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Orlov Reviews: Age of Limits 2014

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I got back to the boat late last night, after an intense three days of presentations and discussions. This was my third year presenting at this conference, and I am at this point quite heavily invested in this annual event and have started to take on roles I didn’t even know existed when I first showed up there three years ago not knowing what to expect.

For those who haven’t heard of this conference before, here is a synopsis. The venue is unusual for a conference: it is a large campground that occupies a bit of high ground surrounded by a fast-flowing creek nestled in the Allegheny mountains, a few miles from the Maryland border, but quite accessible because it is just a few miles from Interstate 68 and a fast two-hour drive from Baltimore. For those flying via BWI airport, there are usually enough locals driving by BWI on the way to the conference that rides can be arranged. If flying with camping gear is problematic, there is a dormitory with bunk beds and some semi-private rooms. The accommodations are basic, but there are flush toilets, hot showers, free tea and coffee available virtually around the clock, bonfires for when it gets chilly, and two satisfying and plentiful meals a day. A visit to the sweat lodge, optionally followed by a dip in the creek, rounds out the non-intellectual part of the experience.

The intellectual part of the experience is a sort of Epicurean feast for the connoisseurs of collapse. (There are plenty of conferences at which the topic of collapse has been banned; consequently, I am no longer invited to them—to my relief, because life is short, and speaking at these conferences makes it that much shorter.) Virtually all of the attendees without exception have successfully navigated their way through the grieving stage of denial prior to showing up, and there is almost no discussion of whether financial, economic, social or civilizational collapses are possible and/or likely, or whether this is something that beautiful people shouldn’t even worry their pretty little heads about. If you show up while still grappling with denial, then, in all likelihood, your head will explode, and while there will be helpful people on hand to help you find scattered pieces of your cranium in the tall grass, you will spend most of the conference gluing the pieces back together, and will miss out on all the fun. So, if you are new to the topic of collapse but curious about it, please acquaint yourself with the Kübler-Ross model and do whatever you have to, prior to showing up, to get past Stage 1. For maximum effectiveness, try to make it all the way to Stage 5 (acceptance).

In addition to the usual suspects (Gail Tveberg, Albert Bates, John-Michael Greer and me) this year featured a couple of star speakers: Dennis Meadows and Mark Corchrane.

Dennis is Emeritus Professor of Systems Management, former Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire, and Lead Researcher and co-author of the Club of Rome’s 1972 publication, The Limits to Growth. He successfully predicted the collapse of industrial civilization four decades ago—successfully in that the model he presented back in 1972 has been in remarkable agreement with observations ever since. Since then, he has collected several large boxes of articles attempting to disprove his claims, and a slender stack of articles pointing out that he was right. Even in science, getting it right is not the path to recognition if the truth contradicts the dominant paradigm (of infinite economic growth on a finite planet).

Dennis had agreed to present at this conference reluctantly. He has retired from Club of Rome discussions, and has found more cheerful uses for his time. But he seemed happy with the outcome, saying that this is the first time he faced an audience that did not need convincing. Instead, he took the time to add some details that I think are crucially important, among them the fact that his WORLD3 model is only accurate until the peaks are reached. Once the peaks occur (between 2015 and 2020) all bets are off: past that point, the model’s predictive ability is not to be relied on because the assumptions on which it relies will no longer be valid. Thus, the author of this particular plot, claiming that peak population will occur in 2030, committed the exact error that Dennis warned us against: of looking too far to the right. Once the initial peaks come and go, we will be in a different world than the one he modeled in 1972—a world in which, I foresee, accurate population statistics will no longer be available. We know that the dynamics of global growth are very different from the dynamics of global die-off, but perhaps that is all that we will ever know, because there won’t be anyone left to model or measure the die-off.

Mark Corchrane is Senior Scientist and Professor with the Geospatial Sciences Center of South Dakota State University who specializes in the use of remote sensing to study the impacts of climate change. Mark’s talk was a very thorough demolition job on the various shibboleths that haunt what passes for discourse on climate change in certain intellectually stunted corners of the world. He demolished the denialist claims, and then proceeded to demolish the techno-utopian “solutions,” such as seeding the oceans, seeding the clouds, space mirrors and so on. In doing so, he did not use climate models, explaining that models are quite complicated and open to dispute. Instead, he relied on climate theories which are not in dispute because they agree with observations, and on historical measurements of climate change—its known causes and its apparent effects.

