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The New World Order: Failing States and Collapsing Systems

The New World Order: Failing States and Collapsing Systems thumbnail

Donald Trump is a symptom of imperial decline, and not really the problem.

The world faces not a “clash of civilizations” with radical Islam (although the dust-up remains a significant challenge), but a crisis of civilization that includes riotous climates, poisoned oceans, failing forests and collapsing economies.

And if you think those two statements ring truer than what you are reading in the media these days, then spend some time with Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed.

Ahmed is a British investigative journalist who has been connecting the dots on energy, climate change and globalization for years. The title of his latest book sums up our current predicament: Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence.

“Trump is what happens,” recently wrote Ahmed, “when you fail to understand our global problems in their interconnected, systemic context.”

His pithy book lays out the grim context. The new global drama of eroding democracies and failed states, he says, can best be explained by a radical energy story that the media ignores or doesn’t understand.

The whole mess begins with net energy declines.

As the world runs out of cheap fossil fuels, industry has switched to earthquake-making shale gas fracking, messy bitumen oil sands projects and deep offshore oil.

But these extreme fuels, which require complex technologies to extract, are poor substitutes for cheap oil. They not only return less energy but also require more capital, water and energy to extract.

Our economy, largely shaped by the high-energy returns of cheap fossil fuels, doesn’t know how to metabolize costly fuels that deliver minimal returns.

Meanwhile hydrocarbon emissions are also destabilizing the climate, melting ice, fostering extreme weather and acidifying oceans — and all as you safely read The Tyee.

To visualize the great energy decline, think for a moment about the predicament of polar bears.

They evolved to hunt seals on ice floes nearly 400,000 years ago. Today seals provide 70 per cent of the energy needs of your average polar bear.

Catching seals at ice holes — a largely sit and wait game — netted high energy returns and made the polar bear empire fat and healthy.

But what happens when you melt the ice that serves as a kitchen table for that “fast food” and makes it harder for polar bears to dine?

Well, the bears have to expand more energy to get less. As it gets more “expensive” and complicated for the world’s 26,000 polar bears to live, the empire fractures.

Some starve. Some fail to reproduce. Some mate with grizzly bears. Others try to replace the declines in protein by foraging for goose eggs and blueberries. But that kind of foraging often takes more energy than it ever returns.

In a world of shrinking ice and declining seal diets, the population of bears in the southern Beaufort Sea off Canada’s coast has decreased over the last decade, from 1,500 in 2006 to about 900 bears today. Polar bears can expect more rude shocks.

The human economy, which still depends on rich diet of fossil fuels (80 per cent of our energy sources), grew as fat as the polar bear on cheap energy. When oil prices were low, human economies gobbled oil and expanded like clownish balloons, but whenever prices rose and oil demand slackened, the economy shrank.

But the see-saw has ended and the economy is now having trouble digesting a new diet: unconventional fuels and in some cases, renewables, all delivering diminished returns and funded by easy credit and wild debt.

As Ahmed notes, global oil and gas production once offered God-like energy returns of 100 to one. For every barrel spent finding and extracting oil, society secured a hefty surplus or what the ecologist Charles Hall famously described as “EROI”: energy return on investment. Unprecedented net returns fuelled the unnatural scale of economic growth for 100 years.

But those bountiful energy returns are now falling off a cliff. Today, net energy returns average around 15 to one. Once returns drops below 10 per barrel of energy expended, fossil fuels can’t generate enough surpluses to pay for the arts, government and society as we know it, let alone a transition to renewable energy.

As the quality of fuels decline, the global economy, a highly engineered tree fertilized by cheap oil, has registered the change as “economic stagnation” and stopped growing.

In financial papers, the words stagnation and inequality have become the economy’s dominant vocabulary.

Around the world “the rate of GDP growth correlates directly with the steady decline” in energy returns, notes Ahmed. Gross Domestic Product is dropping or slowing down everywhere from China to Europe.

Ahmed’s analysis is in good company. The U.S. sociologist Fred Cottrell warned in 1955 that shrinking energy returns would transform our high energy culture: “The growth of centralized government will stop and wither. Moreover the energy descent will unleash endemic conflict. Those whose greatest advantage is in the market place will struggle to protect it.”

This energy descent is taking place just as the globe’s fossil fuel economy has transgressed several biophysical limits to growth, including climate change, the decimation of wild creatures and the alteration of the world’s nitrogen cycles from fertilizer abuse.

Climate change is now undoing economies and shifting populations. Heat waves and drought propelled by disruptive carbon emissions could put a third of the world’s population at risk of starving by 2050. The more we disrupt earth systems, warns Ahmed, the more we destabilize human systems.

