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

30 01 2019

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

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

By Chris Martenson

January 26, 2019 “Information Clearing House” –   

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

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

That’s not how collapse works.

Collapse is a process, not an event.

And it’s already underway, all around us.

Collapse is already here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMMITTING ECOCIDE

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 9, 2019

It started in December, just before Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the death parade continues:

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

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

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

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

July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch butterfly numbers plummet 86 percent in California

Jan 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

(Source)

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

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

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

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

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

Deadly deficiency at the heart of an environmental mystery

Oct 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

(Source)

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

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

(Source)

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

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

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

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

Ground Zero of Amphibian ‘Apocalypse’ Finally Found

May 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

(Source)

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 14th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Source)

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

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

A WORLD ON THE BRINK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVOS AS DESTINY

And don’t expect the cavalry to arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wants more of that? Insane people.

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

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

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

From here, there are only two likely paths:

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

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

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

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

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

Collapse has already begun.

This article was originally published by Peak Prosperity





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.

MORE POLITICAL TRENDS

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.

ECONOMIC CONTRACTION

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.

CONSERVATION

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.

DEGLOBALIZATION

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.

DECENTRALIZATION

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.

RELOCALIZATION

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.

REHUMANIZATION

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.

THE FOOD SUPPLY AND OVERPOPULATION

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.

TURNING TO VIOLENCE AS A SOLUTION

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.

MIGRATION AND REFUGEES

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.

IN CONCLUSION

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 Extreme Implausibility of Ecomodernism.

20 07 2016

Another essay by Ted Trainer.

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

16.3.2016

Abstract: “Ecomodernism” is a recently coined term for that central element in mainstream Enlightenment culture previously well-described as “Tech-fix faith”. The largely taken for granted assumption has been that by accelerating modern technologies high living standards can be achieved for all, while resolving resource and ecological problems.  The following argument is that ecomodernism falls far short of having a substantial, persuasive or convincing case in its support. It stands as a contradiction of the now voluminous “limits to growth” literature, but it does not attempt to offer a case against the limits thesis. Elements in the limits case will be referred to below but the main line of argument will be to do with the reasons why achievement of the reductions and “decouplings” assumed by ecomodernism is extremely implausible. The conservative social and political implications are noted before briefly arguing that the solution to global problems must be sought via The Simpler Way.

What is ecomodernism?.

The 32 page Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), by 18 authors, is a clear and emphatic restatement of the common belief that technical advance within the existing social structure can or will solve global problems, and there is therefore no need for radical change in directions, systems, values or lifestyles. Thus the fundamental commitment to ever more affluent “living standards”, capital intensive systems, technical sophistication and constantly rising levels of consumption and GDP is sound, and indeed necessary as it is the only way to enable the future technical advance that it is believed will solve global problems. This will enable human demands to be met while resource and ecological impacts on nature are reduced, thus making it possible to set more of nature aside to thrive. Modern agriculture for instance will producer more from less land, enabling more to be returned to nature and freeing Third World people from backbreaking work while moving into urban living.  Thus the fundamental assumption frequently asserted is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from the environment.

These kinds of visions would obviously require vastly increased quantities of energy but renewable sources are judged not to be capable of providing these, so it is no surprise to find late in the document that it is being assumed that nuclear reactors are going to do the job, nor that the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute champions the Manifesto.

Unfortunately the Manifesto is little more than a claim.  It provides almost no supporting case apart from giving some examples where technical advance has improved human welfare at reduced resource or ecological impact. It does not deal with the many reasons for thinking that technical advance cannot do what the ecomodernists are assuming it can do.  Above all it does not provide grounds for thinking that that resource demand and ecological damage can be sufficiently decoupled from economic growth. When one of the authors was asked for the supporting case reference was made to the 106 page document Nature Unbounded by Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, (2015.) However this document too is essentially a statement of claims and faith and can hardly be said to present a case that those claims can be realized.

The following discussion is mainly intended to show how implausible and unsubstantiated the general “tech-fix” and decoupling claims are, and that they are contrary to existing evidence.  Most if not all critical discussions of ecomodernism and of left modernization theorists such as Phillips (2015), e.g., by Hopkins (2015), Caradonna et al., 2015, Crist, (2015) and Smaje, (2015a, 2015b), have been impressionistic and “philosophical”. In contrast, the following analysis focuses on numerical considerations which establish the enormity of the ecomodernist claims. When estimates and actual numbers to do with resource demands, resource bases, and ecological impacts are attended to it becomes clear that the task for technical advance set by the ecomodernists is implausible in the extreme.

The basic limits to growth thesis.

The “limits to growth” thesis is that with respect to many factors crucial to planetary sustainability affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. It has already greatly exceeded important limits. Levels of production and consumption are far beyond those that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Present consumption levels are achieved because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate.

But the unsustainable present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact only begin to define of the problem.  What is overwhelmingly crucial is the universal obsession with continual, never ending economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, incomes and GDP as much as possible and without limit.  The most important criticism of the ecomodernist position is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth.  The main concern in the following discussion is with quantities and multiples, to show how huge and implausible ecomodernist achievements and decouplings would have to be.

The magnitude of the task.

It is the extent of the overshoot that is crucial and not generally appreciated. This is the issue which the ecomodernists fail to deal with and it only takes a glance at the numbers to see how implausible their pronouncements are in relation to the task they set themselves. Their main literature makes no attempt to carry out quantitative examinations of crucial resources and ecological issues with a view to showing that the apparent limits can be overcome.

