Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

In what has become a predictable status quo, President Obama recently renewed our official state of emergency with respect to the so-called War on Terror. It’s far too late to declare a new normal; we’ve been in this holding pattern for 16 years now. The article linked above provides this useful context:

There are now 32 states of national emergency pending in the United States, with the oldest being a 1979 emergency declared by President Jimmy Carter to impose sanctions during the Iran hostage crisis. Most are used to impose economic sanctions — mostly as a formality, because Congress requires it under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

In his term in office, Obama has declared 13 new emergencies, continued 21 declared by his predecessors and revoked just two, which imposed sanctions on Liberia and Russia.

Pro forma renewal of multiple states of national emergency is comparable to the 55-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, due for reauthorization next month, though indications are that the embargo may finally be relaxed or deauthorized. Both are examples of miserably failed policy, but they confer a semblance of power on the executive branch. Everyone knows by now that no one relinquishes power willingly, so Obama, like chief executives before him, keeps on keeping on ad nauseum.

Considering Obama’s credential as a Constitutional scholar, relatively unique among U.S. presidents, one might expect him to weigh his options with greater circumspection and with an eye toward restoring suspended civil liberties. However, he has shown little interest in doing so (as far as I know). In combination with the election only a couple months away, the U.S. appears to be in a position similar to Germany in 1932 — ready and willing to elect a despot (take your pick …) and continue its slide into fascism. Can’t even imagine avoiding that outcome now.

The surprising number of ongoing emergencies makes me point to James Howard Kunstler and his book The Long Emergency (2006). Though I haven’t read the book (I’m a failed doomer, I suppose), my understanding is that his prediction of a looming and lingering emergency is based on two intertwined factors currently playing out in geopolitics: peak oil and global warming. (“Climate change” is now preferred over “global warming.”) Those two dire threats (and the California drought) have faded somewhat from the headlines, partially due to fatigue, replaced primarily by terrorism and economic stresses, but the dangers never went away. Melting icecaps and glaciers are probably the clearest incontrovertible indications of anthropogenic global warming, which is poised to trigger nonlinear climate change and hasten the Sixth Extinction. We don’t know when, precisely, though time is growing short. Similarly, reports on energy production and consumption are subject to considerable falsification in the public sphere, making it impossible to know just how close in time we are to a new energy crisis. That inevitability has also been the target of a disinformation campaign, but even a rudimentary understanding of scientific principles is sufficient to enable clear thinkers to penetrate the fog.

I have no plans to return to doom blogging with any vigor. One emergency stacked upon the next, ready to collapse in a cascade of woe, has defeated me, and I have zero expectation that any real, meaningful response can be formulated and executed, especially while we are distracted with terrorism and creeping fascism.

I found a curious blog post called “Stupid Things People Do When Their Society Breaks Down” at a website called alt-market.com, which has a subheading that reads “Sovereignty • Integrity • Prosperity.” I haven’t delved far at all into the site, but it appears to offer alternative news and advice for preppers. The blog post uses the terms liberty activists and preparedness-minded, the first of which I found a little self-congratulatory. Existence of anarchist movements, which include The Liberty Movement (mentioned in the comments at the site), have been known to me for some time, but my personal response to the prospect (indeed, inevitability) of collapse does not fit with theirs. Quoted below are the introductory paragraph, headings (seven stupid things referred to in the title), and truncated blurbs behind each (apologies for the long quote). My comments follow.

A frequent mistake that many people make when considering the concept of social or economic collapse is to imagine how people and groups will behave tomorrow based on how people behave today. It is, though, extremely difficult to predict human behavior in the face of terminal chaos. What we might expect, or what Hollywood fantasy might showcase for entertainment purposes, may not be what actually happens when society breaks down.

They Do Nothing. It’s sad to say, but the majority of people, regardless of the time or place in history, have a bad habit of ignoring the obvious.

They Sabotage Themselves With Paranoia. Even in the early stages of a social breakdown when infrastructure is still operational, paranoia among individuals and groups can spread like a poison.

They Become Shaky And Unreliable When The Going Gets Tough. This is why early organization is so important; it gives you time to learn the limitations and failings of the people around you before the SHTF.

