Death Cults, Doomers and an End of a Civilization

B
15 min readJan 8, 2024
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone. Photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Our industrial civilization is in full denial of its mortality. We teach Ozymandias to our children, yet somehow manage to remain fully oblivious to the temporal nature of our culture. Why do I tell such “depressing” stories? Well, while I’m fully aware that the decline of our modern age is inevitable, I do believe that we ‘doomers’ and ‘collapseniks’ have an important role to play.

Depression, doom, and despair are important emotions, but they are not the end state. These feelings must be contended with, and then passed by in the process of grief felt over the loss of this way of life, and the world we came to know as a child. I do believe that learning to mourn your losses then move on is an important step in becoming a grown adult. And while some prefer the mushroom treatment (kept in the dark and fed BS), I suspect that there are quite a few who would like to understand what is really going on, and why.

It’s like becoming aware that you are neither invulnerable nor going to live forever. Some never learn this lesson and fail to grow up, or end up in the mortuary much sooner than it would be otherwise expected. Others, and I believe this is the vast majority, accept the first part but somehow struggle to fully embrace the second. Unfortunately, they learn this at the very end to their lives, when they finally get their terminal diagnosis. It is only then, when they really start to process their grief felt over the loss of all their future prospects, they realize that they could’ve lived a different life.

Our civilization — especially in the West — are not unlike these people. It has received countless warnings and bad diagnoses, from climate change to resource depletion, yet it still believes that it can dodge the reaper. If you, Dear Reader, still wave your hands thinking how “somehow”, “somewhere” will surely come up with “something”, and how all this doom and gloom is just baloney, well then you are still in the denial camp. I don’t blame you for that, this culture does everything it can to make you believe that it is here to stay for many millennia to come. Just like the Romans and Mayans thought they would.

As someone working in manufacturing and the supply chain of physical goods, it was not terribly hard to see where things are going. Yes, it took a galactic amount of mental processing, but having moved past negative emotions suddenly everything started to make sense. And while you might think that the conclusions laid out in this essay are just assumptions, I urge you to do your own research based on real data, and not wishful thinking. I wrote the following with purely resource depletion in mind, knowing that there are several other issues at play simultaneously. Nevertheless, I find it important to have a firm grasp on this aspect of our civilization. Our resource use is a basket case in and of itself.

  1. The World has a limited amount of resources humans can access. Sorry, drilling Earth’s core, or sending spaceships to mine asteroids is not practically feasible. The energy costs of doing so is simply prohibitive, and has a less than zero chance of making a return.
  2. We are powering all our mining and transportation, plus most of our industrial activities, with fossil fuels. Sorry, solar panels, batteries and hydrogen don’t cut it: their energy density, reliability and return on investment is nowhere close to coal oil and natural gas — it’s not even in the same ballpark — and for a very good reason (see next point).
  3. We live off a massive accumulation of natural wealth (oil and other minerals included) which took millions of years to form. This is why fossil fuels are unique and irreplaceable: we didn’t have to make them. The heavy lift of converting all that sunshine into hydrocarbons were done by plants, algae, and geothermal heat over eons. Now, we release this accumulated power a million times faster than it was formed. The same is true for metal ores, sand and many other materials. What’s worse: we are burning through our one time inheritance at an exponentially accelerating pace.
  4. Not all minerals were created equal though. In the old times it was enough to have a pickax to mine gold, copper, coal (or you name it). As rich deposits lying close to the surface yielding large nuggets depleted though, more and more earth and rock had to be removed and sifted through for ever smaller specks until we found ourselves digging holes more than a mile deep to bring up rocks with 0.1% metal content (yes, that is 1 lbs of metal for every 999 lbs of debris). Mining takes ever more energy, requires ever bigger machines and produces ever more pollution over time until it becomes impossible to continue; even though there are still some stuff left to mine. So while we will never run out of copper, gold or even oil, we are rapidly depleting our reserves of energetically viable ores and fossil fuels. Lacking an energy miracle the rest will remain buried. Forever.
  5. So we have a finite amount of minerals which we mine using a finite amount of fuel to build a finite amount of stuff, lasting a finite amount of time before they break. What could possibly go wrong…? And while you can slow down this process by recycling, and saving some energy here and there, humanity will eventually burn through all the accessible mineral wealth on this planet and scatter un-recyclable parts all over the place — not to mention the massive pollution released throughout the process (from CO2 to PFAS, or from heavy metals to radioactive waste).

