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Confounding Collapse

General Ideas

As brilliant as your conceptual breakthrough may be, there is no escaping your cultural milieu.”

The Paris Agreement calls for deep decarbonization by 2050 (net neutrality) and drawdown of all the legacy carbon thereafter, returning humans to the comfortable Holocene from which we evolved.

A recent study by Energy Innovation Reform Project (a pro-nuclear, pro-coal think tank), reviewing the now extensive literature on the renewable energy transition, concluded that a 100% renewables goal, while technically feasible, still faces many challenges:

To achieve Paris policy goals — by no means an assurance that climate catastrophe will be averted — power sector CO2 emissions must fall to zero by 2050. The pressure of this timeline is itself disruptive. Decarbonization is significantly — exponentially —  more difficult than mere emissions reductions, even if it loses the baggage of that Dogberry neologism (“decarbonization”).

  • Renewables are primarily delivered by electricity, and to a lesser extent by liquid or pelletized biofuels. To abate carbon, there needs to be a shift to electricity for transportation, heating, and industrial energy.
  • Power generation systems involving renewables such as wind and solar are physically larger, requiring more land area.
  • Wind and solar require much greater total installed capacity — 3 to 6 times peak demand — to offset their intermittency.
  • Stable electric grids require a mix of “dispatchable” energy (variable generation on demand) and long-duration (seasonal) energy.
  • Battery storage is infeasible for long duration storage. In the USA, for instance, you would need 37.8 billion Tesla Power Wall 2.0 home energy storage systems—or 320 Power Walls per household to sustain present power consumption.
  • Biofuel backup, the most practical form of seasonal storage, would entail converting some fraction of Earth’s photosynthetic capacity to supplying electricity while somehow maintaining the other essential functions that natural ecosystems supply. You can’t rob Peter (Rabbit) to PayPal.

When one considers that the so-called industrial revolution was fueled by a switch from energy-light whale oil and firewood to energy-dense petroleum and coal — enabling expansion of human population from 1 billion to 7 billion — reversion to some sort of status quo ante is a daunting prospect. To start with, where will you find the whales?

Even if new generations of solar cells can take the place of whales in lighting homes, it is questionable whether those can provide the kinds of surplus energy that enabled construction of the world’s megacities, airborne armies, or space programs capable of landing men on the Moon or operating satellite-based Cloud technologies.

Humans now propose to switch from dependency on Earth’s 650-million-year-old savings account of fossil sunlight to a much more modest daily ration of photons arriving from the Sun. To do so, they must first gather and store those photons or their effects (e.g.: wind, tides, radiant heat, growing things) and then dispense them in some fashion similar to their previously accustomed habits for using oil or coal. They must finance all that while under the pressure of economic decline and mounting climate catastrophes. And they must overcome the problems of intermittentcy, diffusion and storage.

Consumer optimism is at a 17 year high — no worries, invest!

These are not small challenges. To suggest that we can supply a consumerist economy elevated to the scale of 7 billion — soon-to-be 12 billion as the pent-up demographic time bomb explodes — from silicon wafers, neodymium turbines, or terrestrial and marine vegetation, seems deluded.

Nonetheless, most governments, and all the major international development banks, now have the scare in them. Typical is the InterAmerican Development Bank, whose 2017 portfolio is 80% mitigation ($2.127 billion) and 20% adaptation (562 million). Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or limit fossil emissions, or to a lesser extent, to drawdown and sequester greenhouse gases. Adaptation refers to efforts to reduce or limit vulnerability by restructuring shelter, food and water security around the new normal.

IDB’s 2016 report warned its client countries that 60 to 80 percent of publicly listed fossil fuel reserves “are unburnable if the world is to avoid disastrous climate change.” Worse, they broke it to them that their agriculture systems, tourist industries, and most of the jobs they have created to productively employ their workforce over the past century of industrialization are all stranded too. IDB would now seem to agree with James Howard Kunstler that Robert Moses‘ utopian vision of America as happy-motoring affluent suburbia was the worst misallocation of resources in human history.

As brilliant as your conceptual breakthrough may be, there is no escaping your cultural milieu.

What we might call civilization, historian Joseph Tainter recast as something more nuanced: complexity. In his 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter did not attribute the rise of the Greek, Mayan or the Roman Empires to military conquest, slavery or some new form of energy. He said that complexity creates resources just as resources create complexity. The binding energy is social organization.

A corollary of that is that depletion of resources does not necessary doom a civilization, even one that has been sawing off the tree limb it is perched upon. Rather, Tainter said, what is experienced in the periodic arrival of collapse is the normal and routine feedback of complexity.

