Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism

7 12 2019


Nate Hagens has written a substantial paper, four months in the writing, ten years in the making he tells me….


  1. Overview
    Despite decades of warnings, agreements, and activism, human
    energy consumption, emissions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    all hit new records in 2018 (Quéré et al., 2018). If the global economy
    continues to grow at about 3.0% per year, we will consume as much
    energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did cumulatively in
    the past 10,000. Is such a scenario inevitable? Is such a scenario possible?
  2. Simultaneously, we get daily reminders the global economy isn’t
    working as it used to (Stokes, 2017) such as rising wealth and income
    inequality, heavy reliance on debt and government guarantees, populist political movements, increasing apathy, tension and violence, and ecological decay. To avoid facing the consequences of our biophysical reality, we’re now obtaining growth in increasingly unsustainable ways. The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume.

    With this backdrop, what sort of future economic systems are now
    feasible? What choreography would allow them to come about? In the
    fullness of the Anthropocene, what does a hard look at the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense suggest about our collective future? Ecological economics was ahead of its time in recognizing the fundamental importance of nature’s services and the biophysical underpinnings of human economies. Can it now assemble a blueprint for a ‘reconstruction’ to guide a way forward?

    Before articulating prescriptions, we first need a comprehensive
    diagnosis of the patient. In 2019, we are beyond a piecemeal listing of
    what’s wrong. A coherent description of the global economy requires a
    systems view: describing the parts, the processes, how the parts and
    processes interact, and what these interactions imply about future
    possibilities. This paper provides a brief overview of the relationships
    between human behavior, the economy and Earth’s environment. It
    articulates how a social species self-organizing around surplus has
    metabolically morphed into a single, mindless, energy-hungry
    “Superorganism.” Lastly, it provides an assessment of our constraints
    and opportunities, and suggests how a more sapient economic system
    might develop.
  3. Introduction
    For most of the past 300,000 years, humans lived in sustainable,
    egalitarian, roaming bands where climate instability and low CO2 levels made success in agriculture unlikely (Richerson et al., 2001).
    Around 11,000 years ago the climate began to warm, eventually plateauing at warmer levels than the previous 100,000 years (Fig. 1).

  1. This stability allowed agriculture to develop in at least seven separate locations around the world. For the first time, groups of humans began to organize around physical surplus – production exceeding the group’s immediate caloric needs. Since some of the population no longer had to devote their time to hunting and gathering, this surplus allowed the development of new jobs, hierarchies, and complexity (Gowdy and Krall, 2013). This novel dynamic led to widespread agriculture and large-scale state societies over the next few thousand years (Gowdy and Krall, 2014).

    In the 19th century, this process was accelerated by the large-scale
    discovery of fossil carbon and the invention of technologies to use it as
    fuel. Fossil carbon provided humans with an extremely dense (but finite) source of energy extractable at a rate of their choosing, unlike the highly diffuse and fixed flow of sunlight of prior eras.

    This energy bounty enabled the 20th century to be a unique period
    in human history:
  2. more (and cheaper) resources led to sharp productivity
    increases and unprecedented economic growth, a debt
    based financial system cut free from physical tethers allowed expansive credit and related consumption to accelerate,
  3. all of which fueled resource surpluses enabling diverse and richer societies. The 21st century is diverging from that trajectory: 1) energy and resources are again becoming constraining factors on economic and societal development, 2) physical expansion predicated on credit is becoming riskier and will eventually reach a limit, 3) societies are becoming polarized and losing trust in governments, media, and science and, 4) ecosystems are being degraded as they absorb large quantities of energy and material waste from human systems.
    Where do we go from here?
  4. Human behavior
    Humans are unique, but in the same ways tree frogs or hippos are
    unique. We are still mammals, specifically primates. Our physical
    characteristics (sclera in eyes, small mouth, lack of canines etc.) are the products of our formative social past in small bands (Bullet et al., 2011; Kobayashi and Kohshima, 2008). However, our brains and behaviors too are products of what worked in our past. We don’t consciously go through life maximizing biological fitness, but instead act as ‘adaptation executors’ seeking to replicate the daily emotional states of our successful ancestors (Barkow et al., 1992). Humans have an impressive ability to process information, cooperate, and discover things, which is what brought us to the state of organization and wealth we experience today. But our stone-age minds areresponding to modern technology, resource abundance and large, fluid, social groups in emergent ways. These behaviors – summarized below – underpin many of our current planetary and cultural predicaments (Whybrow, 2013).

    3.1. Status and relative comparison Humans are a social species. Each of us is in competition for status and resources. As biological organisms we care about relative status. Historically, status was linked to providing resources for the clan, leadership, respect, storytelling, ethics, sharing, and community (Gowdy, 1998; von Rueden and Jaeggi, 2016). But in the modern culture we compete for status with resource intensive goods (cars, homes, vacations, gadgets), using money as an intermediary driver (Erk et al., 2002). Although most of the poorest 20% in advanced economies live materially richer lives than the middle class in the 1900′s, one’s income rank, as opposed to the absolute income, is what predicts life satisfaction (Boyce et al., 2010). For those who don’t ‘win’, a lack of perceived status leads to depression, drinking, stockpiling of guns and other adverse
    behaviors (Katikireddi et al., 2017; Mencken and Froese, 2019).
    Once basic needs are satisfied, we are primed to respond to the comparison of “better vs.worse” more than we do to “a little” vs. “a lot.”

    3.2. Supernormal stimuli and addiction In our ancestral environment, the mesolimbic dopamine pathways were linked to motivation, action and (calorific) reward. Modern technology and abundance can hijack this same reward circuitry. The brain of a stock trader making a winning trade lights up in an fMRI the same way a chimpanzee’s (and presumably our distant ancestors’) does when finding a nut or berry. But when trading stocks, playing video games or building shopping centers, there is no instinctual ‘full’ signal in modern brains – so we become addicted to the ‘unexpected reward’ of the next encounter, episode, or email, at an ever increasing pace (Hagens, 2011; Schultz et al., 1997). Our brains require flows (feelings) that we satisfy today mostly using non-renewable stocks. In modern resource rich culture, the ‘wanting’ becomes a stronger emotion than the ‘having’.Overview

    3.3. Cognitive biases
    We didn’t evolve to have a veridical view of our world (Mark et al.,
    2010). We think in words and images disconnected from physical reality. This imagined reality commonly seems more real than science, logic and common sense. Beliefs that arise from this virtual interface become religion, nationalism, or quixotic goals such as terraforming Mars (Harari, 2018). For most of history, we maintained groups by sharing social myths like these. Failure to believe those myths led to ostracism and death. Beliefs usually precede the reasons we use to explain them, and thus are far more powerful than facts (Gazzaniga, 2012).

    Psychologists have identified hundreds of cognitive biases whereby
    common human behaviors depart from economic rationality. These
    include: motivated reasoning, groupthink, authority bias, bystander
    effect, etc. Rationality is from a newer part of our brain that is still
    dominated by the more primitive, intuitive, and emotional brain
    structures of the limbic system. Modern economics assumes the rational brain is in charge, but it’s not. Combined with our tribal, in-group nature, it’s understandable that fake news works, and that people resist uncomfortable notions involving limits to growth, energy descent, and climate change. Evolution selects for fitness, not truth (Hoffman, 2019).

    We typically only value truth if it rewards us in the short term. Rationality is the exception, not the rule.

    3.4. Time bias (steep discount rates)
    For good evolutionary reasons (short life spans, risk of food expropriation, unstable environment, etc.) we disproportionately care
    about the present more than the future, measured by economists via a
    ‘discount rate’(Hagens and Kunz, 2010). The steeper the discount rate,
    the more the person is ‘addicted to the present.’ (Laibson et al., 2007).
    Drug users and drinkers, risk takers, people with low I.Q. scores, people who have heavy cognitive workloads, and men (vs. women) tend to more steeply discount events or issues in the future (Chabris et al., 2010).

    Unfortunately, most of our modern challenges are ‘in the future’.
    Recognition that the future exists and that we are part of it springs from a relatively new brain structure, the neocortex. It has no direct connection to deep-brain motivational centers that communicate urgency. When asked to plan a snack for next week between chocolate or fruit, people chose fruit 75% of the time. When choosing a snack for today, 70% select chocolate. When choosing a movie to watch next week 63% choose an educational documentary but when choosing a film for tonight 66% pick a comedy or sci-fi (Read et al., 1999). We have great intentions for the future, until the future becomes today. Our neocortex can imagine them, but we are emotionally blind to long-term issues like climate change or energy depletion. Emotionally, the future isn’t real.