Let us look at the overall picture revealed when some simple numerical aggregates and estimates are combined.  The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be around 10 billion by 2050.  At present world  $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now.  If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.

However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact.  The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate.  (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions, the multiple is far higher.) This indicates that the target for the ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100. In other words, by 2050 technical advance will have to have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels.

The consideration of required multiples shows the inadequacy of the earlier pronouncements and expectations of the well-known tech-fix optimist Amory Lovins who enthused about the possibility of “Factor Four” or better reductions in materials and energy uses per unit of GDP.  (Von Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 1999).If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by such technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed.  For instance if use and impact rates per unit of GDP were cut by one-third, but 3% p.a. growth in total output continued, then in about 17 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in another 23 years.

This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required.  There appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this.  At best their case refers to a few instances where impressive decoupling has taken place.

Note also the importance here of the Leibig “law of the minimum.” It does not matter how spectacular various technical gains can be if there remains one crucial area where they can’t be made on the required scale.  Plants for instance might have available all the nutrients they need except for one required in minute quantities but if it is not available there will be little or no growth.  High-tech systems often depend heavily on tiny quantities of “mineral vitamins”, notably rare earths which are extremely scarce.

The typically faulty national accounting.

An easily overlooked factor is that in general measures and indices of rich world resource and ecological performance greatly misrepresent and underestimate the seriousness of the situation, because they do not include the large volumes of energy, materials and ecological impact embodied in imported goods.  Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the goods they consume from Third World plantations and factories.  The implications for resource depletion and ecological impact have only recently begun to be studied. (Weidmann, et al., 2014, 2015, Lenzen, et al., 2012, Wiebe, et al,

2012, Dittrich, et al., 2014, Schütz, et al., 2004.)

An example is given by the conventional measure of CO2 emissions. Australia’s 550 MtCO2e/y equates to a per capita rate of around 25 t/y, which is about the highest in the world. But this does not include the emissions in Third World countries generated by the production of goods imported into Australia.  For Australia and for the UK this amount is actually about as great as the emissions within the country.  (Clark, 2011, Australian Government Climate Change Authority, 2013.)

In addition Australia’s “prosperity” is largely achieved by exporting coal, oil and gas and these contain about three times as much carbon as all the energy used within Australia.  It could be argued therefore that the country’s contribution to the greenhouse gas problem more or less corresponds to five times the official and usually quoted 25 t/pp/y.  The IPCC estimates that by 2050 global emissions must be cut to about 0.3 t/pp/y. (IPCC, 2014.)  This is around one-three hundredth of the amount Australia is now responsible for. Again the centrality of the above magnitude point is evident; how aware are tech-fix optimists of the need for reductions of such proportions?

Assessing the validity of the general “tech-fix” thesis.

Firstly attention will be given to some overall numerical considerations which show the extreme implausibility of the general tech-fix claim, such as the gulf between current “decoupling” achievements and the far higher levels that ecomodernism would require. But that does not take into account the fact that it is going to take increasing effort just to maintain current achievements, for instance as ore grades deteriorate. This what the limits to growth analysis makes clear.  The added significance of this will be discussed later via brief examination of some domains such as energy scarcity, declining ore grades, and deteriorating ecological conditions.

How impressive have the overall gains been?

It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate.  As a generalisation this belief is quite challengeable. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960.  He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (2009) “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960.” This has been partly due to greater use of accessories since then. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise selected isolated spectacular technical advances and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Mackay (2008) reports that little gain can be expected for air transport.  Huebner’s historical study (2005) found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining.  He says that for the US the peak was actually in 1916.

Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline since the 1970s. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”

The historical record suggests that at best productivity gains have been modest. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods.  Thus the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed.   Hattfield-Dodds et al. (2015) say that the efficiency of materials use has been improving at c. 1.5% p.a., but they give no evidence for this and other sources indicate that the figure is too high. Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the above issue of failure to include energy embodied in imports. Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004,  Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” They note that the figures would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World. Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use.

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity…”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

These sources and figures indicate the lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. But even if the 1.5% p.a. rate Hattfield-Dodds et al. say has been the recent achievement for materials use could be maintained the reduction would only be around a factor of 1.7, and various sources noted above say that their assumed rate is incorrect. There appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale.

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Previously productivity has been analysed only in terms of labour and capital “factors of production”, but it is now being recognized that in general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to fuels of higher “quality”, such as from coal and gas to electricity.)  Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says  “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect  that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

The changing components of GDP.

Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes moving electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, and these have significantly contributed to GDP figures. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.

When output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered very different impressions can be gained.  For instance Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%, and land area used increased 40%. This aligns with the above evidence on steeply falling productivity of various inputs for ores and energy. It is therefore desirable to avoid analysing productivity, the “energy intensity” of an economy, and decoupling achievements in relation to the GDP measure.

Factors limiting the benefits from a technical advance.

There are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first.  Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.

“Technical potential”  refers to what could be achieved if the technology could be fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.

Economic (or ecological) potential”.  This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much.  For instance some The Worldwide Fund for Nature quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but they say that the ecologically tolerable potential is only 8 EJ/y.

