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Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence

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While trying to get to the bottom of the underlying reasons for geopolitical events has always been enough of a challenge, an unfortunate side-effect of the explosion of information that the Internet has provided us with is the even further erosion of the signal-to-noise ratio. The mainstream media can pretty much be ignored altogether unless the intent is to understand the context and/or see how current events are getting framed and spun by the powers-that-be, which pretty much leaves one with having to seek out more independent sources of media – such as blogs – if what is sought after is insightful and revealing material.

Supposing you’ve actually managed to make your way through the morass and have found yourself a few good blogs that aren’t just charlatans trying to pawn off guides to buying gold or some questionable vegetable seeds, there’s also the unfortunate fact that information on the Internet tends to come out in staccato bursts, not as an encompassing whole. To coalesce all this information into a proper narrative requires time and effort of course, to go along with the fact that virtually no one wants to scroll through and actually read 100,000 – 200,000 words on an Internet page. So although books can’t possibly be as up to date as a blog, they can give the much needed “big-picture” account that tends to be anathema to the Internet. And that “big-picture” regarding global events of the early-21st century has fortunately now been assembled by blogger (Insurge Intelligence) and author Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed – Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence.

At the core of Ahmed’s argument is that we’re not facing a “clash of civilizations” but rather a “crisis of civilization”. And at the centre of this crisis, which is all but certainly going to beset us throughout the 21st century, is the triple whammy of energy, climate and food crises. As Ahmed returns to several times, a major roadblock hampering us from taking action in regards to this “crisis of civilization” is that we generally suffer from what he calls “whole system knowledge deficit”, primarily thanks to the slipshod job of what he then refers to as the Global Media-Industrial Complex. As described in Failing States, Collapsing Systems,

Despite an abundance of information, there is a paucity of actionable knowledge which translates this information into a holistic understanding of the nature of the current global phase-shift and its terminal crisis trajectory for all relevant stakeholders. While much of the human population has been denied access to such information, and thus actionable knowledge, vested interests in the global fossil fuel and agribusiness system are actively attempting to control information flows to continue to deny full understanding in order to perpetuate their own power and privilege. The only conceivable pathway out of this impasse, however difficult or unlikely it may appear, is to break the stranglehold of information control by disseminating knowledge on both the causes and potential solutions to global crisis [pp. 91-92].

In his contribution towards rectifying our knowledge deficit, Ahmed draws early attention to the fact that oil’s global EROEI levels have been declining since the 1960s. Coupled with a global oil production rate whose continued increase since the 1960s has been going on at a slower and slower rate, and what we’re left with is the startling correlating fact that the global growth rate of GDP has been slowly dropping since the 1960s as well [p. 27]. Energy makes the world go round.

Added to this is the fact that while abundant fossil fuel supplies have allowed for the expansion of the monetary and financial system, decreasing EROEI levels have now implied an increasing need to rely on financialization (lest our Ponzionomic system implode in on itself). Or as Ahmed puts it, “the shift from the expansion of money, to the expansion of credit (debt-money) [p. 37]”. This was most recently seen by the quantitative easing (AKA “printing money”, AKA credit creation) to bail out insolvent banks after the rash of predatory lending-induced consumer defaults.

In the meantime, Ahmed points out that various forms of state-level violence have been intensifying since the 1970s and then accelerated in the late 1990s, the former corresponding with the period when oil’s global EROEI level peaked, the latter with the year that the global EROEI level for all fossil fuels (not just oil) reached its overall peak (1999 to be exact), both of which have been steadily declining since.

What is probably Ahmed’s most cogent example of this emerging “crisis of civilization” is the ongoing problems currently besieging Syria. The conventional argument given as explanation for Syria’s plight is that of repression by its president, Bashar Al-Assad, an argument that is a grossly oversimplified explanation, in line with explaining away the “Arab Spring” as being due to a “deficit of democracy”. As Ahmed points out, this misconception has resulted in “international policy [that] has focused on viewing the conflict through the lens of geopolitical interests and regional security [p. 49]”. Fortunately, there are however those who recognize the role that climate change has played with Syria’s misfortunes, others who recognize peak oil‘s role, and yet others who factor in the recent food price spikes. But as Ahmed sees it, all of these fail to recognize the systemic interconnections between these factors and so don’t offer a systemic understanding.

For starters, Syrian oil production peaked in 1996, dipped by almost half by 2010, and then plummeted again by even more than half upon the outbreak of war. With a dwindling influx of currency due to shrinking exports of crude, the government was forced to slash fuel subsidies in May of 2008, tripling petrol prices overnight and significantly driving up the price of food (a serious problem when food makes up an overwhelming part of your budget, and when what you eat is virtually nothing but staples). Ongoing drought conditions have only exacerbated poor harvests in what used to be a country self-sufficient in wheat, and so coupled with spiking food prices and Assad’s inability to maintain subsidies due to dwindling influxes of foreign currency, the situation has only gotten worse, and then worse, and then worse.

