Sunday, 6 August 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 4: Political Positions

Adapting to energy decline and economic contraction.

Kincardine Yacht Club, Returning from Wednesday Night Race

In my last post I talked about some ways of expressing the nuances of political positions. I started out with the basic left-right spectrum and then moved on to the "Political Compass" , which gives us a two dimensional map of our position, using the left—right axis and the libertarian—authoritarian axis. But without too much sweat I was able to come up with four more axes that, along with those two, define what I think are the most important aspects of a political position.

There are probably more, but in this post I'd like to focus on how a government's position on each of those six axes might determine how successful it is likely to be in adapting to the challenges that face us during the next few decades. Challenges that it seems very likely will lead to the collapse of industrial civilization.

Acknowledge Limits <—> Deny Limits

We are already nicely into a crisis caused by the end of economic growth and the start of economic contraction. If you accept the idea that there are limits to growth, this is not surprising and can be attributed to a reduced amount of surplus energy due to the dwindling supply of high quality, easy to access (high EROEI) fossil fuels. The obvious solution is to prepare for and adapt to a significant decline in energy usage. Yes, we will adopt alternative sources of energy, but they are not capable of supplying us with the copious amounts of surplus energy that we became accustomed to in the twentieth century

Accepting the natural limits built into our finite planet also means accepting that we are using up the sinks that have been absorbing the pollution our civilization creates. In particular, that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the climate to change, and in the process making most of our other problems that much worse. Solving this problem will necessitate abandoning the use of fossil fuels, and with that a significant decline in energy usage.

If you are in denial about the limits to growth, then the current situation is probably quite puzzling and you will be casting about, looking for something (or someone) to blame things on and a way to get "business as usual" back on track. That's not going to work, but unfortunately it is likely to be the standard mode of operation for most governments in the immediate future.

In the long run, one would hope that intimate experience with limits will lead most of us to acknowledge them. But I suspect that, even then, there will still be a few enclaves hanging on where people can delude themselves that they are living the dream of progress, blissfully unfettered by any sort of limit.

Socially Inclusive <—> Socially Exclusive

At one end of this axis we have societies who feel a responsibility for the welfare of all their citizens, and to some extent all mankind and all of the other living things on this planet. They do what they can to provide for the poor as well as the rich, including an effort to limit inequality. It also includes a welcoming attitude to immigrants and refugees, and making an effort to be kind to the environment.

When the economy is contracting, the attempt is made to spread the pain around more or less evenly. There is no doubt in my mind that societies like this will do a much better job of coping with the declining circumstances in the years to come than those at the other end of this scale. There is much room for economic contraction in the lifestyles common in the developed nations, room for a lot of decline before we get to the point of not having enough to get by on.

At the other end of this axis we have societies where the rich and powerful make every effort to hang onto their wealth and power no matter what happens, with little or no concern for the poor or even the lower middle class, the bottom 80% economically speaking. As the economy continues to contract and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes.

Every attempt will be made to replace labour with automation. Policies of "exterminism" will be applied to the poor, jobless and homeless. This term comes from Peter Frase's book Four Futures, and refers to simply getting rid of (exterminating) the "impoverished, economical superfluous rabble". I think it is pretty reasonable to expect a violent backlash from the lower classes in response to such policies. No doubt an attempt will be made to direct the dissatisfaction of the lower classes away from the upper classes using scapegoating and xenophobia, focused on one or more specific groups who are visibly different. In most of the developed world today, Muslims are shaping up to be one of the main targets.

It seems to me that U.S. is positioned at the exclusive end of this scale, with northern European social democracies at the inclusive end, and countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand somewhere in between.

Fiscally Liberal <—> Fiscally Conservative

One hears fiscal conservatives complaining about "tax and spend liberals", implying that increasing taxes will have a negative effect on the economy. Fiscal liberals respond that the economy always performs worse under "borrow and spend conservatives". It seems that the two ends of this political spectrum have the opposite effects from what you might think. The policies usually followed by fiscal conservatives lead to deficits, while fiscal liberals manage to reduce or eliminate deficits.

The things is that when the economy was growing, deficit financing worked well. Government spending increased growth and helped pull the economy out of occasional recessions. And money borrowed one year could be repaid the next year using a smaller slice of a bigger pie. Government spending on infrastructure and social programs benefited everyone, so it was hard to argue with borrowing money to do it. This mode of operation was adopted by many western democracies after WW II, and it worked very well until 70s when economic growth began to falter. It stopped working altogether in the mid 90s when real economic growth came to a halt and was replaced by growing debt and financial bubbles.

Balancing a budget has two aspects: spending and revenue, and progressive taxation is the key to making revenue match spending. The idea that taxation has a negative effect on economic growth is self serving for businesses and the rich, but it doesn't stand up to a close examination.

There are countries at the liberal end of this spectrum where taxes are progressive and quite high. Things seem to be working quite well there—so well that even most of the rich folks who are paying those very high taxes are content with the system.

And of course there are countries like Canada who are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with moderately high taxes and government spending. Our budgets have even been balanced occasionally, though under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, taxes were lowered and deficits went back up. We hope our current government, under young Mr. Trudeau, will have better luck.

Sitting firmly at the conservative end of the spectrum we have the U.S. where taxes are low (and headed lower) and it is political suicide to discuss increasing them. Even poor working people seem to be against the very idea of taxation. I've asked Americans what's up with this and the best answer I've gotten, the one that comes closest to making sense, is that the American government is so corrupt that its citizens just aren't willing to trust it with their money. That may be so, but the American deficit keeps growing, despite numerous efforts to cut spending.

What can we expect to happen as the economy continues to contract? It seems to me that the U.S. deficit will grow until borrowing and printing money leads to a financial disaster that will greatly hasten the collapse of the country, hurting even those in the upper classes. More fiscally liberal countries will suffer less, managing a more graceful downward spiral.

