The Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/%5D

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.





Eight essential steps to transform our economy

30 07 2019

We’re running out of time. There’s spreading awareness of the institutional failure that is driving humans toward self-extinction, and related calls for a deep transformation of our economy. This is happening in every quarter, from college campuses to the Vatican to the U.S. presidential debates. Everywhere we hear calls for an economy that serves the well-being of people and Earth.

David Korten wrote this opinion piece for YES! Magazine as part of his series of biweekly columns on “A Living Earth Economy.” David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine and president of the Living Economies Forum. Follow him on Twitter @dkorten and on Facebook. As do all YES! columnists he writes here in his personal voice.

Pope Francis has spoken of the social and environmental failures of an economy devoted to the idolatry of moneyWorkers and their unions are joining in with the wrenching observation that, “There are no good jobs on a dead planet.”

There is a related rising awareness of the need for a serious update to how we study and think about economics and prepare our future leaders. With few exceptions, economics, as it’s taught in universities, relies on the same badly flawed theories and ethical principles that bear major responsibility for the unfolding crisis. It values life only for its market price; uses GDP growth as the defining measure of economic performance; assures students that maximizing personal financial return benefits society; recommends policies that prioritize corporate profits over human and planetary well-being; and ignores the natural limits of a finite planet.

Here are eight guiding principles for a reformed economic theory to guide our path to a new economy for the 21st century.

Principle 1: Evaluate the economy’s performance by indicators of the well-being of people and planet; not the growth of GDP.

Growing GDP serves well if our goal is only to increase the financial assets of the rich so they can claim an ever-growing share of the remaining real wealth of a dying Earth. If our priority is to meet the essential needs for food, water, shelter, and other basics for all the world’s people, then we must measure for those results so that we can get the outcomes we really want.

Principle 2: Seek only that which benefits life; not that which harms life.

We should seek to eliminate war, financial speculation, consumption of harmful or unnecessary products, and industrial agriculture that pollutes the soil, air, and water and produces food of questionable nutritional value. We can eliminate most driving by designing infrastructure to support people living close to where they work, shop, and play. We can eliminate most global movement of people and goods by keeping production and consumption local, using recycled materials, and substituting electronic communication for global business travel.

The labor and resources thus freed up can be redirected to raising and educating our children, caring for the elderly, restoring the health and vitality of Earth’s regenerative systems, rebuilding the social infrastructure of community, and rebuilding physical infrastructure in ways that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and simultaneously strengthen our beneficial connections with one another and nature.

Principle 3: Honor and reward all who provide beneficial labor, including nature; not those who exploit it to get rich.

Life depends on the labor of nature and people. Too often, the current economic system rewards those claiming ownership rather than those performing useful labor. Instead we should follow the model set by traditional societies, in which we earn our share in the surplus of the commons through our labor in service of it. Much of the current economy’s dysfunction can be overcome by eliminating the division of society between owners and workers—a problem corrected throughworker ownership combined with an ethical frame that recognizes our well-being depends on much more than just financial return.

Principle 4: Create society’s money supply through a transparent public process to advance the common good; not through proprietary processes that grow the profits of for-profit banks.

In a modern society, those who control the creation and allocation of money control the lives of everyone. It defies reason to assume that society benefits from giving this power to global for-profit banks dedicated to maximizing profits for the already richest among us. The system of money creation and allocation must be public, transparent, and accountable to the people. It must reside in democratic governments and be administered by public banks supplemented by individual community-owned, cooperative banks whose lending supports local home and business ownership.

Principle 5: Educate for a lifetime of learning in service to life-seeking communities; not for service to for-profit corporations.

Most university economics courses currently promote societal psychopathology as a human ideal and give legitimacy to institutions that serve only to make money, without regard for the common good. We must prepare youth for future leadership that builds on a moral foundation that recognizes our responsibility for one another and Earth, favors cooperation over competition, and prioritizes life over money and community well-being over corporate profits.

No one knows how to get where we now must go, and education cannot provide us with answers we do not have. Education can, however, prepare us to be lifelong learners, skilled in asking the right questions and in working together to find and share answers.