They Become Hotheads And Tyrants. On the other side of the coin, there are those individuals who believe that if they can control everything and everyone in their vicinity then this will somehow mitigate the chaos of the world around them. They are people who secretly harbor fantasies of being kings during collapse.

They Become Political Extremists. Throughout most modern collapses, two politically extreme ideologies tend to bubble to the surface — communism and fascism. Both come from the same root psychosis, the psychosis of collectivism.

They Become Religious Zealots. Zealotry is essentially fanaticism to the point of complete moral ambiguity. Everyone who does not believe the way the zealot believes is the “other,” and the other is an enemy that must be annihilated.

They Abandon Their Moral Compass. Morally relative people when discovered are usually the first to be routed out or the first to die in survival situations because they cannot be trusted. No one wants to cooperate with them except perhaps other morally relative people.

Despite my basic disagreement that it’s possible to prepare effectively anymore for industrial collapse (or indeed that survival is necessarily a desirable thing in a collapse scenario), the advice seems to me pretty solid given the caveat that it’s “extremely difficult to predict human behavior in the face of terminal chaos.” However, they’re all negative lessons. One can certainly learn from the mistakes of history and attempt to avoid repeating them. (We have a predictably poor track record of learning from historical mistakes.) It may well be a case of hindsight bias that what looks perfectly clear from past examples can be used as a sort of template for best-laid-plans for both the process and aftermath of what may well be (by the article’s own admission) a protracted phase of social unrest and breakdown.

That said, let me argue just one thing, namely, why it may not be stupid (as the article opines rather flatly) after all to do nothing in preparation for rather foreseeable difficulties. Long answer short, it simply won’t matter. Whatever the precipitating event or process, the collapse of industrial civilization, unlike previous civilizational collapses, will be global. Moreover, it will be accompanied by ecological collapse and a global extinction event (process) on par with at least five previous mass extinctions. The world will thus be wrecked for human habitation on anything but the shortest additional term over those who perish at the outset. This is before one takes into account climate change (already underway but could become abrupt and nonlinear at any time) and the inevitable irradiation of the planet when 400+ nuclear sites go critical.

It’s not unusual for me to be accused of a convenient fatalism, of doing nothing because the alternative (doing something) is too difficult. That accusation sticks, of course; I won’t dispute it. However, my reading of trends guarantees the impossibility of stalling, much less reversing, our current trajectory and further suggests that the window of opportunity closed approximately forty years ago during the oil crisis and ecology movement of the 1970s. I would certainly throw my weight, influence, and effort (which are for all practical purposes nil) behind doing what is still possible to undo the worst instances of human corruption and despoliation. In addition, it seems to me worthwhile to map out what it would mean to meet our collective doom with grace, integrity, and yes, grim determination. That’s not doing nothing, but I’ve seen remarkably little discussion of those possible responses. What I see plenty of instead is a combination of bunker mentality and irrational desire for righteous punishment of perpetual enemies as we each cross death’s door. Both are desperate last hurrahs, final expressions of human frailty in the face of intractable and unfathomable loss. These, too, are the false promises of the last crop of presidential hopefuls, who ought to know quite well that presiding over collapse might just be worst possible vantage point, possessed of the full power of the state yet unable to overcome the force of momentum created by our own history.

A friend gave me William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail to read a couple years ago and it sat on my shelf until just recently. At only 93 pp. (with bibliographical recommendations and endnotes), it’s a slender volume but contains a good synopsis of the dynamics that doom civilizations. I’ve been piecing together the story of industrial civilization and its imminent collapse for about eight years now, so I didn’t expect Ophuls’ analysis to break new ground, which indeed it didn’t (at least for me). However, without my own investigations already behind me, I would not have been too well convinced by Ophuls’ CliffsNotes-style arguments. Armed with what I already learned, Ophuls is preaching to the choir (member).