At some point in this process, no matter how well managed, tax revenues will no longer support federal organizations like the UN, Europe, Canada or the US and decentralization will become a well established trend. It can be done the easy way, through negotiation and civilized agreements, or the hard way through secession and armed conflict. No doubt there will be some of both.

Communist <—> Capitalist

It is important to remember that this axis is about economics and not to get it confused with the types of government which are often associated communism or capitalism.

The totalitarian "communist" states of the twentieth century were actually practicing capitalism at the state level. And not very successfully. Most of those countries have since switched over to some more overt form of capitalism. At the same time, democracy has functioned best when restraining and regulating capitalism's excesses.

At the left end of this axis we have Communism. In the sense I am using here, it consists of the people in a group sharing resources and working together for their mutual benefit. The words "sharing", "work" and "benefit" give us the clue that we are talking about economics. Communism works well in small groups (up to 150 or 200 people) and was how we lived for all of our prehistory, more than two million years. And quite successfully, I might add.

At the right end of the axis we have Capitalism. It consists of a small minority of the people (the capitalists) in a group owning the resources and the rest of the people working for them to produce benefits that are enjoyed primarily by the capitalists.

The relationship between the capitalists and their workers may be outright slavery, serfdom or wage slavery. Outright slaves, who by no means have it easy, are at least provided with a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Serfs in feudal cultures, don't have it easy either, but their lords do have certain obligations to them. Wage slaves, on the other hand, are provided only with a wage. Capitalist have no other responsibilities to them—in particular, when business is slow, capitalists are not responsible to provide jobs for all the workers who need them in order to live. And in modern capitalist societies there really isn't any other way to make a living.

This became particularly significant when we learned to convert heat energy into mechanical work and replace the muscle power of the workers with machinery. Initially, there was concern that many workers would be replaced by machinery and end up jobless. But workers were still needed to build, operate and maintain the machinery and for the last couple of centuries the economy grew fast enough to provide jobs for a growing work force and significantly increased their standard of living.

This is often pointed to as one of the great successes of capitalism, but it should actually be attributed to the increase in productivity made possible by the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Indeed, capitalists did everything they could to improve their profits by reducing the amount of labour needed and the wages paid for that labour. It was only through unions and the support of left leaning democratic governments that labour made the gains it did.

Unfortunately, those days are over and with the slowing of economic growth, capitalists have been forced to try a number of strategies to maintain the viability of their businesses. And there has been a move to the right in many democratic governments which has helped with this.

Globalization, as long as shipping stays cheap, provides cheaper labour and a business environment with fewer safety and environmental regulations. Automation further reduces the number of workers required. And financialization offers a way of making profit by trading "virtual" commodities related to money, instead of real products. All this has been successful to some extent, but has worsened unemployment in the developed countries, and increased economic inequality between the working classes and the rich and powerful. This is a serious problem in consumer economies where the majority of consumers are also workers and need income to function adequately as consumers, in order to support the upper classes.

This and most of the other problems caused by capitalism occur when it is allowed to pursue short term profit (or shareholder value) to the exclusion of all else. As I said earlier, capitalism has worked best when governments have acted to restrain its excesses. Democracies have been particularly effective because with one vote per person the workers have more political power. But during the last few decades there has been a move to the right in most Western democracies and political parties, and power has slipped away from the workers and back to the capitalists.

It seems likely that this trend will continue, in an attempt to compensate for economic contraction. But it will not succeed in rescuing capitalism, which will collapse more quickly where it has the fewest restraints. Those of us with leftist leanings have always assumed that it would take action to end capitalism, but it's starting to appears that capitalism will collapse on its own, without there being anything ready to replace it.

Post collapse, with very much smaller and poorer states, and with capitalism already out of the way, and having acquired a bad reputation in the process, communities may be free to return to a more communistic approach.

Social Progressive <—> Social Conservative

The thing about this axis is that it changes over time as things that were progressive are gradually accepted and become the province of conservatives, while liberals move on to new horizons.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, in the developed world at least, social progressives won victories in gaining equal rights and freedoms for people of different races (particularly blacks in the U.S.) and different religions (particularly Jews, and at least in principle, Muslims), for women and for LGBT people. No doubt there are other similar battles to be won, but given the backlash we are seeing against the gains already made, it may not be time to move on just yet.

There are good reasons to think that society as a whole benefits when equal rights and freedoms are extended to those who have previously been excluded. That exclusion has resulted over the years in the failure to develop a great deal of human potential. Given the challenges we face currently and in the future, we simply cannot afford to do this. Excluding people for traits over which they have no control, which they did not choose, is surely unjust and it should not be necessary to explain why injustice is a bad thing.

Many people feel that as times get harder, socially conservative positions are more adaptive. I think just the opposite, but not surprisingly, that opinion is common among socially conservative kollapsniks, who see collapse as an opportunity to roll back social changes which they are not comfortable with, such as feminism, racial equality, religious freedom, and LGBT rights.

At the same time, I notice a trend for socially progressive people to hold a variety of anti-science positions. It is deeply shocking and abhorrent to me that they have bought into the wrong side of issues that are being pushed by people and companies for profit. The anti-vaccine movement lead by alternative medicine practitioners and the anti-genetic-engineering movement led by organic food producers and distributors are good examples of this, neither of which is supported in the least by the scientific consensus.

Libertarian <—> Authoritarian

It is important to be clear that this axis is about personal freedom, not economics. The libertarian movement and Libertarian political parties seem to be mainly about reducing taxes and removing restrictions on the activities of business in order to get rich, with no concern for other people or the environment. I find that sort of activity abhorrent, and it is not the sense in which I mean libertarian at all. Anarchism might be a better term (anarchists being poor libertarians), but this term also has negative connotations for many people.

At any rate, we're talking about politics in Western democracies here, so what we are really looking at is variations in an area around the middle of this axis.

