Monday, June 1, 2020

Survive Systemic Collapse

Systemic collapse, the coming dark age, the coming crash, overshoot, the die-off, the tribulation, the coming anarchy, resource wars – there are many names, and they do not all correspond to exactly the same thing, but there is a widespread conviction that something ominous is happening (e.g., William R. Catton, Jr., Overshoot). This event has about 10 elements, each with a somewhat causal relationship to the next. The first are (1) fossil fuels, (2) metals, and (3) electricity. These are a tightly-knit group, and no industrial civilization can have one without the others.

As those three disappear, (4) food becomes scarce – grain and fish supplies, for example, have been declining for years. (5) Fresh water also becomes scarce – water tables are falling everywhere, rivers are not reaching the sea. Matters of infrastructure then follow: (6) transportation and (7) communication – no paved roads, no telephones, no computers. After that, the social structure begins to fail. (8) Government (and the economy) is characterized by income disparity, kleptocracy, inflation, and artificial debt crises. (9) Education sinks to ever-lower levels. (10) Large-scale division of labor starts coming to an end, although it was largely that which made complex technology possible.

After those 10 elements, there are others, forming a separate layer. These are in some respects more psychological or sociological, and are far less easy to delineate, but we might refer to them as "the four Cs." The first three are (1) crime, (2) cults, and (3) craziness – a world in which selfishness and deceit replace a sense of community; the ascendancy of dogmas based on superstition, ignorance, cruelty, and intolerance; the overall tendency toward anti-intellectualism; and the inability to distinguish mental health from mental illness.

Those three are followed by a final and more general element that is (4) chaos, which results in the pervasive sense that "nothing works anymore." Think of the least-fortunate parts of the ex-Soviet world: drunken police officers in ill-fitting uniforms, parks strewn with garbage, and apartment buildings devoid of straight lines – nothing that is easy to define, but the subtle or even subliminal indications of general dysfunction.

For several reasons, alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, but mainly because of a problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. With the problematic exception of uranium, alternative sources ultimately don't have enough "bang" to replace the 30 billion barrels of oil we use annually – or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.

At the same time, alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Petroleum is required to produce, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes "oil energy" to make "alternative energy." Alternative energy, in other words, is always riding on the back of a vast fossil-fuel civilization.

The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but it has no practicality on a large scale. There is a great deal of solar energy reaching the Earth, but it is too diffuse to be of much value. Proponents of solar energy must therefore close their eyes to all questions of scale. To meet even the world's present energy needs by using thermal solar power, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of about 620,000 km2 – a machine larger than the Ukraine. The production and maintenance of this array would itself require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials – a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world's energy problems.

In terms of its effects on daily human life, the most significant aspect of fossil-fuel depletion will be the lack of food. "Peak oil" basically means "peak food." Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to produce nitrogen fertilizer), pesticides, and the operation of machines for irrigation, harvesting, processing, and transportation. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will be far less than at present, as David and Marcia Pimentel explain clearly in Food, Energy, and Society. We should therefore have no illusions that several billion humans can be fed by "organic gardening" or anything else of that nature. Some people will survive using primitive farming methods, but many others will succumb to famine.

The future of humanity will start to resemble its distant past, except that much of the natural resources will be missing. However, the planet will still have about 100 million square kilometers of wilderness, ravaged though parts of it may be, and the "economy" in the depths of that natural world will be the same one that has been there for millions of years.

The intelligent thing to do would be to take control of that transition, to enter the future with both eyes open. Finding a new world for tomorrow means finding a way of life that is more attuned to the land, the sea, and the sky. There is no way for a small group of people to prevent systemic collapse, but it may be that life will be better when the collapse is completed.

There is only one direction, and that is out. We must literally step out of the present economy – and by "we" I mean those few who are clever enough to be saved, those few who make the effort to pack their bags. We must stop being part of "society." The details are uncertain, but the general picture is not hard to draw. I envision a world where people can wake up each morning and greet the sunrise. I imagine a world in which people can live with nobility, dignity, and grace.

No comments:

Post a Comment