The book breaks into two parts: biophysical limitations and cultural impediments borne out of human error. Whereas I’m inclined to award greater importance to biophysical limits (e.g., carrying capacity), particularly but not exclusively as civilizations overshoot and strip their land and resource bases, I was surprised to read this loose assertion:

… maintaining a civilization takes a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, and the latter is actually the most important. [p. 51]

Upon reflection, it seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first, increased and unmet demands for inputs or exhausted and/or diminished inputs due to human factors? The historical record of failed empires and civilizations offers examples attributable to both. For instance, the Incan civilization is believed to have risen and fallen on the back of climate change, whereas the fall of the Roman and British Empires stems more from imperial overreach. Reasons are never solely factor A or B, of course; a mixture of dynamic effects is easily discoverable. Still, the question is inevitable for industrial civilization now on a trajectory toward extinction no less that other (already extinct) civilizations, especially for those who believe it possible to learn from past mistakes and avoid repetition.

(more…)

I get exasperated when I read someone insisting dogmatically upon ideological purity. No such purity exists, as we are all participants, in varying degrees, in the characteristics of global civilization. One of those characteristics is the thermodynamic cycle of energy use and consumption that gradually depletes available energy. The Second Law guarantees depletion, typically over cosmological time frames, but we are seeing it manifest over human history as EROI decreases dramatically since the start of the fossil fuel era. So playing gotcha by arguing, for instance, “You use electricity, too, right? Therefore, you have no right to tell me what I can and can’t do with electricity!” is laughably childish. Or put another way, if even an inkling of agreement exists that maybe we should conserve, forgo needless waste, and accept some discomfort and hardship, then it’s typically “you first” whenever the issue is raised in the public sphere.

In a risible article published at Townhall.com, Michelle Malkin calls the Pope a hypocrite for having added his authority to what scientists and environmentalists have been saying: we face civilization-ending dangers from having fouled our own nest, or “our common home” as the Pope calls it. As though that disrespect were not yet enough, Malkin also tells the Pope essentially to shut it:

If the pontiff truly believes “excessive consumption” of modern conveniences is causing evil “climate change,” will he be shutting down and returning the multi-million-dollar system Carrier generously gifted to the Vatican Museums?

If not, I suggest, with all due respect, that Pope Francis do humanity a favor and refrain from blowing any more hot air unless he’s willing to stew in his own.

The disclaimer “with all due respect” does nothing to ease the audacity of a notorious ideologue columnist picking a fight over bogus principles with the leader of the world’s largest church, who (I might add) is slowly regaining some of the respect the Catholic Church lost over the past few scandalous decades. I suspect Malkin is guilelessly earnest in the things she writes and found a handy opportunity to promote the techno-triumphalist book she researched and wrote for Mercury Ink (owned by Glenn Beck). However, I have no trouble ignoring her completely, since she clearly can’t think straight.

Plenty of other controversy followed in the wake of the latest papal encyclical, Laudato Si. That’s to be expected, I suppose, but religious considerations and gotcha arguments aside, the Pope is well within the scope of his official concern to sound the alarm alongside the scientific community that was once synonymous with the Church before they separated. If indeed Pope Francis has concluded that we really are in the midst of both an environmental disaster and a mass extinction (again, more process than event), it’s a good thing that he’s bearing witness. Doomers like me believe it’s too little, too late, and that our fate is already sealed, but there will be lots of ministry needed when human die-offs get rolling. Don’t bother seeking any sort of grace from Michelle Malkin.

Following up the idea of resource consumption discussed in this post, I stumbled across this infographic (click on graphic for full-size version):

.
The infographic wasn’t published on Earth Day (April 22), but it might should have been. Also, concern with what starting date to use when naming the current geological epoch after ourselves (the Anthropocene), while perhaps interesting, is more than a little self-congratulatory — but in the darkest sense, since we wrecked everything. I have nothing further to say about the futility of naming a geological epoch after ourselves considering how it marks our self-annihilation and soon enough no one will be left to know or care.

Let me describe briefly what else the infographic shows. In the extremely tiny slice of geological time (1760–2010 CE) shown along the x-axis, we have been on a gradually rising trend of consumption (measured by human population, air pollution, energy use, large dams, and more recently, number of motor vehicles), which is mirrored by a decreasing trend in available resources (measured in tropical forest area and number of species). The author, Haisam Hussein, notes that around 1950, trends began a steep acceleration (in both directions), which have not yet reached their limits. Of course, there are limits, despite what ideologues may say.