In order to make large countries like the one I live in work, the citizens must be willing to accept a social contract including the rule of law, taxation, regulation of business and the government's monopoly on violence. One receives all kinds of benefits in return, and in a representative democracy you even get to help choose the people who make up your government. This is fine unless the range of parties to choose from is so narrow that it really isn't a choice at all.

I suspect that our immediate future will no doubt see a move toward increasing authoritarianism in states that are nominally democracies. We are already seeing this in the U.S. Being a dictator may seem like a fine thing, until you are confronted with actually solving the sort of thorny problems that face many nations today. It's not as easy as it looks, and more resources are required to enforce this kind of rule than one where the citizens co-operate willingly.

I think the rise of the surveillance state is also something to be worried about. Fear is being used to manipulate public opinion so those in control can get more control. It's clearly a case of exchanging freedom for security, which always turns out to be a poor deal in the long run. The expense of watching over its citizens is something governments will be less able to afford as the economy continues to contract, but I suspect they will be eager to shoulder that expense and expand upon it.

In the long run, as a lack of surplus energy makes large states impractical, we may see a move in the other direction, to less authoritarianism and less surveillance.

And in conclusion...

I guess it's not too hard to tell, from what I've said so far, that I would pick a political party that acknowledges limits, and is inclusive, fiscally liberal, economically leftist, socially liberal but pro-science, and more libertarian than authoritarian. This combination of political positions would, in my opinion, give us the best chance of navigating the collapse of industrial civilization as gracefully as possible.

Unfortunately, due to the realities of modern politics there is no such party and most of the political positions I favour are unlikely to win any elections in the near future. The details of those realities and their consequences will be the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

What I've Been Reading, July 2017

Squirrel hanging upside down
while picking and eating mulberries in our backyard.

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

  • A Meeting in Corvallis, by S.M.Stirling
  • Planetfall, by Emma Newman
    I was a little disappointed by the ending.
  • Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
    The start of a two book series.
  • Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, Harper Collins
    Overall rating of 4 stars on Amazon.com and lucky to get it.
  • Shipstar, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven.
    The second and concluding book in this series.

Non-Fiction

  • The Scoop on Poop, by Dan Chiras, New Society Publishers
  • Sustainable Materials, without the hot air, by J. M. Allwood & J. M. Cullen
    Making buildings, vehicles and products efficiently and with less new material.
    Excellent book. And a few years ago I read the one below:
  • Sustainable Energy without the hot air, by David J. C. MacKay
    The only complaint I have about this book is that, while the author is very solid technically, he seems to be unaware of the connection between surplus energy and the economy. As a result he makes some suggestions that appear to be technically feasible, but which would be disasters for the economy. Involving low EROEI energy sources, of course.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 3: Political Compasses

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of posts titled "A Political Fantasy", in which I talked about what might be accomplished if political realities weren't what they are and it was possible for governments to simply do what is needed to get us through the coming collapse and energy decline with as little grief as possible. I didn't think back then that many of the things I was suggesting were likely to happen and I still don't.

I've been promising to take a look at the other side of this and write about political realities for a while now. In my last post I talked about the likely end points of collapse. The rest of this series will be about how we'll get from here to there. Since politics is going to play a large part in that, this seems like a good time to address the subject.

First we'll talk about politics in the western democracies that I and (I suspect)my readers are ost familiar with. If you are a citizen of a western democracy, your view of politics is largely informed by mass media coverage of party politics in your country. This is significant as much for the issues they ignore as for the ones they focus on. If a political position is not supported by any of the mainstream parties and/or the media are not interested in it, then you'll never hear about it unless you do a lot of digging. These days, our political options are typically seen to be spread along just a single axis ranging from left to right, which is way too restrictive to represent the nuances of the real world.

The Political Compass

If you go to the Political Compass website, you can take a quiz that will attempt to locate your position along two political axes, left—right and totalitarian—libertarian. This results in a two dimensional map of politics, which is indeed capable of representing more subtleties than a single one dimensional axis. But it is, well, "two dimensional" and it omits some other axes which are also important aspects of modern politics.

The left vs. right axis is actually about economics, so we also need to consider a progressive versus conservative axis for social policy.

And even economic policy is too complex to be represented on a single axis. In addition to the spectrum that runs from communism to capitalism (left to right), there is also one that runs from fiscally liberal to fiscally conservative (concerning government spending and debt).

So, even if we are just talking about "business as usual" politics, I can see at least four dimensions that are significant. No doubt there are more. And having accepted that the limits to growth are real and collapse is a possibility, we can come up with a new political compass using a couple of new axes that are more relevant to those realities. It's vital to do this since, without it such a compass, we'll just spend our time working on symptoms without addressing the real underlying problem—like so many well meaning people today.

On one axis I would map the degree of our acceptance or denial of limits. This would run from Limits to Growth folks (like me) on one end to Cornucopians at the other end—people who refuse to admit that we will ever be limited by scarcity at all.

On the other axis I would map how we respond to limits when we inevitably run up against them, even if we don't acknowledge their existence. That response might go along several dimensions, but I'd recommend one that looks at a range from social inclusive to socially exclusive. That is, from people at one end of the axis who want to work together towards a mutual solution to people at the other end who want to save themselves and throw everyone else to the wolves.

But is all this drawing of charts anything more than just a diverting pastime?

I think so, but to understand my take on this we'll need to look at why we should be concerned with politics at all and then why it is vital to consider the limits to growth as part of our politics.

Here in North America there is a great deal of apathy toward the subject of politics. I suspect this is also true to at least some extent in Europe. Part of this is because people feel they are unlikely to have any influence in the political process. One vote counts for very little, but I'd counter that by saying that if enough people feel that way, then we are not talking about one vote, but millions.

Then there is the problem of finding a political party you can feel good about voting for. This is a problem, but remember—politicians like to be at the head of somebody elses parade. If an issue gains enough public support, the politicians will be eager to take credit for the idea.

