I recently asked a scientist on Facebook how he copes with the knowledge that we are destroying the planet within the geologic blink of an eye. Here is his answer:
Pot helps! 🙂 But psychologically, I reread Catton’s Overshoot recently, where he talks about how once humans started burning fossil fuels, we evolved (devolved?) into detritivores, species that depend on dead organic matter for our sustenance. This led me to think about Human Exceptionalism. The classic view is that humans’ assumed superiority has caused us to not consider the welfare of other species and blinded us in our ignorance to how our lifestyles were jeopardizing life support systems worldwide (including for us); I agree with this view. But I’ve also come to challenge another view of Human Exceptionalism; namely, that we have the intelligence and capacity for compassion to override what is every species’ imperative (humans and all other species): that is, to continuously consume available resources with no concern for future sustainability, with its concomitant and inevitable population boom and bust. Thus, I try to cope by accepting, with sad resignation, that we’re not any more special than other species – we’ve just lacked apex predators to keep our population in check and have used hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to temporarily shield ourselves from our population crash. This final kicking us off our superiority pedestal has helped me “let go” and inspired me to aspire to be more in tune with natural processes (such as organic gardening, which also helps on a very small scale to restore the soil biodiversity we’re regularly destroying with the Haber-Bosch process). How do you cope? 🙂
I replied later that day…
To cope, you first must know the truth. Our modern global civilization is a heat engine, subject to the second law of thermodynamics just as every civilization that came before. Our massive burning of fossil fuels has not only blanketed the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and acidified the oceans, it has given humans the unfortunate ability to disrupt all the major biochemical processes of the planet, thus making the current civilizational collapse one of global proportions. There is no putting that genie back in the bottle and the environmental disorder it has unleashed. Thus we are firmly in the grips of entropy and no amount of techo-fixes, such as walls to hold back the rising sea or geoengineering schemes to blot out that fiery orb in the sky, will change this stark fact. As Jospeph Tainter argued, further complexity only brings more unforeseen problems that must be solved. Higher efficiency only leads to increased consumption (i.e. Jevons paradox). As you say, humans are no different than any other organism in that they will expand to consume all available resources until reined in by environmental limits. Our superior problem-solving capabilities have allowed us to dramatically overshoot the planet’s natural regenerative systems. And so it seems that Ernst Mayr was correct when he said human intelligence is a fatal mutation in the evolutionary process. According to Mayr, intelligence is a double-edged sword, serving as a tool for our survival or rapidly carrying out our own annihilation. How do I cope with all that? Other than adopting a stoic attitude towards our predicament, there is no coping. It is what it is. Find simple joys in nature while nature is still around. I love hummingbirds and watch them at the feeder when I am home. Live in the moment when you can. Enjoy mankind’s ability to create beautiful art. Be kind to your fellow human and nonhuman. We’re all just temporary passengers on Spaceship Earth.
Now that America’s wannabe dictator has vacated the White House, maybe we can get back to pretending we’re doing anything of significance about climate change and the ghastly future bearing down on us. I’m sure we’ll get right on that existential crisis as soon as we tamp down the current global pandemic, sort out Trump’s QAnon and white nationalist seditionists, and bring together a country where half the population believes their cult leader’s endless lies and the evangelical Right idolize Trump as a vessel anointed by God. So much for heeding warnings against idolizing false prophets. Despite all those minor details, we’ll all be on the same page, right? Well won’t we???
Six years ago David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and American writer, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization’. I got the urge to review his advice and critique how well we have followed it. Below are his abbreviated steps along with my commentary on each one:
[1.] “Try not to cough on one another.”
Over the course of numerous microbe generations amounting to a small fraction of a single human lifetime, pathogens have mutated and adapted faster than the antibiotic defenses human’s have built. Through a combination of factors—medical, social and economic—our war on pathogens is being lost, and these superbugs could be the next global pandemic. The danger grows with mankind’s expanding ecological footprint: a rising world population, the widespread use of antibacterial drugs in humans and agriculture, the speed and intensity of an international transport system, and so on. As history has shown, pandemics have always been a consequence of humans breaking down the interface between man and Earth’s wilderness. A recent study highlights this fact:
Tackling antibiotic resistance on only one front is a waste of time because resistant genes are freely crossing environmental, agricultural and clinical boundaries, new research has shown.
Analysis of historic soil archives dating back to 1923 has revealed a clear parallel between the appearance of antibiotic resistance in medicine and similar antibiotic resistant genes detected over time in agricultural soils treated with animal manure…
…”Unless we reduce use and improve stewardship across all sectors — environmental, clinical and agricultural — we don’t stand a chance of reducing antibiotic resistance in the future.”
As of yet, humans are not heeding this advice in any coordinated manner as another new study reveals that antibiotic use and resistance is increasing globally while new antibiotics discoveries have nearly halted. China and India, for instance, have poor regulatory and environmental enforcement:
The NHS is buying drugs from pharmaceutical companies in India whose dirty production methods are fueling the rise of superbugs, write Andrew Wasley & Madlen Davies. There are no checks or regulations in place to stop this happening – even though the rapid growth in antibiotic resistant bacteria in India is spreading across the world, including to the UK and NHS hospitals… government-commissioned study found superbugs would kill more people than cancer by 2050 if no action is taken, and cited pollution in pharmaceutical supply chains as a major problem. – Link
“If you want to see where resistance is occurring in animals, look across the pond to China. They play by a whole different set of rules,” he[Dr. Larry Hollis] says. “Whenever a new antibiotic is developed, the Chinese see the patent filings, figure out how to make it, and without any regulatory structure, it goes straight to animals. By the time it’s available here, the antibiotic is already showing resistance.” – Link
India is a global center of antibiotic manufacture. 80% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used by pharmaceutical companies worldwide, including the United States and Europe, are made in China. Following their manufacture, most of these ingredients are exported to India for processing and subsequent worldwide sale. The good manufacturing practices in China and India do not include environmental safeguards. “Unfortunately, environmental regulations are currently left up to national regulators, who are not inclined to do much. In India, the effluent discharge load of ciprofloxacin in 2007 was 45 kg per day – the amount consumed in Sweden, which has a population of 9 million, over 5 days,” said Dr. Gandra. – Link
In modern times there has been a large decline in hard-copy forms of record-keeping with ever more material being transferred onto digital formats, especially news reports and visual/auditory records, but the ephemeral nature of our digital media makes it prone to disappearing. Virtually all of the most useful and important artifacts of our time are digital and very little of it is intended to survive. Much of the 20th Century and beyond will be a vast gaping historical black hole except for the plastics, radiation and soot entering the geological record:
Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”…
…If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize-nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can. “There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” said Abby Rumsey, a writer and digital historian. In other words if you want to save something online, you have to decide to save it. Ephemerality is built into the very architecture of the web, which was intended to be a messaging system, not a library… – Link
The slow creep of technological obsolescence or a sudden cosmic disaster like a Carrington Event could usher in a ‘Digital Dark Age’, making any historical electronic documents unreadable. Google’s Vint Cerf says we’ve grown complacent in how media is stored. He warns that we may find ourselves lost in a bit-rot future unable to access important media documents, scientific data, etc., but leaving behind any kind of record on an overheated world could be a moot point if there’s no one left to read it.
[3.] “Tell each other faster.”
