Posts Tagged ‘Collapse’

I’ll try to be relatively brief, since I’ve been blogging about industrial and ecological collapse for more than a decade. Jeff Gibbs released a new documentary called Planet of the Humans (sideways nod to the dystopian movie franchises Planet of the Apes — as though humans aren’t also apes). Gibbs gets top billing as the director, but this is clearly a Michael Moore film, who gets secondary billing as the executing producer. The film includes many of Moore’s established eccentricities, minus the humor, and is basically an exposé on greenwashing: the tendency of government agencies, environmental activists, and capitalist enterprises to coopt and transform earnest environmental concern into further profit-driven destruction of the natural environment. Should be no surprise to anyone paying attention, despite the array of eco-luminaries making speeches and soundbites about “green” technologies that purport to save us from rendering the planet uninhabitable. Watching them fumble and evade when answering simple, direct questions is a clear indication of failed public-relations approaches to shaping the narrative.

Turns out that those ballyhooed energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, biofuel, biomass) ride on the back of fossil fuels and aren’t any more green or sustainable than the old energy sources they pretend to replace. Again, no surprise if one has even a basic understanding of the dynamics of energy production and consumption. That admittedly sounds awfully jaded, but the truth has been out there for a long time already for anyone willing and able to confront it. Similarly, the documentary mentions overpopulation, another notorious elephant in the room (or herd of elephants, as aptly put in the film), but it’s not fully developed. Entirely absent is any question of not meeting energy demand. That omission is especially timely given how, with the worldwide economy substantially scaled back at present and with it significant demand destruction (besides electricity), the price of oil has fallen through the floor. Nope, the tacit assumption is that energy demand must be met despite all the awful short- and long-term consequences.

Newsfeeds indicate that the film has sparked considerable controversy in only a few days following release. Debate is to be expected considering a coherent energy strategy has never been developed or agreed upon and interested parties have a lot riding on outcomes. Not to indulge in hyperbole, but the entire human race is bound up in the outcome, too, and it doesn’t look good for us or most of the rest of the species inhabiting the planet. Thus, I was modestly dismayed when the end of the film wandered into happy chapter territory and offered the nonsensical platitude in voiceover, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” Because we’ve passed and in fact lapped the point of no return repeatedly, the range of possibilities has shrunk precipitously. The most obvious is that human population of 7.7 billion (and counting) is being sorely tested. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we also know that post-pandemic there can be no return to the world we’ve known for the past 70 years or so. Although the documentary could not be reasonably expected to be entirely up to date, it should at least have had the nerve to conclude what the past few decades have demonstrated with abundant clarity.

Addendum

This review provides support for my assessment that “green” or “sustainable” energy cannot be delivered without significant contribution of fossil fuels.

Purpose behind consumption of different genres of fiction varies. For most of us, it’s about responding to stimuli and experiencing emotions vicariously, which is to say, safely. For instance, tragedy and horror can be enjoyed, if that’s the right word, in a fictional context to tweak one’s sensibilities without significant effect outside the story frame. Similarly, fighting crime, prosecuting war, or repelling an alien invasion in a video game can be fun but is far removed from actually doing those things in real life (not fun). For less explicitly narrative forms, such as music, feelings evoked are aesthetic and artistic in nature, which makes a sad song or tragic symphony enjoyable on its own merits without bleeding far into real sadness or tragedy. Cinema (now blurred with broadcast TV and streaming services) is the preeminent storytelling medium that provoke all manner of emotional response. After reaching a certain age (middle to late teens), emotional detachment from depiction of sexuality and violent mayhem makes possible digestion of such stimulation for the purpose of entertainment — except in cases where prior personal trauma is triggered. Before that age, nightmare-prone children are prohibited.

Dramatic conflict is central to driving plot and story forward, and naturally, folks are drawn to some stories while avoiding others. Although I’m detached enough not to be upset by, say, zombie films where people and zombies alike are dispatched horrifically, I wouldn’t say I enjoy gore or splatter. Similarly, realistic portrayals of war (e.g., Saving Private Ryan) are not especially enjoyable for me despite the larger story, whether based on true events or entirely made up. The primary reason I leave behind a movie or TV show partway through is because I simply don’t enjoy watching suffering.