Mark’s conclusions included some tongue-in-cheek “good news”—“We’re all gonna die!”—which I took to be a nod in the general direction of Guy McPherson, who presented at this conference last year, and who predicts near-term human extinction—whereas he clearly feels that “nature bats” (vespertilio naturalis?) do last. But Mark also gave a much more nuanced summation: that while global effects of climate change can be predicted to some extent, the local effects are unpredictable but are certain to be sufficiently dramatic to make life very difficult and perhaps impossible for the vast majority of us. Apparently, there is no place on Earth where you can hide from climate change. Be it the boreal forests of Siberia or the tropics of Borneo, the local destructive effects of climate change on ecosystems are unpredictable. Most of the species alive today have evolved long after the last time such conditions occurred anywhere on Earth, plus the rate of climate change is now very fast, giving them insufficient time to adapt. Consequently, no historical data exists on which such predictions could be based. We do know some things: fish, corals and shellfish will do badly; sea grass and jellyfish will do well. (I hope that there is a sea-grass-and-jellyfish soup recipe out there that results in something palatable!) Overall, his presentation reinforced my feeling that it will be essential to remain mobile, because no one place can be expected to continue to reliably produce food.

This year, each talk was followed by an ample period of moderated discussion. Most of these Q&A sessions quite well, with people queueing up at one of two microphones to ask questions, with plenty of follow-up and group discussion. As always, there were some people who simply craved attention and hogged the microphone in spite of having little to say. But overall this format worked amazingly well: after my talk, one fellow voiced an opinion that home-schooled kids were badly socialized. There followed a spontaneous barrage of commentary on the subject of home schooling (many of the attendees have home-schooled their kids) pretty much blowing his little boat out of the water. After the talk, the discussion continued, with several professional educators providing a lot of detail on how exactly the educational system in the US is broken beyond repair. I walked away with a depth of understanding that I don’t think I would have achieved just by reading books and articles. This is a question that comes up a lot: How do we teach our kids given that the schools (both public and private) are now largely useless (if not harmful)? And the answer seems to be: home-school, or leave the country.

One of the previous presenters who unfortunately did not attend this year was Carolyn Baker. Her presentations had been unique in that they were not all in the head but attempted to get at the emotional side of collapse, and had been found to be helpful by approximately a third of the attendees in overcoming the feelings of shock and grief that naturally arise when delving into the deeply distressing subject matter of this conference. But many other people chose to cope by blocking their emotions and considering collapse as a strictly intellectual challenge, while a small minority compensated for their emotional discomfort by becoming disruptive. An age-old technique for drawing people out of their heads is through drumming and chanting, but certain people chose to ridicule Carolyn’s quite effective use of this technique as “Kumbaya and bongos.” Thus, Carolyn’s work was to some extent polarizing—but in good way, because these people didn’t show up this year. Last year’s attendees included one particularly odious 1%er whose name I forgot, together with her entourage, and they did their best to disrupt things. Needless to say, their absence this year was not missed by anyone.

The nature of the human ape being what it is, once in a while some borderline personalities always find their way into every group, resulting in some amount of drama. But a bigger problem is that the helpful, healthy kind of drama was also almost entirely missing. Most of the attendees seemed to be able to process the intellectual content of the conference, but collapse as an intellectual pursuit seems almost worthless to me. It cannot be reduced to problems and solutions. The universe, and life on earth (jellyfish, cockroaches and all) will go on with or without you, and so the only real problem is you, and how you may need to change in order to adapt. And this is not an entirely intellectual transformation, but also an emotional and a physiological one. To be sure, some of the adaptations are intellectual, and not everyone can surmount even this hurdle. There was one white-haired gentleman in attendance who complimented me on my talk on long-lasting communities by saying that it was interesting to hear “even though we find their business plan distasteful.” He gets an award for the most distasteful use of the phrase “business plan.”

But for those who did manage to grok the content of the conference on an intellectual level, there was nowhere to go further. This problem came up repeatedly in a number of conversations. I hope that these conversations continue, and I hope that next year’s conference does address the questions of personal transformation. Among the questions I would like to see the conference to address are:

1. How can we communicate the reality of collapse to family and friends in ways that are constructive rather than destructive and find helpful ways to reflect our “endarkenment” in our everyday behavior?

2. How can we form personal relationships with people that can survive the disappearance of official life support systems based on finance, commerce and centralized authority?

3. How can we transform our physical selves into ones that will stand a chance, by eliminating lifestyle diseases, bad habits, luxuries and comforts, and by finding maximally independent and resilient ways to provide the necessities?

4. How can we make use of ritual and spiritual practice to transform a group of individuals into a community?

If you have insights that you would like to contribute on any of these questions, please email me directly, and we’ll take it from there. Amazingly, it turns out that there is even some money to throw behind the effort of coming up with good answers to these questions. Don’t worry too much about the mechanics of writing: ClubOrlov’s crack team of editors and proofreaders will transform your writing into publication-quality content. Also, it’s not exactly a rush job: there are twelve months before next year’s conference. But we might as well get started now.

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11 Comments on "Orlov Reviews: Age of Limits 2014"

  1. dsula on Wed, 28th May 2014 3:10 pm 

    Is he financing his fancy boat with selling his never ending bs?