Some will say that the way our system are set up, politicians are unlikely to fix anything and very likely to make things worse. I agree with that, but we need to do everything we can to minimize the harm they do, if nothing else. Some say that "voting just encourages them". I disagree. They get all the encouragement they need from lobbyists and those who contribute to their campaigns. It's the job of us voters to counteract that, since it is usually a push n the wrong direction.

In order to see if we should be adding the limits to growth to our political discussion, we need to know how those limits are and will continue to affect the world we live in. Our current economic, financial and political systems are based on growth fueled by copious quantities of easily accessible and high quality energy resources—primarily fossil fuels.

We've been able to have fossil fuels for little more than the cost of digging or pumping them out of the ground. That cost has been very low compared to the worth of the energy they provided. The productivity of the industries fueled by them grew dramatically, compared to industries powered by human or animal muscles alone. This is what is meant by the term "surplus energy"—the excess energy that is available for use once we've done whatever it takes to acquire the energy in the first place. A related term is "energy returned on energy invested", EROEI.

In the early twentieth century, when we first started using oil, its EROEI was around 100. But we picked the low hanging "fossil fuel fruit" first and what remains now is either of low quality or more difficult to access, with a much lower EROEI. It is estimated that to maintain a modern industrial society the overall average EROEI must be 15 or greater. The global average EROEI today is around 11.8 and falling.

The first effect of a dropping EROEI is the slowing of economic growth. This is a particular problem because of the way our banking and financial systems are set up to accommodate and encourage growth. New money is created via debt—banks lend out money that didn't previously exist and was created by the act of loaning it. Governments, businesses and individuals borrow this money on the assumption that the economy will continue to grow and they will be able to pay it back in better circumstances, with interest. In order for this to happen, of course, others must borrow more money so the interest on the first lot can be paid back along with the principle. And so on, as long as growth continues. When the economy stops growing, this system quits working. Individuals, businesses and even governments go bankrupt, people lose their jobs and so forth.

Governments have been diddling growth statistics to make things look better than they are for some time now, but in fact there has been very little real economic growth since the 1990s. Since then apparent growth has been financed by ever-growing debt and the inflation and subsequent bursting of various investment bubbles.

Meanwhile we've still been burning fossil fuels and adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and climate change is getting to the point where the problems it causes make our other problems that much worse.

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth, talks about easy problems and hard ones. Easy problems are those where implementing the solution results in immediate and obvious change for the better as soon as you start to implement it. We are good at solving such problems. Hard problems are ones where implementing the solution actually makes things worse for quite a while before they start to get better. Or sometimes things don't get better at all, but the "solution" stops them from getting significantly worse. For the most part, we do a poor job of admitting that such problems even exist. Once they have been identified, we do an even worse job of addressing them.

So it seems fair to say that things aren't going well because of the limits we are encountering. We should be doing something about this. There seems to be good reason to believe that a solution which allows us to continue on as usual isn't possible, so we need to start adapting to the new conditions. And you would think governments should have a role to play in that.

This is where all these charts of political alternatives comes in—some of those alternatives would likely be much more effective in this situation than others. By knowing what they are, we are in a better position to choose the best of them than if we don't even know what alternatives exist.

In my next post I'll have a closer look at what the political alternatives are, and how well each of them is adapted to the challenges we face.

Friday, 30 June 2017

What I've Been Reading, June 2017

2017 Harvest of Willow Withies
and the basket I wove last year.

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

I am part way through several non-fiction books, but didn't finish any of them this month. Still, there are lots of books on my shelf that I'd love to share with you. Here are a few of them.

  • Depletion and Abundance, Life on the New Home Front, by Sharon Astyk.
    One woman's solutions to finding abundance for your family while coming to terms with peak oil, climate change and hard times.
  • A Nation of Farmers, Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil, by Sharon Astyk.
    How city farmers, backyard chicken enthusiasts, victory gardeners, small family farms, kids in edible school yards, cooks in their kitchens and passionate eaters everywhere can overthrown destructive industrial agriculture, and give us hope for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a changing world.
  • Independence Days, by Sharon Astyk.
    A guide to sustainable food storage and preservation.
  • Making Home, by Sharon Astyk.
    Adapting our homes and our lives to settle in place.

Amazon.com says this about Sharon Astyk: "is a former academic who is a writer, subsistence farmer, parent, activist and prolific blogger. She farms in upstate New York with her husband and four children, raises livestock, and grows and preserves vegetables."

This is actually a little out of date. A few years ago she and her husband became involved in fostering and eventually adopted several of the children they'd been fostering. This has left very little time for writing. And now they are in the process of moving from their farm in rural New York to a city in Connecticut.

Both of Sharon's blogs can still be accessed on line: Casuabon's Book and The Chatelaine's Keys, and I would say there is a lot of material there worth reading.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 2: End Points

Kincardine Harbour and Lighthouse, June 16, 2017

In a recent post I talked about how we can expect the collapse of our civilization to be slow and bumpy—uneven geographically, unsteady chronologically and unequal socially. But I was deliberately vague about what's going to happen first, where collapse will go from there and where it will end up. I suspect many of my readers found this rather unsatisfying—I know I did. In this and my next few posts I'll be getting down to the "nitty-gritty" details of collapse.

Number one on that list is that collapse is already happening, and has been since the early 1970s, when oil production in the continental United States peaked and America's shiny new world empire began to crumble.

We'll get back to that soon, but today I want to talk about the end point of the process. Or rather, I should say "end points", since I don't expect things will decline to the same level across the whole planet. Allowing for that, where will we be when collapse is complete and the dust has settled? That's hard to say for several reasons.

First, there is no such thing as a "natural state" to return to. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not living in harmony with nature, indeed nature doesn't live in harmony with itself. Nature, and human society within it, are dissipative structures—never in balance, relying on inputs of energy and materials to maintain them in a steady state. Death is the only real equilibrium state such structures have access to, and even after death decay continues to change things.