Communication speed has increased exponentially with technology but the infrastructure that supports it is very vulnerable. Aside from the growing threat of cyber-attack, it’s been documented that the most common cause of communication failure is due to the destruction of physical infrastructures. Roughly 200 undersea fiber optic cables link the world’s telecommunications, but they are “poorly armored, rarely patrolled and only occasionally monitored.” The possibility of human saboteurs is ever-present for landlines as well. These systems are usually the first sites to be targeted in wars and crackdowns by authoritarian governments.
Telecommunication infrastructure is also threatened by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and severe weather which can sever cables and flood underground equipment. A study from a couple of years ago found an increase in severe weather has led to a doubling of major power outages across the country in the past decade.
Telling each other faster has not made one iota of a difference in preventing the unmitigated disaster of global warming and climate change. If after decades of climate conferences, libraries filled to the brim with studies and data, and now the imminent death of the largest organism on the planet—the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, we still cannot collectively take this existential threat seriously, then failure and death will be our just deserts.
Trump won’t bring back coal because it would mean destroying the natural gas industry which has grown to displace the use of coal in recent years. Trump is going to learn how hard it is to change the dynamics of our energy system. Previous presidents have hit that same wall. Besides, automation is taking over all the blue-collar jobs of Trump’s supporters. All those “big league jobs” promised by Trump just went up in smoke:
…research shows that the automation of U.S. factories is a much bigger factor than foreign trade in the loss of factory jobs. A study at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research last year found that trade accounted for just 13 percent of America’s lost factory jobs. The vast majority of the lost jobs — 88 percent — were taken by robots and other homegrown factors that reduce factories’ need for human labor. – Link
[5.] “Get more brains involved in solving problems.”
Physicist Jonathan Huebner says in his study that rates of global innovations judged significant to human beings have been declining in recent decades, in fact it’s halved in the past hundred years. Joseph Tainter in his own study has come to a similar conclusion:
Over the last 40 years, the number of patents per inventor has decreased by 20% and the number of inventors per patent has increased by almost 50%. Although the quality of patents is unknown (it can not be measured quantitatively), it seems we nowadays get less bang for the buck compared to half a century ago. Larger, interdisciplinary research teams cost a lot more money as they need the support of administrative personnel and formal institutions. This decrease in productivity has been masked by the fact that the whole enterprise (research & development) has grown in absolute terms (i.e. more scientists and more money being poured into R&D). – Link
This decline in innovation is directly related to diminishing EROI of our energy resources and the limits of complexity. As Jonathan Miles said in Want Not, “This is our condition. We do not solve problems. We replace them with other problems.” The myriad of crises bearing down on us defies comprehension and certainly won’t be solved by applying more of the same techno-fix thinking.
[6.] “Try not to run out of energy.”
The EROI of fossil fuels, the master resource of industrial civilization, has been in decline for some time and a recent report sheds light on this:
A new peer-reviewed study led by the Institute of Physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico has undertaken a comparative review of the EROI of all the major sources of energy that currently underpin industrial civilization—namely oil, gas, coal, and uranium.
Published in the journal Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, the scientists note that the EROI for fossil fuels has inexorably declined over a relatively short period of time: “Nowadays, the world average value EROI for hydrocarbons in the world has gone from a value of 35 to a value of 15 between 1960 and 1980.”
In other words, in just two decades, the total value of the energy being produced via fossil fuel extraction has plummeted by more than half. And it continues to decline… – Link
No other energy source has the energy density of fossil fuels and the existing alternative or “renewable” energy sources won’t power our current set of living arrangements. Although technology is extending the Fossil Fuel Age, running out of economically recoverable fossil fuels means a radical change in society, if such a thing as ‘society’ can persist in the aftermath of biospheric collapse. I suppose a seventh bullet point is in order and would say something along the lines of, “It’s an ill bird that fouls its own nest.”
But how can we define an oil age? It has been about 150 years since the first deep oilwells were sunk, and just over 200 years since the viable steam engine was developed. The two are linked, because the steam engine made deep drilling of oilwells possible and gave us access to a hundred million years worth of fossilized sunlight. Perhaps we have not strictly had an oil age, but rather the first and only age where we enjoy vast amounts of surplus energy that we have extracted from hydrocarbon fuels, of which oil is the most energy dense. It has brought us material wealth, and the means to indulge in wholesale killing of each other and all other species. It gave excesses of food and a population that consumed that food and grew to five or six times the sustainable level of the planet. In the timespan of human existence, the ascendance of modern industrialised man has been a short flash of light and heat that has briefly lifted us out of the mire of the middle ages, but at a considerable cost to the environment.
Our mistake has been to think of that elevation as both divine and permanent. That certainty of permanence explains the mad scramble to come up with ‘alternatives’ and ‘renewables’ in the last decade or two. Something to keep current politicians in office and the masses pacified. It is important that we accept the seductive indoctrination that prayers will be answered and technology will continue to deliver all that can be imagined. The majority have come to believe in the economics of cornucopianism, where wishing for something will make it happen, while ignoring the reality that everything we have is derived from finite hydrocarbon fuels. If we spend enough money, alternatives will always be found to sustain our lifestyle. They won’t of course, and the conflicts that have been fought over oil are proof that they won’t. The pivot of world oil economy is Saudi Arabia, (the concept of ‘Saudi America’ is too ludicrous for discussion here), but that fantasy land of sand dunes and tall towers is being encircled by fanatics who know that when the jugular of global oil is cut, the industrial complexity of the developed west will die.
When (not if) that happens, we might be lucky to hold onto an existence akin to that of the 14th century, which is what the religious zealots want to inflict on all of us. If we’re unlucky, then we must expect something that will be much darker and as yet inadmissible to modern minds that do not have the scope to deal with its implications. That infers an unpleasant imagery of pre-history that we prefer to ignore. Understandably, most think the same way; this is why we cling to the comforting promise of ‘infinite growth’. The alternative is just too awful. Instead we have been encouraged to believe that we can do without oil and not only still run around on wheels, but have a purpose for doing so. And by some means yet to be invented, keep our wings as well.
Our oil age will not end through lack of it, but by fighting over what’s left. So choose your luck‐factor and take that thought where you will, you are on your own with it. Many reasons are given for starting wars, but ultimately there is only one: the pursuit of (energy) resources. Human greed drove improvements in weaponry, and the means of destruction and acquisition became more deadly over thousands of years even though there was more than enough for everyone. The input of oil was the game changer of warfare; history over the last century has shown that conflict was not diminished, but amplified, by the prosperity and technology created by oil. Since the 1860s when black gold gushed from the earth, the economic and political thinking of the pre‐oil era was seamlessly grafted onto the industrial potential of the 19th century, thereby enabling Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and many others to accumulate fabulous wealth. Their business acumen was undeniable, but none of it could have been brought into existence without energy-rich oil. The use of fossil fuels in our military machines industrialised our methods of killing while at the same time becoming synonymous with progress and commerce. War became a business, the purpose of which was the acquisition of more energy in the pursuit of profit. Battlefield deaths on an industrial scale were an unlisted debit on balance sheets.
