, after all.

Government response will take days or more likely weeks to organize, and in the meantime there is much we can do to help ourselves. Of course it helps to be prepared… (check out these posts from the early days of this blog: 12) and I’ll have more to say on that in upcoming posts.

The question then arises whether one would be better off in an urban center or a rural area such as a small town or a farm. Government relief efforts will be focused on the cities where the need will be greatest and the response easiest to organize. But just because of the millions of people involved, that response will be quite challenging.

Rural communities may well be largely neglected by relief efforts. But, especially in agricultural areas, they will find fending for themselves much more manageable.

I live in a rural municipality with a population of less than 12,000 people in an area of over 200 square miles (60 people per sq. mile, more than 10 acres per person). The majority of the land is agricultural, and supply chains are short, walking distance in many cases. Beef, dairy and cash crops are the main agricultural activities at present and they can easily be diverted to feed the local population. Especially if the food would go to waste anyway due to the breakdown of supply chains downstream from the farm.

So I think we’re likely to do fairly well until the government gets around to getting in touch with us again, probably sometime after the recovery begins.

In subsequent crashes the population will be significantly reduced and those of us who survive will find ourselves living for the most part in very small communities which are almost entirely relocalized. The kind of economy that works in that situation is very different from what we have today and is concerned with many things other than growth and profit making.


The move toward automation that we’ve seen in the developed world since the start of the industrial revolution has been driven by high labour costs and the savings to be had by eliminating labour from industrial processes as much as possible. That revolution started and proceeded at greatest speed in Britain where labour rates where the highest, and still hasn’t happened in many developing nations where labour is very cheap.

Sadly, the further impoverishment of the working class in Europe and North America will make cheaper labour available locally, rather than having to go offshore. During the upcoming crash, and in the depression following it, impoverished people will have no choice but to work for lower rates and will out compete automated systems, especially when capital to set them up, the cutting edge technology needed to make them work, and the energy to power them are hard to come by. Again, the economic advantages of simplicity will come into play when it is the only alternative, and help drive the recovery after the first crash.


In the initial days of the coming crash there will be problems with the distribution systems for food, medical supplies and water treatment chemicals, all of which are being supplied by “just in time” systems with very little inventory at the consumer end of the supply chain. To simplify this discussion, I’ll talk primarily about food.

It is often said that there is only a 3 day supply of food on the grocery store shelves. I am sure this is approximately correct. In collapse circles, the assumption is that, if the trucks stop coming, sometime not very far beyond that 3 day horizon we’d be facing starvation. There may be a few, incredibly unlucky, areas where that will be more or less true.

But, depending on the time of year, much more food than that (often more than a year’s worth) is stored elsewhere in the food production and distribution system. The problem will be in moving this food around to where it is needed, and in making sure another year’s crops get planted and harvested. I think this can be done, much of it through improvisation and co-operation by people in the agricultural and food industries. With some support from various levels of government.

There will be some areas where food is available more or less as normal, some where the supply is tight, and other areas where there is outright famine and some loss of life (though still outstripped by the fecundity of the human race). In many ways that pretty much describes the situation today but supply chain breakdown, and our various degrees of success at coping with it, will make all the existing problems worse during the crash.

But once the initial crash is over, we have a much bigger problem looming ahead, which I think will eventually lead to another, even more serious crash.

With my apologies to my “crunchy” friends, modern agriculture and the systems downstream from it supply us with the cheapest and safest food that mankind has known since we were hunters and gatherers and allows us (so far) to support an ever growing human population.

The problem is that this agriculture is not sustainable. It requires high levels of inputs–primarily energy from fossil fuels, but also pesticides, fertilizers and water for irrigation–mostly from non-renewable sources. And rather than enriching the soil on which it depends, it gradually consumes it, causing erosion from over cultivation and over grazing, salinating the soil where irrigation is used and poisoning the water courses downstream with runoff from fertilizers. We need to develop a suite of sustainable agricultural practices that takes advantage of the best agricultural science can do for us, while the infrastructure that supports that science is still functioning.

The organic industry spends extravagantly to convince us that the problem with our food is pesticide residues and genetically engineered organisms, but the scientific consensus simply does not support this. The organic standards include so called “natural” pesticides that are more toxic than modern synthetic ones, and allow plant breeding techniques (such as mutagenesis) that are far more dangerous than modern genetic engineering. Organic standards could certainly be revised into something sustainable that retains the best of both conventional and organic techniques, but this has become such a political hot potato that it is unlikely to happen.