For the last few hundred years, the energy bonanza of fossil fuels has propelled our civilization to hitherto unheard of heights, a "steady" state chiefly characterized by growth. Collapse will entail a significant energy decline as we give up fossil fuels and nuclear fission as energy sources. We'll be left with solar energy, including its indirect forms (biomass, wind and falling water), and in a few locations things like geothermal and tidal energy, to the extent that we have the wherewithal to access them.

The quantity and quality of energy available will determine, among other things, the kind of energy infrastructure that can be built and maintained. And the kind of energy infrastructure we can support will determine the quantity and quality of energy that will be available. When everyone in a group is struggling just to get enough food to stay alive, there aren't enough spare manhours to work on energy projects beyond obtaining food itself, our most basic energy source. But as things periodically get better, a few tinkerers will have time to get some previously abandoned infrastructure working again. So I expect there will be a good deal of bouncing up and down as this dissipative system works its way toward a new, more or less steady state determined by the lower availability of energy. And because there are different amounts of energy and materials available in different areas, they will end up in different states.

Second, climate change also makes it hard to predict what things will be like when the collapse dust settles. There is a significant lag built into climate change and even after we quit adding CO2 to the atmosphere it will take decades at least before the warming process stops and begins to reverse. It will possibly be hundreds or even thousands of years before things reach a new normal. In the meantime, the climate will keep changing and behaving erratically. So it is hard to say which parts of the world and how much of it will be able to support human life. Even the level of energy use and technology in areas where people do live will be effected by changing climate.

Third, social organization will degrade as collapse progresses and do so in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

Having said all this, I am still feeling adventurous and I think there are some things that can be predicted—that are obvious enough that even an old tradesman like me can make them out.

Population

It's my guess that the human population will settle out at around a few hundred million. This may seem odd to many of my readers.

The UN's population experts say that our population will be between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of the century and then, due to the ever spreading demographic transition things will peak out between 10 and 11 billion before the end of the century. But this assumes that we will find a way not just to feed all these people, but to bring them prosperity in order to lower the birth rate. It's nothing but a dream.

The most realistic estimates I read say we are already in overshoot to the tune of 150%—that would mean paring our 7.5 billion back below 5 billion to get out of overshoot. The demise of oil based agriculture and large scale international shipping will reduce the number of people that our planet can support to a significantly lower number, I suspect around 2 billion. But we must also remember that climate change and various other eco-disasters are going to reduce the planet's carrying capacity even further, and thus I say a few hundred million if things go moderately well. I would be surprised to see the population settles out to more than 1 billion and shocked if it was less than 10 million.

There's nothing really special about these numbers—I certainly don't think there is any such thing as an ideal number of people. Like any successful species, we will always tend to maximize our numbers as far as our environment allows. But with a damaged planet and the high quality, easily accessible fossil fuels gone, there will only be so much we can do.

OK, clearly I'm talking about a significant decline in population. Where are all those extra people going to go?

We are going to see further lowering of birth rates in the developed world, especially as the economy continues to contract and people get discouraged as they did in Russia following the collapse of the USSR. Then we'll see rising death rates, first in the developing world and finally everywhere. Things will fall below the new, reduced carrying capacity and then recover, bouncing up and down a few times until a more or less steady state is reached.

Famine, pandemic and war will all contribute to this. But we tend to forget that we are all going to die anyway, at some point. If that schedule gets moved forward somewhat it can make a big difference and not just to the individual. Over a period of generations even small decreases in birth rate or increases in death rate can make for large changes in population.

In some areas, including, but not limited to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and the American Southwest, desertification will continue and eventually take the decline in population all the way to zero. That is not just due to lack of water, but also due to extremely high temperatures, not so much on average but in the form of heat waves.

Similarly, due to rising sea level and more frequent and violent storm surges, much of the area currently near sea level will be submerged and people will be forced to move inland to higher elevations. In developed areas (and there are a great many of them near sea level) every effort will be made to stave off the rising seas, to hang on as long as possible, but due to economic contraction, energy decline and continued rising seas, those effort will eventually fail.

Unreliable weather will make most ways of life more difficult than they are now. It's tempting to say that rural people who are still engaged in various forms of subsistence agriculture will simply carry on as at present. And that will be true, where the climate co-operates. Where it doesn't they too will be forced to migrate to in search of greener pastures.

Some countries import much of their food, and couldn't switch over to growing it even if they desperately needed to. They are faced with a crisis when the price of food goes up and will be faced with an even larger one when oil supply problems make international transportation prohibitively expensive or downright unfeasible.

Migration, whether it is spurred by climate, economics or conflict will be the defining feature of the next few decades and will itself be the source of much conflict. Even the most welcoming of countries will eventually be overwhelmed with refugees, who will back up into ever growing refugee camps behind various choke points. Of course, some will not make it as far as the camps and for some of those who do, the camps will eventually prove to be death traps.

It is also pretty clear to me that large cities with many millions of people, that rely on modern transportation systems to supply them with the necessities of life, are not going to be viable. They will fall apart in various unpleasant ways and we'll end up living in much smaller communities.

Energy

Some of the energy end points here are pretty easy to predict: we won't end up getting any significant amount of energy from fossil fuels and none from nuclear fission. I don't believe we'll ever achieve nuclear fusion as a practical power source, and if we do, we won't hang on to it for long.

Some (chiefly climate change deniers) will point to coal as an energy source with centuries of supply left. But a closer look shows that peak coal is nearer than we think, and much of the remaining coal is of low quality—not a good source of surplus energy. No doubt there will be a surge in coal use as the availability of oil and natural gas diminishes, but then the same thing will happen with coal.