WWI started with the muscle power of horses and ended with tanks, demonstrating the murderous scope of mechanized warfare. Recognizing the critical value of oil and its sources, leaders carved up the Middle East to ensure its supply. An exercise in map making in the 1920s by the English and French civil servants Sykes and Picot set the scene for carnage that has raged throughout the Middle East ever since. Arbitrary lines in the sand were drawn, artificial oil states in the Persian Gulf region were created without regard to tribal affiliations, and a quarrelsome orphan Israel was dumped into the lap of unwilling Bedouins. As the quantity of oil there became apparent, all the major nations were drawn into the race for it because those who controlled this key resource were certain to subjugate those who did not.
The critical nature of oil made WWII inevitable. To sustain their empires, the Germans and Japanese slaughtered their way across Europe and Asia in a grab for resources, primarily oil. They promised infinite prosperity and their peoples cheered them on while deaths elsewhere were being counted in millions. With most of the world’s known oil supplies in the hands of his enemies, Adolf Hitler knew he had to have the oilfields of southern Russia and the Middle East to sustain his war machine. He failed, and his dream of a ‘Greater Germany’ collapsed not because of inferior soldiers but because there was insufficient energy input to sustain his plan for world domination. Hitler’s perception of infinite growth in his ‘thousand year Reich’ mirrors our present-day view of ‘permanent affluence’: vast quantities of oil had to be burned to sustain his fantasy. In our desperate scramble for ever-diminishing energy resources, we are in the same mad race to perpetuate the delusion of infinite economic growth. The oil pendulum has swung the other way with roughly 85% of world oil now outside the borders of the USA and Canada in countries not always of a friendly disposition. And just like the Fuhrer, political leaders of today are promising that which is beyond their means to provide. To mask this reality, they have invaded oil-producing nations in the name of ‘freedom’, claiming ‘victories’ which have left only wreckage and simmering animosity behind. So too did Hitler spread a similar line of propaganda that he was liberating other nations from the threat of communism. The second world war that left Europe and Japan flattened in 1945 might be seen as history, but it was just the first of many oil wars, and the politics of it were a side issue. WWII serves as a grim reminder of how violent and destructive humans can be in their ruthless pursuit of energy resources. Hitler’s own ‘oil age’ lasted just twelve years, and it set the pattern for the world oil age that is now in terminal decline.
Don’t be deceived by the democratic righteousness that defeated Hitler’s fascism. 150 years earlier the American empire was created with the same kind of energy grab. The European immigrant peoples who forced their way across America from the 1700s onwards needed resources on which to survive and to sustain the prosperity of an expanding nation just as the Germans and the Japanese did in 1940. The native inhabitants of the American continent were in the way of civilization and progress; their subjugation was a precursor to what happened later in Europe and Asia. Expansive prairies had to be cleared to convert the energy locked in grain and meat to feed the invaders and provide negotiable currency. This self-perpetuating process went into overdrive with the discovery of oil, and the ultimate conversion of that oil into more food resources and hardware added to the wealth of the growing nation. An expanding population needed employment, and the raw energy from oil, coal, and gas supplied it. America and the rest of the industrialised world had the means to build bigger, better, faster machines in endless succession, and created the most powerful country on earth. Everybody was going to be rich, forever. The universal law of consumption was relentless: more demanded more.
Meat and grain grew with relatively little human intervention, but other crops needed to be worked with human muscle. So the slave trade came into being. Slavery might be given many unpleasant names, but essentially it is the acquisition of one energy form to convert it into another for profit. Buy and feed the slave, use slave labour to do work, sell the product of that work. By the time the slave is worn out, several more will have been produced. This was simple economics by 18th century standards but the human consequences were again horrific, costing more millions of lives. It also brought on the American civil war where the slave‐muscled South was overwhelmed by the industrialised muscle that drove the armies of the North.
All the European empires forged out of so-called ‘empty lands’ across the world followed a similar pattern of resource acquisition and an absolute disregard for weaker peoples. It is an unpleasantness that we choose to ignore, but it confirms the killing force that drives us to acquire and convert energy to our own use. The seemingly limitless amount of oil and its energy density appeared to be the answer to all our labour problems. Oil became our ultimate slave. Or so we thought.
We now have maybe 20 years worth of usable oil left. There are certainly no more than 30, perhaps as little as 10. If one of the crazy sects running loose in the Middle East managed to get hold of a nuclear device, setting it off on the Gharwar oilfield of Saudi Arabia, it would be endgame overnight. That is perhaps too bleak a prospect, but we should not discount that notion entirely.
Before our oil to food arrangement, the planet supported something over one billion people. We now have over seven billion, and the mothers of the next two billion are alive now and approaching the age of reproduction. Preachers, scientists and politicians will not stop the basic human function of eating and procreation, so if unchecked nine billion people will be here by 2040/50, and set to go on rising after that. Every new arrival expects to be fed, watered, clothed and housed, but by no stretch of the imagination will the global food system be able to feed that number let alone sustain them with what would be expected by way of the most basic material comfort. No one dares to stand up and make the rather obvious point that we are not going to reach 9 billion. Something has to give, and that giving is going to be very unpleasant.
In the first decade of the 21st century, numerous wars have been fought over oil, and are being fought now. Wars are fought over resources because on nature’s terms, gentle contentedness is not a good strategy for survival; we are collectively powerless against genetic forces that dictate our lives no matter how much we protest otherwise. Downsized to whatever level, nature will ultimately force the choice of survival or death, and the outcome will be of no consequence other than to you and yours. To expect humankind to change within a single generation is stretching credibility beyond breaking point. Those who look forward to a life of bucolic bliss in a downsized oil‐less world might do well to think about that. Whether killing and butchering an animal to eat it, or invading another nation to secure oil supplies, we must appropriate energy sources to facilitate survival. You may think there’s a choice about doing that, but there isn’t, other than in the matter of scale. Whether paying a butcher to cut and wrap your steak, or paying soldiers to invade Iraq, securing sufficient energy to live is what we have to do to survive.
For the moment, nature keeps us supplied with oil, and we’ve pulled off the neat trick of converting it directly into food. Not knowing when our oil is finished and our food supply will run out is the little teaser for the early 21st century. Right now, most people think that food comes from supermarket shelves and freezers, which is just as well. The food trucks moving around the country are basically mobile warehouses, delivering food just in time for it to be consumed. When the realization dawns that the food trucks have stopped, the food held in stock by retailers will be stripped bare in hours. The oil age for everyone will have come to an end.
But oil carries man’s destiny in far more subtle ways than food supplies. It holds nations together. The USA is a vast territory of disparate peoples and ideas, held together by a common bond of prosperity and a basic consensus that government and law generally works for the good of all. And the inhabitants of empires are always convinced that theirs is permanent and protected by gods. That definition would apply to many large nations to a greater or lesser degree. But the bonds that hold it together, godly or otherwise, are entirely subject to availability of affordable oil. Empires (and the USA is an empire) remain whole so long as the means exists to maintain them. Oil has become that means.
Without oil, the nation will begin its decline into disparate regions. Without interconnecting transport, the United States of America cannot remain united. The force necessary to prevent a breakup will not be there, so within a decade (probably far less) of oil supply failure, the USA will cease to exist. The cracks are already there along linguistic, economic, racial, political and geographic lines. Even now it would be possible to take a pretty good guess at where those regions will split off.