What are the net gains?  Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value.  For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing. There are also knock-on effects.  The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertlilzer, seeds and irrigation, and created social costs to do with the disruption of peasant communities.

  • What is socially/politically possible?  There are limits set by what people will accept.  It would be technically possible for many more people in any city to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.
  • The Jeavons or “rebound” effect.  There is a strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved, or something else.

Thus it is important to recognise that initial claims usually refer to “technical potential”, but significantly lower savings etc. are likely in the real world.

Now add the worsening limits.

The discussion so far has only dealt with decoupling achievements to date, but the difficulties involved in those achievements are in general likely to have been much less severe than those ahead, as there is continued deterioration in ore grades, forests, soils, chemical pollution, water supplies etc.  It is important now to consider briefly some of these domains, to see how they will make the task for the ecomodernist increasingly difficult.

Before looking at some specific areas the general “low hanging fruit” effect should be mentioned.  When effort is put into dealing with problems, recycling, conserving, increasing efficiency etc. the early achievements might be spectacular but as the easiest options are used up progress typically becomes more difficult and slow. This is so even when there are no problems of dwindling resource availability.

                        Minerals.

The grades of several ores being mined are falling and production costs have increased considerably since 1985. Topp (2008) reports that the productivity for Australian mining has declined 24% between 2000 and 2007. While reserve estimates can be misleading as they only state quantities miners have found to date, and they often increase over time, there is considerable concern about the depletion rate.

Dierderen (2009) says that continuation of current consumption rates will mean that we will have much less than 50 years left of cheap and abundant access to metal minerals, and that it will take exponentially more energy and minerals input to grow or even sustain the current extraction rate of metal minerals. He expects copper, nickel, molybdenum and cobalt to peak before 2035. Deideren’s conclusion is indeed, as his title says, sobering; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.” (p. 23.) “Without timely implementation of mitigation strategies, the world will soon run out of all kinds of affordable mass products and services.”  Such as… “cheap mass-produced consumer electronics like mobile phones, flat screen TVs and personal computers, for lack of various scarce metals (amongst others indium and tantalum). Also, large-scale conversion towards more sustainable forms of energy production, energy conversion and energy storage would be slowed down by a lack of sufficient platinum-group metals, rare-earth metals and scarce metals like gallium. This includes large-scale application of high-efficiency solar cells and fuel cells and large-scale electrification of land-based transport.” Deideren points out that Gallium, Germanium, Indium and Tellurium are crucial for renewable technologies but are by-products currently available in low quantity from the mining of other minerals.  If the latter peak so will the availability of the former.

Scarcities in one domain often have knock-on and negative feedback effects in others.  Diederan says, “The most striking (and perhaps ironic) consequence of a shortage of metal elements is its disastrous effect on global mining and primary production of fossil fuels and minerals: these activities require huge amounts of main and ancillary equipment and consumables (e.g. barium for barite based drilling mud)”. (p. 9.)

The ecomodernist’s response must be to advocate mining poorer grade ores, but this means dealing with marked increases in energy and environmental costs.

  • The quantity of rock that has to be dug up increases. For ores at half the initial grade the quantity doubles, and so does the energy needed to dig, transport and crush it.
  • Poorer ores require finer grinding and more chemical reagents to release mineral components, meaning greater energy demand and waste treatment.
  • Meanwhile the easiest deposits to access are being depleted so it takes more energy to find, get to, and work the newer ones. They tend to be further away, deeper, and smaller.
  • Processing rich ores can be chemically quite different to processing poor ores. Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth’s crust has been concentrated by natural processes into ore deposits, between .001% and .01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates which are more energy-intensive to process than oxides and sulphides.  To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores used today.

Now consider the minerals situation in relation to the multiples issue. At present only a few countries are using most of the planet’s minerals production.  For instance the per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries combined. (Weidmann et al., 2013.) How long would mineral supply hold up, at what cost, if 9 – 10 people billion were to try to rise to rich world “living standards”? How likely is it that in view of current ore grade depletion rates and the miniscule decoupling achievement for minerals, the global amount of producing and consuming could multiply by 27, or 120, while the absolute amount of minerals consumed declined markedly?

The ecomodernist cannot hope to deal with the minerals problem without assuming very large scale adoption of nuclear energy, which they are willing to do.

Climate.

Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013) in analyzing in terms of a budget, an amount of carbon release that must not be exceeded if the 2 degree target is to be met.  They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below this the amount of CO2e that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. By 2012 emissions accounted for 36% of this amount, meaning that if the present emission rate is kept up the budget would have been used up by 2033.  Given the seriousness of the possible consequences many regard a 67% chance as being too low and a2 degree rise as too high. (Anderson and Bows, 2008, and Hansen, 2008.)  For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes.

Few would say there is any possibility of eliminating emissions by 2033. Many emissions come from sources that would be difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electric production of steel and aluminium. Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation. Thus power station Carbon Capture and Storage technology cannot solve the problem.

Even the IPCC’s most optimistic emissions reduction scenario, RCP 2.6, could be achieved only if as yet non-existent technology will be able to take 1 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere every year through the last few decades of this century. (IPCC, 2014.)

Ecomodernists mostly regard the climate problem as solvable by the intensive adoption of nuclear energy. However even the most rapid build conceivable could not achieve the Meinschausen et al. target.

Urbanisation.