Take Syria for example. It is not only an energy basket case, but also a bloody poster boy for how things fail due to a constellation of interconnected events.

It started with Syria’s oil production. About a decade ago, it dropped by half due to depletion. In the process, the government lost a key source of revenue that used to subsidize wheat prices.

Then climate change amplified drought cycles in Syria, killing crops and depleting water resources.

Hundreds of thousands of climate refugees poured into the cities while food prices triggered protests. The nation’s bloody civil war now threatens to unhinge Europe with millions of refugees.

Complexity, built by fossil fuels, has made the world a fragile place, and the world’s political class is still reading Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

Or consider, says Ahmed, the mayhem in Nigeria. Its population will rise from 160 million to 250 million by 2025 just as the nation’s key revenue earner, oil, experiences a serious drop in production due to depleted reserves and rampant corruption.

Meanwhile, the terrorist group Boko Haram recruits from areas ravaged by drought and food shortages. The forecast: an escalation of political violence.

Oil production peaked in the region in 2000, and the union’s dependency on foreign oil imports hit 87 per cent in 2014 — the highest level recorded in 25 years.

Unrelenting economic stagnation coupled by high unemployment has revived nationalistic movements while climate change could overwhelm the continent with more refugees from North Africa and the Middle East by 2030.

So Trump and anti-Muslim rhetoric is what happens when you ignore a qualitative change in energy resources and a decline in the Earth’s resources.

Meanwhile the mainstream media prefers to focus on chaos and terrorism, and ignore the many-headed hydra quietly engineering these spectacles.

“Human systems — social, political, geopolitical, cultural, and so on — are becoming destabilized in the context of escalating Earth System Disruption driven by dependence on fossil fuels,” writes Ahmed.

“But the failure to understand this is driving increasingly reactionary approaches that address only symptoms of this destabilization.”

This may well be the globe’s most pressing negative feedback loop.

Years ago, the Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis wrote that “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

Ahmed has uncovered some uncomfortable truths. Read him.

In the end, you will have a much clearer sense of what an energy descent means for ordinary people.

The Tyee

23 Comments on "The New World Order: Failing States and Collapsing Systems"

  1. AFDF on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 8:37 am 

    This view on declining resource quality and quantity is valid as any other views. All views are valid because there is no solution for anything in life that doesn’t create other problems.

    Muslims is a problem because the love to build Mosques. A Mosque is a hard structure to destroy for an individual or small group of individuals. So it is considered permanent.

    Nobody came close to establishing a kingdom or religion that build pyramids and get people to love those pyramids. A mosque won’t last as long.

    Christians build cathedrals. This is how the French dominate Quebec. By building cathedrals they generate income and use it to maintain the structure. A structure on the hill will claim the land with the statement “yeah we own this land, look at our monuments”. They also named streets after French saints.

    Roman built roads

    Napoleon build cathedrals.

    It all has to do with claiming the land and make a few bucks.

    Governments, especially the US empire “build” their own form of mosques, roads, and cathedral with their laws. It’s enforceable with the hand gun.

    King Trump the bastard is a step in the wrong direction for government. Even God was against a king when he advised Israelites against having a king.

    A king is just a nobody and his castle can be stormed and he’s put on a guillotine.

    Democratic governments is a form of evolution that do away with a king and put figureheads in charge. They’re prime ministers, president, congress, premier and millions of bureaocrats. This new “king” is impossible to destroy.

    But to go back to dictatorship is the wrong move for government since dictator is only one guy and he can be taken out easily.

  2. onlooker on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 8:57 am 

    Welcome to Earth circa 2017 aka. The Nuthouse. Walking asleep over and beyond the cliff. A Shakespearean tragedy.

  3. paulo1 on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 9:09 am 

    Good article and comment.

    The US/Western Society is famous for a few things that have spread throughout the world. (Yes Davy, Canada too has been affected). *Wasteful transportation
    *Suburban lifestyles
    *Mindless consumption of shoddy goods
    *Increasing debts to maintain, everything
    *Chemical/substance mind and thought control paralysis….drugs, booze, etc.
    *Electronic mind and thought control…tv, smart phones, video games…complexity.

    It seems that people are getting dumber by the day as their toys and lifestyles become more complex. (Note: time to re-read The Hollow Men)

    Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

    A penny for the Old Guy

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    I think the mosques and cathedrals will last much longer than our empty bankrupt malls.