Endlessly iterating intermediation as a society complexifies places greater demands on resources while yielding diminishing returns, both energetically and in terms of social benefit. Think of the store in the mall that only sells baseball caps. It is highly specialized. The store’s owner, who probably pays a franchise fee, requires a trained sales force, working probably at minimum wage but with health and unemployment insurance; rent to the mall owner; store liability, fire and theft insurance; advertising; payroll accountant; tax accountant; inventory depreciation; and more. The store management has a long list of complex regulations it has to abide by.

At the same time, its business model is very fragile. Success depends on people having discretionary income to buy new baseball caps. It is predicated on a demand adequate to meet the overhead of the store and avoid insolvency. It assumes people will continue to drive from some distance away to shop at the mall. It assumes that the costs to light, heat, cool and secure the mall will not become so prohibitive that the mall closes.

Today it is not just that business model that is too fragile. Its the entire global consumer economy. The signs are all around us. The collapse phase of the civilizational cycle is here. Two distinguishing features of this one are that it is global in scope for the first time and that it is capable of being watched in real time by nearly everyone.

In a recent interview with Steve Keen, Michael Hudson described the plight of the average US city dweller in 2017:

Hudson: Let’s say that debt is equal to 100% of GDP, which it is, at least in almost every country. Now, if countries are only growing at 1%, then if you pay interest at usually 5%, a country would have to grow 5% per year — the GDP — just to pay the interest. And if countries are growing at 1%, and the interest rate for average that everybody pays, about 5% or 6%, then you’re going to have the actual economy shrinking every year as there’s this siphoning off of interest. That’s what debt deflation is.

And that’s the situation that England is in. That is turning Eurozone into a dead zone. And it’s the situation of the US economy. That all of the surplus is paid for interest — not to mention financial returns, capital gains, and economic rent to the landlord class and to the monopolies.

So no wonder the economy is shrinking. Nobody has enough money to buy what they produce anymore. So that’s why there are so many vacancies in storefronts in New York. Why stores are going out of business. Restaurants are going out of business. There’s a squeeze on.

Keen: Yeah. Can you – is that palpable in the States? Because in England it’s not quite so palpable.

Hudson: Well, just imagine the average paycheck. I don’t know if it’s similar. In the United States, the big chunk off the top of every paycheck is for housing. Now in America almost all mortgages — 85% of mortgages are guaranteed by the government and banks will write a mortgage up to the limit of 43% of your total income.

So imagine, here’s a family that in order to have a home is either paying 43% of its income on a mortgage, or it’s paying that in rent. The average rent in New York City is $4,500 a month. Well, you can imagine if the average salary is about $80,000, do the math for yourself. [$54000 or 67.5%]

Now in addition to that, people have to pay maybe 10% more of their income to the banks for credit card debt, student loans, auto debt. And then also taken off the front of every paycheck is 15% of a forced saving of social security and medical care. So that’s taken off. And there’s about another 15% recombination of state and local and federal income taxes. And then you have the value-added taxes. So you add all that up. To the 43%, to 10% to the banks, maybe the 25% for taxes, you have only about 25% of the average paycheck that’s available to be spent on goods and services.

Now think of the circular flow. The whole of economics was founded by a doctor, Francois Quesnay in France, that looked at a national income like the circulation of blood in the body. But you have this blood being drained — 75% of the circular flow now is drained for what we call the FIRE sector – finance, insurance, and real estate.

It is when progressively increasing complexity goes past the point of net energetic loss and starts to drain blood that hooded figures bearing sycthes appear.

Buoyed by low energy prices and buyer confidence the markets keep climbing

Exceeding biophysical limits may not be the proximate cause of collapse, assuming Tainter is correct, but the societal response to the encounter is critical. The Collapse of Complex Civilizations does not ask why a society would be utterly unable to change course, even in the face of imminent disaster, but it begs that question. Is our social inertia so hard wired? Are homo that un-sapien?

In her inside look at the Federal Reserve, Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America, Danielle DiMartino Booth depicts the bank presidents who make up that board as nervous engineers, clinging to unproductive Keynesian stimuli in a desperate effort to re-track the train after it has derailed.

Since the 2008 crisis the Fed, along with the European, Chinese, Japanese and every other central bank, have racked up mountainous debt, with inflationary effects hidden only by the much-derided income gap whereby the super-rich take money out of circulation nearly as quickly as it is created. To the cabal of economists who haunt the halls of the central banks, the modern tools of money manipulation have gotten so good that economic growth is forever assured. DiMartino Booth, David Stockman, Nicole Foss, Max Keiser and many others believe a reckoning is long overdue.