As I said above, during the upcoming crash one of the main challenges will be to keep people fed. And I have no doubt that this challenge will, for the most part, be successfully met. Diesel fuel will be rationed and sent preferentially to farmers and trucking companies moving agricultural inputs and outputs. Supplies of mineral fertilizers are still sufficient to keep industrial agriculture going. Modern pesticides actually reduce the need for cultivation and improve yields by reducing losses due to pests. It will be possible to divert grains grown for animal feed to feed people during the first year when the crisis is most serious.

Industrial agriculture will actually save the day and continue on to feed the growing population for a while yet. We will continue to make some improvement in techniques and seeds, though with diminishing returns on our efforts.

This will come to an end around mid century with the second bump on the road ahead (starting at point “g” on the graph), when a combination of increasing population, worsening climate, and decreasing availability and increasing prices of energy, irrigation water, fertilizer, pesticides and so forth combine to drastically reduce the output of modern agriculture.

Widespread famine will result, and this, combined with epidemics in populations weakened by hunger, will reduce the planet’s human population by at least a factor of two in a period of a very few years. Subsequent bumps as climate change further worsens conditions for farming will further reduce the population, resulting in a bottleneck towards the end of this century. Without powered machinery, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and with drastically reduced water for irrigation, agricultural output will fall off considerably. And our population will fall to match the availability of food. I do think it unlikely that the human race will be wiped out altogether, but our numbers will likely be reduced by a factor of ten or more.


It is a sad fact that many people, communities and nations, when faced with the sort of challenges I’ve been talking about here, will respond with violence.

In the remaining years leading up to the next crash, I think it is likely that even the least stable of world leaders (or their military advisors) will remain well aware of the horrific consequences of large scale nuclear war, and will manage to avoid it. As has been the case since the end of WWII, wars will continue to be fought by proxy, involving smaller nations in the developing world, especially where the supply of strategic natural resources are at issue.

War is extremely expensive though and, even without the help of a financial crash, military spending already threatens to bankrupt the U.S. As Dmitry Orlov has suggested, after a financial crash, the U.S. may find it difficult to even get its military personnel home from overseas bases, much less maintain those bases or pursue international military objectives.

But even in the impoverished post-crash world, I expect that border wars, terrorism, riots and violent protests will continue for quite some time yet.


Whether from the ravages of war, climate change or economic contraction many areas of the world, particularly in areas like the Middle East, North Africa and the U.S. southwest, will become less and less livable. People will leave those areas looking for greener pastures and the number of refugees will soon grow past what can be managed even by the richest of nations. This will be a problem for Europe in particular, and more and more borders will be closed to all but a trickle of migrants. Refugees will accumulate in camps and for a while the situation will find an uneasy balance.

As we continue down the bumpy road, though, many nations will lose the ability to police their borders. Refugees will pour through, only to find broken economies that offer them little hope of a livelihood. Famine, disease and conflict will eventually reduce the population to where it can be accommodated in the remaining livable areas. But the ethnic makeup of those areas will have changed significantly due to large scale migrations.


I’ve been talking here about some of the changes that will be forced upon us by the circumstances of collapse. I’ve said very little about what I think we might do if we could face up to the reality of those circumstances and take positive action. That’s because I don’t think there is much chance that we’ll take any such action on a global or even national scale.

It’s time now to wrap up this series of posts about the bumpy road down. At some point in the future I intend to do a series about of coping with collapse locally, on the community, family and individual level. I think there is still much than can be done to improve the prospects of those who are willing to try.

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.

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 3

17 01 2018

Irv Mills has now published the third episode in his “Bumpy Road Down” series. It’s gotten a lot of interest on Facebook, and I think his own blog is getting a lot of hits too, as the interest in collapse ramps up everywhere as more and more people are waking up to the fact most things are going awry in the world….

I’ve already told him I disagree with his collapse diagram. For starters, the carrying capacity line is neither straight nor flat. So much farm land, particularly in India and North America has been decimated by fossil fuled fertilisers, that re-instating them to their former organic glory will be a huge challenge that will require a long time during which a lot of people will unfortunately starve. On top of this, we have wrecked global fisheries, which were an important pre FF source of food…  My best take on this is Paul Chefruka’s diagram which I published with his article here…  It too shows a bumpy road down, and no carrying capacity limit. I think the post FF carrying capacity will be the same as the pre FF carrying capacity, only worse thanks to the ecological damage our insane use of FFs has caused. How one quatifies this, I don’t know, but I’m sure it would take a lot of research.

Anyhow, enjoy the read, and make sure you comment, I’m always interested in what you think. Leave comments at Irv’s site too….  I’m sure he’d like the feedback!