Principle 6: Create and apply technology only to serve life; not to displace or destroy it.

Technology must be life’s servant. Deciding how to apply technology based solely on what will produce the greatest short-term financial return is madness. Humans have the right and the means to assure that technology is used only to serve humanity as a whole, such as by eliminating destructive environmental impacts, restoring the regenerative capacity of Earth systems, facilitating global understanding, and advancing social justice, cooperation, and learning.

Principle 7: Organize as cooperative, inclusive, self-reliant, regenerative communities that share knowledge and technology to serve life; not as incorporated pools of money competing to grow by exploiting life.

We can meet our needs through constant cyclical flows of resources. That was our standard way of living until less than 100 years ago. We can do it again. Urban and rural dwellers can rediscover their interdependence as cities source food, timber, fiber, pulp, and recreational opportunities from nearby rural areas and rural areas regenerate their soils with biowastes from nearby urban areas and enjoy the benefits of urban culture. Suburbs can convert to urban or rural habitats.

Principle 8: Seek a mutually beneficial population balance between humans and Earth’s other species; not the dominance of humans over all others.

The health of any natural ecosystem depends on its ability to balance the populations of its varied species. This means maintaining free access to reproductive health care options and removing barriers to women in education and the workplace. Only starting from this point can we both maintain a free society and manage our population size.

The basic frame of 21st century economics contrasts sharply with that of the 20th century economics it must now displace. The new frame is far more complex and nuanced. Yet most people can readily grasp it because it is logical, consistent with foundational ethical principles, and reflects the reality that most people are kind, honest, find pleasure in helping others, and recognize that we all depend on the health of our Mother Earth.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.





Interesting times ahead…..

29 11 2018

Very few people join all the dots, and as usual, Gail Tverberg does her best to do so here again…. There are so many signals on the web now pointing to a major reset it’s not funny.

Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

Many people, including most Peak Oilers, expect that oil prices will rise endlessly. They expect rising oil prices because, over time, companies find it necessary to access more difficult-to-extract oil. Accessing such oil tends to be increasingly expensive because it tends to require the use of greater quantities of resources and more advanced technology. This issue is sometimes referred to as diminishing returns. Figure 1 shows how oil prices might be expected to rise, if the higher costs encountered as a result of diminishing returns can be fully recovered from the ultimate customers of this oil.

In my view, this analysis suggesting ever-rising prices is incomplete. After a point, prices can’t really keep up with rising costs because the wages of many workers lag behind the growing cost of extraction.

The economy is a networked system facing many pressures, including a growing level of debt and the rising use of technology. When these pressures are considered, my analysis indicates that oil prices may fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers. Oil companies may close down if prices remain too low. Because of this, low oil prices should be of just as much concern as high oil prices.

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the possibility of Peak Oil, including high oil prices. If the issue we are facing is really prices that are too low for producers, then there seems to be the possibility of a different limits issue, called Collapse. Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits. Collapse seems to be characterized by growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Eventually, population associated with collapsed economies may fall very low or completely disappear. As Collapse approaches, commodity prices seem to be low, rather than high.

The low oil prices we have been seeing recently fit in disturbingly well with the hypothesis that the world economy is reaching affordability limits for a wide range of commodities, nearly all of which are subject to diminishing returns. This is a different problem than most researchers have been concerned about. In this article, I explain this situation further.

One thing that is a little confusing is the relative roles of diminishing returns and efficiency. I see diminishing returns as being more or less the opposite of growing efficiency.

The fact that inflation-adjusted oil prices are now much higher than they were in the 1940s to 1960s is a sign that for oil, the contest between diminishing returns and efficiency has basically been won by diminishing returns for over 40 years.

Oil Prices Cannot Rise Endlessly

It makes no sense for oil prices to rise endlessly, for what is inherently growing inefficiency. Endlessly rising prices for oil would be similar to paying a human laborer more and more for building widgets, during a time that that laborer becomes increasingly disabled. If the number of widgets that the worker can produce in one hour decreases by 50%, logically that worker’s wages should fall by 50%, not rise to make up for his/her growing inefficiency.

