A Sneak Peek…
Our globalized industrial civilization has arrived at a breaking point. The fundamentals — all the essential inputs to this way of life of ours — are crumbling like castles of sand left high and dry. There is no technology readily available to save it, as it was exactly that: technology and the unsustainable use of resources which has brought us to this state. So what’s there in store for us in the coming decades…? A clean green economy all powered by wind and solar…? Buckle up, and join me on a wild ride into the post industrial future, where net zero becomes a reality and where Kansas is going bye-bye.
Before we take a deep dive into the future, let’s take a look at some basic truths, shall we? Without a common understanding of the fundamental issues of our time, I argue, we stand no chance at making a proper sense of our present predicament, let alone our future prospects. Sure, you can go on denying any of the following statements, but so far I’ve seen no scientific evidence to the contrary — other than pure magical thinking pertaining how “someone, somewhere will surely come up with something”. Hey, don’t take my word for it: make your own research. Look into the fundamentals, then the fundamentals of those fundamentals, and try to come up with a different conclusion. After years of research I could not, but maybe you can… What I did managed to do while writing this blog, however, is to distill our predicament to its very essence, into an elevator-style double-aught-buckshot if you will.
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So, without further ado, here is my take on the state of our global civilization:
- The human species is in absolute overshoot. We consume more resources and release more pollution every year than what could be regenerated or absorbed by Nature. Yes, some countries consume and pollute much more than others, but that doesn’t make the fact disappear that even if we all lived like Jamaicans, we would be still living beyond Earth’s biophysical limits. And that is just the renewable resources part of the story.
- The four pillars of modern civilization (ammonia, plastics, steel and concrete) — the non-renewable part — all take immense amounts of fossil fuels to make. Currently there is no way to produce ammonia (a key ingredient to all fertilizers) at scale without using natural gas, nor to make plastics without oil, or to smelt iron without coal — not to mention making cement. Note how fossil fuels are not only sources of energy here, but also key ingredients to these materials: providing the necessary hydrogen and carbon atoms making these wonders of civilization possible.
- The best of our non-renewable resources are being depleted, fast. Using the low-hanging fruit principle we harvested the richest, most concentrated — and thus most energy efficient to get — deposits first. What remains takes an exponential increase in energy investment to extract, and might as well remain buried underground. Resource depletion doesn’t mean that we are running on empty, but that we are running out of easy to get resources — and thus bump into all sorts of limits on how much we can afford to extract.
- We are in a chronic transportation fuel shortage, which is expected to grow much worse due to resource depletion. Lower grade ores, deeper oil wells, switching to brown coal etc. all provide much less value to this civilization while taking up even more diesel to mine and carry around. If you consider how depletion of conventional oil (the ideal feedstock to transportation fuels) ruins diesel supply, let alone its energy economics, you start to appreciate the scale and immediacy of the predicament we are facing. Hmm, a shrinking energy base and an ever increasing energy demand to get the same amount of stuff… Hmm, what could possibly go wrong with that…?
- Ecosystems all around the world are in a free-fall. Even if we solve the energy dilemma tomorrow, this one alone would still put an end to our existence. If we managed to kill 70% of vertebrate land animals, empty the seas and usher in an insect apocalypse with such a limited energy source as fossil fuels, what would we do to the planet with unlimited energy? Strip mine the entire Andes mountain range in search for copper…? Convert the entire planet into a bare concrete and glass hothouse; boiling the oceans just by the waste heat of our activities? The climate is already shifting rapidly without all that… Time to face the truth: the party is over.
I could go on listing twenty more predicaments we face, but I think this five is enough to understand that we, Homo sapiens, too, are soon to become endangered species. It’s very important to note how all these crises are interrelated and downstream to our civilizational activities (building, mining, deforesting, tilling, burning etc.) and not due to CO2 alone. Climate change is but one of the many symptoms and consequences of overshoot and must be treated as such. Replacing one energy source with another will not solve the climate predicament (let alone ecosystems collapse), nor will it alleviate resource depletion. Erasing the biosphere with electrified bulldozers in search for raw materials and places to expand our cities into, or dispersing a different set of pollutants does not change a thing for the better.
Not that this was anyone’s grand master plan. Neither biological, nor cultural evolution plans ahead, it just happens. We did all this not because we wanted to have ecocide as an end result, but because we could do it and had a great time doing it. Our unsustainable culture is as much of a result of an evolutionary process as our oversized brains, dexterous hands or able bodies. Killing the biosphere while burning as much fossil fuels and finite resources as we could was extremely beneficial on the short term, and thus a perfect fit approach in a world of abundance. It also explains why the maximum power principle has such a strong hold over us:
“The systems that survive in competition are those that develop more power inflow and use it best to meet the needs of survival.”
Yes, culture can change and sometimes rather quickly, but not until push comes to shove, and not necessarily in a way you would call ‘civilized’… There is no such thing as a ‘collective psyche’ or a secret cabal of elites informing (or enforcing) us to do the ‘right thing’. We are all part of a complex self-adapting system, best summarized by American sociologist C. Wright Mills:
“Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.”
Now, with that all in mind, let’s take a deep breath and let’s dive into the future. Warning: what follows is pure fiction — sorry, my crystal ball went missing — and thus only one of the many possible future outcomes. So treat it lightly, and use it to inform your thinking, not as a definitive prediction.