Irv Mills

In the last post in this series I talked about the next financial crash and how it may well be serious enough to spread into the non-financial sectors of the economy and effect supply chains and critical systems in ways that we did not see in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08. Systems that most of us depend on for the necessities of life may fail and many kollapsniks see this leading immediately and inevitably to a hard, fast and permanent crash of industrial civilization.

I disagree, seeing this as just one more bump on the road down, the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity.

To understand why I hold this opinion, I said we need to do a couple of things:

1) take a systems dynamic approach to the events we are talking about. Specifically, we need to look at what happens when overshoot occurs in nature, in systems like the one we inhabit. Which is, after all, a subset of the ecosphere. Overshoot is a common enough phenomenon and usually works in fairly predictable ways.

2) look at the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage of a financial crash and its spread to other critical systems.

Today we are going to do that.

(Note: all three of the graphs below are smoothed out, idealized and imprecise representations of the processes they illustrate. The point is to allow me to make some points visually. I hope not to get into much in the way of quibbling over minor details, of which no doubt a few are missing, inaccurate or outright wrong.)

So, first, let’s take a look at how overshoot works. Take moment or two with your favourite search engine and you will find a graph that looks something like this:

1) typical overshoot situation with constant carrying capacity

The green line shows the behaviour over time of the population of a species which finds itself initially at a level well below the carrying capacity of its environment (the dashed blue line). Because that environment provides lots of whatever the species need to grow, it does grow. This tendency to grow in response to favourable conditions seems to be an inhernet property of life. As is always the case, this is exponential growth—it starts out slowly but eventually reaches a point where it takes off and quickly exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment.

What happens then is interesting, especially since we currently find ourselves in just such a situation. You get some oscillation of the species population, above and below the carrying capacity, until it finally settles out somewhat below the carrying capacity.

First, let’s be clear that it is possible to exceed carrying capacity in the short run, at the cost of damaging the environment and reducing its capacity—overpopulation has a negative effect on that capacity. There is also some time delay built in to the effect of population growth, as newly born individuals add relatively little to the species impact on the environment compared to what they will add once they have grown up. The negative feedback and the time delay result in the oscillation shown in the graph.

Of course, the straight line representing carrying capacity would actually have some peaks and valleys, corresponding to how the environment responds to the stress of overpopulation and how it recovers when the population falls. If we idealized both the blue and green lines into something like a sine wave, we would see that the variation in the carrying capacity leads the variation in the population by about 90 degrees.

The red line, by the way, represents a fast and permanent collapse. In order for this to happen the carrying capacity has to fall all the way down to basically nothing. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but overshoot isn’t one of them, because as soon as the population falls off below the carrying capacity, the stress on the environment is relieved and it begins to recover.

There is, in fact, no such thing as a “balance of nature” and it is by no means inevitable that the oscillations damp out and the population settles down just below the carrying capacity. In many cases what we actually get is the situation in the next graph, where populations oscillate on an ongoing basis.

2) continual oscillation of predator and prey populations such as foxes and rabbits

You might think that the population of rabbits and foxes in an ecosystem would level out at steady values, but that is not in fact what is observed.

If we start at a moment when there are relatively few of each species, we see that the population of rabbits (the prey, dashed blue line) grows rapidly. It is well below the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits and there are relatively few foxes (the predators, green line). But the increasing number of rabbits make hunting easier for the foxes, and their population starts to increase too. Eventually there are enough foxes to overhunt the rabbits, resulting in a crash in the rabbit population. This is followed by a crash in the fox population, since there are no longer enough rabbits to support it. This brings us back to where we started and the cycle carries on.

The reason the cycle can carry on indefinitely is that the foxes limit the rabbit population so that it never exceeds the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits—the plants the rabbits are eating never get over grazed.

The situation for the human population of this planet is, as you might expect, more complex.

The impact (I) that the human population has on our environment is determined not just by the size of that population (P), but also by the level of affluence (A) we are living at and effectiveness of the technology (T) we are using to maintain that affluence.

This gives us the famous equation, I=PAT. Since I am going to be using the term “T” in another equation shortly, I’ll change this to I=PAD, where “D” stands for decoupling. Decoupling is the use of technology to produce affluence at a lower cost to thge environment and it is a number between 0 and 1, with 0 being the goal we would aim for, eliminating our impact altogether. In fact it is proving so difficult to get decoupling anywhere near zero that it is very unlikely to be the solution to our problems.

Carrying capacity (C) also works somewhat differently for human populations.

We can increase the size (S) of our environment by expanding into new areas of the world and habitats previously occupied by other species or by “indigenous” humans.