We'll be solar powered again, as we were for all but the last bit of our history and all of our prehistory. And most of that will be solar power in its indirect forms: biomass (including food), wind and falling water. Solar photovoltaics and large electricity generating wind turbines will be beyond the reach of the available technology for almost everyone. Even solar thermal energy will be quite rare because of the amount of glass required. Sure, you can get the kind of thermal energy required for large scale glass making from charcoal or probably even from wood gasification. But if heat is what you need that solar power installation for, it would be better to use the biomass directly instead.

In most areas human and animals muscles, powered by food, will once again will be the main source of mechanical energy. These will be supplemented by wind mills and waterwheels. Only rarely will there been enough fuel of any sort available to burn in heat engines. Burning biomass will be the main source of heat. And overall there will be much less energy available than we have access to today, perhaps by a factor of 10. That's on the average, of course. My background with Ontario's electrical utility leads me to think it may be possible to do much better than this in a some areas, harnessing falling water to generate electricity using fairly simple technology. Such set ups have quite a high EROEI, producing generous amounts of surplus energy. This is what got the province of Ontario off to its start in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Canada's industrial heartland. Admittedly, the thermal energy cost of steel reinforced concrete is such that large dams won't be feasible, but there are quite a number of locations around the world where hydro power can, and frequently has been, developed with relatively small and simple civil engineering projects.

Keeping such projects running or refurbishing them after they have been shut down or abandoned for a while will be much easier than the development process that went on in the 1800s.

Technology

When people hear about my interest in collapse, they frequently ask, "How far down do you think we'll go?" They are thinking in the sense of what historical level of development will we descend to.

But it is overly simplistic to say that we'll "go back" to a certain period in the past.

Things have changed since then and you simply can't go back. The environment in particular has been damaged in ways that would make many historical lifestyles unfeasible. There is much to be said for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, for instance, but it requires a high level of skill and detailed knowledge of the area one is living in, things that very, very few of us have or could learn quickly if we suddenly needed them. And stocks of wild game and food plants have been depleted so much in most areas that hunting and gathering simply isn't feasible.

On the other hand, unlike our ancestors, we already know that a great many things are possible. Even if we find them temporarily beyond our reach, re-acquiring them will be much easier than developing them from scratch was in the first place. Where collapse has been fairly complete it will still be possible to salvage many useful things—knowledge, tools and materials. Where collapse is less devastating we'll keep many things working for a long time even if we've lost the ability to recreate them from scratch. And because our population will be much lower, there will be a great deal of left over stuff per capita and, I suspect, a brisk business in refurbishing and repurposing that stuff.

Remember, I've been saying I expect a slow collapse, taking several decades. That's slow compared to what some expect to happen, but pretty quick if you're think in terms of, for example, how long steel exposed to the elements takes to turn to rust. I've heard people saying that in twenty years after a fast collapse all the iron on the planet will have rusted away to nothing and survivors would be using stone tools. From my own personal experience with farm machinery abandoned in the open, I can say that even after fifty years all that has happened is the formation of a patina of rust on any part thicker than a few millimeters. Unprotected sheet metal goes fairly fast, but thicker sections are more durable. Since people will start collecting scrap metal and storing it out of the weather, it seems clear to me that our civilization will leave a legacy of refined metals that should supply post-collapse metal workers with most of what they need for the next few centuries.

So, we'll see some strange mixtures of different technological levels. I expect we'll see even the few remaining post-collapse hunter/gathers using tools made of iron instead of stone.

The limiting factor will be energy. The level of technology that can be supported is determined by the decisions you make about what to do with the surplus energy you have available to you. Note that's not energy, but surplus energy. Problems with low quality hydrocarbons, diffuse and intermittent sunlight, unpredictable wind and so forth mean that we'll have much less surplus energy than we have today. Given the unpredictable climate and weather that we'll be coping with, we'll probably make some fairly conservative decisions—a full belly comes first, especially if you are working hard, and most of us will be.

But once we have electricity, all sorts of manufacturing possibilities open up. Decisions will have to be made about how much of a society's available surplus should be put into setting up the infrastructure necessary to produce electricity and what kind of manufacturing to pursue. Many of these areas where hydroelectric power is available may be able to retain a level of technology roughly equivalent to the early 1900s, for a few million people all told.

Some will no doubt be surprised by what they see as my overly optimistic outlook. There is a large part of our population for whom most technology is essentially magic—they just have no idea how it works or how to make it work if it was broken and they had to fix it on their own. For them, moving down to anything short of our current level of technology is a total collapse. When things start to break down these folk will be out of luck.

But there are many other people who do have a pretty good grasp of how one or more areas of technology work and how to keep them working. As long as you don't have your heart set on the latest high tech toys, it really isn't that hard.

Do I think anyone will be able to hang onto or recover the ability to manufacture semiconductors, computers and possibly even an internet of some sort? The kind of worldwide manufacturing network we have today is not absolutely necessary to attain to scaled down versions of this sort of technology. But I think it is fair to say that it will be rare if attainable at all, and concentrating on this sort of technology will probably prove to be a mistake.

What we'll need to adopt is "appropriate tech"—technology that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive instead of energy intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous (not critically dependent on materials or tools that cannot be made or salvaged locally).

"Local" and "decentralized" come up in this discussion because transportation without fossil fuels will be much more arduous than it is today.

There are a number of other technology related areas that are big enough subjects for another post and will have to wait until then:

  • How will we manage to feed ourselves when fossil fuel based agriculture is no longer possible? There is no doubt in my mind that, with a sufficiently small number of people to feed, this will be possible.
  • What will be the future of medicine? One thing I am sure of is that even though many people will turn to alternative medicines, they will not be any more effective than they ever have been. In other words, not at all.
  • Genetic engineering has the potential to be very useful in the kind of future that lies ahead of us. I know, I've said this before. It's soon time I explained what I mean and why I am not afraid of genetically engineered organism that are intended to be beneficial. Coming soon in another post.... Of course, there is also the possibility that GE will be weaponized, and that's another story altogether.