The shape of the descent will not resemble the shape of the ascent — a smooth bell curve — because of the Seneca trap. The more you employ artifice to extend the peak, the steeper the downslide that comes when you can no longer pretend to extend.

With the crash of fossil fuel production, already well along and scraping the barrel for the dirty, tarry scraps, greenhouse gas emissions may decline much faster than they grew up, which is good news. Of course, so will world GDP, and with it, food supply, consumer goods and, inexorably, population. This is not going to be pretty.

The economic earthquake that pundits warn is coming might keep us within a hospitable climate a while longer, but it will only slow the exit from that normalcy, not return it.

Eventually, and with absolute certainty now, we will arrive at both the collapse of the global economy and runaway climate change, the two of them feeding off each other the way crumbling empires eat their seed corn.

In a number of those historic collapse events, rapid-onset climate change was the triggering event. The gun — mass psychosis — was cocked and loaded.

Since the problem is overcomplexity, what we really need is reversion to simpler ways to live. We need degrowth and depopulation; relocalization and transition; antifragility and mutually assured security.

When we described our cool lab concept we gave the example of a rural village in Haiti. While cities pose more of a challenge, we showed in the example of Los Angeles Eco-Village that it is possible to accomplish the required change anywhere and everywhere.

What we most need next are the vehicles — the change agencies, accellerants, and transformation catalysts. For those we will need to open the tool chest of social inventions.

The Great Change by Albert Bates

15 Comments on "Confounding Collapse"

  1. twocats on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 7:04 am 

    boom. that’s the sound of knowledge and reality dropping on your monkey brain. deal with it.

  2. onlooker on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 7:12 am 

    No renewable energy will NOT make much of a difference at this stage on a mass scale and in fact will hasten collapse of our energy intensive mode of civilization which in the long run is good but not in the short run not. This is because we NOT prepared to attend to our needs overall without the support of our industrial civilization. Given that expect acute collapse dieoff which will not recede but become worse with climate change over time. A Personal survival strategy is worthwhile but does not guarantee anything in the tumultuous times ahead

  3. Davy on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 7:44 am 

    As long as there is the status quo there is hope for niche locals who can devolve and reconstruct. They will have to maintain their status quo lifeline to transition. This lifeline offers copious resources but also is parasitic. The key is the culture that this transitioning local employs. The culture must be akin to a fundamentalist religions where the effort is “all in” at “all levels”. It becomes a way of life. It requires honesty to science but the good and the bad. Fake greens need not apply. The science is telling us we are trapped. Our traps can also be pathways to liberation. The promise of the status quo green or not is more of the same of an existential trap.

    If you realize the status quo trap then you can be liberated by adapting and mitigating. You will turn your back on progress and growth and embrace decline and consolidation. You will at this time be focused on getting the “deadwood” cleared. You will be focused on removing unneeded complexity. This does not have to be a rejection of complexity. The coming time will be one of salvage and innovation of the new and the old. It can be as the Amish do. The local community can decided what complexity is useful and what is a danger. This needs to be accompanied by a resurrection of the old ways. We need animals back in the mix. We need human labor back. What definitely should be eliminated is current culture of consumerism, entertainment, and mass travel. We need to bring back libraries and musical instruments. We need to eat seasonally and locally. We need gardens and animal husbandry. We need to preserve and stockpile food. Leave fast foods and the over refined taste that is little more than poison.

    This can be done as we are still connected to the status quo but it will have to be akin to a hobby because it currently is not economical. I am doing it and I can tell you it does not pay. Not only does it not pay it is a cost. This will change slowly as the status quo declines and decays. The key is to plant the seeds of investments. Learn the skills and have the infrastructure of transition in place. It requires above all else attitude changes. Disconnect as much as you can from the status quo. You will be juggling a way of life. At times you will feel lost because everywhere you turn you will face a status quo telling you that you are doing it wrong and enticing you to its false promises. This is precisely where the modern fake green has gone. He is being told he can have his cake and eat it. He will have low carbon and complexity. Life does not work that way. Mirror life not a false human creed.