We can tap into forms of energy (E) beyond just food. For somewhere between two and three million years we’ve been using fire for landscaping, for cooking our food and for heating our shelters. In each case we were using the energy in burning biomass to increase the carrying capacity of our environment, increase the value of our food, and/or expand the range of environments that we can live in. For the last few hundred years we’ve been using the energy of fossil fuels to radically increase the carrying capacity of our environment in many seemingly clever ways.

Since whatever method we use to acquire energy consumes energy in the process, it’s actually the energy that is left over, available for use (the surplus energy) that’s important. This is best expressed as “Energy Returned on Energy Invested”, EROEI. This is a dimensionless number and the larger it is, the more surplus energy. When the EROEI is equal to one, the process is just breaking even and there is no point in doing it—we want a much higher EROEI.

Hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial agricultural societies managed average EROEI’s in the high single digits at best. Industrial societies based on fossil fuels in the twentieth century had EROEI’s many times that high, which made possible high levels of growth and the development and use of technologies which had previously been completely out of reach. Today the average global EROEI is around 11.

Which brings us to our use of tools and technology (T). With just Neolithic technology (fire, stone tools, weaving, tanning, pottery, boats, agriculture) we spread over the whole planet except for the Antarctic, occupying and thriving in environments very different from the ones where we evolved. Since the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution our use of technology has exploded. And not just material technology, but financial, organizational and information technologies as well. All of which has enabled both our population and affluence to grow at heretofore unprecedented rates.

So, the carrying capacity of this planet for the human race can be represented by the equation C=SET. Clearly, I (Impact) must be less than C (carrying capacity) or we are in overshoot. And since sometime in the late 1970s we have indeed been in overshoot. Currently the level of overshoot is around 60%. That is, our impact on the environment is 1.6 times what can be sustained on an ongoing basis.

3) oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

From left side of this graph to point “a” we see the long and very slow growth of the human population before the discovery of the New World. After point “a” the carrying capacity began to increase significantly as the size of our environment effectively took a large jump with the European settlement of the New World, as the use of fossil fuels greatly increased the amount of surplus energy available and as we developed numerous new technologies to use that energy. Human impact increased with the carrying capacity, as our population grew and affluence increased.

The growth of carrying capacity continued until the last quarter of the twentieth century, point “b”, when depletion of fossil fuels and reduction of their EROEI, diminishing returns on technological innovation and stress on the environment from human activities started to reduce the carrying capacity.

Human impact has continued to grow since then, and is now so far above carrying capacity that one has to expect a crash in the near future, point “c”. As I said in my last post, this is likely to start with a financial crash. The financial sector of the economy, since it deals largely with non-material things that don’t have much inertia, can change very quickly. It is currently under a lot of strain from huge amounts of risky debt. I favour a scenario where a spike in the price of oil, brought about as the current surplus of oil bottoms out, sets off a currency crash in one of more countries, leading to a wave of bankruptcies and governments defaulting on their debts. After point “c” human impact will start to decrease rapidly, primarily due to the effect of the financial crash on affluence.

Note that I have again included a red line (and a light blue line), which represent a fast and permanent crash of both carrying capacity and population. This is possible and some would argue that climate change and ocean acidification (among other things) may be damaging the environment enough to make it the most likely outcome. I don’t think so. The ecosphere is amazingly resilient, once human impact is reduced. People have gotten the wrong impression about this because we have been playing the silly game of upping our impact and then wondering why the situation keeps getting worse, as if it wasn’t our fault.

To the right is a little chart that contains some shocking information. The top 20% of the human population (in terms of affluence) is responsible for 76.6% of our impact. A financial crash will be very hard on those top 20% and in the process will drastically reduce human impact. Sadly, myself and most of my readers are in that top 20%.

Referring back to diagram 3, I expect that at point “d”, where “I” is finally less than “C”, the carrying capacity will begin to recover, and a while later at point “e”, human impact will begin to increase once again as well.

Remember also that carrying capacity is defined by C=SET, and there is much that humanity can do to change the value of “T” in that equation. I am by no means saying that we will find a “solution” to our problems based on material technology. What I mean is that a major factor in the big decrease in carrying capacity during the upcoming crash will be the failure of our financial and organizational technology to cope with the situation. And there is a lot we can do to reorganize our financial, economic and political systems to work better under the new conditions. Once we are forced to do it. So I do expect there will be a recovery after this crash.