The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. The way that the growing inefficiency is hidden is by adding Debt and Complexity (Figure 4).

Growing complexity is very closely related to “Technology will save us.” Growing complexity involves the use of more advanced machinery and ever-more specialized workers. Businesses become larger and more hierarchical. International trade becomes increasingly important. Financial products such as derivatives become common.

Growing debt goes hand in hand with growing complexity. Businesses need growing debt to support capital expenditures for their new technology. Consumers find growing debt helpful in affording major purchases, such as homes and vehicles. Governments make debt-like promises of pensions to citizen. Thanks to these promised pensions, families can have fewer children and devote fewer years to child care at home.

The problem with adding complexity and adding debt is that they, too, reach diminishing returns. The easiest (and cheapest) fixes tend to be added first. For example, irrigating a field in a dry area may be an easy and cheap way to fix a problem with inadequate food supply. There may be other approaches that could be used as well, such as breeding crops that do well with little rainfall, but the payback on this investment may be smaller and later.

A major drawback of adding complexity is that doing so tends to increase wage and wealth disparity. When an employer pays high wages to supervisory workers and highly skilled workers, this leaves fewer funds with which to pay less skilled workers. Furthermore, the huge amount of capital goods required in this more complex economy tends to disproportionately benefit workers who are already highly paid. This happens because the owners of shares of stock in companies tend to overlap with employees who are already highly paid. Low paid employees can’t afford such purchases.

The net result of greater wage and wealth disparity is that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep prices high enough for oil producers. The many workers with low wages find it difficult to afford homes and families of their own. Their low purchasing power tends to hold down prices of commodities of all kinds. The higher wages of the highly trained and supervisory staff don’t make up for the shortfall in commodity demand because these highly paid workers spend their wages differently. They tend to spend proportionately more on services rather than on commodity-intensive goods. For example, they may send their children to elite colleges and pay for tax avoidance services. These services use relatively little in the way of commodities.

Once the Economy Slows Too Much, the Whole System Tends to Implode

A growing economy can hide a multitude of problems. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the growth that supports his growing wages comes from inflationary growth or “real” growth, since debt repayment is typically not adjusted for inflation.

Both real growth and inflationary growth help workers have enough funds left at the end of the period for other goods they need, despite repaying debt with interest.

Once the economy stops growing, the whole system tends to implode. Wage disparity becomes a huge problem. It becomes impossible to repay debt with interest. Young people find that their standards of living are lower than those of their parents. Investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies. Businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage. Pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people.

The Real Situation with Oil Prices

The real situation with oil prices–and in fact with respect to commodity prices in general–is approximately like that shown in Figure 6.

What tends to happen is that oil prices tend to fall farther and farther behind what producers require, if they are truly to make adequate reinvestment in new fields and also pay high taxes to their governments. This should not be too surprising because oil prices represent a compromise between what citizens can afford and what producers require.

In the years before diminishing returns became too much of a problem (back before 2005, for example), it was possible to find prices that were within an acceptable range for both sellers and buyers. As diminishing returns has become an increasing problem, the price that consumers can afford has tended to fall increasingly far below the price that producers require. This is why oil prices at first fall a little too low for producers, and eventually seem likely to fall far below what producers need to stay in business. The problem is that no price works for both producers and consumers.

Affordability Issues Affect All Commodity Prices, Not Just Oil

We are dealing with a situation in which a growing share of workers (and would be workers) find it difficult to afford a home and family, because of wage disparity issues. Some workers have been displaced from their jobs by robots or by globalization. Some spend many years in advanced schooling and are left with large amounts of debt, making it difficult to afford a home, a family, and other things that many in the older generation were able to take for granted. Many of today’s workers are in low-wage countries; they cannot afford very much of the output of the world economy.

At the same time, diminishing returns affect nearly all commodities, just as they affect oil. Mineral ores are affected by diminishing returns because the highest grade ores tend to be extracted first. Food production is also subject to diminishing returns because population keeps rising, but arable land does not. As a result, each year it is necessary to grow more food per arable acre, leading to a need for more complexity (more irrigation or more fertilizer, or better hybrid seed), often at higher cost.

