Based on my posts on The Honest Sorcerer, one might consider me a pessimist — someone who sees only the risks and pitfalls ahead and expects the worst to come. To some extent this is true. What makes me ponder though is this: what is a more appropriate approach in our time? Evolutionary, you have a better chance for survival if you look for risks and expect the worst outcomes when things go south, rather than hoping that everything will just turn out fine and hit the wall head first. On the other hand, you gain much more if you are an optimist when everything is rosy and full of glorious opportunities. So the question is: what is coming? Better or worse times? Should we be optimists or pessimists when it comes to our future?
Well, let’s start exploring this topic with a satirical adage:
“The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist is better informed”
Truth to the matter, I used to be an optimist too about the future for about 95% of my life: thinking that climate change is not going to be that bad, humans will live in harmony with the living world and probably start exploring deep space a 100 years from now. Well, I was seriously uninformed — to say the least. Just like the majority (54%) of the population today: they might have a clue that something is wrong (which is usually the climate), but with the right level of activism — their thinking goes — we can keep progress and growth going on for quite a while, at least till we leave this planet. Someone (experts, management, political leaders etc.) should do this and that, then it’s enough for the rest of us to change our light bulbs.
Another half (closer to pessimism) believes that the world is going to collapse some time in the future anyway (not in their lifetimes though) — so why bother. If you are slightly more pessimistic than that, then you are a ‘doomer’ who must believe that the world is headed toward a near term total annihilation. As always, I beg to differ: there is a whole gamut of possibilities in between and beyond these perspectives.
Let me illustrate this with a chart. On the far left there are the worst imaginable things for humanity, e.g. near term human extinction and nuclear war. On the far right one can find the hope of all progressives: business as usual forever. Where are you on this scale? What do you think awaits humanity in the coming century?
A short explanation might be helpful here. I guess I don’t have to explain why a total nuclear annihilation is the worst of all: it would not only end our civilization in an instant, but probably most life on Earth as well. Barring a Klingon invasion I don’t know if there is anything worse than that.
Moving on there is NTHE or near term human extinction, where near term is within this decade… maybe the next with abrupt climate change causing a multi-breadbasket failure as the usual suspect. This scenario would be only slightly better than nuclear war (it would not leave behind that much radioactive fallout, but would still wreck the planet for many millennia to come). Some species might have a chance for survival, rehabilitating the planet a few hundred thousand years later.
Runaway climate change is the next on my list, where temperatures rise quickly and high enough to crush civilization like a bug — leaving only pockets of humans scattered around the world (mostly near the Arctic circle)… Homo sapiens doesn’t go extinct, but ceases to be considerable force on the planet, living a simple hunter gatherer life for the rest of the many millennia to come.
Mad Max is just slightly better compared to the previous scenarios, where pockets of civilization remain viable with some of the technologies still working. In popular fantasy this world comes about in a matter of weeks after a very significant (zombie-apocalypse type) event leaving us with techno-enabled barbarian tribes constantly fighting each other.
Contrasting this worldview is catabolic collapse, where our current civilization devours itself and the remnants of nature during the next century in a desperate, but futile attempt to stay afloat. On the other hand this process would take decades (vs years) and doesn’t end civilization overnight.
A slightly better version is a slow but still involuntary simplification: in this case complex multinational companies and large states or unions break up (or people get rid of them) before they can fully sack and exploit the world. Simplification is still uncontrolled though with minor collapses and state failures everywhere.
Moving on to the optimistic half of the chart our next scenario is voluntarily simplification or ‘de-growth’, where industrialism has been turned into a global permaculture peacefully, in a planned and organized manner.
Being even more optimistic, humanity has managed to keep most of its technological edge and a high-tech civilization powered by wind and solar following the success of the Green New Deal.
With new inventions and technologies, further economic growth became possible in the next scenario (in addition to “green” solutions).
Even better, a new “infinite energy source” could be “invented” enabling humanity to experiment with interstellar travel and teleportation — an effort culminating in the launching ceremony of the USS Enterprise in 2245 or so.