    3.5. Cooperation and group behavior Group behavior has shaped us as much as individual behavior (Wilson and Wilson, 2008). Humans are strongly ‘groupish’ (Haidt, 2013), and before agriculture were aggressively egalitarian (Pennisi, 2014 Boehm, 1993). Those historic tribes that could act as a cohesive unit facing a common threat outcompeted tribes without such social cohesion. Because of this, today we easily and quickly form ingroups and outgroups and
    behave favorably and antagonistically towards them respectively. We are also primed to cooperate with our in-group whether that is a small
    business, large corporation, or even a nation-state – to obtain monetary (or in earlier times, physical) surplus. Me over Us, Us over Them.

    3.6. Cultural evolution, Ultrasociality and the Superorganism
    “What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something
    that had never happened before and never will again. Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the other’s institutions. When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.” Ronald Wright, A
    Short History of Progress (2004, pp50-51)

    “Ultrasociality refers to the most social of animal organizations, with full time division of labor, specialists who gather no food but are fed by others, effective sharing of information about sources of food and danger, self-sacrificial effort in collective defense.” (Campbell, 1974; Gowdy and Krall, 2013).

    Humans are among a small handful of species that are extremely
    social. Phenotypically we are primates, but behaviorally we’re more
    akin to the social insects (Haidt, 2013). Our ultrasociality allows us to
    function at much larger scales than as individuals. At the largest scales, cultural evolution occurs far more rapidly than genetic evolution (Richerson and Boyd, 2005). Via the cultural evolution that began with agriculture, humans have evolved into a globally interconnected civilization, ‘outcompeting’ other human economic models along the way to becoming a defacto ‘superorganism’ (Hölldobler and Wilson, 2008).

    A superorganism can be defined as “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective”(Kelly, 1994). Via cooperation (and coordination), fitness transfers from lower levels to higher levels of organization (Michod and Nedelcu, 2003). The needs of this higher-level entity (today for humans; the global economy) mold the behavior, organization and functions of lower-level entities (individual human behavior) (Kesebir, 2011). Human behavior is thus constrained and modified by ‘downward causation’ from the higher level of organization present in society (Campbell, 1974).

    All the ‘irrationalities’ previously outlined have kept our species
    flourishing for 300,000 years. What has changed is not ‘us’ but rather
    the economic organization of our societies in tandem with technology,
    scale and impact. Since the Neolithic, human society has organized
    around growth of surplus, initially measured physically e.g. grain, now measured by digital claims on physical surplus, (or money) (Gowdy and Krall, 2014). Positive human attributes like cooperation have been coopted to become coordination towards surplus production. Increasingly, the “purpose” of a modern human in the ultrasocial global economy is to contribute to surplus for the market (e.g. the economic value of a human life based on discounted lifetime income, the marginal productivity theory of labor value, etc.) (Gowdy 2019, in press).

    3.7. Human behavior – summary
    Our behavioral repertoire is wide, yet informed, and constrained by
    our neurological heritage and the higher level of organization exhibited by our economic system. We are born with heritable modules prepared to react to context in predictable ways. “Who we are” as a species is highly relevant to issues of ecological overshoot, sustainability and our related cultural responses.





The Collapse of Civilization May Have Already Begun

27 11 2019

Scientists disagree on the timeline of collapse and whether it’s imminent. But can we afford to be wrong? And what comes after?

Another long, but as always very well researched post by Nafeez Ahmed
Nov 23 2019

“It is now too late to stop a future collapse of our societies because of climate change.”

These are not the words of a tinfoil hat-donning survivalist. This is from a paper delivered by a senior sustainability academic at a leading business school to the European Commission in Brussels, earlier this year. Before that, he delivered a similar message to a UN conference: “Climate change is now a planetary emergency posing an existential threat to humanity.”

In the age of climate chaos, the collapse of civilization has moved from being a fringe, taboo issue to a more mainstream concern.

As the world reels under each new outbreak of crisis—record heatwaves across the Western hemisphere, devastating fires across the Amazon rainforest, the slow-moving Hurricane Dorian, severe ice melting at the poles—the question of how bad things might get, and how soon, has become increasingly urgent.

The fear of collapse is evident in the framing of movements such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and in resounding warnings that business-as-usual means heading toward an uninhabitable planet.

But a growing number of experts not only point at the looming possibility that human civilization itself is at risk; some believe that the science shows it is already too late to prevent collapse. The outcome of the debate on this is obviously critical: it throws light on whether and how societies should adjust to this uncertain landscape.

Yet this is not just a scientific debate. It also raises difficult moral questions about what kind of action is warranted to prepare for, or attempt to avoid, the worst. Scientists may disagree about the timeline of collapse, but many argue that this is entirely beside the point. While scientists and politicians quibble over timelines and half measures, or how bad it’ll all be, we are losing precious time. With the stakes being total collapse, some scientists are increasingly arguing that we should fundamentally change the structure of society just to be safe.

Jem Bendell, a former consultant to the United Nations and longtime Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria’s Department of Business, delivered a paper in May 2019 explaining how people and communities might “adapt to climate-induced disruption.”

Bendell’s thesis is not only that societal collapse due to climate change is on its way, but that it is, in effect, already here. “Climate change will disrupt your way of life in your lifetimes,” he told the audience at a climate change conference organized by the European Commission.

Devastating consequences, like “the cascading effects of widespread and repeated harvest failures” are now unavoidable, Bendell’s paper says.

He argues this is not so much a doom-and-gloom scenario as a case of waking up to reality, so that we can do as much as we can to save as many lives as possible. His recommended response is what he calls “Deep Adaptation,” which requires going beyond “mere adjustments to our existing economic system and infrastructure, in order to prepare us for the breakdown or collapse of normal societal functions.”

Bendell’s message has since gained a mass following and high-level attention. It is partly responsible for inspiring the new wave of climate protests reverberating around the world.

In March, he launched the Deep Adaptation Forum to connect and support people who, in the face of “inevitable” societal collapse, want to explore how they can “reduce suffering, while saving more of society and the natural world.” Over the last six months, the Forum has gathered more than 10,000 participants. More than 600,000 people have downloaded Bendell’s paper, called Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating our Climate Tragedy, published by the University of Cumbria’s Institute of Leadership and Sustainability (IFALS). And many of the key organizers behind the Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaign joined the protest movement after reading it.

“There will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers,” concludes that paper, released in 2017.

Catastrophe is “probable,” it adds, and extinction “is possible.” Over coming decades, we will see the escalating impacts of the fossil fuel pollution we have already pumped into the atmosphere and oceans. Even if we ceased emissions tomorrow, Bendell argues, the latest climate science shows that “we are now in a climate emergency, which will increasingly disrupt our way of life… a societal collapse is now inevitable within the lifetimes of readers of this paper.”

Bendell puts a rough timeline on this. Collapse will happen within 10 years and inflict disruptions across nations, involving “increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict, and war.”

Yet this diagnosis opens up far more questions than it answers. I was left wondering: Which societies are at risk of collapsing due to climate change, and when? Some societies or all societies? Simultaneously or sequentially? Why some rather than others? And how long will the collapse process take? Where will it start, and in what sector? How will that impact others sectors? Or will it take down all sectors of societies in one fell swoop? And what does any of this imply for whether, or how, we might prepare for collapse?

In attempting to answer these questions, I spoke to a wide-range of scientists and experts, and took a deep dive into the obscure but emerging science of how societies and civilizations collapse. I wanted to understand not just whether Bendell’s forecast was right, but to find out what a range experts from climate scientists to risk analysts were unearthing about the possibility of our societies collapsing in coming years and decades.

The emerging science of collapse is still, unfortunately, a nascent field. That’s because it’s an interdisciplinary science that encompasses not only the incredibly complex, interconnected natural systems that comprise the Earth System, but also has to make sense of how those systems interact with the complex, interconnected social, political, economic, and cultural systems of the Human System.