When the problem of growing wage disparity is matched up with the problem of diminishing returns for the many different types of commodity production, the same problem occurs that occurs with oil. Prices of a wide range of commodities tend to fall below the cost of production–first by a little and, if the debt bubble pops, by a whole lot.

We hear people say, “Of course oil prices will rise. Oil is a necessity.” The thing that they don’t realize is that the problem affects a much bigger “package” of commodities than just oil prices. In fact, finished goods and services of all kinds made with these commodities are also affected, including new homes and vehicles. Thus, the pattern we see of low oil prices, relative to what is required for true profitability, is really an extremely widespread problem.

Interest Rate Policies Affect Affordability

Commodity prices bear surprisingly little relationship to the cost of production. Instead, they seem to depend more on interest rate policies of government agencies. If interest rates rise or fall, this tends to have a big impact on household budgets, because monthly auto payments and home payments depend on interest rates. For example, US interest rates spiked in 1981.

This spike in interest rates led to a major cutback in energy consumption and in GDP growth.

Oil prices began to slide, with the higher interest rates.

Figure 11 indicates that the popping of a debt bubble (mostly relating to US sub-prime housing) sent oil prices down in 2008. Once interest rates were lowered through the US adoption of Quantitative Easing (QE), oil prices rose again. They fell again, when the US discontinued QE.

While these charts show oil prices, there is a tendency for a broad range of commodity prices to move more or less together. This happens because the commodity price issue seems to be driven to a significant extent by the affordability of finished goods and services, including homes, automobiles, and restaurant food.

If the collapse of a major debt bubble occurs again, the world seems likely to experience impacts somewhat similar to those in 2008, depending, of course, on the location(s) and size(s) of the debt bubble(s). A wide variety of commodity prices are likely to fall very low; asset prices may also be affected. This time, however, government organizations seem to have fewer tools for pulling the world economy out of a prolonged slump because interest rates are already very low. Thus, the issues are likely to look more like a widespread economic problem (including far too low commodity prices) than an oil problem.

Lack of Growth in Energy Consumption Per Capita Seems to Lead to Collapse Scenarios

When we look back, the good times from an economic viewpoint occurred when energy consumption per capita (top red parts on Figure 12) were rising rapidly.

The bad times for the economy were the valleys in Figure 12. Separate labels for these valleys have been added in Figure 13. If energy consumption is not growing relative to the rising world population, collapse in at least a part of the world economy tends to occur.

The laws of physics tell us that energy consumption is required for movement and for heat. These are the basic processes involved in GDP generation, and in electricity transmission. Thus, it is logical to believe that energy consumption is required for GDP growth. We can see in Figure 9 that growth in energy consumption tends to come before GDP growth, strongly suggesting that it is the cause of GDP growth. This further confirms what the laws of physics tell us.

The fact that partial collapses tend to occur when the growth in energy consumption per capita falls too low is further confirmation of the way the economics system really operates. The Panic of 1857occurred when the asset price bubble enabled by the California Gold Rush collapsed. Home, farm, and commodity prices fell very low. The problems ultimately were finally resolved in the US Civil War (1861 to 1865).

Similarly, the Depression of the 1930s was preceded by a stock market crash in 1929. During the Great Depression, wage disparity was a major problem. Commodity prices fell very low, as did farm prices. The issues of the Depression were not fully resolved until World War II.

At this point, world growth in energy consumption per capita seems to be falling again. We are also starting to see evidence of some of the same problems associated with earlier collapses: growing wage disparity, growing debt bubbles, and increasingly war-like behavior by world leaders. We should be aware that today’s low oil prices, together with these other symptoms of economic distress, may be pointing to yet another collapse scenario on the horizon.