  4. AFDF on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 9:09 am 

    Let states fail. Governments are dominated by power hungry morons. Politics is the ultimate troll since it believes in fixing ALL of life problems using mere hot air. There’s a reason talk show hosts are rich becuase they expell enough hot air to create global warming.

    government hot air is the law and the hand gun. They fail to believe that there’s no solution that doesn’t create other problems. They are no shrewed business people, even with tard trump in command. These morons believe their business model have absolutely no diminishing margin of return.

    Let the extremist dictators in charge. they will prove that government is stupid.

  5. Cloggie on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 9:44 am 

    Oh no, not this “British” Muslim Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed again, promoted by a Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk from the Canadian West/Calgary (=liberal).

    We discussed Ahmed here already:

    “Trump is what happens,” recently wrote Ahmed, “when you fail to understand our global problems in their interconnected, systemic context.”

    BS. Trump is what happens if you ignore border controls. Trump is a last warning. As both Kunstler and the Archdruide correctly fear, as expressed during a recent podcast, after Trump comes a US-Hitler.

    The new global drama of eroding democracies and failed states, he says, can best be explained by a radical energy story that the media ignores or doesn’t understand.

    Failed states are the result of exploding inter-ethnic and/or inter-faith clashes (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the list goes on). But card-carrying Muslim Ahmed doesn’t accept that as he has London and now wants the rest of Britain.

    The whole mess begins with net energy declines.

    More BS. Currently solar and wind are the cheapest form of energy generation. The EROEI of wind is already good enough and that of solar is improving with every passing year as the energy input in producing panels is declining steadily.

    But those bountiful energy returns are now falling off a cliff. Today, net energy returns average around 15 to one.

    EROEI is a logarithmic variable. It doesn’t make a damn difference if EROEI is 100 (early days oil) or 20 (large modern offshore wind turbines).

    Once returns drops below 10 per barrel of energy expended, fossil fuels can’t generate enough surpluses to pay for the arts, government and society as we know it, let alone a transition to renewable energy

    OMG, Charly Hall alert!!! More absolute BS. The world’s highest art was created long before fossil fuel was ever heard of (Bach, Mozart, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Michelangelo). The best way to destroy art is to let EROEI-100 oil loose on

    To his credit, this Andrew Nikiforuk chap at least didn’t bring up Chief Seattle, it’s a start.

    This is yet another obsolete ASPO-2005 story. Where even libtard Richard Heinberg has moved on from the peakoil racket to the Trump-bashing caravan, mr Nikiforuk wants to warm up a corps.

    There is no long term energy problem. There is no inevitable energy cliff. There is no inevitable climate collapse. What needs to be done is stop wining and set yourself ambitious renewable energy targets. You may copy the EU here.

  6. dave thompson on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 10:39 am 

    Renewable energy, aka wind and solar do no reproduce themselves on the energy density that they might provide, plus run industrial civilization. No FF, no renewable energy.

  7. penury on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 11:05 am 

    There are a million reasons why humans will be disappearing, but when a population has depleted all the resources that they need for survival, they will die. It may not be this week, but one day things will be at a point where continued existence at that level will no longer be possible, I do not know when I only know that the end will come.

  8. Repent on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 11:11 am 

    This is why Syria had a war? This of course had nothing to do with Obama funding regime change moderate rebels to topple Assad? I find the narrative presented in this article questionable.

  9. twocats on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 12:50 pm 

    trump is so obviously a civilizational-step-down there is no real point arguing with ahmed’s thesis other than to perhaps debate a few minor aspects.

    people can live in pretty horrendous conditions and be relatively happy and satisfied, but when EXPECTATIONS re: quality of life are not met, well, there’s going to be a lot of murder between now and michaelangelo 2.0.

  10. BobInget on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 1:20 pm 

    Newsworthy, living examples today; Famine struck North Korea, NE Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia.

    Technically, Not Failed States.

    Ask a Somalian or Sudanese what he thinks of D. Trump. Likely you won’t get a reply.

    We OTOH, still have time to avert similar outcomes.

  11. onlooker on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 1:24 pm 

    Isn’t Syria, Yemen more because of War Bob?

  12. Apneaman on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 2:35 pm 

    Hair clog, you think Calgary is liberal? Baha you know nothing moron. Full of Catholics and climate denying retards like you. Big money oil town. I was born there and when I was a kid they made you chant the lords prayer and national anthem every morning in so called secular public school. When you pay your property tax you can opt to support Catholic schools – they’re everywhere. Real fucking liberal. See what can happen when you continue to make shit up? So much for the internet as a research tool. Useless when you only use it for conformation bias for your fantasy worldview. Hair clog the expert on everything including what every politician is thinking. They tyee is a small time internet only publication. Go to the Calgary Herald or Calgary Sun site and read the comments section. Most of them sound as fucking stupid as you and the average below average merican.