This will be denied and resisted of course, but armies and police forces have power only as long as their fuel lasts. They will be unable to prevent secession in whatever form it takes. It might just be that Washington will come to govern not much more than the original colonies. Given a suitably deranged political leader and prayers to the right god, fully armed groups are ready to believe that the ‘American Dream’ can be restored. Such demagoguery sets the stage for years of regional violence over the basics of life, particularly food and water. The horror of it will be justified by warped views of right and wrong, clinging to a denial mentality magnified beyond any imagining by the privation that an oil-less society will bring.
This scenario is not exclusive to the USA. The British Empire was built on coal. When the coal was gone the empire faded away. Then in the 80s and 90s the UK became awash with cheap oil from the North Sea, and everyone was reasonably prosperous, particularly Scotland. Now the oil surplus has gone, and the UK is in decline again as a net importer. The ‘oil prosperity’ is fading away. Scotland is losing its main source of income and wants to secede from the United Kingdom, convinced that independence will somehow restore their wealth. Things will get very unpleasant when they realize that an independent Scotland will eventually be reduced to the economic level of Greece. The link between oil and the ability to eat is clear. The UK has to import 40% of its food, and much of the rest depends on oil to produce it, which also has to be imported. It is the end of the UK’s oil age, but few admit to it being the end of a food age as well. The same problem is being revealed in the current fiasco of the European union, but a little more advanced than the USA and UK. Oil-fueled prosperity is falling dramatically in the poorer southern countries. Greece, Spain and Portugal and a swathe of smaller nations have to import all their oil which only worked when oil was cheap. Now it’s expensive, and they are facing bankruptcy. 50 years of ‘unity’ is dissolving like a mirage in the face of the difficulties that smaller states are suffering. Without cheap oil, their economies cannot function, and so are disintegrating. United Europe needs oil to stay united just as the USA does. Russia’s oil dependent economy is crumbling, and Putin is having to make threatening postures to divert attention from his problems. His oil age is ending in a different way and yet we cannot tell if his posturing is just that, but a shortage of resources in the past has invariably brought conflict.
Move to the Far East and the nations around the South China Sea are all threatening one another, again the focus of the argument being the oil and gas fields of the region. They all know that without oil they cannot survive, and are prepared to fight for every last drop of the stuff, no matter what the cost. As a measure of what the dispute is about, the volume of oil in question is 11 billion barrels. One billion barrels is less than a month of world consumption. They are preparing to fight over the last dregs in confirmation of man’s desperation over oil shortages. Eventually, this problem will hit every nation and individual on earth as our oil‐crutch is kicked away. And with the oil age fading into history for us all, there will be no shortage of violent resistance to this inconvenient truth.
From the acidified and plasticized oceans to the greenhouse gas-polluted atmosphere to the radioactive and heavy metal-contaminated soils, the Anthropocene Epoch will leave behind a planet radically altered in its atmospheric and biospheric chemistry. This disruption, unprecedented in geologic time for its rapidity and wide-scale destruction, is already too severe for the complex web of life that had evolved under earth’s previous life-sustaining homeostatic system. As Brian Moss (et al.) wrote in Climate Change Impacts on Freshwater Ecosystems, “The chemistry of the biosphere is the ultimate sine qua non of our existence.”:
It is expected that we will have lost over half the world’s land ecosystems to agriculture or development by 2050. The urbanites may not be noticing this but the consequences will nonetheless be huge, for it is these natural ecosystems that regulate the nature of the biosphere. We have absolutely no idea how much of them can be damaged without serious consequences for human survival. All we know is that such systems, honed by the utterly ruthless mechanisms of natural selection to be as near fit for purpose as possible, are just as crucial to us, indeed much more fundamentally so, than the local grocer, filling station or hospital. The chemistry of the biosphere is the ultimate sine qua non of our existence. …in contemplating the hitherto effects of climate change, we fail to realize that the loss of ecosystems and the changing climate are linked. Indeed we blithely cost the damage of climate change (Stern 2006) as we cost the goods and services we are losing through the application of the same approach of classical economics. We have failed to see the interaction of climate, ecology, and equability. Our attempts to mitigate climate change, in a desperate bid to avoid disruption of our societies, may inevitably be doomed to failure unless we begin to see the whole picture and not just the components we find most convenient to our cash economy. – Link
Man-made climate change is the number one driver of the 6th mass extinction currently unfolding. Without bees, the grocery shelves look rather bare. Without coral reefs, the oceans are devoid of most life. Perhaps the greatest blind spot of humans is their inability to imagine that earth does not need them. The myopic, anthropocentric worldview that humans “own the earth” is emblematic of our economic system and its principles, and this belief that everything can be valued in dollars and cents will prove to be our undoing.
Modern man evolved in an environment composed of carbon dioxide(CO2) levels averaging 240ppm and methane(CH4) levels averaging 700ppb. Today’s atmosphere is now filled with nearly double the amount of CO2 and triple the CH4. A third greenhouse gas worth noting is nitrous oxide(N2O) which has 296 times the ‘Global Warming Potential’ (GWP) of CO2 and a lifespan of 150 years. N2O’s pre-industrial levels were around 270ppb, but are now at around 330ppb and climbing 0.3% per year. When all greenhouse gases are combined, the world is at a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of 479 ppm. And we’re locked into much more warming due to the carbon-based civilization we have built. Global dimming and the lag time of climate change have hidden the full effects yet to come, but the changes we are already seeing at only 0.85°C are catastrophic. If you are unaware of the runaway feedback loops causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the exponential ice melt happening in both of the Earth’s poles, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention. David Spratt elucidates some of the tipping points we have already breached:
…tipping points that have been passed thus far, at less than 1°C of warming:
The loss of the Amundsen Sea West Antarctic glaciers, and 1–4 metres of sea level rise (Rignot, Mouginot et al., 2014; Joughin, Smith et al., 2014). Dr Malte Meinshausen, advisor to the German government and one of the architects of the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways, calls the evidence published this year of “unstoppable” (Rignot, 2014) deglaciation in West Antarctica “a game changer”, and a “tipping point that none of us thought would pass so quickly”, noting now we are “committed already to a change in coastlines that is unprecedented for us humans” (Breakthrough, 2014).
The loss of Arctic sea-ice in summer (Duarte, Lenton et al., 2012; Maslowski, Kinney et al., 2012), which will hasten regional warming, the mobilization of frozen carbon stores, and the deglaciation of Greenland.
Numerous ecosystems, which are already severely degraded or in the process of being lost, including the Arctic (Wolf, 2010). In the Arctic, the rate of climate change is now faster than ecosystems can adapt to naturally, and the fate of many Arctic marine ecosystems is clearly connected to that of the sea ice (Duarte, Lenton et al., 2012). In May 2008, Dr Neil Hamilton, who was then director of Arctic programmes for WWF, told a stunned audience (of which I was a member) at the Academy of Science in Canberra that WWF was not trying to preserve the Arctic ecosystem because “it was no longer possible to do so.”
Such environmental changes are imperceptible to the real-time cognitive processing of humans, but in geological ‘deep time’ these events are cataclysmic and portend a dire future for humans. As Jared Diamond described in his writings, climate change is the ultimate under-the-radar threat able to undermine human reasoning and response:
Psychological concepts of how we view the world around us, including ‘creeping normalcy’ or ‘landscape amnesia’, block day-to-day comprehension of what accelerating human activities represent—whether it is human population, the number of dammed rivers, forest destruction, or the impact of motor car emissions in a timespan that is geologically brief. Creeping normalcy refers to slow trends concealed in noisy fluctuations that people get used to without comment, while landscape amnesia describes forgetting how different the landscape looked 20–50 years ago (Diamond 2005: 425).