About half the world’s people now live in cities, and the ecomodernist strongly advocates increasing this markedly, on the grounds that intensification of settlement will enable freeing more space for nature.  This is an area where knock-on effects are significant. Urban living involves many high resource and ecological costs, including having to move in vast amounts of energy, goods, services and workers, to maintain elaborate infrastructures including those to lift water and people living in high-rise apartments, having to move out all “wastes”, having to provide artificial light, heating, cooling, air purification, having to build freeways, bridges, railways, airports, container terminals, and having to staff complex systems with expensive highly trained professionals and specialists.  Little or none of this dollar, energy, resource or ecological cost has to be met when people live in villages (See on Simpler Way settlements below).

The frequent superficiality and invalidity of the Manifesto’s case is illustrated by the following statement. “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” This statement overlooks the vast areas needed to produce and transport food etc. into the relatively small urban areas. If four billion were to live as San Franciscans do now, with a footprint over 7 ha per person, the total global footprint would be almost 30 billion ha, 200% of the Earth’s surface, not 1- 3%. (WWF, 2014.) Urbanisation does not  “decouple humanity from nature”.

Biological resources and impacts.

Perhaps the most worrying limits being encountered are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of biological resources and environmental systems. The life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends, are being so seriously damaged that the World Wildlife Fund claims there has been a 30% deterioration since about 1970. Steffen et al., (2015) state much the same situation. A brief reference to a number of impacts is appropriate here to again indicate the magnitude of present problems and their rate of growth.

Biodiversity loss.

Species are being driven to extinction at such an increasing rate that it is claimed the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers or mass of big animals has declined dramatically. “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” (Carrington, 2014.) The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half what it was about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)

Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

Humans are releasing about as much nitrogen via artificial production, especially for agriculture, as nature releases. This has been identified as one of the nine most serious threats to the biosphere by the Planetary Boundaries Project. (Rockstrom and Raeworth, 2014.)

The increasing toxicity of the environment.

Large volumes of artificially produced chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them.  This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans and killing marine life.

Water.

Serious water shortages are impacting in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, such as salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in these rivers might be cut to half the present amount, as the greenhouse problem impacts.

Fish.

Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished and the global fish catch is likely to go down from here on.  The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago. Ecomodernists assume that aquaculture will solve the fish supply problem. It is not clear what they think the farmed fish will be fed on.

Oceans.

Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of many ocean animals, including the krill which are at the base of major ocean food chains.  This effect plus the heating of the oceans is seriously damaging corals.  The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a good chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)

Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production increase trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries.  If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet we would need 5 billion ha of cropland, but there are only 1.4 billion ha on the planet and that area is likely to reduce as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming has a number of negative effects on food production.

Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010) both report the rate of food producing land loss at 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a.  For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to incoming sand from the expanding deserts. If the estimates by Burn and Vidal are correct then more than 1 billion ha of cropland will have been lost by 2050, which is two-thirds of all cropland in use today.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto devotes considerable attention to the issue of future food production, using it as an example of the wonders technical advance can bring, including liberating peasants from backbreaking work. It is claimed that advances in modern agriculture will enable production of far more food on far less land, enabling much land to go back to nature. There is no recognition of the fact that modern agriculture is grossly unsustainable, on many dimensions.  It is extremely energy intensive, involving large scale machinery, international transport, energy-intensive inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, packaging, warehousing, freezing, dumping of less than perfect fruit and vegetables, serious soil damage through acidification and compaction, carbon loss and erosion, the energy-costly throwing away of nutrients in animal manures, the destruction of small scale farming and rural communities, the loss of the precious heritage that is genetic diversity … and the loss of food nutrient and taste quality (most evident in the plastic tomato.)

On all these dimensions peasant and home gardening and other elements in local agriculture such as ”edible landscapes”, community gardens and commons are superior. The one area where modern agriculture scores better is to do with labour costs, but that is due to the use of all that energy-intensive machinery. Ecomodernists do not seem to realize what a fundamental challenge is set for them by the well-established “inverse productivity relationship”, i.e., the fact that small scale food producers achieve higher yields per ha. (Smaje, 2015a, 2015b.) They are able to almost completely avoid food packaging, advertising and transport costs, to recycle all nutrients to local soils, benefit from overlaps and multiple functions (e.g., geese weed orchards, ducks eat snails, kitchen scraps feed poultry…) Possibly most importantly, local food production systems maximize the provision of livelihoods and are fundamental elements in resilient and sustainable communities.

Again a daunting challenge is set for the ecomodernist. Presumably the far higher yields from far less land will involve energy intensive high-rise greenhouses, water desalinisation, aquaculture, near 100% phosphorus and other nutrient recycling, elimination of nitrogen run-off, restoration of soil carbon levels, synthetic meat, and extensive global transport and packaging systems. Again numerical analyses aimed at showing what the energy, materials  and dollar budgets would be, or that the goals can be met, are not offered. In addition a glance at the tech fix vision for future food supply reveals the many knock on effects that would multiply problems in many other areas, most obviously energy, infrastructure and water provision and the associated demand for materials.

A glance at the energy implications for beef production should again establish the magnitude point. To produce one kg of beef take can take 20,000 litres of water, and it can take 4 kWh to desalinize 1 liter of water. Again it is evident that there would have to be very large scale commitment to nuclear energy.

            Summarising the biological resource situation.

