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A 50,000-Foot View Of The Global Crisis

By Paul Chefurka

08 August, 2011

We are now well into a global crisis that may mark the end of this cycle of human civilization. In this note I present a summary of what’s going on as far as I can tell, as well as a scenario for how things might develop over the next 75 years or so.

The issue is enormous, so an overview like this is inevitably going to be skimpy on details. This is, after all, not an academic journal. However, like every other fact in the known universe, those details are just a Google away...

Because the global predicament manifests itself in some way in virtually every area of human endeavour, any useful approach to it must be massively cross-disciplinary. Fruitful areas for investigation include:

Human Issues:

Finance (especially the characteristics and behaviour of money)

Energy and Resource Issues:

Peak Oil and oil production in general
Classical electrical generation (coal, nuclear and hydro power)
Renewable electrical generation (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and biomass)
Biofuels (including ERoEI considerations)
Rare Earth metal supplies
Copper and Iron ore concentrations
Environmental Issues:
Ecology (especially related to carrying capacity and footprint)
Climate change
Ocean acidification
Methane tipping points (permafrost and oceanic hydrates)
Species extinctions (including oceanic overfishing)
Deforestation and desertification
Fresh water depletion
Soil fertility depletion
Pollution: chemicals, heavy metals, radioactive waste, eutrophication, oceanic debris fields etc.

General issues:

Complex adaptive systems and resilience theory
Complexity theory and “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum”
Genetic engineering (especially related to agriculture)
Habitat loss due to human numbers/activity
“Peak Food”

Each of these 30 points is a field of study on its own. When we realize that “the global problem” is a result of interactions between them, we are faced with a combinatorial explosion of issues that must be considered even to understand what’s going on, let alone to make recommendations.

Most of us will only have enough time and expertise to skim most of the fields I listed, but even a cursory examination reveals a web of interconnections that far exceeds any ability to intellectually “dominate" the problem in its entirely. It is enough, however, to allow this summary of our predicament to emerge.

The situation is easier to understand if we look at it in three time frames: the Past, Present and Future.

Looking at the Past involves trying to determine, as honestly and deeply as possible, the origins of the problem, its evolution over time, and the reasons for that evolution.

The Present is, of course, a description of the current situation, both in terms of particular manifestations of the problem in various human domains as well as the interconnections and feedbacks between them. These interconnections may be between widely different domains, such as the role of neuro-psychology in the adoption of biofuels.

The Future should be considered in two ways: what is possible and what is probable. When assessing future actions, we should always keep the past in mind: how did we get into this fix in the first place, and how should that inform our response to it? As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Hold on tight, here we go...

The Past:

>> Evolution has given human beings a common set of psychological characteristics rooted in our brain structure. They have been modelled by Dr. Paul MacLean as the “Triune Brain”, which is a useful framework for understanding fundamental human behaviour patterns. These patterns include such behaviours as dominance, submission, competition, cooperation, altruism, xenophobia and our herding instinct (aka “group-think”). It also hints at the reasons why most human decisions are non-rational. These neuro-psychological qualities also give us a “hyperbolic discount function” in which distant, abstract threats are heavily discounted relative to immediate, tangible threats – regardless of the relative levels of existential threat involved.

>> Human culture is largely determined by the physical situation that exists at any particular place and time – specifically the food and water supply, material resource availability, and the climate. Culture is our structural response to those conditions, as mediated by our neuro-psychology. As conditions change, so does our culture.

>> Human population, our culture and our impact on the environment were all relatively stable from the first appearance of Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago.

>> Human numbers and environmental impact began to increase dramatically 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. The reason we developed agriculture at that time is open to speculation, but it probably had something to do with changing conditions following the last ice age.

>> The development of agriculture was also followed by a significant development of technology (in its broadest sense) that permitted people to manipulate their environment more easily and intensively.

>> The invention of writing about 5,000 years ago permitted the cross-generational storage and accumulation of knowledge, assisting the development and dissemination of technology.