In his study of how societies fail, biogeographer Jared Diamond calls global warming a pre-eminent example of a ‘slow trend concealed by wide up and down fluctuations’ (2005: 425). He likens the denial of climate change impacts by leading politicians, including former US president George W. Bush (and his contemporary John Howard in Australia), in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the elite of ‘the medieval Greenlanders [who] had similar difficulties recognizing that their climate was gradually becoming colder, and the Maya and Anasazi (in Central and North America) [who] had trouble discerning that theirs was becoming drier’ (2005: 425). – Link
Nate Hagens recently made a comment online which is key to understanding much of the frustration, obstinacy, and mass delusion that modern society exhibits when trying to understand one piece of the global crisis rather than taking a holistic approach:
“I think 95%+ of environmentalists don’t integrate systems, energy or human behavior into their analysis of our climate predicament and think we can just plug and play BTUs (British Thermal Units) and have low carbon economic growth – PCI (Post Carbon Institute) has spent most of the last 5 years trying to educate [the public] on this front, to little avail.”
Most energy experts know that “renewable energy” will never be able to replace energy-dense fossil fuels at the global scale (Just for oil, it’s 90 million barrels consumed every day and forecast to hit 96 million BPD by 2019), but they don’t take into full consideration the collapse of earth’s stable Holocene climate which has allowed industrial civilization to flourish. On the other side of the coin, most climate scientists and activists I have encountered do not understand the sever limitations of “renewable energy”, yet many are well aware of the looming disaster posed by anthropogenic climate disruption. Trying to fully comprehend the multiple interconnected global crisis bearing down on industrial civilization is like the allegory of the six blind men and an elephant. Unable to see the bigger picture, each man argues and maintains that their limited view of reality is the only correct one.
As global coal consumption continues its upwards march, the real outcome of the Lima climate conference is that humans are more than willing to hide behind contractual jargon and kick the can down the road rather than come to terms with the unsustainable nature of industrial civilization:
The shift of a single word—from a “shall” to a “may”—means the world will very likely continue to burn lots of coal. Instead of being required to provide “quantifiable information” about their greenhouse-gas emissions, countries may choose whether or not to include those statistics in their pledges instead, known in the jargon as “intended nationally determined contributions. – Link
After more than two decades of climate talks, are we to believe that industrial civilization will ever reform itself for the sake of a living planet? As pervasive as self-deception is in modern society, the reinsurance industry is one sector of industrial civilization unable to turn a blind eye to the rising costs of increasingly extreme and chaotic weather events. The U.S. military is another entity impelled to acknowledge anthropogenic climate disruption, whether it be responding to the wreckage from monster typhoons in the Philippines or the destabilizing effects of droughts in the Middle East. After a few centuries of burning fossil fuels and the accumulation of vast amounts of climate science data, techno-capitalist carbon man is also being forced to react to the fact that the earth’s atmosphere is not an infinite pollution sink for his endless consumption of energy. The problem is that several planetary tipping points have already been irreversibly transgressed, threatening the very habitability of earth. Our predictable collective response is to try to techno-fix the problem rather than entertain any fundamental rethink of the pillars of the capitalist economic system and the scientific reductionism that have led us to this impasse. As evidenced by the number of articles published in mainstream periodicals these days about geoengineering the atmosphere, awareness appears to be growing amongst the business elite that things are starting to spiral out of control:
Geoengineering is another problem-solving strategy that our complex society will employ in order to try to solve the ever-complicated problems arising from ecological overshoot. In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter described this process of developing progressively more sophisticated technologies to solve problems. Geoengineering is wrought with dangers and even frightens many of those scientists who are working on such schemes, but it may be our last hope of saving ourselves from abrupt climate change and a hothouse Earth similar to past rapid warmings. Recent research has shown that the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a time in earth’s history when global temperatures rose upwards of 5°C in the space of about 13 years, serves as a better case study for modern climate change than previously thought:
About 55.5 million years ago, a burst of carbon dioxide raised Earth’s temperature 5°C to 8°C, which had major impacts on numerous species of plants and wildlife. Scientists analyzing ancient soil samples now say a previous burst of the greenhouse gas preceded this event, known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), and probably triggered it. Moreover, they believe humans are pumping similar levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now, raising concerns that our own emissions may also destabilize Earth’s climate, triggering the planet to emit devastating bursts of carbon in the future.
The paper implies that even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide right now, our descendants might still face huge temperature rises, says paleoclimatologist Gabriel Bowen of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the lead author of the new research. “It is a possibility,” he says, “and it’s a scary one.”…
…The researchers used climate models to investigate how the initial, smaller heating could have triggered the later surge in temperature. They estimate that the first thermal pulse is likely to have warmed Earth’s atmosphere by 2°C to 3°C, but that the atmospheric temperature would have gradually returned to normal as the heat was absorbed into the deep ocean. However, when that heat finally reached the ocean floor, it might have melted methane ices called clathrates, releasing the methane into the ocean and allowing it to make its way into the atmosphere.As a greenhouse gas, methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide [up to several hundred times the Global Warming Potential of CO2 for the first two decades before decaying into CO2], so a sudden spike in methane emissions could lead to huge climate change. – Link
If we are only going to use geoengineering techniques to try to keep business-as-usual afloat, then such efforts will be nothing more than the last gasps of a dying civilization, but if these technologies are coupled with an expedited wartime transformation of our society, culture, economy, and political institutions into a very low or zero carbon society, then perhaps such efforts would be worthwhile and could save our species from extinction. However, I see no signs of any such transition towards a decentralized, simplified society, and more noteworthy, neither does Tainter. We are firmly locked within the complexity trap:
…‘the study of social complexity does not yield optimistic results’ (Tainter, 2006: 99). In fact, there is something deeply tragic in Tainter’s view, because it suggests that civilisation, by its very nature, gets locked into a process of mandatory growth in complexity that eventually becomes unsupportable. Furthermore, history provides a disturbingly consistent empirical basis for this tragic view (Tainter, 1988), leading Tainter (2006: 100) to conclude that ‘all solutions to the problem of complexity are temporary.’ This seemingly innocuous statement is actually extremely dark, for it implies that ultimately and inevitably social complexity will outgrow its available energy supply. – Link
As things stand right now, not only must we stop the rise of CO2, but we must also halt the loss of Arctic ice albedo and implement methods for pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere because a 2°C warming limit is a thing of the past. Sound advice would be to stop digging when in catastrophic overshoot, but it does not appear we can stop because the system is in control, not us.
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live. … You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it?—your captivity and the captivity of the world.”
― Daniel Quinn, Ishmael
“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lives. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”
~ E.M. Forster, “THE MACHINE STOPS”
Insects, birds, mammals, and fish have all been migrating to cooler zones for the past four decades in response to the cataclysmic climate disruption ignited by industrial civilization, but humans are the only organisms inhabiting this blue orb we call Earth who are not altering their behavior. They live within an energy cocoon that keeps them cool in the summer, warm in the winter, stuffed with massed produced food from mechanized factory farms, and entertained by a virtual world of digital imagery. As cracks and holes in the Earth’s biosphere grow ever larger, the natural response of capitalist carbon man ensconced within his protective energy shell is to try to put a price tag on what is being burned, i.e. fossil fuels, rather than deal with the deeper root cause of an unsustainable economic system and way of life which demands such exorbitant consumption of resources.