  2. J-Gav on Wed, 28th May 2014 4:03 pm 

    I think he’s paid for his fancy boat already, Dsula. And he has a day job for any upkeep issues …

    Which doesn’t mean I necessarily go along with all of Dmitry’s take-aways from this conference. He says he was re-inforced in his belief that mobility is the way to go. I can’t say with any certainty that he’s wrong but my feeling is that some kind of ‘rootedness’ might actually be preferable.

    Mobile people will be dependent on others for anything that comes out of the soil. Those who have some skill(s) of value to exchange for that (“that” being food) may get by but others will be in a fix.

    I’ll be interested in seeing what other participants gleaned from the conference.

  3. JB on Wed, 28th May 2014 5:09 pm 

    I hoped we could stay away from ad hominem attacks; everyone is different and sees things in their own way.
    The graph: A curve on industrial agriculture would be helpful. I would expect that to peak past 2050, as a rough guess. Even if industry begins to collapse around 2030 – 2035 there should still be a small core of industry well past 2050. Likewise, food and population probably won’t decline a whole lot until well past 2050.
    The graph shows global pollution beginning to decline about now. I doubt that. Radioactive pollution from Fukushima is just getting started. Of course no one knows, but in my estimation things will get a whole lot worse before they get better.

  4. Makati1 on Wed, 28th May 2014 8:28 pm 

    JB, from my perspective, you are engaging in wishful thinking in some areas. Industrial ag will disappear quickly with the peak in oil and NG before 2030. It cannot exist without cheap, plentiful hydrocarbon inputs. The key here is CHEAP. Food traveling thousands of miles before it hits your table is going to end fast. You will live locally or not at all.

    When the financial system goes, so will a lot of industry that relies on the Capitalist system to exist. Face it, 90% of industry today does not make necessities. They will go first. Followed by those that require imported materials and lots of energy to produce, meaning the cost will be out of reach of the 99%.

    As for pollution, you are right on there.

    I might add, that mobility may be the future of ‘tribes’, as weather shifts and climates change. It will be centuries before that all shakes out at some level we cannot even guess at today.

    Maybe all that will be left are roaches and rats, or maybe just bacteria and viruses, dead rivers and seas? Then Nature will begin again and in a few dozen million years, there will be a new ecosystem on this world, but we will not be part of it. All traces of our short existence will be totally wiped out.

  5. JB on Wed, 28th May 2014 9:01 pm 

    Makati “All traces of our short existence will be wiped out.”
    I know what you are referring to, but not all traces. If anyone is still around after millions of years, there will still be fossil evidence of our technological existence. Not old bones and shells, but cars, TVs, electronic gadgets, transistors, etc. Think of everything buried under tons of ash at Mt. St. Helens and countless other places. Some of it will probably become fossilized.

  6. Makati1 on Thu, 29th May 2014 6:08 am 

    Sorry, but even those will be long gone. The bones of dinosaurs are not the real bones but mineralized replicas. Metals will have rusted or corroded away to unrecognizable lumps of color in the soil. Plastics will have been broken down and digested by bacteria. All our structures including the pyramids will be long gone.
    If I did the math correct, the Philippines will have been subsided under China as China bumps into the California coast. Man is a blink of an eye in the 4.5 billion years the plant has been here and changing. No trace will remain in a few dozen million years. Even the rock layers containing the dinosaur fossils will have eroded away to the sea.
    ” Currently scientists are able to tell that the Rockies are still decreasing in height. Due to the convection currents running through the magma in the layer below the crust, the land around the Rocky Mountains is diverging, pulling apart and pulling down the mountains. Many years in
    the future, here where the Rockies lie, will be a great rift valley to replace the great Rocky

  7. Denis Frith on Thu, 29th May 2014 11:59 pm 

    Missing from this discussion is the fact that technology has irreversibly used limited natural material resources,including much more than oil,during its limited lifetime. It also produces immutable material waste and irrevocably damages the environment. This operation of technology is an unsustainable process. Coping with this stark reality will be the basic problem for society.

  8. Donal on Fri, 30th May 2014 6:39 am 

    J-Gav, I posted my impressions of Age of Limits, though they are not all that technical. We had a session on people’s guesses about timelines and the average for peak population was 2042. Folk seemed evenly split on fast and slow declines.

  9. J-Gav on Fri, 30th May 2014 2:48 pm 

    Donal, Thanks for the return; Even I’m split to the core on fast and slow decline scenarios. Sort of depends on whether the upcoming financial turmoil will be powerful enough to draw in other convergent factors: a strong and persistent El Niño, heightened war-mongering, biodiversity-crash acceleration, etc to make for a faster dive – or, some other configuration. I don’t pretend to have any crystal ball but I definitely do not like the way things are shaping up.

  10. Donal on Sun, 1st Jun 2014 7:53 am 

    In case you haven’t seen it, Albert Bates has posted a conference review.

  11. Davy, Hermann, MO on Sun, 1st Jun 2014 8:20 am 

    Gav/Donal, basically in my mind it is a “crap shoot”. Systematic Decent involve chaos and chaos is random. Throw the dice baby!

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