What I discovered provoked a wide range of emotions. I was at times surprised and shocked, often frightened, sometimes relieved. Mostly, I was unsettled. Many scientists exposed flaws in Bendell’s argument. Most rejected the idea of inevitable near-term collapse outright. But to figure out whether a near-term collapse scenario of some kind was likely led me far beyond Bendell. A number of world leading experts told me that such a scenario might, in fact, be far more plausible than conventionally presumed.

Science, gut, or a bit of both?

According to Penn State professor Michael Mann, one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists, Bendell’s grasp of the climate science is deeply flawed.

“To me, this paper is a perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness,” he told me.

Bendell’s original paper had been rejected for publication by the peer-reviewed Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal. According to Bendell, the changes that editorial reviewers said were necessary to make the article fit for publication made no sense. But among them, one referee questioned whether Bendell’s presentation of climate data actually supported his conclusion: “I am not sure that the extensive presentation of climate data supports the core argument of the paper in a meaningful way.”

In his response, sent in the form of a letter to the journal’s chief editor, Bendell wrote: “Yet the summary of science is the core of the paper as everything then flows from the conclusion of that analysis. Note that the science I summarise is about what is happening right now, rather than models or theories of complex adaptive systems which the reviewer would have preferred.”

But in Mann’s view, the paper’s failure to pass peer review was not simply because it didn’t fit outmoded academic etiquette, but for the far more serious reason that it lacks scientific rigor. Bendell, he said, is simply “wrong on the science and impacts: There is no credible evidence that we face ‘inevitable near-term collapse.’”

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who is also world-famous, was even more scathing.

“There are both valid points and unjustified statements throughout,” he told me about Bendell’s paper. “Model projections have not underestimated temperature changes, not everything that is non-linear is therefore ‘out of control.’ Blaming ‘increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere’ for anything is silly. The evidence for ‘inevitable societal collapse’ is very weak to non-existent.”

Schmidt did not rule out that we are likely to see more instances of local collapse events. “Obviously we have seen such collapses in specific locations associated with extreme storm impacts,” he said. He listed off a number of examples—Puerto RicoBarbudaHaiti, and New Orleans—explaining that while local collapses in certain regions could be possible, it’s a “much harder case to make” at a global level. “And this paper doesn’t make it. I’m not particularly sanguine about what is going to happen, but this is not based on anything real.”

Jeremy Lent, systems theorist and author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaningargues that throughout Bendell’s paper he frequently slips between the terms “inevitable,” “probably,” and “likely.”

“If he chooses to go with his gut instinct and conclude collapse is inevitable, he has every right to do so,” Lent said, “but I believe it’s irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial.”

When I pressed Bendell on this issue, he pushed back against the idea that he was putting forward a hard, scientifically-valid forecast, describing it as a “guess”: “I say in the original paper that I am only guessing at when social collapse will occur. I have said or written that every time I mention that time horizon.”

But why offer this guess at all? “The problem I have with the argument that I should not give a time horizon like 10 years is that not deciding on a time horizon acts as a psychological escape from facing our predicament. If we can push this problem out into 2040 or 2050, it somehow feels less pressing. Yet, look around. Already harvests are failing because of weather made worse by climate change.”

Bendell points out that such impacts are already damaging more vulnerable, poorer societies than our own. He says it is only a matter of time before they damage the normal functioning of “most countries in the world.”

Global food system failure

According to Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, Principal Investigator at Lund University’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate Program, the risk of near-term collapse should be taken far more seriously by climate scientists, given the fact that so much is unknown about climate tipping points: “I am not saying that Bendell is right or wrong. But the criticism of Bendell’s points focuses too much on the detail and in that way studiously tries to avoid the bigger picture. The available data points to the fact that some catastrophic climate change is inevitable.”

Bendell argues that the main trigger for some sort of collapse—which he defines as “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope”—will come from accelerating failures in the global food system.

We know that it is a distinct possibility that so-called multi-breadbasket failures (when major yield reductions take place simultaneously across agricultural areas producing staple crops like rice, wheat, or maize) can be triggered by climate change—and have already happened.

As shown by American physicist Dr. Yaneer Ban Yam and his team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, in the years preceding 2011, global food price spikes linked to climate breakdown played a role in triggering the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. And according to hydroclimatologist Dr. Peter Gleick, climate-induced drought amplified the impact of socio-political and economic mismanagement, inflicting agricultural failures in Syria. These drove mass migrations within the country, in turn laying the groundwork for sectarian tensions that spilled over into a protracted conflict.

In my own work, I found that the Syrian conflict was not just triggered by climate change, but a range of intersecting factors—Syria’s domestic crude oil production had peaked in the mid-90s, leading state revenues to hemorrhage as oil production and exports declined. When global climate chaos triggered food price spikes, the state had begun slashing domestic fuel and food subsidies, already reeling from the impact of economic mismanagement and corruption resulting in massive debt levels. And so, a large young population overwhelmed with unemployment and emboldened by decades of political repression took to the streets when they could not afford basic bread. Syria has since collapsed into ceaseless civil war.

This is a case of what Professor Thomas-Homer Dixon, University Research Chair in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, describes as “synchronous failure”—when multiple, interconnected stressors amplify over time before triggering self-reinforcing feedback loops which result in them all failing at the same time. In his book, The Upside of DownCatastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, he explains how the resulting convergence of crises overwhelms disparate political, economic and administrative functions, which are not designed for such complex events.

From this lens, climate-induced collapse has already happened, though it is exacerbated by and amplifies the failure of myriad human systems. Is Syria a case-study of what is in store for the world? And is it inevitable within the next decade?

In a major report released in August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that hunger has already been rising worldwide due to climate impacts. A senior NASA scientist, Cynthia Rosenzweig, was a lead author of the study, which warned that the continued rise in carbon emissions would drive a rise in global average temperatures of 2°C in turn triggering a “very high” risk to food supplies toward mid-century. Food shortages would hit vulnerable, poorer regions, but affluent nations may also be in the firing line. As a new study from the UK Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee concludes, fruit and vegetable imports to countries like Britain might be cut short if a crisis breaks out.

When exactly such a crisis might happen is not clear. Neither reports suggest it would result in the collapse of civilization, or even most countries, within 10 years. And the UN also emphasizes that it is not too late to avert these risks through a shift to organic and agro-ecological methods.

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt acknowledged “increasing impacts from climate change on global food production,” but said that a collapse “is not predicted and certainly not inevitable.”

The catastrophic ‘do-nothing’ scenario

A few years ago, though, I discovered first-hand that a catastrophic collapse of the global food system is possible in coming decades if we don’t change course. At the time I was a visiting research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, and I had been invited to a steering committee meeting for the Institute’s Global Research Observatory (GRO), a research program developing new models of global crisis.

One particular model, the Dawe Global Security Model, was focused on the risk of another global food crisis, similar to what triggered the Arab Spring.

“We ran the model forward to the year 2040, along a business-as-usual trajectory based on ‘do-nothing’ trends—that is, without any feedback loops that would change the underlying trend,” said institute director Aled Jones to the group of stakeholders in the room, which included UK government officials. “The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

Jones was at pains to clarify that this model-run could not be taken as a forecast, particularly as mitigation policies are already emerging in response to concern about such an outcome: “This scenario is based on simply running the model forward,” he said. “The model is a short-term model. It’s not designed to run this long, as in the real world trends are always likely to change, whether for better or worse.”

Someone asked, “Okay, but what you’re saying is that if there is no change in current trends, then this is the outcome?”

“Yes,” Jones replied quietly.

The Dawe Global Security Model put this potential crisis two decades from now. Is it implausible that the scenario might happen much earlier? And if so why aren’t we preparing for this risk?

When I asked UN disaster risk advisor Scott Williams about a near-term global food crisis scenario, he pointed out that this year’s UN flagship global disaster risk assessment was very much aware of the danger of another global “multiple breadbasket failure.”

“A projected increase in extreme climate events and an increasingly interdependent food supply system pose a threat to global food security,” warned the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction released in May. “For instance, local shocks can have far-reaching effects on global agricultural markets.”

Climate models we’ve been using are not too alarmist; they are consistently too conservative, and we have only recently understood how bad the situation really is.

Current agricultural modelling, the UN report said, does not sufficiently account for these complex interconnections. The report warns that “climate shocks and consequent crop failure in one of the global cereal breadbaskets might have knock-on effects on the global agricultural market. The turbulences are exacerbated if more than one of the main crop-producing regions suffers from losses simultaneously.”