Our energy slaves feed us and control the climate for us while at the same time destroying the natural world that had enabled humans to create such an artificial environment. Detached from nature and enslaved by our own technological creations, we sleepwalk over the cliff of extinction. Our so-called progress will, in the end, disappear like a mirage in the scorching desert sun as nature is sacrificed to the machine of industrial civilization.
Throwing money into the maw of the ‘free market’ is the predictable modus operandi of technocapitalism’s indoctrinated disciples who believe such offerings will create a technofix, miraculously healing the planet. In the Star Trek TV series, the Ferengi were an extraterrestrial race whose culture was characterized by “a mercantile obsession with profit and trade, and their constant efforts to swindle unwary customers into unfair deals.” Just like the Ferengi species where profit is the first, last and only important factor, the high temples of private enterprise are commodifying and monetizing the atmosphere just as they have everything else in nature. The colonization of the public mind by capitalism is complete and overriding. We ignore unfolding geologic forces and instead put our faith in manmade market forces to our detriment.
In the final days of capitalist industrial civilization, the relentless and compulsive pursuit of profit and growth has subsumed any intelligent and realistic plans for survival. In fact, with the race amongst nations for nuclear technology and sophisticated weaponry, the requisite competitive economy to support such hi-tech militaries nullifies any attempts at reducing greenhouse emissions and pushes the world towards nuclear annihilation. As Kevin Lister, author of the forthcoming book The Vortex of Violence and why we are losing the battle against climate change, points out:
…The fundamental dilemma all nuclear weapons states face is that to maintain a credible nuclear force, be it a force of one or one thousand nuclear warheads on deployment, a massive military industrial complex must be maintained. As well as building the actual nuclear weapon systems, it must also provide the conventional defence screen consisting of fighter jets, patrols planes, anti-submarine warfare technology etc. In an ultimate irony, the purpose of these becomes to defend the nuclear forces to ensure a second strike can be launched rather than to defend people, because there is no defence against a determined nuclear attack. The military industrial complex that delivers this equipment must be continually fed with new streams of contracts at increasing values otherwise the industrial complex collapses. Thus a key objective in the initial gate document which justified to parliament the early procurement of material for Trident was that, “We must retain the capability to design, build and support nuclear submarines and meet the commitment for a successor to the Vanguard Class submarines.” In other words, we build Tridents to continue building Tridents.
The enormous cost of this needs to be covered by taxes, and for this some £500 billion of additional excess economic activity is needed which requires energy from fossil fuels and is the antithesis of making the urgent cut backs we need to tackle the soaring greenhouse gas overburden. Thus once the decision is made to proceed with Trident, it becomes impossible to make the climate change agreements to save the planet. In this context Trident is more dangerous than we ever first thought and it is the ultimate Faustian bargain.
Your commissioners have also failed to acknowledge in their report that the public spending that will be needed on Trident must be made at the same times as scarce public funds must be diverted to building a low carbon economy and mitigating the effects of climate change such as flooding and storm damage. This conflict will arise as tax receipts simultaneously drop through energy price rises.
The impossibility of meeting these conflicting challenges is the reason that much of the negotiations at climate change conferences takes place around the positions of the nuclear weapons states and their need to maintain large military industrial complexes and competitive and expanding economies to fund these…
…to build at huge expense a nuclear force whilst the nation is effectively bankrupt that will never provide secure protection from nuclear attack and merely encourage our competitors to reciprocate. It drives a race to the bottom where rational decisions on climate change can never be taken.
This nexus between global capitalism, the lucrative military-industrial complex, and the strategy of nuclear deterrence has locked the nations of the world into a trajectory of escalating anthropogenic climate disruption, environmental degradation and an ongoing arms race since World War II. Illustrative of this are the energy consumption levels of the U.S. DoD and war profiteering motives of defense contractors:
…The US military is the largest single consumer of energy in the world. If it were a country, the Department of Defense (DoD) would rank 34th in the world in average daily oil use, coming in just behind Iraq and just ahead of Sweden…
…Electricity usage by the military, which accounts for even more greenhouse gas emissions, is also gargantuan. In FY 2006, the DoD used almost 30,000 gigawatt hours of electricity at a cost of almost $2.2 billion. The DoD’s electricity use would supply enough electricity to power more than 2.6 million average American homes.
In fiscal year 2012, the DoD consumed about a billion gigawatt hours of site delivered energy at a cost of 20.4 billion dollars. While consuming that amount of energy, DoD emitted 70 million metric tons of CO2. And yet, total DoD energy use and costs are even higher simply because the energy use and costs arising from the contractors to support military operations both domestically and abroad are not included in DoD’s data…
…The increased propensity for war and conflict brought about by global warming is being exploited by the military-industrial complex which is planning on how to profit from it. Defense contractors are looking at climate change as a growth and profit opportunity due to the potential conflicts produced by food and water shortages. They are salivating over the potential profits to be made leading to increased stock market performance and, therefore, higher CEO compensation.
Defense contractors are setting their sights on a narrow-minded militarist approach. Indeed, the very companies most responsible for climate change are set to make a killing from its intensification. – link
Only one civilization in history has voluntarily uncomplicated/decomplexitized its society in the face of resource scarcity. According to Joseph Tainter, that civilization was the Byzantine Empire:
“After the Byzantine empire lost most of its territory to the Arabs, they simplified their entire society. Cities mostly disappeared, literacy and numeracy declined, their economy became less monetised, and they switched from professional army to peasant militia.”
…Because the human ape is such a competitive and vicious sort, there must be a constant “progress” in technology and development to prevent being eaten by or dominated by another nation. Evolution writ large. Without a doubt it will end soon and nothing shall remain but the Ozymandian technological skeletons of times gone by…
As a warming planet cooks our brains and scrambles our environment, the trigger finger of some mentally ill and agitated soul may just belong to someone sitting at the launch button of a nuke. As Albert Einstein said, ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’
Those who have read my thoughts, sprinkled hither and thither around the internet, will perhaps be aware that I gave up, about one and a half years ago, when I realised that whatever mighty efforts activists might make, it was going to be impossible to save the biosphere. Daniel Drumright was about three months ahead of me.
Nobody who hasn’t fully encountered and absorbed that experience for themselves, in its true horror, has any idea what it really means, and for those who have yet to face it, you have my deepest compassion and sympathy.
There’s no point in going over the technical reasoning in detail. People either get it or they don’t. They can find all the information quite easily.
There are three big, obvious factors that most people do not understand; those are, first, the irreversible self-reinforcing positive feedbacks that Guy McPherson is listing, and second, the time lag, that what we have now is the result of what we did forty or so years ago, and what we get in the future will be the effects of what we have been doing ever since. The third is the astounding rate at which all the changes are happening, when compared with all previous similar or comparable events in Earth’s history. Whatever it is, it is ULTRA DRAMATIC on the geological time scale.
The doom scenario has been, and is being, comprehensively documented by xraymike on this blog. The trickle of folk who are going through the process of coming to terms with this hellish awakening has already grown into a cascade and will soon be millions, and I really have nothing to say to them, because I do not know what to say to them.