    We have a die down ahead. This die down is human and environmental. It is the end of a moderate climate. It will likely be a time of having a home full of gadgets that don’t work. It will be a time of dysfunction, irrational and abandonment. We still have time and this collapse process might play out over years. It takes years to transition and this transition is only a process that is a mirror of the global collapse process. What I mean by this is your transition will follow the greater collapse process. You will have to kick in your skills and infrastructure according to the collapse gradient. This gradient is an unknown so you have to have multiple and redundant systems. Some will have been stranded investments but remember efficiency is a status quo luxury. The reality of collapse is resilience not efficiency especially when the end of status quo is undefined. There are basics and they revolve around less and with the understanding that this less is the trend. This will not be our grandfather’s depression this will be a paradigm shift of an age. It may also be our end.

    The end is not the end until the end. What I mean by that is compartmentalize the human nature of collapse fantasy and anxiety of loss. This is the flip side of the coin that rejects the false promise of the status quo. You do this through the spiritual. Science will guide your preparations and the spiritual will maintain your sanity. You can still be heroic and the way our ancestors did pre modern. You can be who you are and not who the status quo says you should be in false advertising. Reject the status quo and use it in an effort much akin to judo. The status quo can leverage your efforts but you must have a spiritual check valve and governor. This will prevent you from being reabsorbed into the insanity. If you simplify your life and remove the deadwood of unneeded status quo requirements you can do this.

    You will have to concentrate on location. It is no different than planting seeds. Good earth is a must. Good people and good earth is life. Embrace life not death. Status quo is built upon death. It is about exploitation for consumption. There was a time pre awakening when we did not know any better. Our social narrative based on human fantasy told us we were exceptional and part of a manifest destiny. We were told we were separate from nature and nature was ours to use as needed in this journey. This was a lie but until we were aware of the lie we were living according to what was right and just. Science now tells us this was wrong and our innate spirituality from our pre-modern history is telling us we must reconnect to nature and ourselves. At least this connection is to what is left. This is a message of redemption in loss so prepare yourself for sadness and horrors. Yield to these and your demons will become angles. The power is there and it is within you. All it takes is stepping forth into a new world that is an old world.

  4. Cloggie on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 8:16 am 

    Renewables are primarily delivered by electricity, and to a lesser extent by liquid or pelletized biofuels. To abate carbon, there needs to be a shift to electricity for transportation, heating, and industrial energy.

    Wrong. You can convert electricity into several fuels. A promising one is ammonia (NH3):

    Power generation systems involving renewables such as wind and solar are physically larger, requiring more land area.

    In densely populated NW-Europe offshore is all the rage. Enough space and no “environmental activists” complaining about landscape, noise or decapitated bats.

    Furthermore, it is not true that most renewable energy will come in the form of electricity. In the new carbon-free energy plan of The Netherlands most space heating will come from geothermal energy. Space heating is the largest chunk in the energy budget of countries in NW-Europe (and North-America). Alternatively, the EU is making progress with compact storage of seasonal heat, so capturing solar heat is an alternative to geothermal.

    Wind and solar require much greater total installed capacity — 3 to 6 times peak demand — to offset their intermittency.

    Wrong again. Storage is the key here. Pumped hydro, conversion to fuel, compressed air, batteries, flywheels and a huge list of other opportunities.

    Stable electric grids require a mix of “dispatchable” energy (variable generation on demand) and long-duration (seasonal) energy.

    Can be countered by designing the system for maximum local energy generation (“panels on every roof”).

    Just to get an idea of the potential for renewable energy… if you want to replace the entire global energy consumption with solar, you merely need an area like Spain.
    The formerly useless Sahara alone or the desert of KSA provides a multiple of the required land space. Australia (Outback) and China (Gobi) and the US (South-West) provide additional space. Space is not the problem.

    The Collapse of Complex Civilizations does not ask why a society would be utterly unable to change course, even in the face of imminent disaster, but it begs that question. Is our social inertia so hard wired? Are homo that un-sapien?

    As they say in Texas: “if it is true, it ain’t bragging”. Nobody in Europe needs to be convinced that the transition is urgent. So much for being “fatally hard-wired”.

    There is no energy problem.

  5. penury on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 10:32 am 

    Does anyone understand what the real problem is? Too many humans using too many resources which are in finite supply, coupled with a system that restricts too many people from access to resources based upon “economics”, basically a system designed to restrict access to the chosen. Cheap,available energy has provided the hubris convincing man that like a god they can do whatever and prosper forever. The problem IMVHO becomes the lust for possesions and the willingness to destroy all other life to posess them in a time of reduction in the available4 cheap energy.