Oil’s Role in the Economy Is Different From What Many Have Assumed

We have heard for a long time that the world is running out of oil, and we need to find substitutes. The story should have been, “Affordability of all commodities is falling too low, because of diminishing returns and growing wage disparity. We need to find rapidly rising quantities of very, very cheap energy products. We need a cheap substitute for oil. We cannot afford to substitute high-cost energy products for low-cost energy products. High-cost energy products affect the economy too adversely.”

In fact, the whole “Peak Oil” story is not really right. Neither is the “Renewables will save us” story, especially if the renewables require subsidies and are not very scalable. Energy prices can never be expected to rise high enough for renewables to become economic.

The issues we should truly be concerned about are Collapse, as encountered by many economies previously. If Collapse occurs, it seems likely to cut off production of many commodities, including oil and much of the food supply, indirectly because of low prices.

Low oil prices and low prices of other commodities are signs that we truly should be concerned about. Too many people have missed this point. They have been taken in by the false models of economists and by the confusion of Peak Oilers. At this point, we should start considering the very real possibility that our next world problem is likely to be Collapse of at least a portion of the world economy.

Interesting times seem to be ahead.





The Third Industrial Revolution

21 08 2018

I belong to a degrowth group on facebook. The owner of this group posted a link to a youtube video titled “The Third Industrial Revolution: A Radical New Sharing Economy”. I downloaded it sight unseen so that I could watch it on my TV while it’s Jeremy_Rifkinpissing down with rain outside and I frankly have nothing else better to do……. luckily for those up North in terrible drought, we’ll be sending some your way next weekend. I’ve never liked Jeremy Rifkin’s crazy ideas, and had I realised he was the star attraction of this film, I probably would not have downloaded it in the first place, but having done so, and under the abovemnetioned weather conditions, I went ahead anyway……

The first half hour was for me the best part, because he clearly explains – with some crucial left out items – why we’re in deep shit. What really leaves me flumoxed is how someone who clearly understands thermodynamics and entropy cannot come to grips with their repercussions.

A ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ Would Seal Our Fate — Why Jeremy Rifkin is Dead Wrong

For me, it was extraordinarily hard to find where to start my criticism — not because of the lack of strength of his arguments, but simply because it is just plain hard to even know where to start! Explaining in the face of such universal ignorance of simple ecological limits and boundaries, and for such a long (1 3/4 hours) presentation, I fear I may ramble a bit during this difficult essay.

While I hope this post won’t offend anyone, I just think that some of us have to speak up to show him and his admirers that our generation blindly following his progressivist ideas  – at least not in its entirety – is almost as dumb as doing nothing at all…..

His ideas are not ‘radically new’. they are just a new version of the same old ‘more is better’ paradigm — more technology, more energy, more people, more jobs, more work, more impact, more control. He is after all a business man, and his main problem is that he simply doesn’t get the growth problem…. Maybe we have to try something that really is completely new:

Small is better. Simple is better. Local is better. Independent is better.

Less technology, less pollution, fewer cars (to be fair, he does say we’ll reduce the number of cars by 85%), fewer airplanes,  highways, fewer shopping malls, less noise, less trade, less work, less destruction, less disruption, less control, less worries… This doesn’t sound so bad after all, does it? But it is the complete opposite of what Rifkin has in mind for this world……

He makes it quite clear that in his ‘radically’ new economy, everything is smart. Smart phones, smart vehicles, smart roads and smart houses…..  he talks of retrofitting houses, which I know from experience does not work. Once you’ve built a lemon, a lemon it remains. That’s why I’m going through all the hassles of building my own…

There are serious concerns, expressed many times in this very blog, about the environmental impact that such changes would bring about. As far as we know it is highly unlikely that we have sufficient reserves of resources for producing so called “green/clean” technologies, on a global scale, good enough to replace the current, all-encompassing, fossil fuel-based system……

From what I saw in the video, there will be markets, corporations, stocks, products, consumers, factories, roads, cars, drones, workers, bosses, currency, more debts, taxes, laws — which all seems an awful lot like the system we currently have…. A truly ‘radical’ new economy would, surely, not see the exact same elements as its predecessor?