The environmental problem is essentially due to the huge and unsustainable volumes of producing and consuming taking place.  Vast quantities of resources are being extracted from nature and vast quantities of wastes are being dumped back into nature. Present flows are grossly unsustainable but the ecomodernist believes the basic commitment to ever-increasing “living standards” that is creating the problems can and should continue, while population multiplies by 1.5, resources dwindle, and consumption multiplies perhaps by eight by 2100.

The energy implications.

In all the fields discussed it is evident that the ecomodernist vision would have to involve a very large increase in energy production and consumption, including for processing lower grade ores, producing much more food from much less land, desalinisation of water, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures. The “no-limits-to-growth” scenario for Australia 2050 put forward by Hattfield-Dodds et al. concludes that present energy use would have to multiply by 2.7, more than most if not all other projections, and their scenarios do not take into account the energy needed to deal with any of the knock-on effects discussed above. (And their conclusion is based on a highly implausible rate of decoupling materials use from GDP growth, i.e., up to 4.5% p.a.)

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. Let us assume it is all to come from nuclear reactors, that technical advance cuts one-third off the energy needed to do everything, but that moving to poorer ores, desalinisation etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain.  The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.

Conclusions re the significance of the limits to growth.

This brief reference to themes within the general “limits to growth” account makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by presentconditions. As Steffen et al. (2015) stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration. It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse.  It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration.  Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.

            The implications for centralisation, control and power.

The ecomodernist vision would have to involve vast, technically sophisticated, expert-run, bureaucratized and centralized global systems, most obviously for the control of the nuclear sector, e.g., to prevent access to weapons grade material. Both corporate and governmental agencies would have to be very large in scale, and relations between the corporate sector and top levels of government would set problems to do with openness, public accountability, democratic control, and corruption. Most production would be from a relatively few gigantic and automated mines, factories, feed lots, mega-greenhouses and plantations compressed into the relatively few best sites.  How this would provide jobs and livelihoods to perhaps 6 billion Third world poor would need to be explained. The provision of large amounts of capital would probably become much more centralised and problematic than it has been in the GFC era.

A “development” model focused on these massive, centralized, expert-dependent and capital intensive systems is not obviously going to improve the already severe problem of global inequality. Mega corporations will run the automated vertical farms and desal plants, assisted by governments who in the past have had no difficulty legislating to clear the locals out of the way, as when Third World governments enable GDP-raising palm oil plantations, logging, big dams and aquaculture. Thus Smaje regards ecomodernism as a new enclosure movement.

Morgan (2012) and Korrowicz (2012) provide disturbing accounts of the fragility and lack of resilience of highly integrated and complex systems. Tainter, (1988), draws attention to the way increasing system complexity leads towards negative synergisms and breakdown. For instance where two roads cross in a village no infrastructure might be needed but in a city multi-million dollar flyovers can be required. As Rome’s road system grew the effort needed just to maintain them grew towards taking up all road building capacity. Among the chief virtues of the small and local path are its robustness, redundancy and resilience, the capacity for simple repairs to simple systems, as well as its capacity to provide livelihoods to large numbers of people.

Above all the ecomodernist vision stands for the rejection of any suggestion that the economy needs altering, let alone scrapping, or that rampant-consumer culture needs to be replaced.  The problems are defined as purely technical. If minerals are becoming scare the solution is not to reduce use of them but to increase production of them. Thus there is no need to think about giving up consumerism, economic growth, the market system or the capitalist system. Radical thought and action need not be considered. Smaje describes it as “neoliberalism with a green veneer.” These messages are as consoling to the present working class and the precariat as they are to the capitalist class.

The mistaken “uni-dimensional” assumption.

Frequently evident in ecomodernist thinking is the way that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future.  At the modern end of the dimension there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. It is taken for granted that your choice is only about where you are on that dimension. Third World “development” can only be about moving up the dimension to greater capital investment, involvement in the global market, trade, GDP and consumer society. Thus they see localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation.  Opposition to their advocacy of more modernism is met with, “…well, what period in history do you want to go back to?”

This world-view fails to grasp several things.  The first is the possibility that there might be more than one path; the Zapatista’s do not want to follow our path.  Another is that we  might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to.  A third is that we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernization takes us, and on some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further.  Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; Smaje sees how it endorses being incessantly driven to strive for bigger and better, and he notes the spiritual costs. Many ecovillages are developed enough.

Possibly most important, it is conceivable that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

The inability to think in other than uni-dimensional terms is most tragic with respect to Third World “development”.  Conventional-capitalist development theory can only promise a “growth and trickle down” path, which if it continues would take many decades to lift all to tolerable conditions while the rich rise to the stratosphere, but which cannot continue if the limits to growth analysis of the global situation is correct. Yet The Simpler Way might quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. (Trainer, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, Leahy, 2009.)

In his critique of Phillips (2014) Smaje (2015b) sees the Faustian bargain here, the readiness to suffer, indeed embrace, the relentless discontent, struggle, disruption and insecurity that modernism involves, without realizing that we might opt to take the benefits of modernism while dumping the disadvantages and designing ways of life that provide security, stability, a relaxed pace and a high quality of life for all.

A radically alternative vision; The Simpler Way.

