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Hell in a Hand Basket and Why We’re Going There, Guaranteed (sort of)

Hell in a Hand Basket and Why We’re Going There, Guaranteed (sort of) thumbnail

The ebb and flow of societies is well documented by historians and archaeologists. It seems every society rises in complexity to a zenith of some kind and then falls. There are an increasing number of people who contend that this sociopolitical transformation is fast-approaching for our globalised, industrial civilization, and of those some believe that this shift will be a long drawn out affair of slow decline, while others suggest it may be more of a sudden shift[ii], or collapse[iii].

Whether this change takes generations or is much more sudden and dramatic matters not (unless you’re living through the latter one, I suppose); one’s perception of this depends upon the temporal perspective taken. For example, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the oil-dependent, industrialized society of humans lasts 400 years, 200 years up and 200 years down (I think I’m being overly generous here on the demise side).

A 200-year decline may, given normalcy bias, not be perceived as a significant shift at all by those experiencing it. However, if we can step back and view this rise and fall in larger historical terms, say on a 10,000-year basis, this ascent/descent scenario may be perceived as quick and calamitous. I think perspective is everything here. (Note that I’ll continue to refer to the impending change as ‘collapse’ because I tend to believe the change will come quickly, especially once the power grid fails.)

That being said, the antecedents of such collapse are varied and complex. They range from declining marginal returns[iv] to environmental collapse[v] to psychological shifts[vi] to overshooting local carrying capacity[vii] to Peak Oil[viii] to population growth[ix]. Humans don’t require artificial intelligence that perceives us as a threat, a viral pandemic leading to a zombie apocalypse, or an alien invasion for our resources to push us over the cliff; we don’t even need a nuclear war. We have our own non-military, sociocultural peculiarities to accomplish it.

As with any complex, dynamical system, the variables that lead to collapse interact in ways both knowable and surprising (such are the emergent phenomenon that arise from complex systems). Feedback that might provide clues to the coming demise tends to be ignored, delayed, or misinterpreted, resulting in dismissal of clear signals. In fact, oftentimes, the actions taken by players can expedite the process of collapse. To this end, I believe that our economic system, with globalisation efforts and its underlying foundation of infinite growth, may be the catalyst that pushes our industrial civilisation over the impending cliff of collapse. But, who really knows? My guess is about as good as anybody else’s[x].

What are some of the components contributing to this collapse endgame? I offer a few: exponential growth of population; dependency on fossil fuels; human hubris; economic credit/debt obligations; climate change; peak resources (especially oil and water); delayed feedback; corrupt political/economic systems; misperceptions; accumulation of toxins/pollutants; misleading information; and just plain, old ignorance (some purposeful I believe). And, don’t forget the black swans.

To me, population growth seems to be the factor that we have pushed in the wrong direction but the underlying variable to this is energy. Populations do not grow if there is not enough energy to support such growth. This energy may take the form of domesticated animal and plant life, or long-stored, concentrated energy (i.e. fossil fuels), but at its base is solar energy and how it is exploited. For tens of thousands of years human population was held in check by limited energy exploitation. The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ certainly gave a boost to human population, especially within new villages, towns, and cities erupting all over the globe. However, once fossil fuels began to be exploited our population took off in a global, exponential explosion. It is this exponential growth of human population that has put us in this bind we are in.

To better understand what is happening, I believe one of the fundamental pieces of information to get a grip on is, in fact, exponential growth. Exponential growth is a concept well-known (think compound interest) but whose consequence has been lost on many. The late Dr. Albert Bartlett was perhaps one of the leading authorities on the implications of such growth and spent much of his professional career attempting to educate people about it. In a presentation he gave thousands of times and was viewed many more times on youtube (viewed more than 1/4 million times; not bad for an old guy lecturing about mathemtics) he outlines the importance of it and its consequences.

Entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population, and Energy’[xi], Bartlett argues, among other things, that zero population growth will happen whether we wish it to or not, it is a mathematical certainty. In the words of others, if something cannot grow forever, it won’t. However, as Bartlett points out, we hold near and dear to our hearts many things that are contributing to overpopulation: education, healthcare, immigration, sanitation, law and order. On the other side of the ledger, however, are forces that counter these: war, famine, disease, accidents, murder, abortion, and infanticide. His point is that we can either deal with the issue of overpopulation by changing our behaviours (and attitudes) or nature will do it for us; the choice is ours (or is it?).


…here we can see the human dilemma—everything we regard as good makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.

Dr. Albert Bartlett


A burgeoning population and its implications for human sustainability on a finite planet has been around for some time. Thomas Malthus’s treatise on the subject in 1798 being perhaps one of the most well known. Had Malthus known of the incredible boost to global carrying capacity that was about to be unleashed by the exploitation of a one-time windfall of concentrated and easily-transportable energy, petroleum, he may not have been so adamant in his conclusion that the end of growth was near-at-hand. But such are the chances when one attempts to foretell the future.

My own biases, prejudices, predilections, observations, and experiences, suggest this human experiment we are a part of will not end well[xii]. I believe that there is too much momentum, too many people with a sense of entitlement, too many sociocultural myths, too many elite protecting the status quo, and far too much ignorance for us to avoid a global collapse. Unless, of course, Zemphram Cochrane’s trans-warp engine test on April 4, 2063 at 11:15 am, after the Third World War (aka Eugenics Wars), is seen by a Vulcan survey expedition and makes First Contact, saving us from ourselves[xiii].

What typically follows social, political, economic collapse is a ‘dark age’ of some kind and is perhaps best known (at least within Western history) by the years that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. But more on this in another post.

Despite all of the above, there are a variety of other variables that could push a teetering globe into a collapse scenario, particularly geopolitics or a natural disaster. No one knows. Prediction of the future is for meteorologists and economists, neither of which is very good beyond a couple of days for the former, and much less for the latter. I must admit, however, that Marion King Hubbert’s prediction of the coming demise of industrial civilization[xiv], along with the seminal text, The Limits to Growth[xv], are pretty good guesses in my books.

The one thing I am sure of, the more I learn, the more I am finding that I am ignorant of. Although I spent a career as an educator[xvi], I continue to be a student…and perhaps this diatribe is all just an elongated justification of my belief system, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”[xvii]

Olduvai (aka Steve Bull)


8 Comments on "Hell in a Hand Basket and Why We’re Going There, Guaranteed (sort of)"

  1. Davy, Hermann, MO on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 1:01 am 

    Yea, he covered allot so I won’t bore you with the usual long winded Davy collapse spiel. You are I am sure tiered of this doomer by now. I will mention the one thing critical to this discussion the growth curve up is another world from the drop down. This has been seen time and time again with species, ecosystems, and human societies. Once a system becomes unstable and chaos enters the equation the systematic stresses are usually not reasonable and rational. Many seemingly likely outcomes are not present other outcomes never dreamed of will unfold. Chaos is a remarkable sculptor of disruption, turmoil, and upheaval. This is what is scary. I would not be so worried if we could have the gentle slope down. In fact it could be a relief with a slower and simpler life. The problem is we have a system so wound tight with complexity and interconnections and stressed with overshoot that it is ready to blow like a propane bottle in a hot fire. I hope luck is on our side and a gentle landing is possible but I am not optimistic.

  2. rollin on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 2:24 am 

    Much of the world has gone through an extreme state of “progress”. Progress in this case is defined as extreme science, engineering and technology driving an extreme industrial base.

    Within one lifetime the electric light, the motor car, the airplane, rocket, radio, TV and nuclear weapons all developed. Now we may see just the reverse. The “progress” was not smooth or even anticipated, such is the “regress” that will befall civilization.
    The difference being is that a complete survival and living system was already in place without these tech wonders. They merely overlaid upon an existing system.
    Now we do not have the reverse, there is no non-electric, non-fossil fuel, non-large industrial system in place. That is what will cause much of the death and pain. We are wandering into the darkness, before we wandered into the light.

