Another year has passed (almost), yet the world didn’t collapse. We have got close to nuclear annihilation — probably closer than we’ve ever had — yet we are still here. The long decline of our High-Tech civilization in general, and the Western empire in particular works on different timescales than mere years though. The fall of a civilization does produce some serious humps on the road (some admittedly brutal and terrible), but for most people living through it, it is rather like a long trendline pointing downwards throughout many decades. Let’s review why we always end up in this process, and how it might continue to unfold in our case.
In order to have a better understanding what we are facing in the new year, we have to pull out our ultra-wide angle lens and see how 2022 fits into the large scheme of things. True, we are living through remarkable times, one of great flux and high unpredictability. This time though, it is quite a bit different from previous cases of decline and fall. We are at a turning point in human civilization, one which could only be understood from a truly historic and systems perspective.
Our modern, planetary civilization is complex system with innumerable positive as well as negative feedback loops. There are a multitude of factors, processes and groups of influential people competing with one another, producing a dynamic equilibrium. In a relatively stable world with abundant resources such systems of human beings produce remarkable results, growth and prosperity. Factors, serving as a basis for this growth and which we have took for granted, however, have started to shift under the immense pressure of our industrial activities. The climate has kept deteriorating from its ten millennia long mean in an accelerating way. Resources, we thought were inexhaustible have started to become ever harder to get. Sand. Fresh water. Fossil fuels. Metal ores. All of them.
Like it or not, without these four inputs industrial civilization is toast. No sand? No concrete. No fresh water? No agriculture in many places. No fossil fuels? No fertilizer. No mining for metals. No smelting. No building. No roads. No plastics. No industrial scale agriculture. No long distance transport: no trucks, no big cargo ships. No renewables. No fusion. No surplus energy. No nothing. All of you who had the luck during 2022 to enjoy the upside of these things should be grateful for your good fortunes. You have seen a peak in human civilization, one powered entirely by fossil fuels.
The bad news: once burned, coal, oil and natural gas will take thousands of years to be captured by plants and algae again, then millions more to sink at the bottom of a shallow sea and to be turned into fossil fuels again. In the meantime, they will keep heating up this planet, until all polar ice melts and sea levels rise 70 meters (approximately 230 feet) redrawing the landscape in the centuries and millennia ahead. If you are not affected by this and the many other side effects of pollution, then your luck is truly on a planetary scale.
Unless we think in these terms we will never be able to understand what is happening to us right here, right now. We live off the savings of eons long gone, sunlight and CO2 captured by photosynthesis, ancient volcanic eruptions leaving behind rich copper deposits, plate tectonics unearthing ores and valuable minerals. While Earth’s crust contains vast amounts of the metals and minerals we need, the part which is accessible to us (close to the surface and in adequate concentration) is being consumed by humanity at a breakneck speed. This civilization lives off this one time mineral inheritance, the accessible part of which is bound to be consumed almost completely during the coming decades.
This is a peak indeed. Maybe the one and only for our species: no future generation will be able to burn and consume this much. The stuff to burn and consume simply won’t be there.
After centuries of growth, it looks like we have reached a bumpy plateau by the 2010’s in extracting Earth’s bounty. In order to keep replacing our energy systems based on fossil fuels, let alone keep growing them, we would need to mine, smelt, produce as much metal in coming decades as we have extracted in the past ten millennia — the last century of exuberant growth and consumption included. This is clearly impossible with oil reserves — still powering all of our heavy machinery — lasting a mere 53 years (1) with the current rate of extraction. (Yes, we do need oil to electrify… and still have no proven way to produce ‘renewables’ with ‘renewable’ electricity alone. What a nice conundrum.)
Growth at this point is simply unsustainable, and will slowly become impossible. As the saying in ecology goes however: that which is unsustainable will not be sustained. An ever increasing rate of extraction (both of Earth’s mineral as well as natural resources) is clearly one of them. As an inevitable decline in mining sets in (after running out of cheap and abundant oil as well as good spots to mine metal ores) we cannot hope to use these resources at their current pace, yet all hyped up ‘solutions’ build on this belief.
The crux of our predicament is that we have clearly overshot Earth’s carrying capacity of civilized humans. This level of technology use — no matter how we power it — is unsustainable. It eats away both natural and mineral resources a thousand — if not a million — times faster than they replenish. Yet we have managed to delude ourselves that there are no limits to our ambitions, be it renewable energy, or nuclear fusion. We have completely forgotten about the amount of non-renewable materials needed to be built into — and eventually consumed — by these intricate technologies.
Ultimately, we have become completely blind to the ever shrinking biosphere which we would turn into mining pits, acidic tail ponds, and landfills where we could bury the millions of used windmill blades, crushed solar panels leaking toxic waste, spent uranium fuel rods and the countless electronic gadgets we used to power with these ‘sustainable’ energy sources (2).
The tragedy of human civilization, not just of this one, but practically all of them, is that by the time we realize how bad things actually are, it is way to late to make meaningful adjustments. Maybe we could’ve turned the tide in the 1970-s, by reverting back to a much simpler life, but we didn’t heed the warnings. Half a century later 2023 unfolds against this backdrop, in which a slow grinding collapse — perfectly normal in late stage civilizations by the way — will continue to erode the resilience of people and countries alike.
Focus on the good things in life and be immensely grateful for them. Take none of them for granted, and be prepared to let things which could not be sustained go. Be stoic. Try to be good to others.
Finally, as Erik Micheals keeps advising: Live Now.
Good bye, 2022.
(1) This not to say that it is possible to uphold current oil production rate till the very last drop. Fields will empty out in their own pace, some sooner some later, till 45 years from now only a tiny fraction of them will be still in operation. In the meantime we will see a steady decline in production, blamed on everything and everyone but the true reason: depletion.
(2) Recycling takes even more energy and costs much more than production from new raw materials. In many cases it is not even possible: while you can strip a solar panel of it metal frame and electronics for example, the silicon wafer, doped with rare metals like Gallium and Arsenic (a toxic waste) simply cannot be turned into new panels. It will be crushed and sold together with the glass covering it. At best, it will slowly eat away and deplete these rare metals (and high purity silicon), at worst these once worthy minerals will leak into the groundwater and will contaminate it for centuries to come.