Finally, the most optimistic scenario of all: business as usual forever. Nothing needs to be changed, there is nothing to see here: no challenges, no risks, no problems — there is only infinite growth in profit and wealth without any drawbacks or major interruptions.
Let me illustrate the points above by plotting the possible consequences of these scenarios on sudden loss of human lives:
As you can see in a nuclear war or NTHE all humans would end their lives prematurely either dying during the event or within a few months or years during its aftermath. On the other hand voluntary simplification would result only in minimal loss of life (hardships would still apply: an occasional famine or a pandemic could still take its toll). Fertility rate has to drop though: Earth certainly won’t be able to support 8 billion humans in a de-industrialized world lacking fossil fuels. In the super-optimist future however we would be able to overcome all hardships with vaccines and vertical farming or artificial food manufacturing.
If Earth had a vote…
What about the living planet? How would these scenarios effect the living organism we call Earth? Here is my assumption in light of the above defined possibilities:
I suppose that ecosystems would benefit the most from a slow voluntary simplification. This would mean a well managed retreat from industrialism: closing down mines and factories one by one, retraining people for home scale regenerative farming while dismantling large scale agro-businesses. Anything to the left would be equally bad for nature as well as for humans: both catabolic and sudden collapses would eat up the remaining resources while destroying and polluting the environment in the process (not to mention abrupt climate change and nuclear war). On the other hand, if industrial societies would survive this century they would continue to sack nature (despite the green slogans). In order to maintain their ever increasing complexity (not to mention growth), ever more materials would need to be produced turning the last remaining natural habitats into open pit mines or being covered by solar panels.
If politicians had a vote…
Wait, they do have a vote… or at least the majority likes to think. In fact they are as clueless or high on hopium as their voters.
Isn’t this they dream and talk about all the time? How do we return to normal, what is the new normal, how do we keep jobs, revitalize the economy, create green growth…? Have you heard any of the elected officials or company CEO-s seriously advocating for de-growth or a managed retreat to sustainability (which is a rural permaculture type of life not a high power, electrified economic boom)? You get my point.
My best bet
So, what is your take on the question of which scenario is the most probable in the coming one hundred years? Here is mine:
I shared most of my chips between catabolic collapse (which I believe is already ongoing) and slow involuntarily simplification. The situation could turn into a sudden collapse, albeit I see a much-much lower chance of this happening than going down the bumpy road to a fully de-industrialized world. Similarly, I see a slight chance only to manage this simplification in an organized fashion, with some regions around the world being able to make it at best (read this for my explanation why do I think it is so). What about the rest? Why do I think they have a very low chance of becoming our future, if not outright impossible?
Let’s start with pessimistic scenarios: although there is a real danger of a nuclear war, I believe that there are sufficient checks and balances in the system and the human psyche to avoid it: even after a total collapse of social order no one would really want to unleash hell on Earth (let’s forget the wholly unrealistic Hollywood narrative of a lone evil supervillain — in real life even the worst dictators have “noble” goals of saving their favored population and sending out the nukes would quickly backfire on those supporting them). Anyhow, after a certain loss of complexity there is a high chance that these weapons become impossible to launch: they require constant maintenance, a lot of fuel, highly trained stuff and a whole range of supporting technologies. Like a stable electric grid. There are back-up generators for sure, but once the stable fuel supply is out, and the troops are too busy keeping the insurgencies at bay, these weapons of mass destruction will quickly become radioactive statues of a long forgotten past.
What about near term human extinction? Humans are really though, creative and mobile when it comes to survival and as long as there is a patch of land where human survival is possible people will find it and establish a small community. As soon as circumstances become favorable again (even if it takes several millennia) humans will repopulate the continents once more. In order to get rid of Homo sapiens Earth must really show its ugliest face, ending all vertebrate life larger than a rodent on the planet. NTHE in this case would be the ultimate endpoint of the 6th mass extinction. I gave a slight (5%) chance of this coming about in this century, should climate change shift into a non-linear hyper-drive and spin totally out of control. When it comes to optimism (or me being uninformed): I sincerely hope that this will never happen, but you never know…
How about a sudden civilization collapse then (à la Mad Max)? As I wrote in my earlier articles complex adaptive systems like our world economy do not usually collapse in a day. These systems are built up from many interconnected yet somewhat independent sub-systems and even though there are smaller collapses it won’t bring the entire arrangement down in a day. Therefore I gave a relatively low chance for this scenario — I see a much higher possibility for a slow catabolic (involuntary) simplification coming about, taking 50 to a 100 years to run its course. (Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Great Unraveling for a detailed explanation.)