  3. Northwest Resident on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 4:27 am 

    Davy and rollin — Your posts are right on. Fossil fuels launched human civilization on a rocket to great heights. Now the fossil fuel is running out and the engine that powered us into the stratosphere is sputtering and misfiring. Soon enough the old adage “what goes up must come down” will be witnessed first hand on an epic and catastrophic scale. The ride back down promises to be swift, the landing will be a splat heard around the world. It is just a matter of time.

  4. MSN fanboy on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 8:09 am 

    Now you get it NorthWest:
    “The ride back down promises to be swift, the landing will be a splat heard around the world”
    Assuming we don’t nuke each other ( and its a fast collapse ) (lol obvious with population overshoot) we know chaotic times are coming and many will die.

    However, it can be a brave new world, an opportunity of any act.

    There are always two sides of the same coin 🙂

    When the chaos comes, there will be no law or social order… to protect you, or those around you…

    Welcome to the natural state of anarchy 🙂 😉

  5. Arthur on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 8:48 am 

    A voice from the “Olduvai crowd”, very popular with many here on this board, postulating that Olduvai Gorge…

    … is the future.

    Obviously he is leaving one crucial factor out: technology, call me a techie sinner of the doomer religion.

    While I am the first to admit that BAU is out of the question, to start with car cancer, we should not be willing to throw away the technology child with the Olduvai bathwater.

  6. J-Gav on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 10:06 am 

    “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni”.

    An old Latin palindrome (reads the same from left to right and vice-versa), meanly roughly: “We wander about in the dark and are then consumed by fire.”

  7. Davy, Hermann, MO on Sat, 29th Mar 2014 10:27 am 

    Arthur said – While I am the first to admit that BAU is out of the question, to start with car cancer, we should not be willing to throw away the technology child with the Olduvai bathwater.

    Rollin, NR, and MS – great doomer points to continplate.

    Arthur, I am not anti-tech nor do I discount “tech” especially if humans manage the “gentlER” decent. It is within a possible realm having a soft landing. I just get very nervous because of so few plan B’s and a population in overshoot shifting into high gear with defective brakes. “NOW” tech will give us a chance to navigate the coming “reverse tech” environment. I doubt tech will be a savior but if enough stability and reboot is present we can take all those old world technologies with a mix of some modern materials and technology. We have so many history books with the old tech and we have so many common sense modern technology to mix and match with it. The coming age, baring a severe Stone Age type decent, will be a mixture of MacGyver and salvage man. There are guys around her in Missouri that salvage, fix, and engineer things out of junk. It amazes me what these guys do. There farms and or homes are full of junk and it is a bit on the “white trash” side but these people are the future. There are people that collect metals and odds and ends that have value if a salvage mentality is used. It is low tech and simple engineering but that is precisely what will be needed. You see this in the 3rd world like in Pakistan only there they are making AK47’s from scratch. I myself in my quest as a prepper “light” am collecting some tech items also. Those items that have robust design and durability. We throw out the baby with the bathwater with the old world tech let us not do this with some of the best of the new tech. I have said time and time again here on this board me need 1000 different niche efforts, tech, and technique in application that fit geography and comparative advantage. For example ethanol in Iowa or in sugar region in Brazil. Wind power in the Great Plains. Tidal power in coastal England. Solar in south of Spain. Yet, everywhere there are little things applicable like in my region wood for heat and maybe steam power. Small hydro in the NR LAND (North West US). Of course, I am speaking the beginning of the decent and further along in the process the difficulties begin with spare parts, repair, and replacement. Yet, the transition from the modern to postmodern is the really dangerous time especially with a population in overshoot. So. “YES” Arthur grab all “TECH” possible by all means.

  8. rollin on Sun, 30th Mar 2014 2:06 am 

    The first step is to admit that human society took a wrong direction, one that will end in a dead end.

    The next step is to turn around and then take another direction. This is most likely going to occur after much loss of population and other nasty consequences.

    Humans could still maintain a level of technology, but it would have to be biological/genetic. Mostly working with plants and natural systems.

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