System Failure

31 01 2018

SYSTEM FAILURE is, ironically, the title in the banner of this blog. This essay by George is starting to make me think he’s having an epiphany, following on as it were from By George, he finally gets it…  his promised ‘new way forward’, I now look forward to.


Is complex society on the brink of collapse?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th January 2018


It’s a good question, but it seems too narrow. “Is Western civilisation on the brink of collapse?”, the lead article in this week’s New Scientist asks. The answer is probably. But why just Western?

Yes, certain Western governments are engaged in a frenzy of self-destruction. In an age of phenomenal complexity and interlocking crises, the Trump administration has embarked on a mass deskilling and simplification of the state. Donald Trump might have sacked his strategist Steve Bannon, but Bannon’s professed intention, “the deconstruction of the administrative state”, remains the central – perhaps the only – policy.

Defunding departments, disbanding the teams and dismissing the experts they rely on, shutting down research programmes, maligning the civil servants who remain in post, the self-hating state is ripping down the very apparatus of government. At the same time, it is destroying the public protections that defend us from disaster.

A series of studies published in the past few months have started to explore the wider impact of pollutants. One, published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that the exposure of unborn children to air pollution in cities is causing “something approaching a public health catastrophe”. Pollution in the womb is now linked to low birth weight, disruption of the baby’s lung and brain development, and a series of debilitating and fatal diseases in later life.

Another report, published in the Lancet, suggests that three times as many deaths are caused by pollution as by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Pollution, the authors note, now “threatens the continuing survival of human societies.” A collection of articles in the journal PLOS Biology reveals that there is no reliable safety data on most of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals to which we may be exposed. While hundreds of these chemicals “contaminate the blood and urine of nearly every person tested”, and the volume of materials containing them rises every year, we have no idea what the likely impacts may be, either singly or in combination.

As if in response to such findings, the Trump government has systematically destroyed the integrity of the Environmental Protection Agencyripped up the Clean Power Planvitiated environmental standards for motor vehiclesreversed the ban on chlorpyrifos (a pesticide now linked to the impairment of cognitive and behavioural function in children), and rescinded a remarkable list of similar public protections.

In the UK, successive governments have also curtailed their ability to respond to crises. One of David Cameron’s first acts on taking office was to shut down the government’s early warning systems: the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission. He did not want to hear what they were telling him. Sack the impartial advisers and replace them with toadies: this has preceded the fall of empires many times before. Now, as we detach ourselves from the European Union, we degrade our capacity to solve the problems that transcend our borders.

But these pathologies are not confined to “the West”. The rise of demagoguery (the pursuit of simplistic solutions to complex problems, accompanied by the dismantling of the protective state) is everywhere apparent. Environmental breakdown is accelerating worldwide. The annihilation of vertebrate populationsInsectageddonthe erasure of rainforests, mangroves, soil, aquifers, the degradation of entire Earth systems, such as the atmosphere and the oceans, proceed at astonishing rates. These interlocking crises will affect everyone, but the poorer nations are hit first and worst.

The forces that threaten to destroy our well-being are also everywhere the same: primarily the lobbying power of big business and big money, that perceive the administrative state as an impediment to their immediate interests. Amplified by the persuasive power of campaign finance, covertly-funded thinktanks, embedded journalists and tame academics, these forces threaten to overwhelm democracy. If you want to know how they work, read Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money.

Up to a certain point, connectivity increases resilience. For example, if local food supplies fail, regional or global markets allow us to draw on production elsewhere. But beyond a certain level, connectivity and complexity threaten to become unmanageable. The emergent properties of the system, combined with the inability of the human brain to encompass it, could spread crises rather than contain them. We are in danger of pulling each other down. New Scientist should have asked “is complex society on the brink of collapse?”.

Complex societies have collapsed many times before. We live in a sort of civilisational interglacial, a brief respite from social entropy. It has always been a question of when, not if. But “when” is beginning to look like “soon”.

The collapse of states and social complexity has not always been a bad thing. As James C Scott points out in his fascinating book Against the Grain, the dissolution of the earliest states, that were founded on slavery and coercion, is likely to have been experienced by many people as an emancipation. When centralised power began to collapse, through epidemics, crop failure, floods, soil erosion or the self-destructive perversities of government, its corralled subjects would take the chance to flee. In many cases they joined the “barbarians”.

This so-called “secondary primitivism”, Scott notes, “may well have been experienced as a marked improvement in safety, nutrition and social order. Becoming a barbarian was often a bid to improve one’s lot.” The dark ages that inexorably followed the glory and grandeur of the state may, in that era, have been the best times to be alive.

But today there is nowhere to turn. The wild lands and rich ecosystems that once supported hunter gatherers, nomads and the refugees from imploding early states who joined them now scarcely exist. Only a tiny fraction of the current population could survive a return to the barbarian life. (Consider that, according to one estimate, the maximum population of Britain during the Mesolithic, when people survived by hunting and gathering, was 5000). In the nominally democratic era, the complex state is now, for all its flaws, all that stands between us and disaster.

So what we do? Next week, barring upsets, I will propose a new way forward. The path we now follow is not the path we have to take.


Big Oil stocks to crash 50% by 2020

27 04 2014

Hot on the heels of Steven Kopits’ presentation, this gem turns up on the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch website…..

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (MarketWatch) — Yes, we see 10 early warnings that Big Oil stocks are going to trigger an economic collapse by 2020, maybe 50% as gas (Petrol to you Aussies..) prices go through your SUV’s sunroof.