Rifkin forgets that there already was a “sharing economy”, usually referred to as ‘gift economy’ by anthropologists, and that this original sharing economy lasted for over 95% of our species’ two-hundred-thousand-years existence here on Earth. Ironically, this ancient economic system happens to be the closest to a sustainable form of economy that we have ever known. No resource was overexploited, no ecosystem disrupted and absolutely no pollution resulted….  and most of that was the result of infinitesimally smaller population numbers.

While it’s obvious Rifkin has some understanding of science, he remains an economist after all! Here are some of his failings as I see them…..

Chemistry

Chemistry matters because when we look at the periodic table of elements, we see all there is in our world. In the whole Universe actually… There are only 118 elements available to us. And we will never find replacements for those elements, they simply do not exist…… Of increasing interest are 17 different Rare Earth Elements (REE’s), elements 57–71 (the lanthanides) and scandium and yttrium, most of which are used to create solar panels, batteries, magnets, displays and touchscreens, hardware and other advanced technological appliances.

Figure 1. Slide by Alicia Valero showing that almost the entire periodic table of elements is used for computers.

To obtain them we have to rape and pillage the biosphere. This puts us into a predicament that Rifkin fails to address.  Those elements are used because of their unique and desirable qualities, such as the ability to absorb certain wavelengths (particularly efficient in the case of solar panels), produce strong magnets for the massive generators used in wind turbines, and colorful lights for the displays of our mobile phones, computers and TV’s.

Of the 17 REE’s, the only one that is not found in smartphones is the radioactive promethium! I guess the line is drawn at putting radioactive stuff to one’s ear….. Modern smartphones contain almost three quarters of all the elements in the periodic table, and all of them are essential for those devices to function. It is chemically not possible to create something like a smartphone without certain elements; and it is impossible to obtain those elements without destroying vast swaths of the already battered environment.

Geology

From a geological point of view Rifkin’s plans are highly unlikely. We simply don’t have enough resources left to do any of his proposed ‘revolutions’ in the realms of energy and communication.

Biology

Overshoot is what happens when a species follows simple biological laws: if you increase the food availability of any species, its population will increase, period. This is what we humans have done for the past 10,000 years, since the widespread adoption of agriculture. As a result of the food surplus that industrial agriculture creates (as opposed to the “just-enough” food quantity obtained by foragers), human population exploded. The biggest increase in human population was directly caused by the “Green” Revolution, when fossil fuelled chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were first used on a continental scale. It was like agriculture on steroids…..

I didn’t realise Rifkin was a vegetarian/vegan activist until watching this. He yet again displays his ignorance of the difference between industrial animal husbandry and regenerative agriculture, which, in my not so humble opinion, will be the third revolution…. Maybe someone needs to invent smart cows! Just kidding…….

The fact that Rifkin fails to adequately address overpopulation is reason enough for me to question his competence.

Ecology

Ecosystems function best and are at their most stable, resilient and effective when all components stay within their naturally imposed limits. From an ecological view, anthropocentrism has no foundation whatsoever. Instead of controlling our environment, we would have to let go of all control and hand the reins back to Mother Nature…… Ecosystems are networks (Rifkin, fond of technological and digital metaphors, would probably call them an ‘Internet’!) that seem resilient even when they suffer severe damage. But once a ‘tipping point’ is reached, like human overshoot, collapse is rapid and ruthless. The first of those tipping points might be reached as soon as the 2020’s mark, with increasingly extreme weather events threatening breadbasket regions around the world. Rifkin’s assertion that we have forty years to fix the mess just blew me away…..

Like it or not, we are inevitably a part of the ecosystem surrounding us, whether we act like it or not. Everything we do – and nothing we do is sustainable – has a direct impact on our immediate environment. Thanks to globalization, ecosystems are now impacted on a global scale.

The extraction and processing of REM’s needed to produce all our technology is directlysamarco connected to the destruction of ecosystems all around the globe. Several major ecological catastrophes were directly caused by the mining and extraction of REE’s, such as the Samarco tailings dam collapse (2015) in Brazil or the silicon tetrachloride spill by a solar energy company in Henan province, China (2008). As implied by  recent, peer reviewed study (paywall) in the prestigious journal Nature, there is no reason to believe that this risk is going to decrease if global demand rises as predicted by all involved scholars and institutions.

