|Lake Huron Shore|
at Kincardine, Feb 16, 2017
For quite a while now I've been promising that I'd get around to talking about collapse: why I believe it's what lies ahead or, more accurately, what's already happening; the sort of collapse I'm expecting; the way it's going to unfold; and what we can do about coping with it.
Now, finally, I am going to get started on this, with a discussion about "Business As Usual" (BAU) and why I think a continuation of things as they are is among our least likely futures. If you try to discuss this with people who aren't already kollapsniks, you'll find it is not a popular subject. I can see a couple of reasons for this.
First, thanks to the media, collapse has come to mean apocalypse—the sort of rapid and disastrous change that results in a world like that portrayed in movies like Mad Max, The Road or Terminator. If you've been convinced that collapse is a swift, sure and final disaster, there's little wonder that you wouldn't want to dwell on the idea and would prefer to keep BAU going for as long as possible.
Second, many people see themselves as benefitting from BAU. In the short run they are probably right. These are the kind of people who have a certain amount (in some cases rather a lot) of power and influence. They don't want to consider anything that might "upset the apple cart", so to speak.
Of course, many other people aren't doing quite so well. Rob Mielcarski*, in a blog post titled It’s Time to Get Real: Trump’s a Symptom, Not the Problem comments that lower and middle class citizens around the world are angry for good reasons:
- Their incomes have been stagnant or falling despite governments telling them the economy is strong.
- Their cost of living for things that matter has been rising despite governments telling them inflation is low.
- They see the upper class getting richer and not being punished for crimes.
- They carry a high debt load and see that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.
- For the first time in a long time they worry that the future may be worse than the present.
- They sense that something is broken and that leaders are not speaking the truth.
But even these people don't want to want to talk about the demise of BAU—they just want it fixed so that it works for them as well as for the rich and powerful. Politicians are clever enough to realize that by promising to make such fixes they can win the support and votes of these folks. The pitch is that with just a few changes to the system—just some fine tuning, really—BAU can be made to work for everyone and as well as it "used to" in some mythical time a few decades ago when everything was good. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populist parties in many countries is proof that this is a winning political strategy. At least in the short run.
I'll go into much more detail in an upcoming post, but it seems to me that the changes promised by Trump et al, for instance, aren't likely to fix what's wrong with the world. Details aside, there is a simple reason for this—their strategy is based on a lie.
Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.
Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.
At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussions of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.
- Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
- There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
- Economic activity, globalization and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
- The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
- Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
- Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.
If you have faith in BAU, this is what you believe in—probably without even realizing it. Holmgren intends this to be a list of improbabilities so extreme that the reader will see there is simply no chance that BAU can continue for much longer. I agree. But we have grown so far out of touch with reality that I fear many will look at that list and say, "So what's the problem?" And for those of us who do see a problem with some of these ideas, there are a couple more ideas that are often stated as reassurances to anyone expressing doubts:
The first is "infinite substitutability", the idea put forth by main stream economists that as resources become depleted they become more expensive and this creates the incentive to develop substitutes. They think this is the answer to resource depletion and that it has no limits.
The second is "decoupling", the idea that we can develop technology that will allow a continually growing economy (sustainable development) which does not place an ever increasing burden on the environment, allowing BAU to continue on without limits.
But these two ideas are at least as unrealistic as the ones that Holmgren lists. They stem from some serious misconceptions:
First, the view of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, ignoring its vital inputs (energy and materials) and outputs (waste heat and pollution). Because supplies of energy and materials, and sinks to absorb waste heat and pollution are all finite, there are real, concrete limits to how long BAU can go on.
And second, the idea that technology can continue to advance at an ever increasing pace—the supposed "law of accelerating returns". This comes from mistaking an "S" or logistical curve that levels off after a period of rapid increase for one that continues rising toward a singularity. It is true that technology has enabled us to inch up closer to those planetary limits over the last century or so—"kicking the can" down the road every time trouble looms ahead of us (excuse the mixed metaphors). But think back to my recent posts (1, 2) on Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies—we have done this by adding complexity to our global industrial society. Complexity comes with ever decreasing marginal returns on our investments in it. And it is powered by energy, of which there is a limited supply.
