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The Psychology Of Systemic Collapse

By Peter Goodchild

06 February, 2012

The impracticality of "alternative energy" has been spelled out in the past. It's just basic mathematics, in fact just simple arithmetic. It's a matter of determining the capability of solar power, for example, and then comparing that to the needs of the population. But even if it was possible to stave off famine by fastening solar panels onto all our roofs, there would still be the question of what to do next. Solar-panel construction for a thousand years? Perhaps the impasse is more psychological than technological.

Solar power has many problems, none of which can be solved. The biggest problem is scale. Solar arrays for 7 to 12 billion people could be found only in a Hollywood movie. The raw materials would be largely inaccessible: not only would vast quantities of fossil fuels and metals, including rare ones, be needed to build and maintain these arrays, but one would need to explain how a solar-energy collector is going to enable people to dig mines half a mile into the ground and extract the ore. And one would then have to explain, once all of the world's 500+ exajoules of annual energy production have been switched to solely electric, how it would be possible to use electric-only as a means of providing airplanes, fertilizer, plastics, and so on.

Again, it's a misconception of scale. Industrial society is based almost entirely on fossil fuels, and such an enormous population is not possible without these fuels. When the fuel is gone, so is the population. Because the size of the population is so closely correlated to the fuel supply, between now and the year 2050 about 2.5 billion people will die of famine, while lost and averted births will amount to another 2.5 billion. And the proposal for avoiding such an unprecedented catastrophe is to install solar panels? People with these ideas surely cannot be serious.

Other forms of "alternative energy" have equally insoluble problems. Bio-fuels, for example, will not do the trick. Turning the biosphere into automobile fuel should be seen rather as a example of "crimes against humanity." And against Nature.

And where are we going to get the time machine that will allow us to go back to about 1950 and start all these alternative-energy plans? Or are we going to start all these things today, when it is far too late to have an effect? Annual oil production will never go much higher than it has already, and the permanent decline is either now or in the near future, so the time to start rescue attempts on a planetary scale is long past.

The truly fundamental problem of understanding systemic collapse, however, is that the human brain cannot assimilate it emotionally. If I were standing in front of a judge, and he told me I was being sentenced to death for murder, I suspect I'd be focusing on the sound of a sparrow outside the window. The brain just goes into neutral. But as academics, as intellectuals, that excuse is not good enough.

What might be called "the Pollyanna Principle" is the belief that "everything will turn out all right in the end." It might also be called "the Doll's House Principle," with reference to Ibsen's play. But closing our eyes to the grim reality does not change the facts. A different perspective can be reached by doing some reading about what actually happens during a famine. Cecil Woodham-Smith, in The Great Hunger, describes the Irish potato-famine of the 1840s: "Bodies half-eaten by rats were an ordinary sight."

Among the practical responses to systemic collapse would be a system of triage, focusing on those who are most amenable to a form of rescue. A workable proposal would then include aiming at a stabilized global population of about 6 million, as it was before the invention of agriculture began to create a permanent reduction in natural resources.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild{at}gmail.com




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