Green Clean Smart technology

It should be obvious by now, especially to all followers of this blog, that neither solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric facilities, and electric cars, nor smartphones, computers and other high-tech gadgets come even close to being what might be termed “green” or “clean”. But what Rifkin proposes is nothing short of megalomania.

Smartphones (smart vehicles, smart roads, smart houses, smart toilets and any other ‘smart’ gadget), computers, televisions, electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, lasers, camera lenses, missiles and numerous other technologies all contain a broad spectrum of rare earth elements (REE’s), without which the production of those gadgets would be utterly impossible (strictly chemically speaking). The production and use of ‘screens’ technology alone, according to Jancovici, consumes one third of all the electricity produced worldwide….. The growth of renewables cannot even keep up with the growth of the internet.

Rifkin makes much ado about a meeting he had with Angela Merkel – herself a scientist – and the amount of renewable energy deployed in Germany, claiming Germany gets 30% of its electricity from these technologies. This isn’t even true…. it might be correct on paper, and on perfect days even more might be generated, but his hopium filled rhetoric would have you believe his dream is already happening…..  it isn’t. The recent demolition of a historic church to clear the way for the expansion of an open-cast brown coal mine has outraged locals in western Germany and environmentalists, as politicians moot giving up their own clean energy targets…….

Many of the minerals needed to produce smartphones and electric vehicles are considered ‘conflict minerals’ and are mined under slave-like conditions in Congo and other ‘undeveloped’ countries. The most common conflict minerals, cassiterite (a byproduct of tin mining), wolframite (extracted from tungsten), coltan (extracted from tantalum), cobalt, and gold ore, are all mined in eastern Congo. There is ample evidence to assume that Western corporations have a high economic interest in the region remaining unstable, since they get much better prices for the minerals desperately needed for the production of mobile phones, laptops, and other digital technology

It is impossible to produce even a single smartphone without causing enormous damage to the biosphere in the process. As the graphic above shows (click on it for a larger view), the materials and compounds come from all corners of the world and have to be transported conveniently and cheaply for the industry to continue to function properly and profitably. Container vessels are the backbone of the global economy, and without them nothing would function. They can’t be replaced with anything “renewable”, since no electric engine has as yet been invented that can move such masses over distances longer than 80km!!  The 16 biggest container ships (out of a total of about 100,000 vessels) produce as much pollution as all the cars in the world….

In case you’ve never heard this before, the shipping lobby works hard to hide and downplay their impact on climate breakdown from the public.  The UN body that polices the world’s shipping business, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has been absent without leave when it comes to avoiding or even addressing pollution caused by those ships.  By international law, nobody is allowed to burn the thick, sulphur-laden fuel  called bunker oil,  yet the shipping industry does not have to comply with that law. And sulphur is far from being the only pollutant. Every year it is estimated that container vessels belch out one billion tons of CO2 , as much as the entire aviation industry……. click on image for larger view.

Deindustrialise or perish

When we take a careful look at our species’ short history, it becomes obvious in which direction we must go. We got along quite well before people started thinking that they were better than other creatures, and better than their fellow men, the new mindset that emerged after the Agricultural Revolution……..entropy

If we want to stop pathological behavior, pollution, destruction, violence, chronic depression and mental health problems, discontent, and exploitation, if we want to share real things, communicate meaningfully, live in harmony with the biosphere, and nurture the world around us, we have to recognize our true Nature:  The Nature within us, the Wilderness that still lays deep in our heart, and the Nature and the Wilderness that are still around us, the biosphere, at the edges of the wastelands we’ve created and in between the cracks in the asphalt and the concrete we’ve coated the living Earth with, and that they are actually the same.





Earth Battery

2 07 2018

I don’t know how this podcast ever flew under the radar, but it’s ‘must listen to’ material….. two of my favourite peakniks, Chris Martenson and Tom Murphy, discuss our predicaments in the clearest possible way.