Already we have picked the low hanging fruit of energy and mineral resources, supplies of fresh water and arable land. There is good reason to think that the same thing is happening with technological innovation—we've done the easy parts, which have given us unwarranted confidence in what remains to be achieved with technology. But further advances will be much harder to develop, cost more, and bear diminishing returns.
Substitutability is running into limits as resources become more depleted—we are finding that there simply are no substitutes for many resources. And there is no evidence that decoupling is happening to any significant extent, or ever was.
So, BAU is based on growth, and a lie about the long term viability of growth. If growth is the problem, then why do we need growth? What if we stopped growing? A close look at the underlying structure of BAU reveals it is not structured to work without continued growth.
Economic growth is necessary in BAU because our financial system is based on credit. It creates money by issuing debt, which must be paid back with interest. If businesses are to pay that interest as well as the principle, they must grow. Likewise, individuals who borrow to finance education or housing early in their lives must make more money later in their lives to pay off those loans with interest. Population growth is also necessary since it supports economic growth. And since the younger generation supports the older generation in their old age (either directly or via taxes), the younger generation must be larger if this is not to be an onerous burden.
Last fall I wrote a series of posts about the book The Limits to Growth which examines in detail the consequences of growth using system dynamic computer simulations. This is the "discussion about planetary limits" that Heinberg was referring to. If you haven't read those posts, it's worth having a quick look.
- The Club of Rome and a System Dynamics Model of the World
- The Limits to Growth, Part 1: the nature of exponential growth, the limits to exponential growth
- The Limits to Growth, Part 2: Growth in the World System, Technology and the Limits to Growth
- The Limits to Growth, Part 3: More on Technology and the Limits to Growth
- The Limits to Growth, Part 4: The State of Global Equilibrium
- The Limits to Growth, Part 5: Commentary, My Thoughts and The Boundaries of Solution Space
The Limits to Growth study makes it clear that there really are limits to growth and if we try to exceed those limits, instead of accepting and living within them, the consequences will be severe. The standard run of the LTG world model, which assumes things just continue on as usual, ends with a drastic drop off of human population in the latter half of this century. Resource depletion and pollution result in a failure to produce adequate food supplies and essential services. Indeed every run of the model that tried to find a way around the limits ended in similar results. Those results were avoided only in the runs where a way was found to control our population and live within our limits.
Of course, that study was done in the early 1970s. In 2017 resource depletion and pollution (especially climate change) have progressed much farther and our population has more than doubled. I'd say there is every reason to doubt that a collapse can be avoided, regardless of what we do.
In the light of all this, then, is there anything at all that can be done to mitigate the situation?
Well yes, actually. While BAU is fundamentally, structurally flawed and trying to keep it working will only make the situation worse, there is much that could be done to slow its demise, make sure that collapse doesn't take us as far down as is otherwise might, and to make the crash when we hit bottom as gentle as possible.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled A Political Fantasy, exploring what enlightened governments could do to achieve this, if they weren't saddled with political realities.
- The Great Contraction: economics in the age of scarcity
- Technology Isn't the Answer, depending on what question you're asking...
- A Political Fantasy, Part 1: Conservation, Decentralization, Rehumanization
- A Political Fanatsy, Part 2: Money and the Financial System
- A Political Fantasy, Part 3: Energy, EROEI and Non-renewable Sources
- A Political Fantasy, Part 4: Renewable Energy Sources
- A Political Fantasy, Part 5: using energy wisely when we don't have much
- A Political Fantasy, Part 6, Agriculture: an Overview
- A Political Fantasy, Part 7, Agriculture: Details
- A Political Fantasy, Part 8, Agriculture: What Lies Ahead
If, like me, you have little faith in governments doing the right thing to any significant extent, the good news is that there are also a great many things that can be done to mitigate collapse at the individual, family and local community level. And that is why I want to discuss collapse with people.
In my next few posts I'll be talking about the course that I expect collapse to take, the political realities that will contribute to this and what we can do to cope.
* Rob Mielcarski is a fellow blogger, who I met when he commented on one of my blog posts. He is very concerned about human overshoot and the damage we are doing to a very rare and precious planet, and deeply fascinated by the depth and breadth of our denial of the situation.
** Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He is the author of thirteen books, and presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
*** David Holmgren is an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator and writer. He is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept with Bill Mollison. His website Future Scenarios looks at Four Energy Descent and Climate Scenarios.