Using the situations in Syria and Yemen as base-points, Ahmed surmises that it takes about 15 years from when a country hits its peak in oil production before additional systemic pressures – such as drought, overpopulation, climate-induced water and food scarcity – contribute to outbreaks of systemic state failure. How’s that bode for the rest of us?

To answer that, one must take another look at the situation in the Middle East, if not at its largest producer, Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia’s primary source of revenue is of course oil, according to Ahmed Saudi Arabia is expected to reach its peak of oil production by no later than 2028. But that isn’t its only problem, because due to a significantly rising population which is adding to what are already rising internal consumption levels, Saudi Arabia has actually been exporting 1.4% less oil year upon year. While implying an earlier kind of peak, this of course doesn’t bode well for those expecting Saudi Arabia to be their sweet-crude-daddy (which I’ll get to in a moment), and will eventually impose upon Saudi Arabia a world of its own problems.

While Saudi Arabia went on a crash course several decades ago to increase its wheat production in order that food couldn’t be used as a weapon against it in the same way that it withheld oil from the West (for a while Saudi Arabia, a desert country, was actually one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat), its depleting aquifers have been recently putting an end to production that was also using up 18 percent of its oil revenue. While the state-sponsored Saudi Arabian wheat production is now kaput, Ahmed points out that 80% of Saudi Arabia’s food is purchased through subsidies. Along with that, he states that 70% of Saudi Arabia’s domestic water supplies are procured through desalination, an extremely energy-intensive process that estimates state burns through about half of its domestic oil consumption.

For the time being, and unlike Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been able to stave off its own “Arab Spring” thanks to bounteous subsidies for housing, food, water, oil, and other consumer items. But as Saudi Arabia’s oil exports decline to zero in the next 15 years, and as the then-subsequent dwindling production for internal usage means less air conditioning, less water, less happy motoring (that is, supposing your gender is even allowed to drive in the first place), less everything, life in the desert is once again going to become like life in the desert. As the saying goes, and to put it lightly, “My father rode a camel. I drive a motor car. My son flies a jet plane. His son will ride a camel.”

That’s not to say though that Saudi Arabia is only Saudi Arabia’s problem. As Ahmed points out, Saudi Arabia’s and the Middle East’s exports of oil will be significantly decreasing right when China and India will be expecting significant inputs in order to power their booming economies (not to mention their need for increasing imports of food). Since China’s supplies of coal and conventional oil have in all likelihood just recently peaked (as stated by Crude Oil Peak, Peak Oil Barrel, and others) and its supplies of unconventional oil are expected to peak in another five years (as Ahmed relays), then like India China is in all likelihood going to be experiencing “outbreaks of domestic disorder [that] will become more organized, and will eventually undermine state territorial integrity before 2030 [p. 75]”, all of which will render a shift of power to the East all but fantasy.

Might at least Europe be a safe haven? Well, while European oil producing countries have all passed their peaks (with only Denmark producing more than it consumes),

As crisis convergence unravels the global food system across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, geopolitical pressures and northern Europe’s relative immunity from the immediate impacts will make the region a prime target for regional and international migration [p. 80].

Mexico is getting close to having no excess oil to sell for foreign currency, which theoretically implies there being no crude to spare for its volatile neighbour with the voracious appetite to the north – unless (ahem) a certain dealmaker could swing a “you give us all your remaining oil, we won’t make you pay for the wall” kind of deal


In short, and to go along with Ahmed’s expectation that Mexico will experience state failure sometime between 2020 and 2035 due to its peak of oil production in 2006,

it is difficult to avoid the conclusion as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their international territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure [p. 85].

With intractable border issues between Mexico and the United States an inevitability – wall or no wall – and with increasing instability in the Middle East and North Africa an eventuality even with mitigation efforts, Europe and the United States are likely due for an influx of migrants that will make the relatively mild-mannered amount of middle-class Syrians currently able to pay for the costly overtures look like a pleasant Sunday-afternoon jaunt on the ferry.

Alongside that, while 2011’s Occupy and “Arab Spring” are but a taste of things to come, there’s also the fact that while the situation in Syria has allowed for the emergence of ISIS and other jihadis, the coming state-level failures in the Middle East will only exacerbate this. Looking at intra-state conflict, civil unrest, Islamic terrorism, and far-right terrorism, Ahmed’s studies show that

the escalation of Western military interventionism has provoked an increase in Islamist militancy, which has further fueled far-right extremism, both comprising the principal sources of escalation in PV [political violence] pandamics [sic?]. Both, of course, have further elicited further militarization in response to these different forms of rising militancy and terrorism [p. 43].