The standout for me was Tom calling our fossil fuels sources a gigantic solar battery in which millions of years of solar energy was stored, only to be virtually short circuited to be discharged in what is the blink of an eyelid in geological terms……

 





Delusions of Grandeur in Building a Low-Carbon Future

31 01 2018

With many thanks from Ugo Bardi who first published this on Cassandra’s Legacy…… 

Some excerpts from Carey King’s excellent paper titled “Delusion of Grandeur in building a low-carbon future” (2016). By all means worth reading: it identifies the delusionary approach of some policy proposals. Image Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.

…. the outcomes of economic models used to inform policymakers and policies like the Paris Agreement are fundamentally flawed to the point of being completely delusional. It isn’t the specific economic assumptions related to the “low-carbon” transition that are the problem, but structural flaws in the economic models themselves.

There is a very real trade-off between the rate at which we address climate change and the amount of economic growth we can expect during the transition to a low-carbon economy, but most economic models insufficiently address this trade-off, and thus are incapable of assessing the transition. If we ignore this trade-off, or worse, we rely on models that are built on faulty premises, then we risk politicians and citizens revolting against the energy transition midway into it when the substantial growth and prosperity they’ve been told to expect will accompany the low-carbon transition don’t materialize. It is important to note that citizens are also told that doubling-down on fossil energy also only provides growth and prosperity. But this is a major point of this article: mainstream economic models can’t tell the difference. There are foreseeable feedbacks of a fast transition to a low-carbon economy that increase the risk of major recessions.

The AR5 indicates that if the world invests enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time — such that total annual greenhouse gas emissions are practically zero by 2100 — to stay within the 450 ppm and 2-degree-Celsius target, then the modeled decline in the size of the economy relative to business-as-usual scenarios is typically less than 10 percent. In other words, instead of the economy in 2100 being 300 to 800 percent larger than in 2010 without any mitigation, it is only 270 to 720 percent larger with full mitigation. Meanwhile, there is no reported possibility of a smaller future economy. Apparently, we’ll be much richer in the future no matter if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or not.

This result is delusional and doesn’t pass the smell test.

Another flawed piece of the framework in the IAMs is that they assume that factors in the economy during and after a low-carbon transition will remain at or return to the statistically positive trends of the last several decades — the trend of growth, the trend of high employment levels, the trend of technological innovation. Those positive trends change over time, however, so it is faulty to assume they’ll continue at historic levels independent of the need for rapid changes in the energy system. They also assume that energy costs will not significantly increase over the long term. Further, they extrapolate trends in growth, employment and technology from the past and current carbon-based economy to apply to a future decarbonized economy in ways that represent guesswork at best, and ideology at worst.

Perhaps most importantly, IAMs do not consider the substantial negative feedback between high energy costs and overall economic growth. Negative feedback means that when one factor increases (energy prices, for example), another factor consequently decreases. Many of us know from practical experience that if gasoline costs too much — like when it was near $4 per gallon in 2008 — it may eat into our budget to such an extent that we can’t pay all our bills or can’t pursue hobbies. On a personal level, then, we see that increased gas prices cause decreased discretionary spending — a negative feedback. This idea can be extended to the entire economy’s budget and income.
….. the models currently answer a question that is barely useful: “If the economy grows this much, what types of energy investments can we make, and at what rate?” The models should address the question we really need to answer: “If we make these energy investments at this rate, what happens to the economy?”

There is a fundamental conflict between achieving low- or zero-carbon energy systems and growing an economy. Both the scale and rate of change during a low-carbon transition matter. So, let’s create macroeconomic models that can plausibly replicate historical trends of the most important energy and economic variables in times of high energy investment, recession and growth, so that we have confidence that we can ask relevant and informative questions about how low-carbon investments impact economic growth. Let’s stop deluding ourselves by using models that assume answers we want to see.

Read the complete paper (open access) at this link





The Bumpy Road Down, Part 3

17 01 2018

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

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

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

 

IrvMills

Irv Mills

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

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

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

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

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

Today we are going to do that.

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

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

1) typical overshoot situation with constant carrying capacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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