Williams, who was a coordinating lead author of the UN global disaster risk assessment, put it more bluntly: “In a nutshell, Bendell is closer to the mark than his critics.”

He pointed me to the second chapter of the UN report which, he said, expressed the imminent risk to global civilization in a “necessarily politically desensitized” form. The chapter is “close to stating that ‘collapse is inevitable’ and that the methods that we—scientists, modellers, researchers, etc—are using are wholly inadequate to understand that nature of complex, uncertain ‘transitions,’ in other words, collapses.”

Williams fell short of saying that such a collapse scenario was definitely unavoidable, and the UN report—while setting out an alarming level of risk—did not do so either. What they did make clear is that a major global food crisis could erupt unexpectedly, with climate change as a key trigger.

Climate tipping points

A new study by a team of scientists at Oxford, Bristol, and Austria concludes that our current carbon emissions trajectory hugely increases this risk. Published in October in the journal Agricultural Systems, the study warns that the rise in global average temperatures is increasing the likelihood of “production shocks” affecting an increasingly interconnected global food system.

Surpassing the 1.5 °C threshold could potentially trigger major “production losses” of millions of tonnes of maize, wheat and soybean.

Right now, carbon dioxide emissions are on track to dramatically increase this risk of multi-breadbasket failures. Last year, the IPCC found that unless we reduce our emissions levels by five times their current amount, we could hit 1.5°C as early as 2030, and no later than mid-century. This would dramatically increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures, food production shocks and other devastating climate impacts.

In April this year, the European Commission’s European Strategy and Policy Analysis System published its second major report to EU policymakers, Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe. The report, which explores incoming national security, geopolitical and socio-economic risks, concluded: “An increase of 1.5 degrees is the maximum the planet can tolerate; should temperatures increase further beyond 2030, we will face even more droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people; the likely demise of the most vulnerable populations—and at worst, the extinction of humankind altogether.”

But the IPCC’s newer models suggest that the situation is even worse than previously thought. Based on increased supercomputing power and sharper representations of weather systems, those new climate models—presented at a press conference in Paris in late September—reveal the latest findings of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report now underway.

The models now show that we are heading for 7°C by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue unabated, two degrees higher than last year’s models. This means the earth is far more sensitive to atmospheric carbon than previously believed.

This suggests that the climate models we’ve been using are not too alarmist; they are consistently too conservative, and we have only recently understood how bad the situation really is.

I spoke to Dr. Joelle Gergis, a lead author on the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, about the new climate models. Gergis admitted that at least eight of the new models being produced for the IPCC by scientists in the US, UK, Canada and France suggest a much higher climate sensitivity than older models of 5°C or warmer. But she pushed back against the idea that these findings prove the inevitability of collapse, which she criticized as outside the domain of climate science. Rather, the potential implications of the new evidence are not yet known.

“Yes, we are facing alarming rates of change and this raises the likelihood of abrupt, non-linear changes in the climate system that may cause tipping points in the Earth’s safe operating space,” she said. “But we honestly don’t know how far away we are from that just yet. It may also be the case that we can only detect that we’ve crossed such a threshold after the fact.”

In an article published in August in the Australian magazine The Monthly, Dr. Gergis wrote: “When these results were first released at a climate modelling workshop in March this year, a flurry of panicked emails from my IPCC colleagues flooded my inbox. What if the models are right? Has the Earth already crossed some kind of tipping point? Are we experiencing abrupt climate change right now?”

Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral system has been wiped out at current global average temperatures which are now hovering around 1°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Gergis describes this as “catastrophic ecosystem collapse of the largest living organism on the planet.” At 1.5°C, between 70 and 90 percent of reef-building corals are projected to be destroyed, and at 2°C, some 99 percent may disappear: “An entire component of the Earth’s biosphere—our planetary life support system—would be eliminated. The knock-on effects on the 25 percent of all marine life that depends on coral reefs would be profound and immeasurable… The very foundation of human civilization is at stake.”

But Gergis told me that despite the gravity of the new models, they do not prove conclusively that past emissions will definitely induce collapse within the next decade.

“While we are undeniably observing rapid and widespread climate change across the planet, there is no concrete evidence that suggests we are facing ‘an inevitable, near term society collapse due to climate change,’” she said. “Yes, we are absolutely hurtling towards conditions that will create major instabilities in the climate system, and time is running out, but I don’t believe it is a done deal just yet.”

Yet it is precisely the ongoing absence of strong global policy that poses the fatal threat. According to Lund University climate scientist Wolfgang Knorr, the new climate models mean that practically implementing the Paris Accords target of keeping temperatures at 1.5 degrees is now extremely difficult. He referred me to his new analysis of the challenge published on the University of Cumbria’s ILFAS blog, suggesting that the remaining emissions budget given by the IPCC “will be exhausted at the beginning of 2025.” He also noted that past investment in fossil-fuel and energy infrastructure alone will put us well over that budget.

The scale of the needed decarbonization is so great and so rapid, according to Tim Garrett, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, that civilization would need to effectively “collapse” its energy consumption to avoid collapsing due to climate catastrophe. In a 2012 paper in Earth System Dynamics, he concluded therefore that “civilization may be in a double-bind.”

“We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency”

In a previous paper in Climatic Change, Garrett calculated that the world would need to switch to non-carbon renewable energy sources at a rate of about 2.1 percent a year just to stabilize emissions. “That comes out [equivalent] to almost one new nuclear power plant per day,” Garrett said. Although he sees this as fundamentally unrealistic, he concedes that a crash transition programme might help: “If society invests sufficient resources into alternative and new, non-carbon energy supplies, then perhaps it can continue growing without increasing global warming.”

Gergis goes further, insisting that it is not yet too late: “We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency. The question is, can we muster the best of our humanity in time?”

There is no straightforward answer to this question. To get there, we need to understand not just climate science, but the nature, dynamics, and causes of civilizational collapse.

Limits to Growth

One of the most famous scientific forecasts of collapse was conducted nearly 50 years ago by a team of scientists at MIT. Their “Limits to Growth” (LTG) model, known as “World3,” captured the interplay between exponential population and economic growth, and the consumption of raw materials and natural resources. Climate change is an implicit feature of the model.

LTG implied that business-as-usual would lead to civilizational breakdown, sometime between the second decade and middle of the 21st century, due to overconsumption of natural resources far beyond their rate of renewal. This would escalate costs, diminish returns, and accelerate environmental waste, ecosystem damage, and global heating. With more capital diverted to the cost of extracting resources, less is left to invest in industry and other social goods, driving long-term economic decline and political unrest.

The forecast was widely derided when first published, and its core predictions were often wildly misrepresented by commentators who claimed it had incorrectly forecast the end of the world by the year 2000 (it didn’t).

Systems scientist Dennis Meadows had headed up the MIT team which developed the ‘World3’ model. Seven years ago, he updated the original model in light of new data with co-author Jorgen Randers, another original World3 team-member.

“For those who respect numbers, we can report that the highly aggregated scenarios of World3 still appear… to be surprisingly accurate,” they wrote in Limits to Growth: the 30 year update. “The world is evolving along a path that is consistent with the main features of the scenarios in LTG.”

One might be forgiven for suspecting that the old MIT team were just blowing their own horn. But a range of independent scientific reviews, some with the backing of various governments, have repeatedly confirmed that the LTG ‘base scenario’ of overshoot and collapse has continued to fit new data. This includes studies by Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey, an economics advisor to the British government and Ministry of Defense; Australia’s federal government scientific research agency CSIRO; Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute; and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in London.

“Collapse is not a very precise term. It is possible that there would be a general, drastic, uncontrolled decline in population, material use, and energy consumption by 2030 from climate change,” Meadows told me when I asked him whether the LTG model shines any light on the risk of imminent collapse. “But I do not consider it to be a high probability event,” he said. Climate change would, however, “certainly suffice to alter our industrial society drastically by 2100.” It could take centuries or millennia for ecosystems to recover.

But there is a crucial implication of the LTG model that is often overlooked: what happens during collapse. During an actual breakdown, new and unexpected social dynamics might come into play which either worsen or even lessen collapse.

Those dynamics all depend on human choices. They could involve positive changes through reform in political leadership or negative changes such as regional or global wars.

That’s why modelling what happens during the onset of collapse is especially tricky, because the very process of collapse alters the dynamics of change.