Many people are concerned about the legacy of toxic hazards (chemical, biological and nuclear) that modern technology is leaving to future generations. This is mainly a result of fear and misinformation, which often takes the form of a monotonic view of toxicity. That is, the fear that if something is toxic in large doses, it will eventually prove to be toxic in even the tiniest doses, given long enough exposure. The scientific consensus simply doesn't support this, telling us instead that the dose determines the poison. Many things people are afraid of, including radiation and pesticides, are quite harmless in small doses and the levels allowed by current regulations include a ridiculously large margin for safety.

Social Organization

In many ways the level of social organization retained during a collapse is a better indicator of the degree of collapse than the level of technology.

I think it is clear that there will be much less organization, and that it will be in simpler in nature and less centralized. Another major defining feature of the years ahead (along with migration) will be the breakup of various political and economic federations, until the remaining political entities are small enough that they can hope to work with the existing transportation, communication and information infrastructure and the limited energy available to power it.

Many writers, when talking about collapse, fall into pipe dreams about their favorite political and social systems rising to a higher level of prominence that they currently enjoy, and the ideologies that they oppose falling on hard times. I find this quite improbable.

There will be a greater degree of isolation between communities than we have today and a lack of the wherewithal for these communities to force their ideas on others. Because of this, "dissensus" will be easier to do than it is today and many different approaches will be tried. This is a good thing—there is a chance that at least some of these approaches will be successful adaptations to the new conditions.

Having said all this about the end points of collapse, I should make it clear that the paths we'll take to get there are anything but straightforward—they will have some interesting twists and turns that I think most people aren't expecting. That will be a recurring theme in my next few posts.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

What I've Been Reading, May 2017

Links

These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month.

Books

Fiction

  • Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer
    Great read, saturated with original ideas. But totally oblivious to the role of surplus energy in enabling civilization.
  • Cold Welcome, by Elizabeth Moon
    Another pirate/privateer/military story with a strong female protagonist. I wonder what Freud would say....
  • Forty Words for Sorrow, by Giles Blunt
    A murder mystery, for a change. This one sited here in Ontario. I have a weakness for mysteries in unique locales: Walt Longmire in Wyoming, Jommy Perez in the Shetland Islands, Sonchai Jitpleecheep in Bangkok.
  • Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow
    Another book full of ideas, some of which I had thought I'd originated, but here Doctorow is doing innovative things with them while I'm still in the starting blocks.

Non-Fiction

And a few from my bookshelf that I have read over the last few years:

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Collapse Step-by-Step, Part 1: Unevenly, Unsteadily and Unequally

My Front Yard Garden in Kincardine, Ontario, Canada — May 23, 2017
Recently planted and freshly rained on.

Some months ago I promised to finally get around to writing a set of posts dealing with the specific nature of the collapse that lies ahead of us, and how we might best cope with it. In the meantime I had a few things to cover to lay the foundation for such a discussion. Well, I have finished that foundation, and the time has finally come for a closer look at collapse.

Out there in the real world, it's gardening time and I've just finished getting the majority of my gardens planted. Beans and squash will have to wait until it warms up just a little more. But now I have more time to work on this blog.

I've just finished a series of four posts ( 1, 2, 3, 4 ) on threats to mankind's continued existence which brought me to the conclusion that there is around one chance in five that we'll be extinct by the end of this century, and almost a certainty that we'll experience at least some degree of societal collapse during that time period.

So I think my readers could be forgiven for getting the impression that I am expecting some sort of apocalypse. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The collapse I am expecting is of the slow, bumpy and "yucky" variety. I've talked about this before, but always briefly, trying to squeeze a lot of information into a few sentences. It's a topic that I think deserves to be looked at in more detail.

I was listening to one of KMO's C-Realm Vault podcasts (#247) the other day and he gave a very clear exposition of what I also happen to think about mankind's future. So full credit to KMO for putting the seeds of the next couple of paragraphs in my mind. How they grew once they got there is entirely my responsibility. And by the way, do consider subscribing to the C-Realm Vault, those podcasts are definitely worth the price of admission.

I think it likely (80%) that we will avoid extinction during this century. Eventually of course, like almost all species, our days will come to an end. But that's most likely some hundreds of thousands of years away.

I do expect we will see a significant drop in our population during this century. Also a big decline in the amount of energy we use on a per capital basis, and along with that the level of organization and technology we have at our finger tips will be reduced considerably. That's what I mean when I'm talking about collapse.

But I have to admit that the idea of apocalypse has quite an attraction. If you're a romantic kind of day dreamer (or a writer of apocalyptic science fiction), a quick and dramatic end of civilization does have a certain appeal. You can easily imagine you and your loved ones facing the challenges of survival, in a world from which have been removed all the irritating elements of modern life. You no longer have a job, you don't have to go to work and many other irritating demands on your time have disappeared. You can concentrate on what's important and the situation makes it pretty clear what that is. Further, your debts have been wiped out and along with them all those monthly bills.

If you've been anticipating something like this, perhaps you've even been developing useful skills and squirreling away just the sort of tools and supplies you need to get you through the rough parts. You might even end up being the hero of the piece. And in this sort of day dream it's easy to gloss over the unpleasant (indeed horrific) aspects of such a situation.

In contrast, I think my version of collapse is already nicely underway. Reality is already quite "yucky" for a great many people and can be expected to get worse as collapse continues and picks up momentum. The irritating parts of modern life seem to be getting worse and can be expected to continue in that direction. You may well lose your job, but the banks aren't going to go away just yet and neither are the bill collectors. And the whole thing is likely to take decades to unwind. Currently, and probably during much of what lies ahead, it won't be completely clear that a collapse is actually taking place and can be blamed for you troubles. More and more people will become intimately acquainted with what it means to be poor and for those of us who are first and foremost good consumers, this will be a bitter pill.