Until the last decade or so there was no alternative to the dominant implicit ecomodernist world view, but now significant challenges have emerged, most evidently in the overlapping Eco-village, Degrowth, Transition Towns and localism movements. The fundamental beginning point for these is acceptance of the “limits to growth” case that levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact are extremely unsustainable and that the resulting global problems cannot be solved unless there are dramatic reductions.  The core Simpler Way vision claim is that these reductions can be made while significantly improving the quality of life, even in the richest countries, but not without radical change in systems and lifestyles.  Following is a brief indication of some of the main elements in this vision. (For the detailed account see Trainer, 2011.)

The basic settlement form is the small scale town or suburb, restructured to be a highly self-sufficient local economy running mostly on local resources and requiring a minimal amount of resources and goods to be imported from further afield.  State and national governments would still exist but with relatively few functions. There would be extensive development of local commons such as community watersheds, forests, edible landscapes, workshops and windmills etc. and cooperatives would provide many goods and services. Extensive use could be made of high tech systems but mostly relatively low technologies would be used in small firms and farms, especially earth building, hand tool craft production, Permaculture, community gardening and commons. Leisure committees would maintain leisure rich communities, and other committees would manage orchards, woodlots, agricultural research, and the welfare of disabled, teenage, aged and other groups. Local economies would dramatically reduce the need for vehicles and transport, enabling conversion of many roads to community food production.

These settlements would have to be self-governing via thoroughly participatory procedures, including town meetings and referenda. Citizens are the only ones who can understand local conditions, problems and needs, and they would have to work out the best policies for the town and to own the decisions arrived at. Centralised states could not govern them at all effectively, especially given the much diminished resources that will be available to states.  More importantly the town would not meet its own needs well unless its citizens had a strong sense of empowerment and control and responsibility for their own affairs.

Systems, procedures and the overriding ethos would have to be predominantly cooperative and collective, given the recognition that individual welfare would depend heavily on how well the town was functioning. It would not be likely to thrive unless there was an atmosphere of inclusion and care, solidarity and responsibility.

An entirely new kind of economy would be needed, one that did not grow, rationally geared productive capacity to social need, had per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and GDP far below current levels, was under public control, and was not driven by market forces, profit or competition. However, there might also be a large sector made up of privately owned small firms and farms, producing to sell in local markets, but operating under careful guidelines set by the town to ensure optimum benefit for the town. The transition period would essentially be about slowly establishing those enterprises, infrastructures, cooperatives, commons and institutions (Economy B) whereby the town developed its capacity to make sure that what needs doing is done, within the exiting mainly fee enterprise system (Economy A.) Over time experience would indicate the best balance between the two, and whether there was any need for the market sector.

There would be many free” goods from the commons, a large non-cash sector involving sharing, giving, helping and voluntary working bees, and almost no finance sector. Small public banks with elected boards would hold savings and arrange loans for maintenance or restructuring.  Some people might pay all their tax by extra contributions to the community working bees. Communities would ensure that there was no unemployment or poverty, no isolation or exclusion, all felt secure, and that all had a livelihood, a worthwhile and valued contribution to make to the town. Because the goal would be material lifestyles that were frugal but sufficient, involving for instance small and very low cost earth built houses, on average people might need to work for money only two days a week. It can be argued that the quality of life would be higher than it is for most people in rich countries today. Lest these ideas seem fanciful, they describe the ways many thousands now live in ecovillages and Transition Towns.

Beyond the town or suburban level there would be regional and national economies, and larger cities containing universities, steel works, and large scale production, e.g., of railway equipment, but their activities would be greatly reduced, and re oriented to provisioning the local economies. There would be little international trade or travel. The termination of the present vast expenditure on wasteful production would enable the amount spent on socially useful R and to be significantly increased.

A detailed analysis of an Australian suburban geography (Trainer, 2016) concludes that technically it would be relatively easy to carry out the very large reductions and restructurings indicated, possibly cutting in energy and dollar costs by around 90%.

It is obvious that the Simpler Way vision could not be realised unless there was enormous “cultural” change, especially away from competitive, acquisitive, maximising individualism and towards frugality, collectivism, sufficiency and responsible citizenship. Fortunately there is now increasing recognition that pursuing ever greater material wealth and GDP is not a promising path to greater human welfare. In a zero-growth settlement there could be no concern with the accumulation of wealth; all would have to be content with stable and secure circumstances, to enjoy non-material life satisfactions, and to be aware that their “welfare” depended not on their individual monetary wealth but on public wealth, i.e., on their town’s infrastructures, systems, edible landscapes, free concerts, working bees, committees, leisure resources, solidarity and morale.

Thus from The Simpler Way perspective the solution to global problems is not a technical issue; it is a value issue. We have all the technology we need to create admirable societies and idyllic lives. But this can’t be done if growth and affluence remain the overriding goals.

At present there would seem to be little chance that a transition to The Simpler Way will be achieved, but that is not central here; the issue is whether this vision or that of the ecomodernist makes more sense.

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The energy dynamics of energy production

29 08 2014

 

Dave Kimble

Dave Kimble

The more I delve into the unsuitability and/or unsustainability of solar power as a replacement for the current energy Matrix, now reinforced by Ozzie Zehner’s presentation, the more convinced I am the whole Beyond Zero Emissions concept is a total load of rubbish.  For years, I argued with Dave Kimble over this, and struggled with my faith in solar……  but no more.  I make no bones about it now, the only reason I will still use renewable energy in Tasmania is as a means of surviving the collapse, and even then, I have no doubt that at some time in the future nobody (including our children, sadly) will have electricity, as entropy takes over and the one off endowment of the amazing fossil fuels we have squandered vanish….