Growth, complexity and resource crisis

What if, then, collapse is not necessarily the end? That’s the view of Ugo Bardi, of the University of Florence, who has developed perhaps the most intriguing new scientific framework for understanding collapse.

Earlier this year, Bardi and his team co-wrote a paper in the journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, drawing on the work of anthropologist Joseph Tainter at Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society. Tainter’s seminal book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, concluded that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Tainter studied the fall of the Western Roman empire, Mayan civilization, and Chaco civilization. As societies develop more complex and specialized bureaucracies to solve emerging problems, these new layers of problem-solving infrastructure generate new orders of problems. Further infrastructure is then developed to solve those problems, and the spiral of growth escalates.

As each new layer also requires a new ‘energy’ subsidy (greater consumption of resources), it eventually cannot produce enough resources to both sustain itself and resolve the problems generated. The result is that society collapses to a new equilibrium by shedding layers of complex infrastructure amassed in previous centuries. This descent takes between decades and centuries.

In his recent paper, Bardi used computer models to test how Tainter’s framework stood-up. He found that diminishing returns from complexity were not the main driver of a system’s decline; rather the decline in complexity of the system is due to diminishing returns from exploiting natural resources.

In other words, collapse is a result of a form of endless growth premised on the unsustainable consumption of resources, and the new order of increasingly unresolvable crises this generates.

In my view, we are already entering a perfect storm feedback loop of complex problems that existing systems are too brittle to solve. The collapse of Syria, triggered and amplified partly by climate crisis, did not end in Syria. Its reverberations have not only helped destabilize the wider Middle East, but contributed to the destabilization of Western democracies.

In January, a study in Global Environment Change found that the impact of “climatic conditions” on “drought severity” across the Middle East and North Africa amplified the “likelihood of armed conflict.” The study concluded that climate change therefore played a pivotal role in driving the mass asylum seeking between 2011 and 2015—including the million or so refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 alone, nearly 50 percent of whom were Syrian. The upsurge of people fleeing the devastation of their homes was a gift to the far-right, exploited by British, French and other nationalists campaigning for the break-up of the European Union, as well as playing a role in Donald Trump’s political campaigning around The Wall.

To use my own terminology, Earth System Disruption (ESD) is driving Human System Destabilization (HSD). Preoccupied with the resulting political chaos, the Human System becomes even more vulnerable and incapable of ameliorating ESD. As ESD thus accelerates, it generates more HSD. The self-reinforcing cycle continues, and we find ourselves in an amplifying feedback loop of disruption and destabilization.

Beyond collapse

Is there a way out of this self-destructive amplifying feedback loop? Bardi’s work suggests there might be—that collapse can pave the way for a new, more viable form of civilization, whether or not countries and regions experience collapses, crises, droughts, famine, violence, and war as a result of ongoing climate chaos.

Bardi’s analysis of Tainter’s work extends the argument he first explored in his 2017 peer-reviewed studyThe Seneca Effect: When Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid. The book is named after the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who once said that “fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid.”

Bardi examines a wide-range of collapse cases across human societies (from the fall of past empires, to financial crises and large-scale famines), in nature (avalanches) and through artificial structures (cracks in metal objects). His verdict is that collapse is not a “bug,” but a “varied and ubiquitous phenomena” with multiple causes, unfolding differently, sometimes dangerously, sometimes not. Collapse also often paves the way for the emergence of new, evolutionary structures.

In an unpublished manuscript titled Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth, due to be published by science publisher Springer-Nature next year, Bardi’s examination of the collapse and growth of human civilizations reveals that after collapse, a “Seneca Rebound” often takes place in which new societies grow, often at a rate faster than preceding growth rates.

This is because collapse eliminates outmoded, obsolete structures, paving the way for new structures to emerge which often thrive from the remnants of the old and in the new spaces that emerge.

He thus explains the Seneca Rebound as “as an engine that propels civilizations forward in bursts. If this is the case, can we expect a rebound if the world’s civilization goes through a new Seneca Collapse in the coming decades?”

Bardi recognizes that the odds are on a knife-edge. A Seneca Rebound after a coming collapse would probably have different features to what we have seen after past civilizational collapses and might still involve considerable violence, as past new civilizations often did—or may not happen at all.

“Very little if anything is being done to stop emissions and the general destruction of the ecosystem”

On our current trajectory, he said, “the effects of the destruction we are wreaking on the ecosystem could cause humans to go extinct, the ultimate Seneca Collapse.” But if we change course, even if we do not avoid serious crises, we might lessen the blow of a potential collapse. In this scenario, “the coming collapse will be just one more of the series of previous collapses that affected human civilizations: it might lead to a new rebound.”

It is in this possibility that Bardi sees the seeds of a new, different kind of civilization within the collapse of civilization-as-we-know-it.

I asked Bardi how soon he thought this collapse would happen. Although emphasizing that collapse is not yet inevitable, he said that a collapse of some kind within the next decade could be “very likely” if business-as-usual continues.

“Very little if anything is being done to stop emissions and the general destruction of the ecosystem,” Bardi said. “So, an ecosystemic collapse is not impossible within 10 years.”

Yet he was also careful to point out that the worst might be avoided: “On the other hand, there are many elements interacting that may change things a little, a lot, or drastically. We don’t know how the system may react… maybe the system would react in a way that could postpone the worst.”

Release and renewal

The lesson is that even if collapse is imminent, all may not be lost. Systems theorist Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, draws on the work of the late University of Florida ecologist C. S. Holling, whose detailed study of natural ecosystems led him to formulate a general theory of social change known as the adaptive cycle.

Complex systems, whether in nature or in human societies, pass through four phases in their life cycle, writes Lent. First is a rapid growth phase of innovation and opportunity for new structures; second is a phase of stability and consolidation, during which these structures become brittle and resistant to change; third is a release phase consisting of breakdown, generating chaos and uncertainty; the fourth is reorganization, opening up the possibility that small, seemingly insignificant forces might drastically change the future of the forthcoming new cycle.

It is here, in the last two phases, that the possibility of triggering and shaping a Seneca Rebound becomes apparent. The increasing chaos of global politics, Lent suggests, is evidence that we are “entering the chaotic release phase,” where the old order begins to unravel. At this point, the system could either regress, or it could reorganize in a way that enables a new civilizational rebound. “This is a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order.”

So as alarming as the mounting evidence of the risk of collapse is, it also indicates that we are moving into a genuinely new and indeterminate phase in the life cycle of our current civilization, during which we have a radical opportunity to mobilize the spread of new ideas that can transform societies.

I have been tracking the risks of collapse throughout my career as a journalist and systems theorist. I could not find any decisive confirmation that climate change will inevitably produce near-term societal collapse.

But the science does not rule this out as a possibility. Therefore, dismissing the risk of some sort of collapse—whether by end of century, mid-century, or within the next 10 years—contravenes the implications of the most robust scientific models we have.

All the scientific data available suggests that if we continue on our current course of resource exploitation, human civilization could begin experiencing collapse within coming decades. Exactly where and how such a collapse process might take off is not certain; and whether it is already locked in is as yet unknown. And as NASA’s Gavin Schmidt told me, local collapses are already underway.

From Syria to Brexit, the destabilizing socio-political impacts of ecosystemic collapse are becoming increasingly profound, far-reaching and intractable. In that sense, debating whether or not near-term collapse is inevitable overlooks the stark reality that we are already witnessing climate collapse.

And yet, there remains an almost total absence of meaningful conversation and action around this predicament, despite it being perhaps the most important issue of our times.

The upshot is that we don’t know for sure what is round the corner, and we need better conversations about how to respond to the range of possibilities. Preparation for worst-case scenarios does not require us to believe them inevitable, but vindicates the adoption of a rational, risk-based approach designed to proactively pursue the admirable goal for Deep Adaptation: safeguarding as much of society as possible.

Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation approach, he told me, is not meant to provide decisive answers about collapse, but to catalyze conversation and action.

“For the Deep Adaptation groups that I am involved with, we ask people to agree that societal collapse is either likely, inevitable or already unfolding, so that we can have meaningful engagement upon that premise,” he said. “Deep Adaptation has become an international movement now, with people mobilizing to share their grief, discuss what to commit to going forward, become activists, start growing food, all kinds of things.”