This is so simple, that even a seven year old could easily understand it… If we would let them. But we don’t. We prefer to keep them in the dark and feed them fairy tales of eternal economic growth, human ingenuity, space travel and how turning off the switch at night saves the planet… In other words: we give them the mushroom treatment, on steroids.

We do the same with death. Grandma just disappears after you wave her goodby on her hospital bed. We don’t see dead people. Only on screens, where we can tell ourselves that it isn’t real. They are not dying, it’s just a movie! We don’t see civilizations collapsing either — only on the pages of history books, and on screens, of course. Otherwise it would be too frightening to think that this is what awaits our industrial society too.

Any successful adaption strategy, however, starts with accepting reality first.

Just like you cannot save yourself from death, although many still believe they can, you cannot save a civilization either. Having a high-tech society is a one time offer in any intelligent species life. Something which is bound to have a beginning, a high point and an end, as resources run out and pollution takes over. Without accepting this simple fact of life we are preparing our children for a future which is physically impossible to bring about.

Needless to say, any techno-optimist solution goes face first against the realities set out above. “Renewables?” There is nothing renewable about them. In fact they will require more and more energy and materials over time as rich mineral deposits deplete, and as an ever increasing amount of old solar panels and wind turbines will need to be replaced. “Hydrogen fusion reactors?” They require literally hundreds of tons of exotic metals from niobium-tin wires to cold spray tantalum coating. Meanwhile they produce a considerable amount of radioactive waste due to the relentless neutron bombardment hitting the walls of the reactor during fusion. Good luck recycling that.

The periodic table of global average end-of-life (post-consumer) functional recycling for sixty metals. Most of the elements marked with dark orange are vital for semiconductor manufacturing, even though they are used only in trace amounts. Owing to the fact that these metals are buried deep inside chips, circuit boards, solar panels etc. they are practically impossible to recover and recycle after use. Good luck building a high tech society without microchips, memory modules and the such — after accessible reserves of these elements run out and old microchips fail. Source

All, I repeat ALL technologies place an additional demand on raw materials taking ever more energy to dig up. So next time you read an article how this or that technology will save modernity, ask the following questions (purely from a technological standpoint):

  • Does it require minerals to build and maintain? If yes, how does it addresses the problem of depleting rich mineral reserves?
  • Does it have a higher energy density than fossil fuels, and if yes, what’s the catch? Does it perhaps come at the cost of a massive additional energy investment?
  • …and the trillion dollar question: does it solve ecological overshoot, and help other creatures thrive? Or is it yet another way to get rid of life on planet Earth?

With these questions in mind, let’s get back to “renewables”, batteries and the topic of electrification for a second. Do they need minerals? A hell of a lot. Do they address mineral depletion? No, in fact they speed it up. Even if you think recycling, or replacing copper with aluminum is a “solution”, they still need a range of new minerals on a massive scale before any of them could be recycled. (Not to mention the fact, that we have absolutely no clue how to do any of this at scale without diesel fuel, or the high heat provided by burning coal or natural gas.)

Rock to metal ratio of various commodities. How to read this chart: to obtain 1 lbs of pure gold, for example, one would need to mine, lift and crush somewhere between 10⁵ (100 000) lbs and 10⁸ (100 000 000) lbs of rocks. And while silicon, iron or aluminum takes just 10 lbs per 1 lbs, it is not possible to build high tech electronics without the use of the much rarer elements on the chart taking an immense amount of fossil fuels per pound to mine. Source

Do they have a higher energy density than fossil fuels then? Not at any rate. Oh, then what about synthetic fuels and green hydrogen made by wind and solar? Well, just add up all the energetic losses during the process: from mining minerals, to smelting metals, building solar panels, delivering them on site, pumping water for electrolysis, compressing and super-chilling hydrogen, dealing with leakage, building and powering a transport network designed for H2, dealing with leakage again, and finally using it up to synthesize hydro-carbons (with air captured CO2, what else?). All this at a humongous energy investment with perhaps a single digit return. If you think this is a viable project, then send me $100 and I will send back $7 or $9 (depending on the weather). And while some argue that we waste 80–90% of the energy content of oil during drilling, refining and distribution, we got the initial 100% for free. Whereas with renewables we have to pay all 100 upfront, then get back 7, or 9, or 10 you name it.