This is a guest post by Dave which was originally published on his own site.  As a scientist, Dave has a solid grip of the scientific method and modelling methods.  I’m reproducing it here in a vain attempt at convincing the masses to pull their horns in.

When people talk about buying solar photovoltaic (PV) panels they usually want to know how long it takes to repay the initial outlay with the subsequent savings on electricity bills. This is called the financial pay-back time.

However if you are getting into PV because you want to help save the environment, you should also be interested in the energy pay-back time – that is the amount of time it takes the PV panels to repay the energy that was used in their manufacture. This is important because it takes time before you can say your investment has made an energy profit, and is therefore “helping to reduce the greenhouse effect”. Also, the price of energy can change, and what can make financial sense after government subsidies, will not necessarily make ‘energetic sense’ in quite the same way.

To work out the energy pay-back time, someone needs to prepare an energy ‘balance sheet’, showing all the energy inputs and outputs. This would include not only the electricity bill at the PV factory, but also the embodied energy of all the materials used – purified silicon, copper (for wiring), aluminium (for the frame), toughened glass (for the top plate), lots of ultra-pure water and organic solvents, and so on. On top of this, one also needs to know the energy spent in transporting the various materials to the factory, from factory to retailer, and retailer to your house, and the energy cost of building and equipping the PV factory.

The energy output depends on the nominal peak power of your PV panels (measured in Watts), the lifetime of the panels (typically 25 years), the location of your house, and the orientation of the panels on your roof. From these factors it can be worked out how much energy will be captured by the panels over their lifetime.

For the PV panels available today, the energy output will be approximately three times as much as the energy input. Opinions vary on the precise value of the ratio Energy Returned over Energy Invested (ERoEI), depending on thescenario chosen and the optimism of the person choosing the input values. (The manufacturers of PV panels are, unsurprisingly, particularly optimistic about the thing they want to sell you.) The numbers used in this article are only indicative, and are drawn from the work of University of Sydney’s ISA team [ 1 ] .

If the ERoEI of PV panels works out to be 3.0 , and the lifetime of the panel is 25 years, then the energy pay-back time is 25/3 = 8.3 years, in other words it takes over 8 years for the panels to pay back the energy used in their manufacture. Another way of expressing that is to say that a PV panel can only pay back 12% each year of the energy needed to build it. It is clear from this that a PV factory cannot be self-sustaining in energy until it has been in operation for over 8 years, and until that point, it needs an energy subsidy from another, presumably fossil-fueled, energy source or sources.

Modelling the PV factory’s energy budget

How much fossil-fuelled energy does it take to establish a PV industry that is big enough to have a substantial impact on the nation’s energy mix ? The dynamics of supplying energy to a growing PV industry does not seem to have been studied before, and it produces some surprising, almost counter-intuitive results.

This study is based on a simple spreadsheet model, which you can download from here . However I am pitching this article at an audience that will probably shy away from looking too deeply into the entrails of the model. Consequently I am going to try and describe the model in plain English, and you only need to understand the model if you want to try out your own scenarios.

Essentially what is happening in the model is that, using the example data above, in the first year the PV factory will spend 8.3 units of energy on building a panel, and then for each of the next 25 years, that panel pays 1 unit back. This gives us a series of numbers : -8.3, +1, +1, +1, …. +1 which you can see in the spreadsheet table highlighted in blue. (In practice, the PV factory will be building millions of panels, but we will be scaling the production numbers up later.) The units used are strictly “panel-years”, that is, 1 panel operating for 1 year is counted as 1 unit.

In the second year the PV factory builds another panel, so the net energy profit for the second year is -8.3 +1 = -7.3 units, that is a loss of 7.3 units. In the third year, the factory makes another panel costing 8.3 units, and gets 2 units back, for a net loss of 6.3 units. This process is continued for 50 years. In the tenth year, the energy cost of -8.3 units is exceeded by the production of the 9 earlier panels, and the factory makes a net energy profit for the first time. After 25 years, the panel made in the first year is assumed to die of old age and makes no further contribution.

The calculations are summarised in a chart.

The ‘no growth’ scenario

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=0

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=0

In this scenario, the PV factory’s production remains the same at 1 panel per year.

The blue line represents the energy profit for the current year, measured against the blue scale on the right of the chart. You can see that it starts off at -8.3 and increases by one each year for 25 years. At that point, the first panel dies off, and the new panel therefore only replaces the output of the old one, so from there on the annual profit remains steady at +16.7 units.

The red line represents the cumulative energy profit/loss since the PV factory started, measured against the red scale on the left of the chart. It starts off at -8.3 units and dips lower and lower for 8.3 years, then rises for 8.3 years until it breaks even in 2024, then it moves into positive territory, representing a real cumulative energy profit.

At its lowest point, the cumulative energy loss is 39 units. This means that if your factory is making 1 million panels per year, it will need an energy subsidy that builds up to 39 million panel-years by the ninth year, and isn’t fully paid off until the seventeenth year.