No doubt we will often ask, "Why me?" In large part the answer is that we've had the misfortune to be born into the period in history when the supply of high quality fossil fuels that has fueled the growth and increasing complexity of our civilization for the last few centuries is running out. And along with it the ability of the biosphere to absorb the byproducts of that burning without deleterious changes, especially to the climate. For more details, see my last post.

But why do I think the collapse will proceed slowly? Some writers who are aware of these issues point to the complex network of connections that is our modern global society and say that because those connections are so vital, that once a few of them break the whole thing will fall down like a house of cards, "apocalyptically". Perhaps, on a timescale of millennia, a collapse like this can be viewed as talking place "quickly", but for those who are living through the experience, far from it. A planet such as ours is a big place, and a society such as ours is a large and tenacious organization, with a huge amount of inertia. Powerful people, more than anyone else, have a vested interest in keeping things going more or less as they are. So we can be sure that every effort will be made to do just that. In the short term I think those efforts will often be somewhat successful. In the long run, of course, they may prove more harmful than beneficial.

Other's will point to the concept embodied in Seneca's curve, named for the Roman philosopher who noted that things take a long time to get going but fall apart quickly. I have no quarrel with this, but I must point out that our present society took hundred of years to get going—from the European Renaissance in the 1300s, to the late1900s when things started to fall apart. That's not quite 700 years. Or if you want to take it from the invention of the steam engine, starting around 1700, that's still around 300 years. So a collapse that takes decades, even most of a century, is still following Seneca's curve. Thanks, by the way, to Ugo Bardi for the graphic and a clear explanation of what's involved in making that curve asymmetrical.

What do I mean by unevenly, unsteadily and unequally? I'm talking here about the irregular progress of collapse on three different scales: geographical, chronological and social. So, geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal.

First, let's look at geography. Natural resources are not spread out evenly, nor are they becoming exhausted in any sort of regular pattern. The human population is also spread out very unevenly. The effects of climate change and other ecological disasters vary from place to place as well. It is a large planet and it's various parts are separated by physical distance and the artificial distance enforced by political borders, so what happens in one place does not necessarily or immediately effect another. I fully expect to see some countries in an advanced stage of collapse while (a few) others, or at least parts of them, are still very much living in the twenty-first century and successfully pursuing advances that seem like science fiction today.

Second, there's time. Events are going to proceed at different speeds over time, even reversing themselves occasionally. Sometimes things will get worse so slowly that only by looking back over a period of years will we be able to detect any changes. At other times it will seem like the bottom has suddenly fallen out of our lives in a single day or hour. And sometimes, to the delight of those who don't believe in collapse, things will recover to some degree. The argument will then be made that this is just part of an economic cycle—the sort that "happens all the time".

Third there's society, or class within society. This is largely a matter of power and wealth, which are clearly related.

Those with power and wealth have the ability, to some degree at least, to isolate themselves from negative changes. Of course, when things finally catch up with them, they are probably less mentally prepared to cope with the situation, having become accustomed to a high standard of living and having copious resources close to hand with which to solve problems.

The poor, on the other hand, have long experience coping with the sort of circumstances that occur as collapse takes a step forward. To them it's just more of the same old shit. What can't be changed must be endured and they are good at that. But some things are beyond endurance and if you are without the resources to respond, you're out of luck and it may be the end of the story for you.

One of the obvious responses of the rich and powerful to a contracting economy is to make sure they get a larger share of the shrinking pie. As a consequence those outside of their select circle are left with a smaller share of that smaller pie. Inequality between the various strata of society will keep increasing, in fits and starts of course (staying with the theme of this post).

And of course we'll see combinations of all three sorts of variation—things collapsing at different rates in different places and differently for those in different socioeconomic classes. Some areas, as desertification or sea level rise progresses, will be largely abandoned. In the cities, more and more people will join the ranks of the homeless, abandoned as worthless by the society around them.

For those of us in the middle and upper classes (the top 20%), living in peaceful and economically successful western countries, it may be hard to tell that collapse is even happening—certainly not right now, not locally and not to the people we associate with. Even though things aren't going nearly so well in other parts of the world or for less fortunate people in our own area.

It is very easy not to look beyond our horizons (geographically, socially or chronologically), and live within a false cocoon of security. People living in such a cocoon are unlikely to take collapse seriously, to prepare for what is coming or to respond quickly enough when it starts to happen to them. Nor are they likely to offer much help to people who are farther along the collapse curve.

The conventional mass media do a good job of reinforcing our sense of security by largely ignoring "collapse-like" events in other parts of the world. Examples that come immediately to mind are the triple-digit inflation, rising crime, and shortages of food and medicine in Venezuela and the famines in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, which, so far, have been almost completely ignored in the western media. Syria is, I suppose, something of a counter example, although the news coverage we've had has missed important points about what is really going on there.

Of course, if you go looking on the internet, you can find lots of information about things you hear hardly a word about in the conventional media.

Another thing that varies is the social acceptability of the idea of collapse. I remember reading books back in the 1970s that predicted collapse, then the subject was largely unheard of for years, until the first few years of the new millennium when it appeared in the guise of "Peak Oil". This really got going after the economic crash in 2008 and continued until 2012 or '13. Then it petered out—with the "success" of fracking, Peak Oil was declared dead and the concept of collapse was once again not something to discuss in polite company. And now in 2017, perhaps spurred by events in the USA, collapse is once more being discussed by ordinary people, not just us dedicated kollapsniks.

At this point I find myself in danger of straying into areas that are the subjects of my next few posts. So, not wishing to trip over my own feet, I'll bring this to an end, and wait until my next post to continue talking about the bumpy path that lies ahead of us.

Note: in my last post, I was a little confused about the exact relationship between EROEI and "surplus energy". I have now edited that post to correct the problem. Thanks to Anti Troll at the Doomstead Diner for pointing this out. And thanks to RE at the Diner for allowing me to cross post to his site.