>> The development of money, also about 5,000 years ago, decoupled the concept of value from the activity that actually generated the value. The concept of value was largely transferred to the money itself.

>> The next major upward break in human numbers and activity began about 200 years ago with the widespread adoption of fossil fuels. Since 1800 our population has grown from one billion to seven billion. Over 85% of that increase has come since the adoption of oil as our civilization’s keystone energy resource around 1900.

The Present:

There are of course many symptoms of the global problem, but these are representative:

>> Climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is probably the most significant existential threat humanity faces today. Climate change is altering weather patterns, causing physical damage though extreme weather events, and is increasingly disrupting rainfall and food production in various regions.

>> Soil fertility is plummeting world-wide.

>> Fresh water extraction from long-term and fossil aquifer storage is increasing to support the intensification of agriculture. Water tables are sinking around the world.

>> We may have already lost the oceans, because of a combination of over-fishing, acidification, temperature changes, and pollution from plastic waste and agricultural runoff. Food fish species exploited by humans are near collapse and the entire food chain is showing signs of disruption (e.g. jellyfish population explosions).

>> Desertification and deforestation are continuing largely unchecked around the world.

>> Species are going extinct at a very rapid rate, from a combination of habitat loss due to human activity, climate change and pervasive pollution.

>> The human food supply is showing signs of peaking due to climate change and increasing input costs.

>> Many genomes of agricultural species of plants and animals have been streamlined to such an extent that the resilience of the stocks is now in question.

>> We hit Peak Oil around 2006. Global crude oil production has been on a plateau since late 2004 (7 years now) despite massive upward excursions in the price.

>> The world economy is in a continuing recession caused by a combination of human factors (excessive complexity and loss of control) and a tightening of resource inputs – especially oil. The symptoms vary from place to place, but the underpinnings are global.

The Future:

The following points constitute a scenario based on my reading, that I believe becomes increasingly probable as the time horizon is pushed out. Take this as a 75 year scenario.

>> Climate change will not be ameliorated by international agreement. This is due to the cooperation problems identified in the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, national and corporate self-interest, a lack of urgency due to the hyperbolic discount function mentioned above, and the complete lack of any realistic substitute for fossil fuels.

>> The general replacement of declining oil supplies by biofuels will not succeed due to the low ERoEI of such fuels.

>> The global impact of Peak Oil will be made worse as producing nations retain more of their declining oil output to satisfy domestic demand. This will drain the international oil market of most supplies by 2040 or so.

>> Over the next 25 years the decline in oil exports will trigger repeated rises in world oil prices. Those prices will in turn trigger waves of economic instability, with the prices falling during recessions/depressions and surging again during attempted recoveries.

>> The amount of capital available for new equipment manufacturing and infrastructure maintenance and development will decline in a stair-step fashion during the repeated recessions, as the global debt bubble implodes.

>> Nuclear power will not be developed any further because of public resistance due to the perceived risk. Some exceptions may occur in autocratic, centrally planned economies (esp. Russia and China).

>> While much renewable power will be installed in some places, in global terms renewable power will not save the day. This will be because of the lack of capital, the huge disparity between current renewable generating capacity and power needs, the inability to upgrade or even maintain national electrical grids, and the difficulty in addressing some transportation problems with electricity.

>> Most new electrical generation capacity will be fuelled by natural gas and coal.

>> There will be spreading electrical grid breakdowns as poorly-maintained infrastructure fails.

>> The human food supply will fail to keep pace with population growth, probably starting within the next two to five years. Despite international aid, famines will begin to spread out of sub-Saharan Africa into the rest of that continent and Asia. Pockets of starvation will begin to appear in developed nations over the next decade or two.

>> International tensions will rise over access rights to water, oil and gas. Regional and civil wars will become more common.

>> Populations will panic, and demand strong protective measures from their governments. This will result in an increase in repressive, bellicose authoritarian regimes. Asymmetric warfare will increase.

>> The use of transportation to move food from consuming to producing regions will become increasingly difficult, unreliable and expensive. This will cause a re-localization of food production, but some regions will not have enough land, water or skills – or a suitable climate – to permit the replacement of imported food supplies.