To recharacterize in slightly more recognizable terms, let’s say that the entire human population is the equivalent of Easter Islanders back in the day when they were cutting down now-extinct Rapa Nui palms as part of their ongoing project of building monuments to themselves. The main difference is that the whole planet stands in for Easter Island. And instead of palm trees, let’s say our signature resource is a money tree, because, after all, money makes the world go around and it grows on trees. Easter Island was completely forested up to about 1200 CE but became treeless by around 1650 CE. The trend was unmistakable, and the mind boggles now (hindsight being 20/20) at what must have been going on in the minds of the islanders who cut down the last tree. Here’s the equally obvious part: the planet (the money tree) is also a bounded (finite) ecosystem, though larger than Easter Island, and we’re in the process of harvesting it as fast as we can go because, don’t ya know, there’s profit to be made — something quite different from having enough to live comfortable, meaningful lives.

So we’re not yet down to our final tree, but we’re accelerating toward that eventuality. It’s unclear, too, what number of trees constitutes a viable population for reproductive purposes. When considering the entire planet as an interlocking ecosystem, the question might be better posed as the number of species needed to maintain the lives of, say, large mammals like us. Aggregate human activity keeps whittling away at those species. Of course, the last money tree isn’t a physical tree like the Rapa Nui palm; it’s a social construct where ROI on continued mining, drilling, manufacturing, harvesting, building, paving, transportation, distribution, etc. runs its course and all profit-making activity comes to a screeching halt. The so-called shale oil miracle that promised eventual U.S. energy independence only a few moons ago has already busted (it was going to anyway as production tailed off quickly) and job losses keep piling up (tens and hundreds of thousands worldwide). Consider that a small, inconsequential brake on accelerating trends. Where things get really interesting is when that bust/halt spreads to every sector and food/energy supplies are no longer available in your neighborhood, or possibly, just about anywhere unless you grow your own food well away from population centers.

Virtually every failed bygone civilization provides evidence that we, too, will proceed doing what we’re doing heedlessly: cutting down trees until at last there are no more. Again, the mind boggles: what could possibly be going on in the minds of those holding the reins of power and who know where we’re headed (to oblivion) yet keep us pointed there steadfastly? And why don’t more of us regular folks also know our trajectory and take to task our leaders for failing to divert from our trip into the dustbin of history?

Dave Pollard, who blogs at How to Save the World, published an article in Shift Magazine called “See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse.” The subtitle in particular intrigued me because devising ways to respond to collapse is more realistic than forestalling it or attempting to fix things. Pollard often organizes his thinking in terms of infographics and offers the doomer taxonomy shown below. He admits considerable overlap between categories and migration between them as individuals confront the issues and learn more about what is either possible or desirable. The categories divide nearly in half (by type, not population) into collapsniks and salvationists, with two additional categories of fence-sitters at opposite ends of the vertical axis, which represents hope or optimism as one ascends to the top. (more…)

Nafeez Ahmed has published a two-part article at Motherboard entitled “The End of Endless Growth” (see part 1 and part 2). Commentary there is, as usual, pretty nasty, so I only skimmed and won’t discuss it. Ahmed’s first part says that things are coming to their useful ends after an already extended period of decline, but the second argues instead that we’re already in the midst of a phase shift as (nothing less than) civilization transforms itself, presumably into something better. Ahmed can apparently already see the end of the end (at the start of a new year, natch). In part 1, he highlights primarily the work of one economist, Mauro Bonaiuti of the University of Turin (Italy), despite Bonaiuti standing on the shoulders of numerous scientists far better equipped to read the tea leaves, diagnose, and prognosticate. Ahmed (via Bonaiuti) acknowledges that crisis is upon us:

It’s the New Year, and the global economic crisis is still going strong. But while pundits cross words over whether 2015 holds greater likelihood of a recovery or a renewed recession, new research suggests they all may be missing the bigger picture: that the economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature.