2030 After seeing an end to the petrodollar scheme, and the privilege of being the prime unit of account in international trade, the dollar ceases to be the world’s reserve currency — only to be replaced by… drum roll… nothing. Nations now settle their trade in their own currencies and thus have become increasingly keen on maintaining a healthy trade balance. In practical terms this means, that if a country or region has nothing to offer in exchange for food, fossil fuels, or products (including renewables) made with fossil fuels, then… Well, then that country has to become entirely self-reliant, or face the prospect of persistent high inflation and ultimately becoming poor — dirt poor.
Self reliance, though, is not something the most developed nations of the late world order excel at. Since they were using up to four times as much natural resources and bio-productivity as their geographic size would imply (the rest having been imported in prior times in exchange for their overvalued currencies), their citizens now face a steep fall in their standard of living. Countries in what used to be the European Union are a case in point. Having left with grossly inadequate fossil fuel resources, a rapidly ageing population (and culture) unable to innovate, nations like the UK, France or Germany have become a museum for the rest of the world to visit. Neither of these nations can produce anything the world really wants any longer, and now struggle to remain relevant. Having not much to sell, other than their labor, they now can barely import anything, let alone managing a transition to “renewable” energy. At least, as a silver lining, net zero has finally become fully attainable for them: no energy means no economy, and thus no CO2 emissions.
Over the pond, the US descends into political chaos and an economic depression not seen in a hundred years. After passing peak production from the ‘shale plays’ in Texas and New Mexico in 2028, America suddenly finds itself struggling to import enough fuel to keep the economy running. A rapidly worsening supply situation with diesel, combined with the loss of trade privileges, has made internal and international transport, mining, construction and agriculture more expensive than ever — and less and less competitive on a world market. Without these structural foundations the immense debt pile has become impossible to repay and the Western world sees its financial system falling into ruins.
The rest of the world, however, just yawns then moves along. India, having remained within its ecological boundaries and requiring little to no fuel for heating, while remaining able to produce enough food with a relatively low amount of diesel, keeps growing slowly, but steadily. China embarks on its long population descent, but remains the high-tech center of this new world economy. The sudden decline of the West has left its marks though: the economic depression following the collapse of the Euro-Dollar dominance in trade has left many unemployed, and the Chinese economy is still struggling to find its way back to growth.
2050 Climate change has not only not stopped, but has become exponential. The 2 °C mark (compared to pre-industrial levels) is now rapidly fading away in the rear view mirror. Despite a fall in fossil fuel production (due to energetic and affordability reasons), methane emissions still remain high. The rapidly melting permafrost now releases more of this climate heating gas than all of human activities combined. Storm surges become the norm, and many coastal areas have now become salt marshes unable to support agriculture. The lucky few who could sell their homes in coastal and overheated cities have moved to higher altitudes a long time ago, leaving only the poor and dispossessed behind.
In the global south, there is barely any change. The rich continue to live in gated communities, but the rest of the population quickly adapts to the lower availability of fossil fuel inputs and rapidly diminishing global trade. There are still time-tested working methods and structures in place from before the industrial era, so reverting to those comes as no shock to these societies. As climate change continues unabated though, devastating 50+ °C heatwaves and late (or sometimes entirely missing) monsoon rains wreak havoc on the population. Frequent wars over freshwater erupt on a regular basis: dams are demolished, ethnic tensions rise, people get killed. Growth in world population stops, and embarks on a decline.
2070 Ever larger areas in the former United States and the late EU start to become lawless hinterlands ruled by gangs, or left behind as ‘uninhabitable zones’. Law enforcement becomes increasingly restricted to highland gated communities surrounded by small, heavily guarded farms. Some people manage to establish fair and just communities in remote areas far-far away from former population centers. Most people, however, just try to survive and live a low-key life working for their feudal lords, or if less lucky: as slaves on a plantation. Agriculture once again means toiling on the field from dusk to dawn, with little to no aid from fossil fueled machinery.
Although world fossil fuel production is now but a fraction of what it used to be in the heady days of the 2020’s, climate change has not slowed by an iota. Since we were burning less coal and oil, air pollution previously screening sunlight has diminished greatly. This factor alone is now contributing to another degree of warming, expanding the Sahara desert into Southern-Europe, creating ice-free conditions on the North Pole during the summer, and making life a whole lot miserable for billions of people.
Asia, too, is now well past its economic and population peak. The numbers of human beings on the planet is now rapidly reverting to the historical mean. The industrial age is almost over and its end is now clearly within sight. Large states are now in the process of complete disintegration, international trade is but a mere trickle, and most people now live a rural, low-tech life. There are still some high-tech enclaves around some still functioning nuclear reactors or large hydro power plants, but as spare parts slowly become impossible to manufacture their days are numbered too.
2100 Except for a few 80 year olds (many of whom are already living among us today) no one really knows what a ‘smart phone’ is, or how electricity and fresh water could have been available 24/7. The industrial age is over for good, and will not return for centuries, if ever. Fossil fuel production has all but completely stopped, and with it almost all mining activities too. World population has fallen below 2 billion souls (perhaps 1 billion — no one keeps track of the actual numbers anymore) and everyone lives in modest, low-tech agricultural societies. The world has become more equal than ever.
Climate change starts to slow down as many former agricultural areas are now reverting back to forests and grasslands, and the resulting green growth takes up multiple gigatons of CO2 every year. A stable climate equilibrium — three, four, five, who knows how many degrees higher — is still centuries if not many millennia away, and thus weather patterns are still largely unpredictable. Ancient Greenland and Antarctic ice is in the process of complete melting, and sea levels keep rising higher and higher every year — completely inundating uninhabited coastal metropolises turned into crumbling ruins overgrown by lush vegetation.
The great unraveling is now complete. A new civilizational cycle begins.
Until next time,
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