The problem here of course is that influxes of migrants will further fuel nationalist sentiments, which we are likely only just seeing the initial emergence of. Is there anything that can be done regarding all – or any – of this? Well, as Ahmed puts it,

The cases examined here thus point to a global process of civilizational transition. As a complex adaptive system, human civilization in the twenty-first century finds itself at the early stages of a systemic phase-shift which is already manifesting in local sub-system failures in every major region of the periphery of the global system. As these sub-system failures driven by local ESD-HSD [Earth System Disruption – Human System Disruption] amplifying feedbacks accelerate and converge in turn, they will coalesce and transmit ever more powerfully to the core of the global system. As this occurs and re-occurs, it will reach a system-wide threshold effect resulting in eventual maladaptive global system failure; or it will compel an adaptive response in the form of fundamental systemic transformation [p. 88].

Put a bit more succinctly,

The system must either adapt to these threshold effects by transforming its structure, adapting its overarching rules, norms and values, and thus transitioning to a new evolutionary state – or experiencing a protracted collapse process by failing to do so [p. 47].

With a bit of a positive note, Ahmed points out that

Human civilization is in the midst of a global transition to a completely new system which is being forged from the ashes of the old. Yet the contours of this new system remain very much subject to our choices today. If the forces of systemic failure overwhelm us, then the new systemic configuration is likely to represent a maladaptive collapse in civilizational complexity. Yet even within such a maladaptive response – which arguably is well-underway as these cases show – there remains a capacity for agents within the global system to generate adaptive responses that, through the power of transitional information flows, hold the potential to enhance collective consciousness. The very breakdown of the prevailing system heralds the potential for long-term post-breakdown systemic transformation [pp. 88-9].

As a side note, and having read a previous book of Ahmed’s years ago, I’ll add that Ahmed is one of the few writers I’ve come across that is cognizant of the conflict between our (Ponzionomic) money system and peaking energy supplies. For as he puts it, what we need is

democratic money creation processes, including community currencies, in place of debt-based fractional reserve banking; communities reclaiming the commons, especially in the sense of communal land stewardship systems; [p. 91]

Along with other suggestions, Ahmed then points out that

Such a vision may, in the current context, appear impossibly utopian. By 2030, and even more so by 2050 – as the manifestations of global capitalism’s self-catabolic trajectory become more obvious – it will appear increasingly realistic [p. 91].

Although the book’s first two introductory chapters may be a bit too theory-laden for some, the remainder of the book – a very accessible 94 pages in total – without a doubt gives the best “big-picture” explanation of why world events are currently playing out the way they are. If you’re new to the notions of peak oil / EROEI / collapse of industrial civilization, and/or would like to try and enlighten a friend that might be receptive to these issues, I’d say that you can’t go wrong by picking up a copy (a hardcopy!) of Failing States, Collapsing Systems.

From Filmers to Farmers

18 Comments on "Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence"

  1. onlooker on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 12:49 pm 

    Basically, acknowledging the real reasons the SWHTF

  2. peakyeast on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 3:02 pm 

    AFAIK Denmark is on its very last leg of producing more oil than consumed. Actually I have heard this year as the last one.

  3. penury on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 4:14 pm 

    Who knew? An ever expanding population on a finite planet will encounter problems as the resources needed to survive gradually disappear.

  4. onlooker on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 4:19 pm 

    Why does this remind me of the quote by Condolezza Rice “Who could have known terrorists would hijack planes and crash them into high rise buildings” A 3 year old perhaps

  5. Antius on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 5:54 pm 

    ‘Who knew? An ever expanding population on a finite planet will encounter problems as the resources needed to survive gradually disappear.’

    Absolutely correct. Yet it is astounding how few people really seem to understand that this simple fact is behind all of the world’s crises. There is only so much of any resource on Earth. We now have declining EROI energy sources, coupled with increasing energy requirements for basic resources. On top of that, world population is increasing and pollution is degrading many natural resources. It is a pincer movement, that will rapidly drive down living standards until every one is too poor and to hungry to care about the future.

    There are no solutions to this problem so long as we remain on Earth. The problem is that literally every resource set will fail us simultaneously. Finding a fabulous new source of energy, would only increase the depletion rate of everything else. This is the grim reality of peak everything – hitting the limits of a finite environment. In that grim scenario, even humanity’s greatest successes begin to look like failures. Anything we achieve looks pointless as it ends up creating problems somewhere else. For a long time, the Earth was a benevolent cradle for humanity. But as we push further against the limits of its finite resources and environment, it becomes a sort of pressure cooker, a gravitational prison that gradually turns into living hell.

    The solution is to leave the Earth altogether. In space, on orbits that intersect Earth’s, there are thousands of minor planets that contain more minerals in more enriched forms than have ever been produced on Earth.