  13. DerHundistlos on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 4:00 pm 

    Money or Endangered Species…..

    “Endangered Species Act: Republican lawmakers Working Quickly to Render Endangered Species Act Extinct, arguing that the law is an unnecessary hindrance to economic development.

    Republicans are working with the new administration to kill the Endangered Species Act after contending for years that the law curbs economic development under the guise of conservation. Under the Obama administration, GOP lawmakers sponsored dozens of measures aimed at weakening the act, nearly all of which were blocked by Democrats and the White House or lawsuits from environmentalists. But now, as the United States enters an era of Republican domination in the Congress and the White House and the Supreme Court, opponents of the ESA will most likely get their way.

    “It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, who “would love to invalidate” the law, as reported by the Associated Press.

    In its 44 years of existence, the law has been criticized for hindering drilling, logging, and other activities. It prohibits the hunting of wolves, angering farmers in a number of states who say the wild animals attack their livestock. And protection efforts for species including the Canada lynx, the lesser prairie chicken, and the salmon have hindered logging projects, oil and gas development, and efforts to reallocate water in California.

    “The decision whether to protect the sanctity of human life or an owl or fish nobody cares about except for a few left-wing wackos is easy. The bible teaches that we were given the Earth and its creatures to serve mankind. it’s just that simple.”, stated House Natural Resources Chair Bishop.”

  14. joe on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 4:36 pm 

    We cant expect a muslim author to admit that a clash of civilisations is exactly whats in the pipeline. A cursory reading of the koran is all it takes to understand (doubt anyone here has done that) that muslims intend to either breed out or kill all non muslims and in areas where they do not dominate (dar al harb) they are supposed to act meek and play the victim.
    No doubt 90% of readers will flap and get angry at me, but so what. You are all being betrayed by your own leaders anyway, so I can say what I want.

  15. AFDF on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 8:12 pm 

    muslims is not a problem. it’s the problem with maximum power. whatever the vehicle the creature uses is irrelevant.

    Texas A&M did a study of fishes turning according to temperature gradient. The goal is for fishes to turn less, thus consumming less food and storing more body weight.

  16. GregT on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 9:41 pm 

    Dar al-Harb

    “Refers to territory that does not have a treaty of nonaggression or peace with Muslims”

    “Like other classical legal concepts, dar al-harb has been affected by historical changes, and with the fragmentation of the Muslim world into numerous states, the concept has little significance today.”

  17. joe on Fri, 14th Apr 2017 11:45 pm 

    Lies from a western liberal failing multicultural dump. Ha ha ha. GregT, future Muslim.

  18. Theedrich on Sat, 15th Apr 2017 2:26 am 

    The DeepState gods are psychophysically blind. These materialists and nihilists are incapable of seeing that the war with the jihadists is a RELIGIOUS war, not some police action against criminal gangs.  Once the Mohammedans complete their infiltration of Whiteland (the Dar al-Harb, or “Land of War”) and have outbred self-deluding Whitey in his native territories, it will be all over, despite what the DeepStaters blather.  Mohammedanism is inherently theocratic, despite the lies of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.  Lying to deceive infidels is virtually an obligation in that cult.  But the dung beetles who control the American DeepState like the idea of genitally mutilating females and anally raping boys under Allah’s aegis.  After all, like all such insects, they love the colors of brown and black.

  19. GregT on Sat, 15th Apr 2017 3:00 am 

    “Lies from a western liberal failing multicultural dump. Ha ha ha. GregT, future Muslim.”

    Ha ha ha joe. Zero Muslims around here, with less than .5 white people per sq km.

    Enjoy your ‘western liberal failing multicultural dump’. I can’t think of very many places that I would rather not be.

  20. onlooker on Sat, 15th Apr 2017 5:57 am 

    Before the Muslim Jihad or whatever happens, the world will be unrecognizable from what it is now. Then it won.t matter will it Joe

  21. Davy on Sat, 15th Apr 2017 6:41 am 

    I highlight this article (below) on troubling Chinese economic issues to remind people here the global economic situation is far from normalized and stable. Risks are below the surface and dispersed through the entire global system. The US has its own issues and together with China point to a situation unique among major economic powers. China and the US are connected at the hips economically. Economic connection make military confrontation very tricky. If you will notice China and The US are now showing some common efforts on NK. Don’t trust news sources both MSM and speculative alternatives (me included). What did the two leaders agree to in Palm Beach?