Once you get the insight regarding the Mass Extinction Event, it’s a bit like the Buddha’s Enlightenment Experience under the Bodhi Tree, only in reverse, so to speak.
Gautama pondered whether to keep his insight to himself and spend the rest of his days in bliss, or whether to teach others what he now knew, and he chose, out of compassion, to spend the remainder of his life wandering through India teaching his message.
But how do you teach how to cope with doom ? There’s nothing optimistic or pleasing or life-enhancing or joyful about imminent apocalypse. There’s just the anguish and distress involved with the demanding process of navigating your own psychology and emotional responses toward an impossible future.
Each individual IS an individual, as we see on NBL, with their own version of the mixture of belief and disbelief and their own political and philosophical and religious outlooks, and some have children and grandchildren and some are thinking of survival chances, some of suicide, some of resistance, and so on.
I have had more than a year to dwell upon my own position, and to watch the responses in my own being, and in the people whom I like and respect, and the voices I admire, who also grasp the profound and terrible tragedy facing us all. For a long time, there was commiseration, but then what ? Commiseration fatigue ? How can anyone commiserate with anonymous thousands, let alone millions ?
Again, there’s lots of speculation as to the detail of how the crash will play out and how societies will respond as they collapse. I’m not going to add much to that here, it’s all available elsewhere. We either get a die back, and a bottle neck, with a few survivors, or a complete die off and total extinction event. I think we get the latter, but even if it is the former, none of us are going to know any of those people, as to who they will be, or where or what becomes of them, so why does it matter ? And why would anyone choose to have to live through whatever horrendous circumstances they will have to endure, following the trauma of the ending of civilisation ? Perhaps some people will just happen to find themselves in such a situation. Who knows ?
Meanwhile, here we are. Peak just about everything, where we start the big slide down into the abysmal depths of whatever awaits us all… the biggest crisis that the human species has ever faced, 7 point something billion of us, with millions more arriving here every month. There is no discernible global leadership of any kind that comprehends our dire situation, only madmen and corruption and people locked in to dead cultural paradigms.
What does a dead cultural paradigm look like ?
Well, we’ve got Joseph Tainter to give us some clues from the historical record and maybe Heathcote Williams to bring us up to date with the contemporary scene
From what I understand of history, we can expect a hard swing toward fascist dystopia, as regimes try desperately to exert total control over everything, and hard swings from repressed populations and factions which reciprocate with resistance.
The future will be whatever it will be. Every day I walk up and down the Beach of Doom and kick at pieces of poisonous plastic flotsam and miscellaneous cosmic debris left by the virtual tide, and gaze at the orange purple bruises on the tangerine sky and sometimes I bicker and haggle with someone.
Yesterday it was Lidia at NBL to whom I am grateful for an insight into something or other.
You see, people can be very roughly divided into two groups. Those who primarily hold a religious, or spiritual, or romantic, or mythical world view. And those who primarily hold a scientific, or materialist, or rationalist world view.
Of course, this is a crude over-simplification, and speaking to any individual, you’ll soon find they hold all kinds of contradictory beliefs. But roughly, it’s Mythos and Logos, or Iain McGilchrist’s Right and Left Hemispheres.
So, Lidia was kind enough to describe her worldview, her welt anschauung, her cosmology, her mental conception of how reality is structured, her epistemology, her way of ‘knowing your place in the Universe’.
I hope she will forgive my using her as an example, and the exchange several days ago was only a brief re-run of a much longer version we had on the now defunct NTE ning, some months ago, so I think I do have a fairly full idea as to her thinking, but so as not to risk any personal offence, I’ll take the illustration away from Lidia, and apply it to any generic physicist or scientist or person with a similar belief system, of whom I have met very, very many. This will allow me some poetic license possibly, avoiding danger of maligning the good Lidia, I hope.
You see, according to this paradigm of reality, there is only physics. Everything is physics.
That means that everything is explained by physics. That means no mystery, because even if there is mystery, that’s only due to physics not yet explaining it. And once mystery is killed off, it’s relatives, cousins – things like awe, wonder, sanctity, sacredness, the numinous – easily shrivel and die too.
So, that reality ‘out there’, and this reality ‘in here’, is all meaningless, because it only means something if we impose some wishful magical thinking onto the physics, which, as objective scientists, we are not allowed to do.
And that reality ‘out there’ is just ‘stuff’, and it interacts with this reality ‘in here’, the brain, which again is just ‘stuff’. It’s all physics, it’s all physical stuff, and even though we don’t understand all of it – even don’t understand most of it, or, if pressed, hardly ANY of it, hahaha – in theory, physics can, and will, explain all of it, one day, so no problem.
So, it’s quite interesting to trace back where this story, this Logos story, comes from, and it’s quite easy to do, because it’s well documented and researched, and it goes back to Descartes and his radical scepticism, and the ideas given to him by an angel (Mythos) and his struggle to find anything, something, that he could not undermine by radical doubt, and his arrival at ‘I think, therefore I am’ and then the beginnings of modern science.
Given that the Church of Rome was the dominant power in Europe at the time, an accommodation had to be made between the rising power of science and the prevailing authority, and thus we got an expedient result, the division which gave the material world to the scientists and the spiritual world to the priests. That’s why there’s no God or spirits involved in physics. Which, you may say, is an excellent thing. But let us call it, for the moment, ‘a mixed blessing’.
Because, you see, if you follow the epistemology carefully, and look at it very closely, something absolutely amazing emerges.
Einstein said that our ordinary common senses give us ‘naive realism’. That is, grass is green, rocks are hard, and snow is cold. But physics, if it is true, tells us that this naive realism is all wrong, physics tells us that the reality is quite different, something completely different is actually going on, out there and in here.
Now, it’s all very well for someone like Einstein, or Niels Bohr, or Feynman, to come up with these ideas, as professional physicists, but what happens when this scientific worldview, this basically Cartesian worldview, is taught to us lesser mortals as part of the culture, and internalised as epistemology, and preached to us as ontology, and integrated into general social cosmology ?
This is where it gets really weird, a MOST extraordinary thing – because when I thought over what Lidia had told me, nowhere in the depiction and analysis is there anywhere for A HAPPY HEALTHY COMPLETE HUMAN BEING.
Isn’t that bizarre ? That human beings have come up with a teaching as to what the world is and what the totality of the Universe is, which does not even include the organism that WE ARE, AT ALL ?
I mean, that strikes me as exceptionally odd. Prior to Descartes, the cosmology was a sort of Divine Order, with the Heavens above and layers with angels and God at the pinnacle and so forth. And people were taught this, and their place in the social hierarchy of feudalism was essentially justified because the King was a sort of representative of God on Earth, and so on. So although we can scoff at the nonsense of it, at least at the time, if you were a peasant, you featured in the story.
If you were out in the fields with your ox and your plough and you were gazing at the distant rainbow and thinking about your dead grandfather and you heard the church bells peeling for a wedding in the village next door, all sorts of strange impressions could flicker through your mind, but basically you had a cosmology which placed God somewhere ‘up there’ and you ‘down here’ with a coherent pattern where your birth and living and death belonged with the landscape and the community and the larger reality.
Therefore, the map, the mental model ‘in here’, when projected and overlaid upon reality, had in it the human subject as its focal point, and because that’s what the human subject had been taught, a story was established featuring the ME.