Confronting the specter of collapse, he insisted is not grounds to give-up, but to do more. Not later, but right now, because we are already out of time in terms of the harm already inflicted on the planet: “My active and radical hope is that we will do all kinds of amazing things to reduce harm, buy time and save what we can,” he said. “Adaptation and mitigation are part of that agenda. I also know that many people will act in ways that create more suffering.”

Most of all, the emerging science of collapse suggests that civilization in its current form, premised on endless growth and massive inequalities, is unlikely to survive this century. It will either evolve into or be succeeded by a new configuration, perhaps an “ecological civilization”, premised on a fundamentally new relationship with the Earth and all its inhabitants—or it will, whether slowly or more abruptly, regress and contract.

What happens next is still up to us. Our choices today will not merely write our own futures, they determine who we are, and what our descendants will be capable of becoming. As we look ahead, this strange new science hints to us at a momentous opportunity to become agents of change for an emerging paradigm of life and society that embraces, not exploits, the Earth. Because doing so is now a matter of survival.





The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

8 08 2018

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.

There are pictures of masses of dead fish on the surface of the stream. Some eyewitnesses reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream, dead from drinking contaminated water. It was the third such incident in the space of seven years in an area which has seen a sharp rise in mining activity, including operations run by BYD, the world’ biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. After the second incident, in 2013, officials closed the mine, but when it reopened in April 2016, the fish started dying again.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Workers drill though the crust of the world’s biggest salt flat with large rigs. They are aiming for the brine underneath swathes of magnesium and potassium in the hope of finding lithium-rich spots. Since the 2000s, most of the world’s lithium has been extracted this way, rather than using mineral ore sources such as spodumene, petalite and lepidolite

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.

But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.

Tahua, Bolivia. Salt miners load a truck with lithium-rich salt. The ground beneath Bolivia’s salt flats are thought to contain the world’s largest reserves of the metal. (The Bolivian Andes may contain 70 per cent of the planet’s lithium.) Many analysts argue that extracting lithium from brine is more environmentally friendly than from rock. However, as demand increases, companies might resort to removing lithium from the brine by heating it up, which is more energy intensive.

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

In South America, the biggest problem is water. The continent’s Lithium Triangle, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its otherworldly salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. That’s a real issue, because to extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.

Then they leave it to evaporate for months at a time, first creating a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and so on. After between 12 and 18 months, the mixture has been filtered enough that lithium carbonate – white gold – can be extracted.

It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.

There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

Rio Grande, Bolivia. An aerial view of the mineral formations along the Rio Grande delta, at the edges of the salt flats. The delta is mostly dry due to the effects of lithium mining, which is heavily reliant on water for its shallow artificial salt-pans, or solar evaporation ponds, in which saline solutions are left to dry out over a period of months, leaving the minerals behind. This drying out of the delta has led to a lack of stability in water levels, both on top of and below the surface. The river is home to a wide variety of freshwater fish, many originating in the Amazon basin

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries. It is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future, albeit through a very energy-intensive process.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Lino Fita, head of potassium extraction for mining company Comibol, looks out over his factory. The brine in this region is rich with potassium and magnesium, which makes it harder and more expensive to extract lithium. The brine is put in large ponds for many months to evaporate excess water and separate its salts. The remaining compound is then purified and processed. Very few lithium-processing experts work in the factory, as there is a nationwide shortage of staff. In the past, as few as three people have run the factory’s entire production line

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more in danger of creating a bottleneck in the move towards electric vehicles, and at a potentially huge environmental cost. Cobalt is found in huge quantities right across the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa, and hardly anywhere else. The price has quadrupled in the last two years.

Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

“One of the biggest challenges with cobalt is that it’s located in one country,” he adds. You can literally just dig up the land and find cobalt, so there’s a very strong motivation to dig it up and sell it, and a a result there’s a lot of motivation for unsafe and unethical behaviour.” The Congo is home to ‘artisanal mines’, where cobalt is extracted from the ground by hand, often using child labour, without protective equipment.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Brine is pumped out of a nearby lake into a series of evaporation ponds and left for 12 to 18 months. Various salts crystallise at different times as the solution becomes more concentrated. It is also treated with lime to remove traces of magnesium. When the minerals are ready for processing, they are taken to the nearby Planta Li lithium factory to produce the ions that will go into batteries. In 2017, the factory produced 20 tonnes of lithium carbonate

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

There’s also a political angle to be considered. When Bolivia started to exploit its lithium supplies from about 2010, it was argued that its huge mineral wealth could give the impoverished country the economic and political heft that the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. “They don’t want to pay a new OPEC,” says Lisbeth Dahllöf, of the IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, who co-authored a report last year on the environmental footprint of electric car battery production.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Yushin and his co-authors argued that new battery technology needs to be developed that uses more common, and environmentally friendly materials to make batteries. Researchers are working on new battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.

But, if new batteries are less energy dense or more expensive than lithium, they could end up having a negative effect on the environment overall. “Assessing and reducing the environmental cost is a more complex issue than it initially appears,” says Valimaki. “For example, a less durable, yet more sustainable device could entail a larger carbon footprint once your factor in transportation and the extra packaging required.”

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Graves such as this one are a common sight on the salt flats. The area has experienced very little rainfall over the last two years, which has affected the lives of local quinoa farmers. The lithium plants, which use vast amounts of water, have exacerbated shortages: in locations such as Pastos Chicas, near the Argentina/Chile border, additional water had to be shipped in from elsewhere to meet demand

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

At the University of Birmingham, research funded by the government’s £246m Faraday Challenge for battery research is trying to find new ways of recycling lithium-ion. Research in Australia found that only two per cent of the country’s 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion waste was recycled. Unwanted MP3 players and laptops can end up in landfill, where metals from the electrodes and ionic fluids from the electrolyte can leak into the environment.

A consortium of researchers, led by the Birmingham Energy Institute are using robotics technology developed for nuclear power plants to find ways to safely remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There have been a number of fires at recycling plants where lithium-ion batteries have been stored improperly, or disguised as lead-acid batteries and put through a crusher.

Xiangtan, China. Workers on the production line at Soundon New Energy, a huge lithium-ion battery company in eastern China. Most electric vehicles in use today are yet to reach the end of their cycle. The first all-electric car to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, the Tesla Roadster, made its market debut in 2008. This means the first generation of electric vehicle batteries have yet to reach the recycling stage

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Because lithium cathodes degrade over time, they can’t simply be placed into new batteries (although some efforts are underway to use old vehicle batteries for energy storage applications where energy density is less critical). “That’s the problem with recycling any form of battery that has electrochemistry – you don’t know what point it is at in its life,” says Stephen Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones is not cost effective. You get this sort of soup.”

Another barrier, says Dr Gavin Harper of the Faraday Institution’s lithium recycling project, is that manufacturers are understandably secretive about what actually goes into their batteries, which makes it harder to recycle them properly. At the moment recovered cells are usually shredded, creating a mixture of metal that can then be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques – burning. But, this method wastes a lot of the lithium.

Linyi County, China. A production line at Chinese electric-car company ZD, in Linyi County. The company’s small, urban electric two-seaters are made exclusively for the Italian market, where ZD has a joint-venture company Share’ngo, a car-sharing startup in Milan. China is the world’s largest electric car manufacturer, and over the past few years, the country has been looking to increase the number of countries it exports to

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

UK researchers are investigating alternative techniques, including biological recycling where bacteria are used to process the materials, and hydrometallurgical techniques which use solutions of chemicals in a similar way to how lithium is extracted from brine to begin with.

For Harper, it’s about creating a process to shepherd lithium-ion batteries safely through their whole lifecycle, and making sure that we’re not extracting more from the ground unnecessarily, or allowing chemicals from old batteries to do damage. “Considering that all of the materials in these batteries have already had an environmental and social impact in their extraction, we should be mindful of ensuring good custody,” he says.