In fact this is the reason behind our fossil fuel woes at the moment: the upfront energy investment in exploration, extraction, refining etc. have slowly gotten bigger than the energy we get in the form of transportation fuels. Oil might just have turned into a net negative proposition, threatening with a serious downturn in the industry.

Somehow it haven’t dawn on us yet that there is no energy without minerals, and there are no minerals without energy. The virtuous cycle of more fossil fuels enabling the mining of more minerals, which in turn enable even higher output of said fuels is about to turn. As oil slowly ceased to be energetically cheap, and our global energy system became ever more dependent on minerals, a vicious cycle of less affordable oil leading to less affordable minerals has been initiated. This effect — with a considerable time lag — will eventually cause a fall in energy production (including “renewables”) which in turn will result in even less affordable fossil fuels. Rinse and repeat.

Meanwhile synfuels and hydrogen start with a deep deep negative return on investment from the get go. Again, if you think that it is a good idea to trade in an investment turned bad (petroleum) for abysmally deeply negative returns (synfuels)… Then I have a bridge to sell you. But hey, don’t take my word for it, here are the key findings of a German government funded think tank on the topic:

“To be economically efficient, power-to-gas and power-to-liquid facilities require inexpensive renewable electricity and high full load hours. Excess renewable power will not be enough to cover the power demands of synthetic fuel production.”

Well, show me a country where “renewables” made electricity cheaper.

“In the beginning, synthetic methane and oil will cost between 20 and 30 cents per kilowatt hour in Europe. Costs can fall to 10 cents per kilowatt hour by 2050 if global Power-to-Gas (PtG) and Power-to-Liquid (PtL) capacity reaches around 100 gigawatts.”

Ahem, that is 200 to 300 Euros per MWh and 100 Euros if all goes fine. For the record such prices would immediately set off emergency measures across the EU, together with another round of deindustrialization. Also, knowing that gas is being burned in power plants to offset the intermittency and seasonality of renewables, this would send electricity prices higher still… Does anyone in government agencies with an IQ above room temperature read these papers?! I mean seriously… Proceed with the rest of the document at your own peril.

And finally, the trillion dollar question: Do “renewables” or synthetic fuels solve ecological overshoot, and help other creatures thrive? Well ask any bird, mammal or insect how deforestation and opening a yawning mining pit with a toxic tailpond to match improves their lot. I guess you know the answer… Oh, and do keep in mind that as old mines deplete we need to build ever larger ones to cater for the same metal demand. [Wink.]

After coming to an understanding that solar panels and wind turbines are neither renewable, nor sustainable (nor could be made without fossil fuels), they more and more look like quicksand to me. The more we struggle with them, the quicker we seal our doom.

Technology puts us into a double bind: a monkey trap, if you will.

All double binds come with an escape clause though. Instead of digging ourselves ever deeper (both figuratively and literally) we would need a brown new deal (or deep green deal if you like): less pollution, less CO2 emissions, less technology. Just imagine: less technology use and consumption would lead to less mining, lower fossil fuel demand, lower pollution, less ecological destruction. We are living so well beyond our means and what we really need in life that an energy slimming diet would only do good for us, and nature alike. A true win-win, right?

Being my own worst critique, though, I also realize that this would only “solve” our problems temporarily. While such a deal would soften the blow of both resource depletion and the pollution crisis considerably, it would be simply impossible to feed, house, clothe this many of us without at least a modicum of technology use. Therefore both resource depletion and pollution would continue, albeit at a much slower pace. Something, which would still lead to a depletion crisis, no matter what.

