Phase Shift — Part 2

Image credit: Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash

When you start to see the world as a massively complex self-adapting system with its innumerable actors and all its tipping points — as discussed in Part 1 of this essay — you start to see phase transitions everywhere.

The world as we know it is about cross several tipping points as we speak. We are amidst a massive sea change, triggered unwillingly by human activity, and controlled by absolutely no one. We have started to rock the chair, and now we are about experience what the world looks like on the other side.

We have entered a forest packed full of booby traps, tripwires and snares, where hitting one could offset ten other in a rapid chain reaction. The issues we think of as unrelated are in fact part of a much larger story. Resource depletion. Wars. Deforestation. Drought. Dependence on fertilizers. Ocean dead zones. The list goes on.

In this sense, it is both frightening and entertaining to see monkeys dressed up in a suit and tie, with all their diplomas from law, political ‘science’ and neoclassical economics, trying to act like they had an idea on where things are going… and see how they are making things only worse by doing so.

Much worse, much faster than it would otherwise had to be.

Near the tipping point any system’s ability to bounce back from hardships — aka its resilience — diminishes (be it the global climate, or the human economy) besetting the system with ever longer recovery times and a heightened sensitivity to even the smallest of disturbances. Just like in our chair-rocking example: it gets harder and harder to maintain your balance as you approach the point of no return.

Oil production is a case in point: as peak supply slowly disappears in the rear view mirror (1), even the smallest outage, rebellion, war, sanction or lock-down can cause a major problem — from which there is no quick recovery. In this sense it doesn’t matter how much reserves we have left. They now all cost more energy and resources to tap than older ones, tying up ever more of the same substance we are trying to get more of. The barrel might be big, but the tap is getting smaller and smaller.

World crude oil plus lease condensate (C + C) production based on EIA data. Note how world oil production stagnated during 2019 and how it failed to recover after the pandemic for 2 years. Even according to the otherwise overly optimistic EIA, oil production is not expected to surpass 2019 levels — continuing the stagnating trend. Remember, oil extraction used to grow 1–2% a year supporting an ever larger fleet of trucks, ships and trains forwarding an ever larger amount of food, minerals and plastics produced with the use of (or made from) oil. The resulting oil price hike and crude inventory draw (including strategic reserves!), which has by the way started long before the war in Ukraine, signals a fundamental under-supply of the market. Peak demand is nowhere to be seen, but peak supply has hit us hard already in November 2018. Image credit: Peak Oil Barrel

The human ecosystem has been starved of energy as a result of us crossing a tipping point in oil production almost four years ago (since global oil output has peaked in absolute terms and failed to return ever since). Even worse, the net energy which has enabled growth and prosperity (at least for the lucky few), is waning ever since the 2000’s; causing political stress all around the world. Stir in some really stupid imperial logic, sanctions, and a failure to realize that the heydays of empire is now fast receding into memory, and you have the biggest mess since times out of mind.

World oil production is clearly fighting a loosing battle to keep its balance and prevent the onset of a long but permanent decline — after which there would be nothing left to do, than to wave a long slow goodbye to the magic substance.

Don’t expect this farewell to happen without shedding a lot of tears though.

Climate change — a clear sign of us being in serious overshoot — serves with another selection of prime examples. After years of switching back and forth between the old and the new, weather patterns now clearly show a marked shift.

Drought conditions, affecting the western US, now seem to have switched into a permanent ‘on’ phase. Europe comes next. Arctic and Antarctic ice seems to have also tipped into an irreversible decline, just like the Amazon rainforest has now started to turn into a savanna — releasing more CO2 in the process than it can take up. All signs of crossing various tipping points.

This also marks a shift in world food production, and not for the better. As a result of aridification and overusing underground water sources — to stay with a US example — the Ogallala aquifer beneath the Great Plains is now drying up, threatening the world with loosing 1/6th of global grain production.

Elsewhere, as ice melt accelerates further, rising seas threaten large rice growing areas. China. Vietnam. Bangladesh. All feeding billions of people — and we haven’t talked about the negative effects of heat waves on crop yields yet, or how the depletion of natural gas, potash and other critical minerals would effect fertilizer production — further reducing the amount of food produced every year.

Political turmoil marks yet another set of tipping points. The world is in the process of getting rid of its top 20% of consumers (not in numbers, but in consumption) in order to support growth for the bottom 80% — who happen to provide the resources so craved by the top.

The Western Empire, after having its historic core territories (Europe) destroyed in a series of wars, has already used up its mineral and natural reserves, and now hang hopelessly on nations it previously colonized — an untenable situation begging for a change.

A phase transition was inevitable. Sooner or later it had to be started, and now we are knee deep into it. BRICS is now clearly on the rise, threatening the dollar with slowly loosing its hegemony as the world’s number one trading and reserve currency. The West will have to learn the hard way, that there is no law in this Universe telling that all high value raw materials must be handed over to them at dirt cheap prices… The farce around the oil price cap tells it all.

The West of course will do everything within its power to retain its right to plunder the Global South. Western corporation will continue to turn cheap resources and labor into expensive products, and food for which the South has to pay orders of magnitude more than what they got for giving their wealth away.

Contrary to what the Western elites believe though, time is working against them. This is especially true for Europe, whose leaders, in their ultimate wisdom, have managed to sanction their primary supplier of energy — precisely at a time when an age of limited resource availability set in. As result, they have only accelerated their continent’s decline; which was about to happen anyway.

As we, people living in Europe, are about to find out this winter, the economy is not (and never was) powered by legislation, political statements, green energy or printed money, but dirty and polluting fossil fuels. Only then, will our elites realize, that they have pushed the chair a tad bit over its tipping point.

Note however, how non-linear all these events — from peak oil to droughts, losing polar ice caps or political hegemony — are: they tend to switch back and forth for a while, showing a pattern of bad years interspersed with good ones, until decline slowly but finally sets in. Even when that eventually happens it would still take decades, if not centuries, for these ‘events’ to complete their due course — resulting in no sudden apocalypse, but a true long emergency.

In this sense it is not the end result — which might only come about in centuries — which is the most interesting. It is the rite of passage: from a world based on infinite growth, power and pollution to a world of moderateness and humility before natural forces and limits.

Every region or country will have a different experience: some will fall sooner or harder than others. Some might even enjoy a temporary bloom as a result. It is only a matter of time though when each society will pass enough tipping points — from resources to climate and ecosystems — to grudgingly embark on its long descend, and when the global average will eventually turn from growth to decline.

Truly interesting times indeed.

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Notes:

(1) There is a chance that oil production will once again reach — or even surpass — 2019 levels, producing a secondary peak, although I see it less and less likely. Even if it happens though, it will be a secondary peak only. Due to the nature of depletion it will be impossible to keep up that level of ‘production’ for long and a decline will set in eventually.

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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.