But now, not only have they written God out, with Descartes and the Cartesian Paradigm of reality as the basis of modern science, but you’ve got a model, a cosmology, which has written US, as human beings, biological creatures, right out of the system altogether, as if they were not even involved !
And then people have internalised this model and taken it to be their own personal reality that they use to explain the world to themselves.
I wonder what that does for a person’s health ? I wonder what it does, when millions of people do something like that ?
The Christian Fundamentalists may be completely round the bend when it comes to LOGIC but maybe they just feel intuitively that what they are being offered by the people who argue against them, a worldview, a cosmology, which says NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING, and a worldview, a cosmology, which doesn’t have ANY PLACE where a happy healthy human, a biological human being, can even fit into it, is so sterile and horrible, that they intuitively reject it and are hostile to it ?
Because, if you look at anthropology or what Joseph Campbell said about myth, what a belief system provides for a tribal people is a safe mental refuge. When a person takes a mental excursion into fantasy and ponders the nature of their own life and identity, and the dream they had last night, and their relationships with the world around them and other folks, and the stars above and so forth, the whole purpose of the cosmology is to deliver them safely back unto THEMSELVES.
I mean, think of acid trips and ayauasca and mushrooms and vision quests and all that stuff, where you encounter visions of beings from other dimensions and the most mind-boggling experiences, the idea is to get back to start, square 1, more or less sane and intact.
The same applies to ordinary daydreams and fantasies and all our thinking about our ordinary experiences. How can we be sane and healthy, if our fundamental belief system does not even include a home base option anywhere within it ?
You know, who cares what the physics says. Primarily, we are human beings, biological animals, that cry when we are hurt and sad, and laugh when we are happy, and get sentimental about babies and kittens, and need clean water and food, etc. AND we need a meaningful Universe which has a place for US in it, with a STORY that makes sense as to why we exist…
You know, a story we can UNDERSTAND about who we are and what we are doing here.
At the moment, all these stories we are being told are crap because they are not accurate with the science, strictly speaking, since they can’t be; we can’t get any clear picture from the physicists as to the ultimate nature of all the quantum stuff and the Universe. In addition, these cultural stories are unsatisfactory at the human level when they LEAVE OUT the human being and pretend it’s all some sort of abstract empty machine.
What’s more, from what a large percentage of quantum physicists have plainly stated, you cannot leave the physicist out of the experiment because the observer EFFECTS the observation. Now, I recognize this is contentious, there is no consensus, and it’s not clear what this means. But !
So, what does a ‘good story’ look like ? Well, that’s hard… but I’m glad you asked.
I think this is a complicated and difficult problem, and here I am upon the Beach of Doom, with all of human history and culture, every idea that’s ever been recorded, washed up at my feet at the tide line, strewn and tangled and rotting and steaming…
Look at us, pitiful, confused Bonobos, asking ourselves questions we can’t answer, tearing ourselves and each other apart, trying to satisfy Maslow’s Hierarchy…
Is that what we are doing ? Well, the whistle has blown, the sirens are wailing, time is up, the NTE light is flashing, so there is not going to be some utopian Promised Land for the Bonobos to migrate to…
Xraymike was kind enough to point me to the definition of the word Humanistic:
1. A believer in the principles of humanism. 2. One who is concerned with the interests and welfare of humans.
“Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The term humanism can be ambiguously diverse, and there has been a persistent confusion between several related uses of the term because different intellectual movements have identified with it over time. In philosophy and social science, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a “human nature” (contrasted with anti-humanism). etc…”
So let’s take that as a verbal anchorage.
I’d suggest that most human beings have a fundamental requirement, for their psychological, physiological, and social welfare, to understand ‘the world’ in a way that makes sense. So that, whenever they sit down and think things over, and run ideas through their head, they can confirm themselves and they can confirm ‘the world’ and feel okay.
Wouldn’t that be nice ? Look what we’ve got. It’s not THAT, is it.
Is it any surprise that some people want the Rapture or Alien abduction to get the hell out of this confusion ?
The epistemology that science teaches, following on from Descartes, has caused most of the damage to the biosphere over the last century or two, because nothing is sacred, everything is just dead stuff, in a dead machine, inhabited by ghostly meaningless meat robots, zeks, without any dignity or purpose of their own.
You marry that to Capitalism, an elite with power and greed as their motive, and give it to them as a tool, and hand them control of the Military, which was once meant to guard but gets turned into a predatory plundering machine.
Well. We are where we are. The lights will go out, one by one, and then a few million years of silence as the extremophiles have peace.
It could have been, might have been, a very different story, if we had all followed the example of, say, the Bishnois.
The above video is a discussion with Dr. Charles Hall of the Dept. of the SUNY-Environmental and Forest Biology. He is the primary creator behind the concept of EROEI in the field of biophysical economics. He also cowrote the new book “Energy and the Wealth of Nations“. I just heard about this book, but from the reviews I have read it appears to be essential reading for those concerned about a world faced with depleting energy sources and an economic system ill-suited to deal with this crisis.
Throughout the history of civilizations, economies have been based on energy inputs, whether by human slaves or oil energy slaves. The bits of paper and metal we receive for our work are only tokens representing muscle or brain output. Money is simply a token of energy exchange and has no intrinsic value of its own. Without the constant input of primary energy, a civilization’s economy ceases to function as it once did. The following comment by an engineer illustrates my point:
…Consider: A fit human being has a maximum productive energy output of about 100 watts. Such a person working for 10 hours provides 1000 watt-hours of energy, which is to say, 1 kWh. In other words, by working quite literally like a slave, a person can produce about 1kWh per day. For this we pay $0.05 to $0.25 in most parts of this country. Granted, that’s provided as electrical, not mechanical energy but my point is to illustrate the enormous gap between the energy intensity that was historically possible, and the energy intensity that we take for granted now. The extreme cheapness that makes this energy intensity possible is a product of the fact that we are using up a one-time endowment of fossilized sunlight. It is not something that can be duplicated with a renewable source.
Nor is it something that we can continue to obtain from fossil fuels for very much longer, even if we don’t care about climate change or ecosystem health. The cheapest of fuels, coal, comes with a set of fairly immediate externalized costs – if we pursue a coal-based energy system, those externalized costs will accumulate quickly enough to drag us down in fairly short order (through e.g. medical expenses). The current, temporary glut of cheap natural gas notwithstanding, other fossil fuels will not fill this need either. There may be “plenty” of oil at $100/bbl, but that abundance will not be sustained at a lower price point – again, a function of declining EROEI…
The less energy you get back from the energy you invested, the worse off you are. If a civilization is expending all its energy and resources and only getting enough fuel back to function at its current state, then it is just subsisting and cannot grow and expand in complexity. With a population that is constantly increasing, this means intractable unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and social unrest. As Joseph Tainter has explained, a complex society such as ours gets to the point where more energy is required simply to maintain the infrastructure it’s come to depend on. Forget growing or replacing, but just maintaining the present infrastructure requires more energy than was originally spent to build it. To make matters worse, a corrupt government and myopic ruling elite don’t recognize the realities of biophysical economics. Indeed, our entire economic system operates in a make-believe world that tries to impose neoclassical theorems on finite natural systems. Just as Rome imploded from the inability to maintain its over-extended reach through its limited energy resources, so too will the U.S. repeat this mistake of depleting returns on supporting a far-flung empire built from cheap fossil fuels.