The study on collapse they thought you should not read – yet

31 07 2018

This is an extraordinary piece of reporting that needs to go viral in my opinion…. written by Jem Bendell, a Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK). The Institute runs the world’s largest MBA in sustainability, with over 1000 students from over 100 countries. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, he has twenty years of experience in sustainable business and finance, as a researcher, educator, facilitator, advisor, & entrepreneur, having lived & worked in six countries. Clients for his strategy development include international corporations, UN agencies and international NGOs. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has recognised Professor Bendell as a Young Global Leader for his work on sustainable business alliances. With over 100 publications, including four books and five UN reports, he regularly appears in international media on topics of sustainable business and finance, as well as currency innovation. His TEDx talk is the most watched online speech on complementary currencies. In 2012 Professor Bendell co-authored the WEF report on the Sharing Economy. He is a special advisor to the United Nations department that convenes the Sustainable Stock Exchanges initiative. Previously he helped create innovative alliances, including the Marine Stewardship Council, to endorse sustainable fisheries and The Finance Innovation Lab, to promote sustainable finance. In 2007 he wrote a report for WWF on the responsibility of luxury brands, which appeared in over 50 newspapers and magazines worldwide, and inspired a number of entrepreneurs to create businesses in the luxury sector. Professor Bendell now specialises in leadership development, offering coaching and training to senior executives from around the world who have an interest in sustainable enterprise and finance.

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https://jembendell.wordpress.com/

Image result for professor bendellA research paper concluding that climate-induced collapse is now inevitable, was recently rejected by anonymous reviewers of an academic journal.

It has been released directly by the Professor who wrote it, to promote discussion of the necessary deep adaptation to climate chaos.

“I am releasing this paper immediately, directly, because I can’t wait any longer in exploring how to learn the implications of the social collapse we now face,” explained the author Dr Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership.  deep adaptation paper

In saying the paper was not suitable for publication, one of the comments from the reviewers questioned the emotional impact that the paper might have on readers. “I was left wondering about the social implications of presenting a scenario for the future as inevitable reality, and about the responsibility of research in communicating climate change scenarios and strategies for adaptation.” wrote one of the reviewers. “As the authors pointed out, denial is a common emotional response to situations that are perceived as threatening and inescapable, leading to a sense of helplessness, inadequacy, and hopelessness and ultimately disengagement from the issue…”

That perspective is discussed in the paper as one that enables denial. Professor Bendell explains in his response to the Editor, that the response may reflect “the self-defeating hierarchical attitude towards society that many of us have in both academia and sustainability, where we censure our own exploration of a topic due to what we consider should or should not be communicated. There is both scholarship and experience on the impact of communicating about disaster, and I discuss that in the paper.” Moreover, Bendell consulted with practicing psychotherapists on both the motivational and mental health implications of this analysis and was reassured that perceptions of a collective tragic future should not in itself be a cause for depression. Instead, it could trigger transformative reflection which could be supported – and would be inevitable one day, given the inevitability of mortality for all human life.

The paper offers a new framing for beginning to make sense of the disaster we face, called “deep adaptation.” It is one that Professor Bendell proposed in a keynote lecture two years ago and has influenced community dialogue on climate change in Britain in the past two years, including in Peterborough and Newcastle as well as being used by the Dark Mountain network.

The paper “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” is downloadable as a pdf from here.

The response of Professor Bendell to the Editor of the journal follows below.

A list of resources to support people as they process this information, including emotional support is here.

A LinkedIn group on Deep Adaptation exists to support professional discussion of the topic.

Letter to the Editor of SAMPJ, Professor Carol Adams, from Professor Jem Bendell, 26th July 2018.

Dear Professor Adams,

It is an odd situation to be in as a writer, but I feel compassion for anyone reading my Deep Adaptation article on the inevitability of near term social collapse due to climate chaos! I am especially grateful for anyone taking the time to analyse it in depth and provide feedback. So, I am grateful to you arranging that and the reviewers for providing their feedback. Some of the feedback, particularly recommendations for a better introduction, were helpful. However, I am unable to work with their main requests for revisions, as they are, I believe, either impossible or inappropriate, as I will seek to explain.

I agree with Professor Rob Gray that “The journal’s constant exploration of new and challenging perspectives on how accountability and sustainability might play out in organisations ensures a stimulating source of articles, experiences and ideas.” It is why I was pleased to guest edit an issue last year and bring critical perspectives on leadership to its readership. However, the topic of inevitable collapse from climate change is so challenging it is not surprising it didn’t find support from the anonymous peer reviewers.

I would have had difficulty finding motivation for undertaking a complete re-write given the conclusion of the paper – that the premise of the “sustainable business” field that the journal is part of is no longer valid. Indeed, the assumptions about progress and stability that lead us to stay in academia in the field of management studies are also now under question.

The first referee questioned “to which literature (s) does this article actually contribute” and stated that “the research question or gap that you intend to address must be drawn from the literature,” continuing that “to join the conversation, you need to be aware of the current conversation in the field, which can be identified by reviewing relevant and recent articles published in these journals.” That is the standard guidance I use with my students and it was both amusing and annoying to read that feedback after having dozens of peer reviewed articles published over the last 20 years. The problem with that guidance is when the article is challenging the basis of the field and where there are not any other articles exploring or accepting the same premise. For instance, there are no articles in either SAMPJ or Organisation and Environment that explore implications for business practice or policy of a near term inevitable collapse due to environmental catastrophe (including those that mention or address climate adaptation). That isn’t surprising, because the data hasn’t been so conclusive on that until the last couple of years.

It is surprising therefore that the first reviewer says “the paper does not contain any new or significant information. The paper reiterates what has already been told by many studies.” The reviewer implies therefore that the paper is about climate change being a big problem. But the article doesn’t say that. It says that we face an unsolvable predicament and great tragedy. When the reviewer says “There are not clear contributions that can be derived from the article” then I wonder whether that is wilful blindness, as the article is saying that the basis of the field is now untenable.

At a couple of points, I attempted to cut through the unemotional way that research is presented. Or instance, when I directly address the reader about the implications of the analysis for their own likely hunger and safety, it is to elicit an emotional response. I say in the text why I express myself in that way and that although it is not typical in some journals the situation we face suggests to me that we do try to communicate emotively. The reviewer comments “the language used is not appropriate for a scholarly article.”

The second reviewer summarises the paper as “the introduction of deep adaptation as an effective response to climate change” which suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding despite it being made clear throughout the paper. There is no “effective” response. The reviewer also writes “I am not sure that the extensive presentation of climate data supports the core argument of the paper in a meaningful way.” Yet the summary of science is the core of the paper as everything then flows from the conclusion of that analysis. Note that the science I summarise is about what is happening right now, rather than models or theories of complex adaptive systems which the reviewer would have preferred.

One piece of feedback from the 2nd reviewer is worth quoting verbatim:

“The authors stress repeatedly that “climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable” as if that was a factual statement… I was left wondering about the social implications of presenting a scenario for the future as inevitable reality, and about the responsibility of research in communicating climate change scenarios and strategies for adaptation. As the authors pointed out, denial is a common emotional response to situations that are perceived as threatening and inescapable, leading to a sense of helplessness, inadequacy, and hopelessness and ultimately disengagement from the issue…”

This perspective is one I discuss in some detail in the paper, as one that enables denial. It reflects the self-defeating hierarchical attitude towards society that many of us have in both academia and sustainability, where we censure our own exploration of a topic due to what we consider should or should not be communicated. There is both scholarship and experience on the impact of communicating about disaster, and I discuss that in the paper.

The trauma from assessing our situation with climate change has led me to become aware of and drop some of my past preoccupations and tactics. I realise it is time to fully accept my truth as I see it, even if partially formed and not polished yet for wider articulation. I know that academia involves as much a process of wrapping up truth as unfolding it. We wrap truth in disciplines, discrete methodologies, away from the body, away from intuition, away from the collective, away from the everyday. So as that is my truth then I wish to act on it as well, and not keep this analysis hidden in the pursuit of academic respect. Instead, I want to share it now as a tool for shifting the quality of conversations that I need to have. Therefore, I have decided to publish it simply as an IFLAS Occasional Paper.

The process has helped me realise that I need to relinquish activities that I no longer have passion for, in what I am experiencing as a dramatically new context. Therefore, I must step back from the Editorial team of the journal. Thank you for having involved me and congratulations on it now being in the top ten journals in business, management and accounting.

Please pass on my thanks to the reviewers. On my website http://www.jembendell.com I will be listing some links to articles, podcasts, videos and social networks that are helping people explore and come to terms with a realisation of near term collapse (and even extinction), which they may be interested in. 

Yours sincerely,

Jem Bendell





Sustainability lost…….

30 07 2018

Two weeks ago, I left my cocoon in Geevo and flew to Queensland for the first time in over two years…  and no, I will not be driving back in another ute!  Glenda was supposed to join me in Tasmania around now, but, as they say, life puts paid to the best laid plans, and her mother now aged 94 had a fall, breaking her wrist and fracturing her pelvis, never a good idea at such a ripe old age.