    China and the US cannot harm each other without harming themselves. They will have to move in tandem on trade and global finance. This does not mean tensions will not appear but breaks will be avoided. This is not true with Russia and China and to a lesser extent US with Europe/Japan. China and the US represent the bulk of global GDP and export/imports. This means do not look to a US/China showdown militarily and economically except by a misstep. There are plenty of potential missteps of course.

    We are not hearing about the South China Sea after Palm Beach. One China policy is quiet. Currency manipulation is quiet. I routinely try to highlight this interconnectedness of the global system but those with agendas dismiss it. Anti-Americans want to push the idea of China and the US on a collision course. They may be in some ways but the results are paradoxically increased cooperation by economic fate.

    Some want to talk about an Asian and Euro century in the making. I say rubbish to that. These board agendist live in the 20th century and fail to see we are in a climax ecosystem and succession will only be possible after bifurcations from threshold breaches. Bifurcating globalism will be the end of globalism and likely the end of modernism. That is a very scary prospect and the reason the status quo has momentum. We appear to be near a zone of inflection but I see no reason why the status quo can’t hum along for quite some time. Trumpism has been all but halted. The rest of the world is not showing much change. Talk is not change. Stalemate in the ME is apparent with Syria. The Brics are dead in the water as a power block. I see continued stalemate of the status quo until it shatters. It will shatter because that is the nature of growing systems. They eventually end and new ones emerge. Humans are no different.

  22. Davy on Sat, 15th Apr 2017 6:41 am 

    “China Just Flooded Its Economy With A Record Amount Of New Debt”

    “Finally, in an ominous confirmation that this glut of new credit creation is not reaching the broader economy but is getting trapped by various asset bubbles”

    “On one hand, the slowdown reflects the moderately tighter policy stance by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), but more importantly suggesting that overall economic growth is poised for a further slowdown.”

    “Adding to worries that the PBOC could cause a sharp imbalance in Chinese liquidity as it attempts to trek a fine line between injecting record amounts of loans on one hand, while gently tightening on the other, is that alone with bumping up some interest rates, the PBOC withdrew 705 billion yuan from the financial system through its open market operations in the first 12 weeks of this year, a 1.1 trillion yuan negative swing from a year ago, ING estimates. That said, analysts do not expect a full-blown policy rate increase this year, which could risk a knock to economic growth ahead of a key party meeting in the autumn when a new generation of leaders will be picked.”

    “The central government has made containing financial risks a top priority this year, calling for vigilance against asset bubbles and urging companies to reduce leverage. But it has still targeted economic growth of around 6.5% this year, which will require the copious amounts of new credit that is continues to inject month after month, increasingly so via the unregulated shadow banking system.”

    “The one silver lining: most of China’s “Big Five” banks reported last month that bad loan ratios were stabilizing, likely giving policymakers more confidence that risks from bank lending are under control, although Chinese banks, which are mostly state-owned, are notorious for misrepresenting the true state of their balance sheet. Indeed, many analysts believe Chinese NPLs are far higher than banks admit, and some China watchers warn a debt crisis may be inevitable if loan and money supply growth continues to sharply outpace the rate of economic expansion for the foreseeable future (as shown in the chart below) and that a Minsky Moment may be the inevitable outcome, with the only question being “when?”

  23. joe on Sat, 15th Apr 2017 8:08 am 

    This is true onlooker. ISIS and islamists in general want to provoke the west, not destroy it, they know they cant, they believe that non muslims general barbaric nature will make it destroy itself. Muslims are preppers on steriods. The Koran says that the last war will be fought with swords and on horse. There cant be any tech in an islamists future world. They can neither interpret nor add or subtract a word, if it says swords, its not open to interpretation, unlike westerners who interpret the bible.
    People think that muslims can be civilised or its that they just need to modernise, liberals cant understand why muslims use swords and knives and fire when a gun or a bomb will do. Most of all it scares their feeble souls to think these guys want to break everything built in the last 200 years. They turn on people like me and say I am ignorant or racist (there is no racism in Islam by definition) but its only because I point out that our politicians either by treason or by well meaning stupidity are sowing the seeds of future Chechnyas and Srebrinicas here in the west. Their flaw is that they think globalisaton will make islam smart and peaceful, it wont. I feel bad for the people of the world and worse for liberals, they dont know why they die, they think the fight for a tolerant world, no, they fight for the financial system and the IMF et al.
    Me, I not sad nor happy about Brexit, Im not sad or happy what Trump does, Im neither sad nor happy about peak oil and monetisation of reducing eroei, same for CC but I would feel worse if I didnt know what it was that was killing me.

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