“Civilization’s relationship with nature” is precisely what Ahmed misunderstands throughout the two articles. His discussion of declining EROEI and exponential increases in population, resource extraction and consumption, energy use and CO2 emissions, and species extinction are good starting points, but he connects the wrong dots. He cites Bonauiti’s conclusion that “endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and, relatedly, entropy.” Yet he fails to understand what that means beyond the forced opportunity to reset, adapt, and reorganize according to different social models.

At no point does Ahmed mention the rather obvious scenario where many billions of people die from lack of clean water, food, and shelter when industrial civilization grinds to a halt — all this before we have time to complete our phase shift. At no point does Ahmed mention the likelihood of widespread violence sparked by desperate populations facing immediate survival pressure. At no point does Ahmed mention the even worse likelihood of multiple nuclear disasters (hundreds!) when infrastructure fails and nuclear plants start popping like firecrackers.

What does Ahmed focus on instead? He promises “cheap, distributed clean energy” (going back up the EROEI slope) and a transition away from industrial agriculture toward relocalization and agroecology. However, these are means of extending population, consumption, and despoliation further into overshoot, not plans for sustainability at a far lower population. Even more worrisome, Ahmed also cites ongoing shifts in information, finance, and ethics, all of which are sociological constructs that have been reified in the modern world. These shifts are strikingly “same, only different” except perhaps the ethics revolution. Ahmed says we’re already witnessing a new ethics arising: “a value system associated with the emerging paradigm is … supremely commensurate with what most of us recognize as ‘good’: love, justice, compassion, generosity.” I just don’t see it yet. Rather, I see continued accumulation of power and wealth among oligarchs and plutocrats, partly through the use of institutionalized force (looking increasingly like mercenaries and henchmen).

Also missing from Ahmed’s salve for our worries is discussion of ecological collapse in the form of climate change and its host of associated causes and effects. At a fundamental level, the biophysical conditions for life on earth are changing from the relative steady state of the last 200,000 years or so that humans have existed, or more broadly, the 65 million years since the last major extinction event. The current rate of change is far too rapid for evolution and culture to adapt. New ways of managing information, economics, and human social structures simply cannot keep up.

All that said, well, sure, let’s get going and do what can be done. I just don’t want to pretend that we’re anywhere close to a new dawn.

In a recent comments thread at Nature Bats Last, I reopened the question (in a short-lived discussion) whether those of us convinced of the truth of climate change and the specter of Near-Term Extinction (NTE — always contingent upon events yet to occur but nonetheless foreseeable) should be raising awareness now that it’s too late to do anything meaningful about it. Specifically, Guy McPherson continues to travel around reporting the science and drawing conclusions, with epistemological and confidence-shaking effects on his audiences. Q&A sessions that often follow his presentations are problematical because participants, if they’re honest, find no refuge from the death sentence levied against humanity. Yet many of them, perhaps confronting the issue for the first time in earnest (it’s been out there at the fringes for decades), cling desperately to the faith and/or hope that something — anything — must be done to appeal, reverse, or forestall the inevitable. The mental gymnastics required to do so are obvious, and members of the public have plenty of company in ongoing media and political debate that has succeeded for decades in blocking responses to negative impacts of our own behaviors in favor of business as usual. So as evidence continues to mount and manifest before our eyes with, for example, habitat loss, collapsing animal populations, disappearing sea ice, and increased frequency and intensity of destructive weather events and trends, the expectation is that, on the heels of a presentation or revelation, someone will have a moment of severe existential crisis (waiting for all of us, frankly) and perhaps decide to kill the messenger.

A few days ago, I became aware (via Ugo Bardi’s blog Resource Crisis) of one such messenger: a fake expert being interviewed by a fake news anchor on a fake news show. I’ve embedded the fictional scene below. (more…)

I am usually so slow getting posts finalized that the subject matter has already been treated voluminously by others better equipped than me in terms of timeliness and comprehensiveness, often in book form rather than news reports or blog posts. However, I sometimes get to something first, such as a brief article in the New York Times entitled “Three Divergent Visions of Our Future Under Climate Change,” which resembles my blog series reviewing three different approaches to the prospect of NTE. I won’t congratulate myself with the inference that the NYT got the idea from me, since it reviews three books rather than three blog posts as I did, but the subject matter overlaps. The three books are these:

  1. The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman,
  2. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and
  3. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein.