Another category bugs me even more: when fiction intrudes on reality to remind me too clearly of actual horrors (or is it the reverse: reality intruding on fiction?). It doesn’t happen often. One of the first instances I recall was in Star Trek: The Next Generation when the story observed that (fictional) warp travel produced some sort of residue akin to pollution. The reminder that we humans are destroying the actual environment registered heavily on me and ruined my enjoyment of the fictional story. (I also much prefer the exploration and discovery aspects of Star Trek that hew closer to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision than the militaristic approach now central to Star Trek.) A much more recent intrusion occurs in the rather adolescent TV show The 100, where a global nuclear exchange launched by an artificial intelligence has the follow-on effect a century later of remaining nuclear sites going critical, melting down, and irradiating the Earth, making it uninhabitable. This bothers me because that’s my expectation what happens in reality, probably not too long (decades) after industrial civilization collapses and most or all of us are dead. This prospect served up as fiction is simply too close to reality for me to enjoy vicariously.

Another example of fiction intruding too heavily on my doomer appreciation of reality occurred retroactively. As high-concept science fiction, I especially enjoyed the first Matrix movie. Like Star Trek, the sequels degraded into run-of-the-mill war stories. But what was provocative about the original was the matrix itself: a computer-generated fiction situated within a larger reality. Inside the matrix was pleasant enough (though not without conflict), but reality outside the matrix was truly awful. It was a supremely interesting narrative and thought experiment when it came out in 1999. Now twenty-one years later, it’s increasingly clear that we are living in a matrix-like, narrative-driven hyperreality intent on deluding ourselves of a pleasant equilibrium that simply isn’t in evidence. In fact, as societies and as a civilization, we’re careening out of control, no brakes, no steering. Caitlin Johnstone explores this startling after-the-fact realization in an article at Medium.com, which I found only a couple days ago. Reality is in fact far worse than the constructed hyperreality. No wonder no one wants to look at it.

I had at least two further ideas for this third part of a series, but frankly, given the precipitous turn of events over the past month or so, nothing feels appropriate to write about just yet other than the global pandemic that has staggered society, reeling from being forced apart from each other and the way of life to which we are adapted being suddenly ripped out from beneath us. As the voiceover at the beginning of one of the Lord of the Rings movies intones rather soberly, “The world … has changed ….” That was my assessment here, though I was really thinking of the post-truth public sphere.

Many are already admitting that we will never be able to go back to what once was, that what broke will stay forever broken. And while the eventual response may be interpreted in sweet-lemon style as a reform opportunity or beckon call to greatness, I daresay a far more likely result is that mass death, sickness, and ruin will create a critical mass of desperate people not so willing to stay hunkered down waiting for the extended crisis to pass. Indeed, the bunker mentality already imprinted on our minds as we cringe before the next in a series of injurious blows can’t be expected to endure. Folks will take to the streets with all their stockpiled guns and ammo, seeking something, anything to do, rather than dying quietly, meekly, alone, at home. The metaphor of being pummeled into submission or to death is probably incorrect. Right now, we’re still only partway up one of those parabolic curves that ultimately points skyward. Alternatively, it’s a crescendo of pain that overwhelms until nothing functions anymore.

If surviving historians are able to piece together the story some time hence, one possibility will be to observe that the abundance we sorta enjoyed during two centuries of cheap energy did not develop into anything resembling an enlightened style of social organization that could be sustained or indeed even prepare us adequately for inevitable black swan events. Such discontinuities are entirely predictable by virtue of their inevitability, though precise timing is a fool’s errand. Natural disasters are the obvious example, and despite organizations and agencies scattered throughout all levels of government, we’re found flat-footed nearly every time disaster strikes. This global pandemic is no different, nor is the collapse of industrial civilization or runaway climate change. The current crisis is the first major kick in the teeth that may well cascade domino-style into full-on collapse.