  6. Cloggie on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 10:48 am 

    Does anyone understand what the real problem is? Too many humans using too many resources which are in finite supply, coupled with a system that restricts too many people from access to resources based upon “economics”, basically a system designed to restrict access to the chosen.

    Food, sunlight/wind and recycled resources are not a finite supply. Having said that, too many humans kill biodiversity and are problematic indeed.

  7. onlooker on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 11:06 am 

    Food, sunlight/wind and recycled resources are not a finite supply. —
    They are finite, the amount hitting the Earth is both dispersed and limited in a given period of time which ties into a limited photosynthetic output. Soil fecundity is also limited and can be diminished by overuse. And recycled resources are drawn from resources of which all are finite as we live on a closed system finite planet

  8. onlooker on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 11:07 am 

    sorry. the amount of sunlight hitting

  9. Cloggie on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 11:10 am 

    Soil fecundity is also limited and can be diminished by overuse.

    I was led to believe at school that lush vegetation has accompanied the planet for billions of years.

    That’s not to say that you can’t exhaust soil. It is a matter of applying ecological principles.

  10. onlooker on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 11:27 am 

    lush not unlimited

  11. Cloggie on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 11:34 am 

    Talking about collapse (of the NWO)…

    80% of the votes in Turkey counted, 53-47%. Looks like Sultan Erdogan is a fact. Democracy is not irreversible. Just like in 1933 in Germany, a democracy can be used to vote itself out of democracy. Islam and democracy don’t go together, as the Qumran, if taken seriously, already has an answer for everything, no democratic discussion required or even desired.

    On a positive note, Europe just got rid of the possibility of Turkish EU membership.


    Samuel Huntington’s worldview just came a step closer today.

  12. makati1 on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 7:42 pm 

    Actually cloggie, the ecology we enjoy now is only about 60 million years old. The end of the dinosaurs saw most of their ecology wiped out. The planet has been dead for most of its previous billions of years. We are in the process of killing it again.

    There are no ‘infinite’ energy sources except the sun. that solar energy has to be transformed into plants for our use. Wind is a constant but is not an energy source without petroleum to make the conversion equipment. Ditto for solar.

    We live on a finite planet. And we are fast approaching the end of those resources. Enjoy your last years. Your (and my) grand kids will not have the luxury.

    As for soil, if you have killed off the bacteria, amebas, worms, molds, etc that are in healthy soil you have dead soil, not something to grow food crops in. Every cubic yard of good, healthy soil has millions of these critters living it it. If it does not, you will not grow much of anything usable. Do some research. Most of the soil in the world today is dead and will not grow more than weeds without petro chemicals, if even then. We have poisoned everything we need to survive without oil.

  13. freak on Sun, 16th Apr 2017 11:29 pm 

    Does anyone understand what the real problem is?
    Yes it is the corporate banker fiat currency debt system that can print currency out of thin air and use it to exponentially extract the earth’s resources and grow the human populations. If we eradicated all of the cancerous bankers and used a real hard worked tangible asset to trade with it would keep populations at bay and would cause people to conserve and not buy frivolous things depleting all the resources. Get rid of the bankers and you will eliminate 70% of the world’s problems and 90% of the world’s wars.

  14. Cloggie on Mon, 17th Apr 2017 2:57 am 

    A bit of non-news, but in a world that is losing species at an alarming rate, the world ran out of yet another species yesterday: people from the 19th century:

    A 117 year old woman from Italy died yesterday, after living through two world wars and 90 Italian governments.

    She only ate eggs and cookies, because the world had run out of 19th century teeth some time before. She never ate fruit or vegetables, but 3 eggs a day for 90 years (2 raw and 1 for omelette), that is more than 100,000 eggs in total, making a mockery of all sorts of modern diet advice.

  15. Apneaman on Mon, 17th Apr 2017 2:42 pm 

    ‘It scares me’: Permafrost thaw in Canadian Arctic sign of global trend

    Buildings in Inuvik being demolished because of shaky foundations

    “Canada is melting.

    Like a popsicle taken out of the freezer and left on the counter, the permanently frozen ground in the northern reaches of this country is thawing at an ever faster rate.

    Half of Canada is blanketed in some form of permafrost, including patches in the northern reaches of Ontario and the Prairie provinces.

    But in many places, including around Inuvik, NWT, as much as 90 per cent of this “ground” is actually frozen water. (The rest is dirt, rocks and decomposed organic material that was once trees, shrubs, even animals.)

    For years now, buildings in Inuvik have been gradually sinking into the ground as it softens. Others are so unstable, they are literally sliding off their foundations.”

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