    There are millions of these minor planets, each one containing more high grade metal than humanity has ever extracted.

    In space, high above the Earth, solar power is available 100% of the time and it is a dozen times more intense than it is at the Earth’s surface in North European countries.

    There is a boundless amount of space. Human beings can create living space by constructing large pressure vessels full of breathable air and spinning them to produce artificial gravity. The inside can be as Earth like as we need.

    This is the future we need to be embracing. Many people will tell you that we shouldn’t mess about up there because we have too many problems down here on Earth. But as long as we stay of Earth problems is all we will have. The longer we wait, the more those problems will become. Collectively, we need to make the decision to leave. There is a whole new frontier waiting for us, with more resources than we could ever imagine using. Most of us assume in the back of our minds that humanity will be getting around to this sort of thing sooner or later. It needs to be sooner, because the point will come when nature slams the door on us. We will have depleted too many of our resources to realistically muster what we need to escape.

  6. dave thompson on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:18 pm 

    I am convinced the problems we face are starting already and being masked over by TPTB.

  7. Davy on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:20 pm 

    “There are no solutions to this problem so long as we remain on Earth.” Antius, I am looking in the other direction. I see little hope for leaving earth. The scaling for leaving earth as a human migration is poor to nil. I am looking for man to return to his pre-civilization self in an altered planetary world with global populations bellow 500MIL sometime this century. This is funny because those who read what you said will tend to look at that as a plausible reality and what I said as fantasy. This is the strange way in which humans think. What I am saying is clearly more logical per science and what you are saying is fantasy considering the daunting challenges.

  8. Survivalist on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:24 pm 

    Another good one by Nafeez

  9. Survivalist on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:27 pm 

    Here’s an interesting podcast on modern survival and some prepping topics.

  10. onlooker on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:31 pm 

    I am convinced the problems we face are starting already and being masked over by TPTB.–Yes Dave and no place more than in the stock market

  11. Antius on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:34 pm 

    Davy, what you have suggested is exactly what will happen by default if we cannot do what I have suggested. I do not think what you have suggested is implausible. It just isn’t the future I would want, or indeed, that very many people would want. I bet it isn’t really what you want either. It suggests a world where a diminished human population survives at the subsistence level. That means grinding poverty, food shortages keeping population in check and ultimately, stone age technology. That may be our ultimate fate, but with three children, it isn’t the sort of future I want to leave behind.

    What I have suggested may not even be possible in practice. I know that it is possible in principle. After all, we have sent probes to other planets, men to the moon and have a permanent presence on a space station in Earth orbit. There is nothing physically impossible about what I am suggesting. It is more a case of whether we can develop the technology and resources needed to scale this up to the levels necessary in the time we have left. I do not believe we should go quietly into the night.

  12. Truth Has A Liberal Bias on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:35 pm 

    One small problem with leaving earth. No oxygen. Duh.
    Nature has a solution to the problem we face. The solution is less people.

  13. Antius on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:44 pm 

    ‘One small problem with leaving earth. No oxygen. Duh.’

    Yeah, Duh. There is actually plenty of oxygen wherever there are rocks. Reduce those rocks into refined metals and oxygen is the byproduct. That’s old technology now and basic chemistry.

    ‘Nature has a solution to the problem we face. The solution is less people.’

    Yes it does. That solution will be coming to a town near you within your lifetime. I bet you don’t like it.

  14. Davy on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 6:59 pm 

    Antius, are you prejudice against primitive humans? Lol. How do you know their lives were grinding poverty? Some but not all had difficult lives. It depended on the times. I don’t see much difference today. Humans can go back to pre-modern quite well I imagine. Small communities with natural connections surely are more harmonious to what we have today. An ideal would be a spiritually evolved human type as humans devolve back to semi-nomadic hunter gathers in direct connection to nature. This is my vision of the future not space travel. I want to live on the land from which I came. I have no desire to leave. If some want to leave and can I wish them good luck. I am fine here and will die here. The problem with my vision is we will need to drop the population to below 500MIL. That is likely in the cards within this century and maybe within a decade.

  15. Antius on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 7:12 pm 

    Davy, you will probably get your vision. Here’s hoping my grandkids and yours are in your lucky 7%. Personally, I cannot think of anything more depressing than a world like that. A world where humanity never grows beyond its primitive beginnings. In my own naive way, I would like to believe that we are the spark that spreads life across the cosmos like a fire raging through dead grass.

  16. antaris on Mon, 13th Feb 2017 7:51 pm 

    Well Antius you better start praying for dilithium chrystals.

  17. Revi on Tue, 14th Feb 2017 11:22 am 

    Great article! I like the way that when the two lines converged it was a precursor to trouble. He should have shown Egypt and a couple of other states as well.

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