As the crisis deepens, top leaders are often found to be worthless. Where is Pence, appointed more than a month ago to coordinate a coronavirus task force? It’s quite unlike a major political figure to do his or her work quietly and competently without media in tow. Even incompetence gets coverage, but Pence is nowhere to be seen. Must be self-quarantining. Some leaders are even worse than worthless; they actively add to the misery. Mainstream media may also have finally gotten hip to the idea that hanging on every insipid word uttered by that gaping chasm of stupidity that is our president is no longer a ratings bonanza to be tolerated in exchange for fruitless fact-checking missions. I fantasize about press events where correspondents heckle and laugh the fatuous gasbag (or his apologists) off the podium. Regrettably, there seems to be no bottom to the humiliation he can withstand so long as attention stays riveted on him. Perhaps the better response to his noisome nonsense would be stone silence — crickets.

Most news I gather is for me unsurprising. That’s the regrettable condition of a doomer continuously learning of different sorts of corruption and awfulness piling up. For instance, the coronavirus crisis is unsurprising to me, as I’ve opined many times that a pandemic was overdue. The previous time I remember being surprised — sickened actually — was learning of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Similar garbage gyres are found in all oceanic bodies.) I’m surprised and sickened yet again upon learning that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended enforcement of environmental laws against industries that despoil the environment in the course of their activities. Polluters are being granted, in effect, a license to kill. The 7-pp. memo can be found here.

I tried to read the memo, but it’s formulated in that dry, bureaucratic style that obfuscates meaning and puts readers to sleep. The news is reported here in a more readable fashion. The EPA’s action is purportedly a temporary response to the pandemic, but the crisis and the response seem to me unrelated except in the sense of “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” I fully expect opportunists to further consolidate power at the Federal level; I never suspected the crisis would be used to enable rape and pillage of the earth’s resources without consequence. No doubt, free rein to relax precautions is a dream many industrialists harbor, which aligns handily with GOP politics. Even to a cynic, however, this revision of policy is astonishing.

The earth has suffered quite a series of insults and injuries at the hands of its apex predator. How much more the earth can absorb is an impossible question to answer. However, it will obviously outlast us. We depend wholly on it, while it is indifferent to our needs. So the decision to loosen up and accept destruction not normally countenanced only hastens us early into the grave we have been digging for ourselves for the past three centuries or so. The pandemic and industrial civilization are already in the process of killing us (and in truth, probably most everything else). No need to accelerate further.

Caveat: I’m not an economist, nor do I subscribe to most economic analyses. The dismal science is a weird sort of voodoo practiced by self-proclaimed priests and wizards. So more than usual, this blog post is me talking outta my ass.

As we enter a new phase of history where developments come barreling at us with seismic force, the past offers limited guidance what to expect or how to act or react. We are all being sorely tested in myriad ways. Considering how so much of modern civilization depends on money to keep things going, we’re also now testing the limits of fiat currency’s departure from reality before the whole stinkin’ mess collapses. The appearance of cryptocurrencies based on absolutely nothing (unless social consensus and/or obscurantism counts) was easy to ignore, though the opportunity cost is obvious. Public debt and unfunded obligations (e.g., ballooning repayment schedules, entitlements, pensions) have been less easy to ignore, though that proverbial can continues to be kicked down the road indefinitely. But now, this week, we’re greeted with news that the U.S. Congress is readying helicopter money to be showered on everyone to stave off the very collapse some of us consider inevitable. Can’t ignore that. How it will be distributed is unknown (by me, at least), but historical guidance suggests that the least needful will be getting most of it.

The rather precipitous disappearance and reappearance of money (or value) from the U.S. stock market, first in a matter of weeks and then in only days, invites not just disbelief but jaw-dropping incredulity. Unlike the previous crash/recovery when the malefactors and beneficiaries were mostly the same claque of Wall Street goons, this latest crash and preposterous flash recovery (for now) owes its origin to other causes, not that any of the old vulnerabilities were lessened. Most regular citizens a decade ago wanted bad actors — criminals, really — prosecuted and jailed. Didn’t happen, of course, and we have no such scapegoats this time around. Moreover, whatever the extraordinary measures might best be called (bail-outs, bail-ins, etc.), they signal a foundational test of the nature of money.

Modern monetary theory (MMT) would have us believe that sovereign countries like the U.S., especially because the U.S. dollar functions as the world’s reserve currency, can essentially print and spend as much of the stuff as needed. No blowback will result — certainly not the dread specter of hyperinflation. But how confident can anyone be in the theory when its relatively modest prior practice has been immoderated so egregiously? If hyperinflation does indeed follow, which I can’t prophesy, economic priests and wizards ought to be defrocked permanently. Good luck with that, I suppose; rational explanations fare poorly with a public fed a steady diet of false narratives, lies, cons, and swindles leavened with a heavy dose of aspiration and hope, if not outright greed.

A heavily used rhetorical device of mine is to remind folks that there is always a bigger umbrella over the narrow theme of any blog post, and this final paragraph is no different. That covering is the nonmonetary resources that the money economy motivates. Whether a loaf of bread costs 20¢ or $20, the bread is what really sustains us, not whatever make-believe currency we use to facilitate exchange. Sure, the money compels us (for now) to do the things that make the bread or extract the oil or assemble the disparate parts of the widget. But once money becomes worthless or goods become so prohibitively expensive our efforts no longer suffice to sustain us, what then? We have no alternatives or second chances on the horizon, do we? Thus, the anticipated infusion of helicopter money might well be the equivalent of an all-in bet in poker. That’s a pretty big bet with whole population hanging in the balance.

This unwritten blog post has been sitting in my drafts folder since October 2019. The genesis, the kernel, is that beyond the ongoing collapse of the ecosystem, the natural world that provides all the resources upon which we humans and other organisms rely for life and survival, all other concerns are secondary. Now 5–6 months later, we’re faced with a short- to mid-term crisis that has transfixed and paralyzed us, riveting all attention on immediate pressures, not least of which is ample supplies of paper with which to wipe our asses. Every day brings news of worsening conditions: rising numbers of infection; growing incidence of death; sequestering and quarantining of entire cities, states, and countries; business shutdowns; financial catastrophe; and the awful foreknowledge that we have a long way to go before we emerge (if ever) back into daylight and normalcy. The Age of Abundance (shared unequally) may be gone forever.

Are we mobilizing fully enough to stop or at least ameliorate the pandemic? Are our democratically elected leaders [sic] up to the task of marshaling us through the (arguably) worst global crisis in living memory? Are regular folks rising to the occasion, shouldering loss and being decent toward one another in the face of extraordinary difficulties? So far, my assessment would indicate that the answers are no, no, and somewhat. (OK, some municipal and state leaders have responded late but admirably; I’m really thinking of the early executive response that wasn’t). But let me remind: as serious as the immediate health crisis may be, the even larger civilizational collapse underway (alongside the current extinction process) has not yet been addressed. Sure, lots of ink and pixels have been devoted to studies, reports, books, articles, speeches, and blog posts about collapse, but we have blithely and intransigently continued to inhabit the planet as though strong continuity of our living arrangements will persist until — oh, I dunno — the end of the century or so. Long enough away that very few of us now alive (besides Greta Thunberg) care enough what happens then to forestall much of anything. Certainly not any of the real decision-makers. Collapse remains hypothetical, contingent, theoretical, postulated, and suppositional until … well … it isn’t anymore.

While we occupy ourselves indoors at a social distance for some weeks or months to avoid exposure to the scourge, I’d like to believe that we have the intelligence to recognize that, even in the face of a small (by percentage) reduction of global human population, all other concerns are still secondary to dealing with the prospect (or certainty, depending on one’s perspective) of collapse. However, we’re not disciplined or wizened enough to adopt that view. Moreover, it’s unclear what can or should be done, muddying the issue sufficiently to further delay action being taken. Fellow blogger The Compulsive Explainer summarizes handily:

We have been in an emergency mode for some time, and are now just recognizing it. This time it is a virus that is killing us, but we have been dying for a long time, from many causes. So many causes, they cannot be enumerated individually.

So for the near term, life goes on; for the farther term, maybe not.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new
cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Antonio Gramsci

 As a kid, I was confused when during some TV drama I heard the phrase “The king is dead; long live the king!” I was interpreting events too literally: the king had just died, so how could his subjects proclaim for him long life? Only when age awarded me greater sophistication (probably not wisdom, though) did I then realize that the phrase connotes the end of one era and the start of another. Old regent dies; new regent assumes power. We’re in the midst of such as transition from one era to the next, though it isn’t marked clearly by the death of a leader. Indeed, when I launched this blog in 2006, that was what I sensed and said so plainly in the About Brutus link at top, which hasn’t changed since then except to correct my embarrassing typos. I initially thought the transition would be about an emerging style of consciousness. Only slightly later, I fell down the rabbit hole regarding climate change (an anthropogenic, nonlinear, extinction-level process). I still believe my intuitions and/or conclusions on both subjects, but I’ve since realized that consciousness was always a moving target and climate change could unfold slowly enough to allow other fundamental shifts to occur alongside. No promises, though. We could also expire rather suddenly if things go awry quickly and unexpectedly. At this point, however, and in a pique of overconfidence, I’m willing to offer that another big transition has finally come into focus despite its being underway as I write. Let me explain. In his book America: The Farewell Tour (2018), Chris Hedges writes this:

Presently, 42 percent of the U.S. public believes in creationism … [and] nearly a third of the population, 94 million people, consider themselves evangelical. Those who remain in a reality-based universe do not take seriously the huge segment of the public, mostly white and working-class, who because of economic distress have primal yearnings for vengeance, new glory, and moral renewal and are easily seduced by magical thinking … The rational, secular forces, those that speak in the language of fact and reason, are hated and feared, for they seek to pull believers back into “the culture of death” that nearly destroyed them. The magical belief system, as it was for impoverished German workers who flocked to the Nazi Party, is an emotional life raft. It is all the supports them. [pp. 50–51]

That’s where we are now, retreating into magical thinking we supposedly left behind in the wake of the Enlightenment. Call it the Counter-Enlightenment (or Un-Enlightenment). We’re on this track for a variety of reasons but primarily because the bounties of the closing Age of Abundance have been gobbled up by a few plutocrats. Most of the rest of population, formerly living frankly precarious lives (thus, the precariat), have now become decidedly unnecessary (thus, the unnecessariat). The masses know that they have been poorly served by their own social, political, and cultural institutions, which have been systematically hijacked and diverted into service of the obscenely, absurdly rich.

Three developments occurring right now, this week, indicate that we’re not just entering an era of magical thinking (and severely diminishing returns) but that we’ve lost our shit, gone off the deep end, and sought escape valves to release intolerable pressures. It’s the same madness of crowds writ large — something that periodically overtakes whole societies, as noted above by Chris Hedges. Those developments are (1) the U.S. stock market (and those worldwide?) seesawing wildly on every piece of news, (2) deranged political narratives and brazenly corrupt machinations that attempt to, among other things, install select the preferred Democratic presidential candidate to defeat 45, and (3) widespread panic over the Covid-19 virus. Disproportionate response to the virus is already shutting down entire cities and regions even though the growing epidemic so far in the U.S. has killed fewer people than, say, traffic accidents. Which will wreak the worst mayhem is a matter of pointless conjecture since the seriousness of the historical discontinuity will require hindsight to access. Meanwhile, the king is dead. Long live the king!

I was introduced to the phrase life out of balance decades ago when I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi. The film is the first of a trilogy (sequels are Powaqqatsi and Nagoyqatsi) by Godfrey Reggio, though the film is arguably more famous because of its soundtrack composed by Philip Glass. Consisting entirely of wordless montage and music, the film contrasts the majesty of nature (in slo-mo, among other camera effects) with the frenetic pace of human activity (often sped up) and the folly of the human-built world. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word, meaning life out of balance. One might pause to consider, “out of balance with what?” The film supplies the answer, none too subtly: out of balance with nature. The two sequels are celebrations of humans at work and technology, respectively, and never gained the iconic stature of the initial film.

If history (delivering us into the 21st century) has demonstrated anything, it’s that we humans are careening out of control toward disaster, not unlike the spacecraft in the final sequence of Koyaanisqatsi that tumbles out of the atmosphere for an agonizingly long time (in slo-mo), burning all the way down. We are all witness to the event (more accurately, the process) but can do little anymore to alter the eventual tragic result. Though some counsel taking steps toward amelioration (of suffering, if nothing else), our default response is rather to deny our collective fate, and worse, to accelerate toward it. That’s how unbalanced we are as a global civilization.

The observation that we are badly out of balance is made at the species and civilizational levels but is recapitulated at all levels of social organization, from distinct societies or nationalities to regional and municipal organizations and associations on down to families and individuals. The forces, dynamics, and power laws that push us off balance are many, but none is as egregious as the corrupting influence of interrelated wealth and power. Wisdom of the ancients (especially the non-Western ones) gave us the same verdict, though we have refused intransigently (or more charitably: failed) to learn the lesson for hundreds of generations.

What I propose to do in this multipart series is explore or survey some of the manifestations of life out of balance. There is no particular organization, chronology, or schedule for subsequent entries. As an armchair social critic, I reserve the luxury of exercising my own judgment and answering to no one. Stay tuned.

From the end of Paul Street’s They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014):

Those on the radical left who worry that pursuing a Green New Deal and leading with the environmental issue means giving up on the struggle against the 1% for a democratically transformed “world turned upside down” can rest easy. The green transformation required for human survival will be bright rouge. With its inherent privileging of private profit and exchange value over the common good and social use value, its intrinsic insistence on private management; its inbuilt privileging of the short-term bottom line over the long-term fate of the earth and its many species, with its deep-sunk cost investment in endless quantitative growth and the carbon-addicted way of life and death, and with its attachment to the division of the world into competing nations and empires that are incapable of common action for the global good, capitalism is simply inconsistent with the deep environmental changes required for human survival. “Green capitalism” is an oxymoron. It is naïve to think that the green transformation required for civilization’s survival can take place without an epic confrontation with — and defeat of — the concentrated wealth and power enjoyed by the capitalist elite and its profits system. [p. 197]

The Doomsday Clock moved again a few days ago, and not toward a safer margin or remove from disaster. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a rather long statement, of which I’ll provide only the first paragraph:

Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

The mention of a threat multiplier gets my attention, though calling it “cyber-enabled information warfare” might be hyperbole. The term propaganda is still applicable. Along similar lines, I’ve heard it argued that we’re already in the midst of WWIII — Planet Earth vs. humans — and losing. Still, from my perspective, it’s hard to disagree with either assessment, which I’ve been blogging about for more than a decade. My tiny, insignificant voice means nothing amid the countervailing noise, of course. And even for those folks who believe as I do, there’s little meaningful action for individuals to take. We’re mere drops in the ocean compared to industrial civilization surrounding us.

In a couple previous blog posts pointing to the Doomsday Clock, I included the image of the clock face from the Bulletin. Happened to notice this time that the reset clock has a registered trademark symbol behind it. Seems unreasonable to claim trademark protection for such a ubiquitous image.

Not much else to say about this latest update to the Doomsday Clock except to observe that dire, urgent warnings that we must TAKE ACTION NOW! to forestall worst-case scenarios from manifesting have always fallen on deaf ears. The Bulletin gives itself almost no room for any more updates. We’ve been inside 5 minutes to midnight since 2015. Now that we’re inside 2 minutes, the Clock may have to start counting portions of a second.