My flight was delayed for over an hour, and I didn’t arrive in Brisbane until past 11PM, then Virgin put my luggage on the wrong carousel, while my son was waiting outside to take me to his new place he shares with his partner and one other in a new apartment near the river. I’d heard all about this apartment, especially the bit about going from student poverty to working man riches…. but the view is so stunning, I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all a dream! I never thought I’d think of our son as “how the other half lives”!

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He might as well enjoy it while he can I guess, they have to live somewhere, and it’s sited unbelievably close to public transport.

I brought the cold weather with me it appeared, my first morning there was the coldest Queensland had experienced in a very long time; mornings were actually several degrees less cold in Geeveston, though of course it never warmed up to 20 degrees at the Fanny Farm.

The hustle and bustle of “the big smoke” always shocks me after the quiet life in Southern Tasmania, even though I lived in Brisbane for decades, and I of all people should not be shocked after writing reams about the unsustainability of our civilisation…. but it nevertheless brings it all home to me.

What was also brought home to me is the unsustainability of keeping old people alive, using world best practice technology of course….. This is, like population, a very ticklish issue that nobody talks about. I’m almost thirty years younger than my mother in law, and I have already come to grips with the fact my days are numbered, even if they are not quite as numbered as hers, but the amount of resources, money, and energy spent on keeping her alive for what may not be more than three months is staggering…….

How anyone measures what is or is not appropriate to keep a very old person comfortable is anyone’s guess. Can anyone even pass judgement? We do what we do, as my old friend Bruce once said to me, because we can. It’s how I flew up at short notice. Speaking of noticing, airfares have gone up 50% since last time I did this….

The flurry of activity since Betty’s return from hospital is amazing. A new ramp that probably cost $3000 has been built so her wheelchair can accommodate the single step difference between the house floor and the ground outside. We’ve had physios, occupational therapists and a social worker call to assess the situation. Tomorrow, ‘a builder’ is coming to install a hook for Betty’s shower, presumably so she can be showered sitting down….. and I have no idea who’s paying for all this.

A couple of days ago, she suddenly became quite ill, an ambulance was called, and I had to follow it all the way to Nambour Hospital (and of course return), a 100km trip. Luckily, she was transferred to Noosa which is just ten minutes away, but all the same, the amount of driving I am currently undertaking as the nominated driver is amazing. It’s a good thing Glenda’s little car runs on the smell of fumes because this amount of driving is easily four times as much as I am used to!

Trained as I am by my INTJ personality to only see the amount of energy and resources needed to achieve these results, I feel like I have actually flown to a different planet. Then there’s the traffic…..  and it’s not just me, friends I have since spoken to agree that congestion around Noosa is definitely on the up, and every second car is a SUV…. This place used to be a sleepy village, but no more.

I also feel like I have lost control of what I eat. I haven’t managed to find a decent loaf of bread yet. Everything I buy is cheaper than what I’m used to, but it’s all wrapped in plastic…. and I hate it. I’ve even put on two kilos since largely going off my high protein diet to fit in with everybody else and eating cake and biscuits with visitors celebrating the old lady’s 94th birthday……

But I had to do this, my poor wife is carrying quite a burden, and she needed the moral support, and by doing things around the place to keep the show running, she has more time to spend nursing her mother……

Since leaving Geevo, the weather has been doing its Tasmanian winter thing, lots of rain, mud everywhere, unlike here which is just like a Tasmanian summer; it’s unlikely I would have been able to do much around the farm anyway. Plus it stops me working on the house before my concrete reaches maximum strength… and building roofs in the rain is problematic at best.monster house

While here, I watched some stupid TV show about “Extreme Homes” that featured Far North Queensland houses, all so far over the top I was stunned….  but one in particular stood out.  Here I am, feeling guilty about the 80 m³ of concrete I have now poured into Mon Abri, and this place comes up boasting, wait for it, 15,000 m³ of concrete……. I’m actually really really hoping it’s misreporting, and that maybe it was tonnes (each m³ of concrete weighs 2.5 tonnes). This monster house has apparently no timber whatever in it and is capable of withstanding category 5 cyclones. With 18kW (!) of PVs on its roof, the program classified it as zero energy house……. never mind the fact that this much concrete would emit nearly 20,000 tonnes of CO2 or 2000 years worth of emissions from your average Australian.

When stupidity like this is spread on TV to people who will certainly believe it, what chance have we got? This will make more and more people, probably, aspire to building some similar monument to unsustainability…..

world on fire

Meanwhile, the Earth is burning, or where it’s not burning, it’s flooding, like Japan which just finished dealing with floods and landslides and is now facing a severe typhoon….

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This diagram of how the climate statistics are changing just came up in my news feed. It pays to understand standard distribution curves I guess, but it’s a good explanation of what we’ll be facing in the future.

I may stay in Queensland for another two weeks, but any longer will make me go mad. At least in Tassie I can sort of pretend I won’t be affected, and stick my head back in the sand. Everybody else is doing it….

 

 





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

7 05 2018

By my old mate monbiotTed Trainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Turning marginal land into fertile soil

20 01 2018

Since having my soil epiphany brought on from doing the NRM Small Farm Planning Course, I have been arguing with people who keep banging on about how we have to abandon meat eating to ‘save the planet’….. I disagree.  It’s just another silver bullet, as far as I am concerned, and they simply don’t exist…….  sure, most people might eat too much meat, but for anyone to tell me that marginal land can be turned into crop land, and easily at that, just riles me up……  they obviously have no idea what they’re talking about, nor do they have any experience at doing this.

As I have said before, it took me ten years at my last project to convert that marginal land into something capable of feeding two to three people. Making compost by hand, even when using your own humanure, takes years. And while you are waiting for the soil to improve, you have to buy food from some unsustainable source or other….

From where I sit, we probably have a couple of years of relatively ‘normal’ times left.

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Matt smoothing out the terrain

2020 is when things will get suddenly worse, never to improve again. Even if I’m out by as much as five years, it makes no difference at all. The scale of the problem we face is totally out of control.

My current wwoofer, a vegetarian Frenchman who eats non stop (I liken it to livestock eating all day long because grass is useless food…) believes likewise. Even though I am teaching him the hard way how much work is involved!

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Unloading another tonne and a quarter of compost

When Glenda was still here, I took her to Hobart to pick up a load of compost (about 1250kg, they are very generous cubic metres down there!) and on the way back, I suspect, the thermostat started playing up making ute I overheat on the big hills between here and there….  I could not even get my market garden close to finished without fossil fuels. Certainly in the time constraint I am feeling every day, as I get older, and 2020 gets closer as the clock ticks away….

I even had to get my neighbour to come back with the excavator to level off the soil we moved at the last Permablitz last year. There’s no way my back would have handled doing it by hand with a shovel. As I keep saying……  the power of fossil fuels.

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Adding sheep manure

The soil on the second half of the garden, without the advantage of all that black stuff full of decomposed cow manure we scraped off the drive 18 months ago, was even more marginal than what I started with on the first half. I’ll have to get another four loads – five tonnes – to finish the middle section that still needs doing. Plus I will have to drive god knows how far to get another tonne of Calcium rock to amend the pH of the soil to something veggies will grow in…….

To be sure, the feeding of grain to livestock is pure madness and only done to maximise

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Tilling it all in with chickens and the rotary hoe

profits. The meat derived therefrom is not even healthy, as it’s full of Omega 6 fatty acids that cause chronic inflamation.  Is it any wonder so many people are sick with diets like that which all the shops supply to unsuspecting consumers……

George Monbiot’s latest effort is what got me started on this – even though I feel the need to chronicle the improvements happening on the Fanny farm. Monbiot writes

When we feed animals on crops, we greatly reduce the number of people that an area of cropland can support. This is because, on average, around two-thirds of the food value of the crops fed to livestock is lost in conversion from plant to animal.

Of course he’s right….  we should not be feeding crops to animals that are perfectly happy to eat grass! The problem is industrial agriculture, not meat eating. And he’s wrong calling his article “Eating the Earth”, because what we are in fact doing, is eating fossil fuels, and that’s not even close to the same predicament.

And finally, here’s a short video of what two of my neighbours have achieved after attending the above mentioned Small Farm Planing course.