This energy subsidy already takes the output of the panels themselves into account, so it can only be supplied by some other energy source. This new demand for energy, at a time when we are hoping to cut down on energy demand, represents an “energy barrier” to the broadscale introduction of PV panels. If this energy barrier is ignored (as it is currently being ignored) then everyone will be surprised to find that the big push for more solar energy actually causes a big push for other kinds of energy in the short and medium term.

Scaling up the production level

The above example uses a PV factory with a production rate of 1 panel per year. How much energy is that in familiar terms ?

Let us assume the panel is the largest one (and best value) currently available – rated at 175 Watts peak power [this was written before the advent of the now common 250W panels. DTM], and that it is located in Sydney (an average location for Australia) on a roof facing north and tilted at an angle equal to Sydney’s latitude, 34°, and taking average cloudiness into account. Under these circumstances, the panel produces 1 kiloWatt.hour (kW.h) per day, so 1 ‘standard’ panel-year is equal to 365 kW.h . Other locations will produce different results – see [ 2 ].

Australia’s electricity generation in 2006 was 257.8 TW.h [ 3 ] so that is equivalent to 706 million panels. That was an increase over the 2005 figure of 8.2 TW.h (3.3%), so just the annual growth in electricity generation is equivalent to 22.5 million of our standard panels. [note – electricity demand is now falling.  But this has at this stage minimal impact on the concepts described here.  DTM]

As we have seen above, each panel requires 8.3 panel-years to build it, so a factory producing 22.5 million panels will need an energy subsidy of 68 TW.h in the first year. This is equivalent to 26% of our total electricity production.

I would suggest that it is impossible for the nation to divert 68 TW.h of energy into PV factories merely so that they can build enough PV panels to meet the 3.3% growth in electricity consumption. This is despite the fact that in the long term (more than 17 years ahead) those panels will be making a handsome energy profit.

Production growth scenarios

Well, if it is not possible to start with producing 3.3% of Australia’s electricity, can we start smaller and grow the PV production capacity over time ?

The model allows us to enter a percentage growth per year factor, this is the chart from the scenario with 5% growth :

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=5%

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=5%

As you can see, the annual profit now keeps growing, as when the first panel dies of old age, it is replaced by more than one new panel, due to the growth in production over the 25 years.

But note also that the cumulative energy break-even point has been pushed out to 21 years, and the maximum deficit is 54 panel-years’ worth of energy in the 12th year.

Because there are more panels being created in this scenario, you might think that the results wouldn’t have to be scaled up so much to meet the target, but what is the target exactly ? The zero growth scenario doesn’t make 100 panel-years profit until 2032, but the 5% growth scenario has only made a 75 panel-year profit by 2032, so if that is your target, then the growth model is worse. This is because more of the energy produced by the PV panels is being ploughed back into production in the growth scenario, and less is available as energy profit.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but the effect is real enough. And if the growth is increased to 10% per year, we get this scenario :

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=10%

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=10%

Due to even more energy from the PV panels being ploughed back into new production, the cumulative energy break-even point has now been pushed out to 2040, and I hope you will agree that it is not wise to take on a project with such a delayed energy profit, even if the energy profits from that point on are spectacular. We are doing this to avoid fossil fuel emissions causing Climate Change, after all.

Since our PV panel can only repay 12% of the energy needed to build it each year, any attempt to grow the PV production rate at more than that amount will result in a permanent and increasing energy deficit :

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=13%

Chart for ERoEI=3 Lifetime=25 Growth=13%

So you see increasing production each year does not help solve the problem. The thing that helps most is to stop producing panels altogether.

Improving the Lifetime factor

The model also allows the lifetime of the PV panel to be changed. This directly affects the Energy Returned (ER) over the lifetime of the panel, and hence it alters the ERoEI. However it does not affect the Energy Invested (EI), so the energy barrier, which has to paid in the early stages of the project, remains the same.

Improving the ERoEI factor

The ISA model of PV production that gives an ERoEI of 3 (range 1.5 through 6.0) is based on the scenario of a 100 MW solar farm, with associated electrical infrastructure, which will obviously be pretty heavy-duty (energy-intensive) equipment. Other scenarios will give different results for ERoEI. Even so, an ERoEI of 6 and Growth of 5% still has a 10 year wait before a Cumulative Energy Profit is achieved.

Chart for ERoEI=6 Lifetime=25 Growth=5%

Chart for ERoEI=6 Lifetime=25 Growth=5%

Application to other energy sources

With PV solar, all the Energy Invested over the lifetime of the panel is invested up front, before any Energy Returned is seen. However other energy sources, particularly those needing fuel or on-going maintenance or expensive decommissioning, some of the EI is spent over the lifetime, and only a proportion spent up front.

In my next article I shall be introducing Energy Invested Up Front (EIUF) and the ratio EIUF/EI, which is 100% for solar PV. With suitable modifications to the model, and drawing on the ISA Team’s modelling data, we can look at other energy sources in the same way.

Conclusion

We have been living in an era of expanding energy availability, but Peak Oil and the constraints of Global Warming mean we are entering a new era of energy scarcity. In the past, you could always get the energy you wanted by simply paying for it. From here on, we are going to have to be very careful about how we allocate energy, because not only is it going to be very expensive, it will mean that someone else will have to do without. For the first time, ERoEI is going to be critically important to what we choose to do. If this factor is ignored, we will end up spending our fossil energy on making solar energy, which only makes Global Warming worse in the short to medium term.

Dave Kimble