>> Sanitation infrastructure will suffer for the same reason as electrical grids – the progressive lack of capital for maintenance and refurbishment. Sanitation failures will trigger disease outbreaks.

>> Fertility rates and birth rates are likely to plummet world-wide over the next 30 years, due to the same influences seen in Russia from 1987 to 1993 during the break-up of the Soviet Union. These changes will largely be driven by personal choice rather than centralized planning and legislation.

>> Mortality rates will begin to climb somewhat later, due to food supply problems and the regional spread of communicable “breakdown” diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery. The spread of diseases will be aided by the breakdown of local and regional sanitation and health care systems.

>> Population growth will slow faster than the UN currently projects. World population may reach a peak of between 7 and 8 billion between 2030 and 2040, and then begin to decline. The speed of the decline is unknowable. The world population will begin to stabilize as it drops below two billion.

>> The world’s political landscape will undergo massive changes. In some cases there will be fragmentation as regional populations secede or are increasingly isolated by traditional geographic barriers (mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans and deserts). In other cases there will be amalgamations as wars of conquest are fought over resource access rights.

I do not believe, based on what I have learned, that new technological developments offer any hope for escaping this scenario. Much of the possibility for technological development hinges on the availability of capital and oil, both of which will be in increasingly short supply in the coming decades.

Some technological developments will cushion the shocks in some places. For instance the OECD may be able to make use of new low-energy or renewable technologies. However, the probability that such changes will penetrate deeply enough into Africa and Asia to prevent catastrophe is, in my estimation, vanishingly small. And in the end, the entropic forces at work may overrun even the most technologically sophisticated regions.

I do not support the use of genetic engineering or biotechnology to address the food supply problem. In my opinion the risks are too great and the probability of success is too low. Nor do I support the further development of nuclear power, for similar reasons.

In any event, what we face is not, at its heart, a technology problem amenable to an engineering solution. What we have is an ecological problem. We are in an overshoot situation relative to the ecological underpinnings that are required to support life, as well as having drawn down most of the accessible resources on which our civilization’s operation now depends. Our numbers and our needs have filled our ecological niche, which we have expanded to include the entire planet.

The good news is that human extinction is extremely unlikely. This is a very large planet, and we are a very resilient species. There is evidence that we rebounded from the Toba bottleneck when our species was reduced to at most a few tens of thousands of individuals. Barring a cosmic accident, humans will be around for a long time. Our current civilization, though, is quite another matter. On that scale we are about out of time, resources and options.

So what do we do about it? It’s not in our nature to simply roll over and give up – our survival instinct is, after all, built into the oldest reptilian part of our brains.

There will be some governments that will come to their senses in time, and have the courage to institute helpful measures. Unfortunately, institutional responses will usually be reactive rather than proactive. The worse the situation becomes before they take action, the more likely it becomes that panic will cloud the decision-makers’ judgement, leading to short-sighted, mistaken and ultimately harmful policies.

Most of the effective preparation for the coming changes will happen where it always does – at the individual level. This is already happening as people break free from the group-think of their cultures, wake up and realize what’s going on.

This awakening is the source motivation that feeds all the small, local independent environmental and social-justice groups that are springing into being like antibodies throughout the infected bloodstream of our global culture. These groups are independently addressing local problems as diverse as water rights, education, local food production, environmental cleanup, social justice issues, home energy production, local currencies, cooperative housing and child care – the list is effectively endless.

As these groups do their work, they also wake up many of those they come in contact with, to one degree or another. There may be over two million such groups in existence today, and there is one or more in every city on the planet. As far as I can tell their number is growing by about 30% per year. They are the true repository of hope in a gloomy landscape.

“Big solutions” are what got us into our current predicament. I reject the notion that more big solutions will get us out. Instead I prefer to count on the boundless courage, compassion, and ingenuity of individuals. People like you.

Paul Chefurka is a thinker who blogs at www.paulchefurka.ca




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