Also, reducing technology use is only possible to a certain point (until a critical mass, or a tipping point is reached). While most of us could give up car use, fast fashion, long distance travel, McMansions, eating meat, throw-away packaging etc. and save a ton of resources and energy in the process, a sewage system, clean water, electricity and large scale agriculture is not optional beyond a certain population density. All these systems require constant maintenance (now combined with a complete replacement in some places), and a considerable amount of fossil fuels, which are not only polluting badly but depleting fast. Thus conservation would need to be done in parallel with spreading the population as far out as possible, and teaching people how to grow their own food (starting with vegetables, while grain crops could be harvested at scale using existing technology).

As you can see, this could not possibly happen without central coordination, mass education about our predicament, and the consent of the governed. An individualistic approach is simply not enough: unless there is a widespread consensus that this is the path we all need to take, folks who could not care less will use up any resources becoming available (and cheaper) during the process. And this is where we arrive at individualism: one of the core tenets of neoliberal economics. According to the prevailing sentiment, everyone is for him-/herself, greed is good and growing one’s own wealth is not only desirable but an end in itself. Moreover, any interference with economic self interest (a.k.a. the „invisible hand”) is automatically labelled “inefficient”, something which must be avoided at all costs. After more than four decades of this indoctrination you would be hard pressed to find two individuals who could agree on what should be the way forward, let alone willing to sacrifice anything. Hence denial, and all the handwaving. Is it any wonder, that all civilizations end up just the same?

Societal collapse (also known as civilizational collapse or systems collapse) is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of social complexity as an adaptive system, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence. Possible causes of a societal collapse include natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, famine, economic collapse, population decline or overshoot, mass migration, and sabotage by rival civilizations. A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state, be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.

Virtually all civilizations have suffered such a fate, regardless of their size or complexity, but some of them later revived and transformed, such as China, India, and Egypt. However, others never recovered, such as the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, the Maya civilization, and the Easter Island civilization. Societal collapse is generally quick but rarely abrupt.

I would emphasize the last sentence: societal collapse is generally quick but rarely abrupt. From a historic perspective a decline taking 40–50 years to unfold is but a blip. From an individual human’s perspective, however, it’s more than half of a lifetime… It’s a trainwreck in slow motion, something we — especially in the West — are actively in for a while now. Although not widely publicized, economic stagnation has turned into a definitive contraction, only offset by financialization and debt. I could also mention the growing divisions across the entire society, inequality, political aggression, the loss of morals and the many other issues plaguing our society all at the same time. Our civilization, it seems, has already entered its disintegration phase.

Now back to resource and energy depletion. As the energetic balance of fossil fuel extraction and use get worse and worse slowly but steadily (as rich easy to get deposits deplete and get increasingly replaced with more energy intensive ones), so will the energy balance of everything we do turn untenable. Since we still get more than 80% of our energy from fossil fuels, and use them to mine and transport everything we make, a worsening energy balance will eventually bring everything down, but not in a day. Besides, every measure will be taken to slow down the process, from AI to CBDC-s… Since the problem lies not with governance but geology and physics, all attempts are eventually bound to fail.

Even though our situation looks special — thanks to our massive overuse of technology — our civilization’s decline will share many of its traits with its predecessors. Knowing how deeply unaware both the general public and the ruling classes are, I bet once things starts slipping there will be little if any chance of anyone stopping the landslide before the whole shebang hits the bottom of the valley. The reasons, as always, are panic and compounding mistakes.

This is how all civilizations end: in denial, followed by panic.

Knowing that any civilization on the planet was a time limited offer — ours included — makes acceptance much easier though. I feel no resentment neither towards the political class, nor industrialists. Sure, our civilization could’ve been managed much better — at least in theory — but this is what we got. While keeping this in mind might be a heavy burden, it also saves one from falling for demagogues, tyrants and death cultists insisting how we must all fight (and die) in the cleansing flames of a holy war. No. The end of a civilization is not God’s punishment, but a fact of life due to a number of factors simultaneously at play. Resource depletion is just one of them. There is no one to blame, and no one can bring back the good old days either. Instead, we need to look forward, no matter how dark or light the future might seem, and focus on managing a graceful landing for this unsustainable little civilization of ours.

Until next time,

B

Thank you for reading this post. If you would like to see more in depth analysis of our predicament please subscribe for free, and if you can afford it, consider supporting my work by taking a snapshot of this QR-code or by clicking the link below. Thank you!

--

--

B

A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/