1. Big Oil’s conspiracy is a fracking, cracking Zen moment …

Reuters recently reported that Rex Tillerson became a party in a local lawsuit opposing a planned new water tower near his $5 million retirement ranch. Yes, that Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s $40-million-a-year CEO. His neighbors say this eyesore will affect property values. Even Forbes’ Rick Unger couldn’t resist a dig: “The hypocrisy expressed in real life is so sublimely rich that one could never hope to construct a similar scenario out of pure imagination.” Tillerson is signaling a subtle lesson here for Big Oil as more states follow Ohio’s lead, discover there’s a real scientific link between fracking and earthquakes.

2. The bliss of delusional denial when Big Oil profits peak, slide, collapse

“Even with the most optimistic set of assumptions — the ending of deforestation, a halving of emissions associated with food production, global emissions peaking in 2020 and then falling by 3% a year for a few decades — we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change,” warns Clive Hamilton, Australian economist in “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change.” Soon “the Earth’s climate will enter a chaotic era … One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.” What? Me worry?

3. Unprecedented profits on a road to irreversible self-destruction

The world has “1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to last at least 200 years,” says CEO Tom Donohue of the Big Oil-funded U. S. Chamber of Commerce Yes, 200 years of oil. Too bad it’ll kill us in 50 years, says environmental economist Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone. Why? “We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn.” More will overheat Planet Earth. And over in Foreign Policy a resigned McKibben adds, “Act now, we’re told, if we want to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. Trouble is, it might be too late. The science is settled, and the damage has already begun.” The planet is on an “irreversible self-destruct path.”

4. Capitalism’s last, blind race to waste every bit of Planet Earth

Michael Klare warns in “The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources,” that “The world is facing an unprecedented crisis of resource depletion — a crisis that goes beyond ‘peak oil’ to encompass shortages of coal and uranium, copper and lithium, water and arable land. With all of the planet’s easily accessible resource deposits rapidly approaching exhaustion, the desperate hunt for supplies has become a frenzy of extreme exploration, as governments and corporations rush to stake their claims in areas previously considered too dangerous or remote.” Worse, “the race we are on today is the last of its kind that we are likely to undertake.”

5. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin: ‘You promised me Mars colonies, I got Facebook’

We’re not even trying to solve the big problems of the future, warns Jason Pontin editor-in-chief of the MIT Tech Review in “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.” Reason: Because our leaders kowtow to myopic science deniers and Big Oil billionaires with zero moral conscience. America’s lost the ability to think long-term, lacks think-big leaders. And Silicon Valley’s leading innovators prefer social media problems like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Farmville and X-Prize PR hits, while Big Pharma solves the world’s great erectile-dysfunction pandemic.

6. Big Macs in 2014, but in 2050 Earth can’t feed predicted 10 billion

Yes, the future is bleak. Fortunately, denial is a great tranquilizer. Jeremy Grantham’s GMO firm manages $117 billion. Research at his Grantham Institute for Climate Change tells us Earth can’t feed the 10 billion people predicted in 2050, three billion more than today: “As the population continues to grow, we will be stressed by recurrent shortages of hydrocarbons, metals, water and, especially, fertilizer. Our global agriculture, though, will clearly bear the greatest stresses,” a burden on productivity.

7. Soon we’ll need six planets to survive, even with no new little babies

In “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail of Succeed,” anthropologist Jared Diamond says “what really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment.” Developed nations consume 32 times more resources, dump 32 times more waste than do undeveloped nations. If all 7 billion inhabitants of the planet consumed resources at America’s level, we’d need the resources of six Earths to survive” today!

8. Yes, humans are the new dinosaurs, building our own ‘Jurassic Park’

Writing in American Scholar Nobel physicist Robert Laughlin’s “The Earth Doesn’t Care If You Drive a Hybrid!” Or recycle. Or eat organic food. Or live in a green house powered by solar energy: “Earth didn’t replace the dinosaurs after they died” in the last great species extinction 65 million years ago, she “just moved on, became something different.” Laughlin says “humans have already triggered the sixth great period of species extinction in Earth’s history,” buying gas guzzlers, investing in Big Oil, forever in denial of the widening gap between endless growth and more babies living on a planet of vanishing resources.

9. Paradox: Yes, economic growth is accelerating the death of capitalism

Underlying many dark predictions of 2050 is our narcissistic self-destructive ideology of capitalism. In Foreign Policy, Yale’s Immanuel Wallerstein put the 2008 crash in context: “The Global Economy Won’t Recover, Now or Ever.” Our “capitalist world economy has been in existence for some 500 years … functioned remarkably well. But like all systems, it has moved … too far from equilibrium.” Now the only real “political struggle is over what kind of system will replace capitalism, not whether it should survive.” So what, me worry?

10. Capitalism’s doomsday cycle oblivious of bigger crash than 1929

After the last meltdown, former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson and Peter Boone co-authored “The Doomsday Cycle Turns: Who’s Next?” In one short generation “we have built a financial system that threatens to topple our global economic order.” We let “an unsustainable and crazy doomsday cycle infiltrate our economic system.” But this doomsday “cycle will not run forever,” they warn. “The destructive power of the down cycle will overwhelm the restorative ability of the government, just like it did in 1929-31.” In 2008 “we came remarkably close to another Great Depression. Next time, we may not be so lucky.” Since then Johnson, co-wrote the best-seller: “13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown.”

Fortunately, you’ll never see it coming. Denial really is a wonder-drug tranquilizer. So why worry, lighten up. Focus on the Wall Street banker in Mankoff’s cartoon. Meditate, his bullish guidance will lift your spirits: “While the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.” And so it is … for today … until Big Oil stocks start plunging …

Paul B. Farrell is a MarketWatch columnist based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWFarrell.