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This is actually a little out of date.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.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 4: Conclusions

Sunset Over Lake Huron, May 3, 2017

In the first 3 posts in this series ( 1, 2, 3) I talked about global catastrophic risks (the kind of things that threaten human well being on a global scale), and existential risks (which threaten us with extinction). Of course, the distinction between the two is only a matter of degree. We looked at how to evaluate such threats in general and then evaluated a number of specific threats, looking at:

  1. Risk: what is the likelihood of this happening?
  2. Severity: what are the consequences if this does happen?
  3. Difficulty: how hard will it be to do something about this?
  4. Timescale: how soon will this happen?

Just to get us quickly up to speed, here is the list of threats that I classified as worth worrying about:

  • collision with an asteroid (or comet)
  • massive solar flare (coronal mass ejection)
  • economic singularity
  • human sourced pandemic
  • biotechnology
  • ecological disaster
  • climate change
  • resource depletion
  • population and agricultural crises
  • warfare

The first two are not manmade (non-anthropogenic), although our vulnerability to the effects of a massive solar flare is mostly a result of our love of cheap electronics, and electrical grids and an internet that are not sufficiently hardened. For the non-anthropogenic threats I looked at all four of the factors to determine if there is cause for concern.

The rest of the list are manmade (anthropogenic). All of them present a high degree of risk and a high severity, and all but two (a human sourced pandemic and biotechnology) are already happening and very likely to intensify in the near future.

The Wikipedia article on catastrophic and existential risks that I've been referencing in this series of post adds up all the various risks and concludes that the likelihood of human extinction by 2100 is around 19%. This seems fairly reasonable to me, though I'd place lower probabilities on risks like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology and higher probabilities on climate change, resource depletion, ecological disaster, and population and agricultural crises.

But there is a big range of outcomes between extinction and business as usual, including various degrees of societal collapse, entailing loss of life, organization and technology. I would argue that some sort of collapse is very likely—essentially a certainty if we don't take some corrective action soon.

What I haven't done as yet, for these anthropogenic threats, is look at the difficulty of mounting such a response or the likelihood of its being successful. In order to do this, I think it would be helpful if we could make some sense of all these threats and how they fit together in an interconnected, systemic context. And that is the subject of this post.

If indeed there is nothing that can be done, then we should relax, quit worrying and try to enjoy the ride. But remember, these threats are manmade. We are causing the problems, so can't we just stop whatever it is we are doing wrong? I think we should at least consider it. If that won't work, another alternative would be to accept what is coming and take steps to adapt. And it seems to me that the things we might do to adapt are also things that will reduce the severity of the situation we are facing.

In addition to the major threats listed above, there are also a great many minor economic, social and political disruptions happening these days which do not seem catastrophic on a global scale but may well lead us to the "death of a thousand cuts". With all this going on it is very difficult to sort out cause and effect and determine what our response should be. Conventional wisdom would have us treat the symptoms, the surface disruptions, but remains unwilling to consider that there might be anything fundamentally wrong with the system as a whole.

As we shall see shortly, much of the activity that is causing our problems is economic activity. At the same time, as more and more aspects of our lives become "monetized", we are giving up the last vestiges of self sufficiency and becoming ever more dependent on the monetary economy for our continued survival. To be so dependent on the very thing that is causing our problems is not a good situation.

This being the case, I think it would be helpful to look to the science of economics for a deeper understanding of what's going on. Unfortunately conventional economics (Neo-classical economics or Chicago School economics, henceforth referred to as NCE) is hardly fit to be called a science at all. It violates a number of physical laws and is inconsistent with actual human behaviour. These folks would have us look at the economy as a perpetual motion machine, in which money and goods go around and around, with no reference to the physical and biological aspects of the world, or the realities of friction and entropy.

Figure 1

There a number of myths being propagated by NCE, and since policy decisions are based on these myths, they represent a serious handicap in our attempts to cope with the challenges facing us.

  • The real economy is subject to the forces and laws of nature, including thermodynamics, the conservation laws and various environmental requirements. NCE ignores these issues.
  • Economic production requires physical work and the energy required to perform that work is a significant input to the process. NCE counts only capital and labour as inputs and when it finds that these inputs don't add up to match the outputs, it attributes the difference to "technological change". But in fact, the discrepancy is nicely accounted for by including energy as a third input.
  • NCE ignores the economy's boundaries with the real world, disregarding the flow of energy and materials into the system and waste heat and degraded materials out of it, and any effects that those flows may have.
  • NCE holds that a successful economy must grow, despite the fact that we live on a finite planet. It refuses to acknowledge the existence of real limits to growth.
  • It is basic to the scientific method that theoretical models are tested and proved or modified to match reality before gaining acceptance. In NCE this is often not the case—policy is based on models that simply have not been validated.
  • NCE is based on the idea that human beings always behave in their own best interests. In fact this is clearly not so—people are both far more altruistic and far more vindictive than NCE allows for.
  • NCE equates consumption of market goods with human well-being. In fact, once basic needs are taken care of, further material acquisitions contribute relatively little to happiness.
  • NCE fails to consider the importance of how wealth is distributed in a society and the negative effects of inequality.

But there is a another branch of economics—"biophysical economics"—that I think has a lot more promise. It takes into account all the factors that are involved in the existential threats we are talking about, and does not commit the ideological errors about human beings that plague NCE. Figure 2 below is the biophysical version of Figure 1.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is the "interconnected, systemic context" that links all the anthropogenic threats together and makes sense of them. Before we talk in detail about how this works, we need to have a closer look at some ideas that may not be obvious from the diagram.

1) We are looking at a complex adaptive system here—it is complex in that its behavior as a whole is not predicted by the behavior of the components. It is adaptive in that the individual and collective behaviors change and self-organize in response to events, adapting to the changing environment and attempting to increase their survivability. It is not easy to predict the behaviour of such a system, especially from the inside. Nor is there any guarantee that this behaviour will always lead to positive outcomes. Especially in a case like ours, where the individuals are human beings and groups of human beings who are not well informed about the overall situation.

2) Both the Earth Systems and the Human Systems depicted in Figure 2 are also dissipative structures. Indeed, I would say that the key to understanding what is going on in our world is to realize that this is the case, and to grasp what it implies.

Living organisms (including human beings), ecologies and economies are dissipative structures. So are human societies. All these structures maintain themselves by taking in energy and materials and giving off waste of various sorts. They maintain a reproducible steady state, but this state is not a matter of equilibrium, indeed it is definitely not in an sort of "balance" at all. If the supply of energy and materials falls below the appropriate level, this state cannot be maintained—death and dissolution follow. On the other hand, if a surplus of energy is available, these systems grow and become more complex.

Perhaps the simplest analogy I can give is that of a toy balloon with a small leak. As long as we can keep pumping in air, we can keep the balloon inflated. To accomplish this it takes material resources (air) and energy (to pump the air). If either of these is not available the balloon soon deflates.

3) When you see the economy as a dissipative structure, it becomes clear why energy plays such a critical role. What may not be quite so clear is why cheap fossil fuels are particularly important. We'll get to that shortly.

Years ago I started out thinking that money was what made the economy work. And money certainly has it's uses—as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. But money is really just a set of tokens representing something much more fundamental—energy.

There was a time when almost all the energy used to make goods came from muscles, human and/or animal. We gradually developed tools and machines which made better use of that muscle power, but the industrial revolution didn't really get going until we learned to convert other forms of energy into mechanical energy to drive those machines. Primarily the energy of falling water and moving air (wind) and the chemical energy stored in biomass and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a very concentrated source of energy and easy to move to where that energy is needed, so they quickly become very popular.

The other great thing about fossil fuels was that their price (basically just the cost of getting them out of the ground) was only a tiny fraction of their value in terms of the goods they could be used to produce. Thus the productivity of coal fired factories was much higher than that of muscle powered cottage industry. This led to a couple of centuries of unprecedented growth, fueled first by coal and then by oil and natural gas. And if that was the whole story, our industrial civilization would be doing just fine.

Unfortunately, there are some other things about fossil fuels that we need to consider:

  • They are not renewable on any sort of timescale that is useful to the human race.
  • We have already used up most of the easy to get at, high quality sources, the "low hanging fruit", so to speak. In the oil business this is known as "conventional oil", as if that sort of oil is the rule, rather than the exception.
  • There are lots of hydrocarbons left to dig/pump out of the ground, seemingly enough to last us a very long time. But they are either harder to access (tight oil and gas, deep offshore oil) or lower quality (heavy oil, tar sands, lignite coal).
  • We have recently developed technology that allows us to access and use more of these fuels. But this technology is expensive, both in terms of capital investment and the amount of energy needed to build, operate and maintain it.
  • Convenient as they are, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which causes climate change with all its negative consequences.

For the purposes of the economy "surplus energy" is what's actually important. The "surplus energy" of an energy source is what's left over when we subtract the amount of energy required to access the source. A closely related concept is EROEI, "energy returned on energy invested".

In the "good old days" of oil, it only took one barrel's worth of energy to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground, leaving a surplus energy of 99 barrels. This corresponds to an EROEI of 100 (and a surplus energy of 99), and it means that in energy terms, that oil was cheap. Today, even conventional oil has a much lower EROEI, in the range of 10 to 30, and "fracked" oil or tar sands oil has a EROEI in the range of 3 to 5. As far as fossil fuels go, this ongoing reduction in EROEI is a pretty definite trend. Note that an EROEI of 3 gives a surplus energy of 2, part of the reason that low EROEIs are a problem.

If we look at the average EROEI of all the energy sources used by an economy, it can tell us a good deal the current state of the economy as a consequence of the availability of surplus energy. When the average EROEI drops toward 15, economic growth slows. As it drops further, it becomes difficult to raise capital for new construction or maintenance of existing infrastructure. Below 10 it is unlikely that a modern industrial economy can be maintained at all, and we would be forced to change to something less energy intensive.

To put this in perspective, the average EROEI of the world today is around 11 and it is headed lower. It looks to me like all those low EROEI hydrocarbons in the ground aren't going to do us much good.
Note: it appears that the pdf file with world economic data is no longer at that link.
Here is a link to the file on my Google drive.
Here is the blog post by Tim Morgan where the file was referenced.

Switching over to renewables has been suggested as a solution to the depletion of fossil fuels and to climate change, but there are several problems with this:

  • Renewables themselves have a low EROEI.
  • When you add in storage equipment to level out the energy supply from intermittent renewables (wind and solar) you roughly cut the EROEI in half.
  • Renewables generate energy in the form of electricity. But electricity only accounts for something less than 20% of our energy use. The rest is currently powered directly by fossil fuels. Some of this energy use promises to be very difficult to convert to electricity.
  • Renewables might seem to solve the climate change problem, but the change over to renewables itself would require burning a whole lot of extra fossil fuels, with the increased release of CO2 which that would entail.
  • And of course, when an economy has a low average EROEI, raising capital for new projects is hard to do.

All in all it seems unlikely that we'll manage to install anywhere near enough renewable energy sources to allow us to continue with "business as usual". Even our current relatively small scale efforts are contributing to "energy sprawl" (fields of wind turbine and solar panels popping up everywhere) and diverting capital from other important efforts.

EROEI is a good sort of measure, in that it lets us avoid talking in terms of money, and provides a good indicator for the "health" of the economy. Energy prices in dollars (or whatever) can be quite misleading, as they are affected by many other things than the availability of surplus energy.

During the last half of the 20th century almost every recession was preceded by a spike in the price of oil, which makes sense—cheap energy makes the economy grow and expensive energy slows it down.

In the 1990s, though, the EROEI of oil had declined enough to stop real economic growth. Governments responded by adjusting the way GDP is calculated, to make the economic situation look better than it really was. Those same governments intensified their use of debt to stimulate the economy.

In the financial sector of the economy, investors in search of high yielding investments substituted bubbles for real growth, first with the dotcom bubble and then with the housing and derivatives bubbles that led to the financial crash of 2008. Since then despite the creation of huge amounts of government and private debt, there has been no real return to vigorous economic growth.

It's interesting to note what was going on with the price of oil while this was happening. In the late 1990s, the price of oil was around $12 per barrel. From there it went up more or less steadily to around $140 in August of 2008. With the financial crash, the price of oil fell off to about $30 per barrel and then with the so called recovery, came back up to around $100 per barrel. Then in late 2013 the price of oil started to fall, went below $40 per barrel and has not gone above $60 per barrel since then. Currently (May 2017) the price is just below $50 per barrel.

Several things seem to be happening:

  • Demand destruction: the combination of low EROEI and high prices 2009 to 2013 slowed the economy down and reduced the demand for oil (and other bulk materials like steel). With average EROEI getting continually worse, the economy is not recovering, even with the current low oil prices.
  • Price wars: both the US and OPEC are pumping as much oil out of the ground as possible, keeping oil prices low.
  • The low oil prices are having a destructive effect on fossil fuel companies, lowering their profits and reducing the development of fossil fuel resources.
  • As Nafeez Ahmed explains, there is a lot of misleading information about amount of conventional oil that is left:
    According to Professor Michael Jefferson of the ESCP Europe Business School, a former chief economist at oil major Royal Dutch/Shell Group. “… the five major Middle East oil exporters altered the basis of their definition of ‘proved’ conventional oil reserves from a 90 percent probability down to a 50 percent probability from 1984. The result has been an apparent (but not real) increase in their ‘proved’ conventional oil reserves of some 435 billion barrels.”
    "Global reserves have been further inflated by adding reserve figures from Venezuelan heavy oil and Canadian tar sands— despite the fact that they are "more difficult and costly to extract" and generally of "poorer quality" than conventional oil. This has brought up global reserve estimates by a further 440 billion barrels."
    “...the standard claim that the world has proved conventional oil reserves of nearly 1.7 trillion barrels is overstated by about 875 billion barrels.”
  • This and a lack of understanding of the economic results of low EROEI, have led some to believe (especially in the US) that "drill baby drill" is the right strategy.
  • Resources needed elsewhere are being used on low quality fossil fuel projects.

In my opinion, it would be better not to waste capital on accessing lower EROEI fossil fuels, to accept the inevitable energy decline and try to make the remaining fossil fuels last longer, especially for uses that don't involve burning them.

Now you may have been wondering what all this has to do with catastrophic/existential threats, but as we shall see shortly, the anthropogenic threats listed at start of this post can be viewed as disruptions to the Earth Systems and Human Systems shown in Figure 2. And interactions between our economy and its energy supplies are at the heart of those disruptions.

They can be classified as primary, secondary and tertiary effects, based on their position in a cascading stream of cause and effect. It has taken us a while to get here but now, at last, we will take a look at those threats and how they fit into the biophysical economy. The individual threats appear in bold in the discussion below.

Primary Threats

To my way of thinking, the primary threat is resource depletion.

The diversion of resources for our use disrupts the ecologies which rely on those resources. Examples would be our over use of water, arable land, forests and fisheries. Note that we ourselves depend on those ecologies, so we suffer as well.

The use of those resources has led to a good deal of success for the human race and this, in the form of overpopulation and over consumption is a problem in itself.

Then there are all the immediate consequences of the depletion of resources on which we rely. This certainly applies to non-renewable resources, in particular fossil fuels, on which we rely to keep our economy running. As the resources become depleted we are forced to move to lower EROEI energy sources, and the economy suffers as a result.

But even renewable resources are also being depleted as we use them at a rate faster than they are being renewed.

And lastly, there are the effects from the degraded byproducts of our industrial processes, especially the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture and forestry.

Secondary Threats

The secondary threats are consequences of our profligate use of resources and their resulting depletion.

Earth Systems are disrupted by the downstream consequences of resource use. We use the environment as a sink for the byproducts of our industrial processes. Pollution, in other words. And when there is a sufficiently large amount of pollution, the Earth Systems can no longer cope and start to be damaged. This contributes to ecological disasters. While there are many different types of pollution, carbon dioxide and the resulting climate change is the one that is currently of greatest concern.

These are just some of the effects of climate change:

  • more extremely hot days, fewer extremely cold days
  • currently wet areas getting more and heavier rain (flooding)
  • currently dry areas getting less rain (drought)
  • intensification of tropical storms
  • less winter snow pack
  • retreating mountain glaciers
  • melting polar ice caps
  • warming oceans
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification

These changes are already having disruptive effects on our global civilization, which will only get worse as they intensify:

  • agriculture grows less productive with the disappearance of the reliable weather it relies on, in some areas it becomes impractical to continue farming
  • health effects of heat waves and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate areas
  • damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure due to increasingly heavy weather and rising sea level

There is much that could be done to reduce CO2 emissions and slow and eventually stop climate change, but most all of this involves reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, resulting in even less surplus energy to drive an already stressed economy.

Inside the economy, the decreasing EROEI of the fossil fuels we are using causes economic contraction, which has a whole bunch of downstream consequences.

  • reduced profits for businesses, leading to closings and bankruptcies
  • unemployment, and lower wages and more precarious situations for those who still are employed
  • a reduced tax base makes it harder for governments to maintain the social safety net, fund their obligations, and keep their election promises in general

Our current financial system is optimized to facilitate economic growth and it does not work at all well when the economy starts to shrink.

Businesses turning to automation to counteract the effects of economic contraction cause even more unemployment (economic singularity).

The depletion of fossil fuels, fossil water and plant nutrients like phosphorous, along with climate change, are leading us towards an agricultural crisis. This is intensified by an ever growing population. The first sign of this happening is the increasing cost of food. which hits the poor first and hardest, leading to some of the tertiary threats.

Tertiary Threats

Climate change, economic contraction and agricultural crises lead to political and social disruptions: protests, revolution, terrorism (including use of biotechnology), food riots, famine, migrations, war and so forth. People squeezed together into slums breed human sourced pandemics. (There, I've managed to tie the whole list of anthropogenic threats together.)

Populist politicians with overly simplistic solutions gain power by making promises they have no idea how to keep and which largely couldn't be kept in any case. Right wing extremists in the west and Islamic extremists in the Middle East both react to economic stress and take violent actions which allow them to feed off each other. The mass media perpetuate misconceptions about what is going on and what it would take to fix it. And so on.

And if, as all this disruption progresses, should there be a massive solar flare or an asteroid strike, we'll be hard pressed to do anything but take it on the chin.

Conclusion

So, to get back to where we started, is there any action we can take to prevent this perfect storm of threats? Well, if you mean any action that will allow us to keep business as usual rolling along with "good" growth numbers, I think the answer is pretty clearly no. Our industrial civilization is going to collapse, to some greater or lesser extent. We can't prevent this, but we could take action to mitigate its effects, turning it into a slow and relatively gentle crash. I've written a series of posts called "A Political Fantasy" that goes into detail on that. As you might guess from that title, I think there's a big difference between what "could" be done and what is actually likely to be done.

Still, I don't think the situation is beyond hope. What we can't avoid, we can adapt to.

We need to drastically reduce the human population, and it looks like events will take care of this for us. We need to drastically reduce the amount of energy we are using, and again, it looks like events are going to do the job for us. Those with problems taken care of all we need to do is find ways to keep some fraction of the human population alive through all these events. And again, we won't have to make any horrible decisions about who to get rid of. Even with all of us trying as hard as we can, only a few of us will succeed.

It would we helpful to have a rough idea of what's ahead and the sort of things that will help to see us through. And, perhaps even more importantly, a clear idea of what won't help so we can avoid wasting time and effort where it would do no good. My next series of post, Collapse Step by Step will deal with exactly those issues.

To leave you something to chew on, I will say that forward looking people should be considering a move to a better location: well above sea level, out of the path of tropical storms, where it rains regularly, it isn't too hot and the population density is already low. If such a location was beyond walking distance from large urban centres, it would be ideal. And if you can make such a move before the majority of the population catches on, have time to get set up and reduce your reliance on the monetary economy, and become part of the local community, so much the better.

Credit is are due to the authors of three books which influenced me considerably in the writing of this post:

Sunday, 30 April 2017

What I've Been Reading, April 2017

Lake Huron Shore, April 30, 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

Non-Fiction