Links go to publishers’ websites rather than Amazon.com. I have little to add to the exceedingly light NYT book review other than to observe that, in typical degraded journalistic fashion, it entertains both sides of the issue before arriving wanly at the conclusion that the worst-case scenario contemplated by Oreskes and Conway probably hews closer to reality than those offered by the other two authors.

Beyond pointing to further treatments of the dark prognosis for the planet, I want to collect my thoughts on the topic. No one has asked for such a summary, just as no one has made a substantive comment (as yet) on any of the posts in this series. That’s not sour grapes; I write this blog primarily for my own sake, mostly to solidify my thinking, and rather expect to be completely irrelevant in the wider public sphere. The usual multiple agendas to drive traffic, sell books, campaign for office, indulge in punditry, or otherwise influence the public mind are not part of my motivation.

(more…)

Peter Van Buren has a new book out and is flogging it at TomDispatch. He’s a good enough writer, so I have no objection to the promotional aspect of disseminating his own work. But as I read his article describing an America gone to seed, I realized that for all his writerly skill, he misses the point. As a former State Dept. administrator (charged with assisting Iraqi reconstruction) turned whistle-blower, Van Buren is clearly outside the mainstream media and somewhat outside mainstream opinion, yet he appears to be well within the dominant paradigm. His new spin on regime change takes as implicit all the teachings of economics and politics as systems ideally suited to engineering an equitable social contract where everyone benefits. But as cycles of history have shown, those systems are even more prone to manipulation by a power elite who care little about people they pretend to serve. Whether that carelessness is learned or ingrained in the kleptocracy plutocracy is open to debate.

Van Buren’s article offers a few interesting tidbits, including a couple neologisms (I’m always on the lookout for new coin):

dirt shadow = the faint but legible image left behind an uninstalled sign on the exterior of a closed storefront or building

street gravy = the dirt and grunge that collects over time on a homeless person

Neither is too picaresque. The second is obviously a (sad because it’s too hip) euphemism, since gravy suggests richness whereas the actuality is downright unpleasant. As Van Buren surveys, similar unpleasantness is currently experienced all across America in towns and niche economies that have imploded. Interestingly, his counterexample is a U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune located in North Carolina, that functions as a gated community with the added irony that it is supported by public funds. Van Buren also notes that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, an average active-duty service member receives a benefits and pay compensation package estimated to be worth $99,000, some 60 percent of it in noncash compensation.

If there is a cause why our regime is in disarray, however, Van Buren busies himself with standard economic and political (one might even say military-industrial) explanations, demonstrating an inability to frame the decline of empire as the beginning of an epochal shift away from plentiful energy resources, famously termed The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. (We ought to resurrect that phrase.) Other frames of reference are certainly not without their impacts, but the inability to connect all the dots to see the underlying cause is commonplace in the mainstream.

In contrast, consider this passage from Harvesting the Biosphere by Vaclav Smil:

There are two simple explanations why food production in traditional agricultural societies — despite its relatively high need for claiming new arable land — had a limited impact on natural ecosystems: very low population growth rates and very slow improvements in prevailing diets. Population growth rates averaged no more than 0.05% during the antiquity and they reached maxima of just 0.07% in medieval Eurasia — resulting in very slow expansion of premodern societies: it took Europe nearly 1,500 years to double the population it had when Rome became an empire, and Asian doubling was only a bit faster, from the time of China’s Han dynasty to the late Ming period. [pp. 118–119]

Smil goes on to provide exhaustive detail, much of it measurement (with acknowledged ranges of error), showing how modern mechanisms and energy exploitation have enabled rapid population growth. Although population has (apparently) not yet peaked, we are already sliding back down the energy gradient we climbed over the past 250 years and will soon enough face widespread food shortages (among other things) as productivity plummets due to diminishing energy inputs and accumulated environmental destruction (including climate change). Economics and politics do not possess solutions to that prospect. That’s the real dirt in the historical narrative, which remains largely uncovered (unreported) by paradigmatic thinking.