It is very likely that during the crash the financial chaos will spread to the rest of the economy and that there will be some reduction in the growth rate of our population as the support structures provide by industrial civilization fail completely in some parts of the world. But it seems likely that human population will continue to grow until it once again outstrips carrying capacity, at point “f”. And then at point “g” we will have another crash. I suspect depletion of fossil fuels, water for irrigation and phosphorous for fertilizer, and the effects of climate change will lead to a collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world. Famine and epidemics will at that point start to rapidly reduce our population and eventually reduce it back below a once more reduced carrying capacity (point “h”) and another recovery will begin (point “i”).

Beyond point “i” it is hard to say much about exact details or how many more crashes will take place. But the trend of continued oscillation with decreases in both carrying capacity and human impact will continue. The downward trend is because our current system relies on non-renewable resources that we are using up. That trend will continue until our impact can be sustained solely by renewable resources. Along the way we will go through some very hard times (point “i” and subsequent valleys in the green line) because of the damage done to the planet in the process. But eventually, with our impact drastically reduced, the ecosystems will recover. I expect that at this point we will have retained some of our technology and because of this the overall carrying capacity and our population/impact will settle out a bit above what it was in pre-industrial times.

One further thing I want to emphasize is how uneven this whole process will be. Yes it is likely that the impending financial crash, because it involves systems that are highly interconnected and global in scale, will be felt to some extent over the whole planet. But the degree to which the financial chaos spreads to the rest of the economy will vary greatly from place to place. And subsequent crashes, once the high degree of global interconnection has been broken, will most likely occur at different times in different places.

Wherever people are not completely dependent on global supply chains, the effects will be less severe. To the extent that they are not ravaged by climate change, some parts of the developing world where subsistence agriculture is practiced may continue on with little change. Unfortunately many areas will suffer the ravages of climate change—droughts, flooding and heat waves. Many countries (particularly in Africa and the Middle East) do not produce enough food for their own populations. With supply chains broken and agriculture struggling everywhere, these areas will find it difficult to continue importing the food they rely on. Supplies of energy and water will also prove problematical.

I am well aware that all these graphs and explanations do not constitute a proof of my assertions about the bumpy road down. But I hope I have succeeded in making what I’m trying to say much clearer. It’s up to you to decide if there is anything to it or not, now that you know what “it” is.

The other area I wanted to touch on today is the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage when a financial crash spreads to other critical systems.

As the financial crash starts to gain momentum, governments will (to whatever extent they can) use the same tools as they did in 2008 to get things under control— loans and bailouts for faltering businesses, and keeping interest rates very low. It also seems likely that, as the situation worsens, “bail-ins” will be used as well, where depositors are required to accept discounts on their deposits to reduce the pressure on failing banks. And “haircuts” where bond holders have to accept discounts on the value of those bonds in order to reduce the pressure on the governments that issued them.

These efforts will have mixed results and the crash will no doubt spread to the non-financial sectors of the economy. Many governments will try switching failing critical systems over to a direct command “martial law” economy. This will be done with varying degrees of skill (or ineptitude as the case may be) and varying degrees of co-operation from their citizens. Vital materials which are in short supply due to supply chain and production breakdowns will be placed under government control and rationed (food, energy—especially diesel fuel, water treatment and medical supplies), and attempts will be made to patch supply chains and production facilities back together with whatever comes to hand.

I have no doubt that this can be made to work, at least to some extent. It does require convincing the public that it is necessary and that it is being done fairly—applied equally to the rich and powerful as it is to the poor and weak. And inevitably there will be thriving black markets.

Governments that already operate some of these systems directly will be better prepared and experience greater success. System that have been contracted out to the lowest bidder—companies that are primarily responsible to their stock holders rather than their customers—may fail in a variety of ghastly ways.

On the other hand, I think there will also be quite a bit of quiet heroism on the part of companies and individuals in critical industries whose job it is to keep things working. These folks are for the most part competent and highly motivated, and their efforts will be more successful than you might think.

Some governments will be so successful that their citizens may hardly be aware that anything is going on. In other countries, people will be reduced to relying almost entirely on what can be done locally, with locally available resources. Right wing capitalist governments whose primary obligation is to the rich and power will begin to practice wholesale abandonment of the poor and unfortunate.

There are also things that can be done by local communities, families and individuals to be more self sufficient—to be able to carry on during those periods when industrial society fails to supply the necessities. Increasing local inventories in order to be more resilient in response to supply chain failures would be a good beginning. But just being clear about what the necessities are and not wasting resources try to maintain luxuries will be one of the biggest challenges. The first step is realizing that much of what we consider necessary is, in fact, not.

So, as I’ve already said, I’m expecting a recovery, or rather a series of recoveries after a series of crashes. These crises are going to cause some changes in the way things work, resulting in a very different world. We’ll have a look at the trends that will lead to that new world in my next post.