Moving on the positive side why did I gave then a low chance for a Green new deal coming true? The answer is simple: the lack of raw materials and energy will prevent us from performing this feat (not to mention the lack of free will to do so). In order for this scenario to become successful financially and economically it would need to provide a lot of taxable net energy — this hardly seems to be the case. The overall probability in my opinion is very low, but not zero: some small regions of the world (like Scandinavia) might be able to do it… but most? Not a chance.
Dare to dream big
Finally, let’s go and pay a visit to Fairy Land: the optimistic scenarios of eternal growth on a finite planet. My long term readers already know my stance on this: lacking the necessary raw materials and energy further economic growth is slowly becoming impossible and will inevitably turn into a long descent. Many of the skeptics might say: we still have 50 years worth of oil, 200 years or so worth of copper, and so on. Mathematically this is true: if you divide the reserves with annual consumption you get similar numbers. As always though, the devil is in the details: not every oil is equally useful and not every ore is equally dense with the desired metal. As I wrote earlier:
This how a mineral resource gets depleted: first the highest quality, easiest to access (closest to or at the surface) material is used. This had usually happened before the industrial age (with a pick-axe and a basket). Then people had to dig deeper and travel greater distances to fetch lower and lower quality ores.
The core of the issue is that this requires energy: either in the form of human and animal labor or fossil fuel machinery. (Note: battery electric mining machines are very inefficient due to their high dead weight, while hydrogen is a net energy sink requiring 3 times more energy to produce, compress, store and transform H2 compared to what you get on the other end of the cathode. Biodiesel and ethanol has a such a low return on energy invested that it would make mining a non-viable option.)
As I mentioned earlier, not all resources are created equal: you have very little of the sweet stuff and an order of magnitude greater amount of the dispersed, contaminated low grade dregs and dirt. And exactly this is what gets “forgotten” when discussing reserves: that what we have left is the low quality substances requiring an ever greater amount of energy to obtain and process (both in case of oil and other mineral resources). In practical terms: we have to travel further, dig deeper and spend more on refining to get the same amount of copper, gasoline and other indispensable commodities of our economy. Not the best recipe for eternal growth. A classic Lewis Caroll quote is used widely to illustrate this:
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
After certain point mining, drilling and refining will require so much energy that it will start to deprive the rest of the economy (manufacturing, agriculture, services etc.) of the net energy they need to operate — causing growth to halt then reverse.
Critics might add: “How about inventing the next big energy source? Sure, anyone living in the 19th century could not imagine splitting the atom and unlocking its powers!” Well, what did we achieve with nuclear power? Incinerated 2 cities together with their inhabitants, then threatened each other for decades with destroying the entire planet? Or built some 400 reactors of which several exploded poisoning the land and sea for centuries? All this for providing less than 4% of our total energy supply? Ingenious as nuclear technology might seem, it is nothing more than a very expensive water boiler, powering a steam turbine invented in 1884… “Open the valves, Scotty!”
Besides inventing useful machinery still in use today, what did we know about the world in the 19th century? Ether was commonly believed by scientists to transmit electromagnetic waves, tobacco and cocaine had healing properties, fire was a substance on its own — the list goes on… Today we have a much better understanding of the natural world than any other civilization in history. Chemists and physicists know and use all of the elements in the periodic table (most of them ending up on a garbage dump), geologists know where to find them and how much we have left. There might be some surprise discoveries here and there — but I expect nothing that would ultimately change our civilizations trajectory. Hydrogen fusion will remain an elusive dream too: not because of the lack of imagination, but due to the lack of rare earth metals used in the superconducting magnets and the lack of time left to develop this technology. Continuing business as usual thus becomes a mere fantasy along with the tooth fairy, green growth and this lifestyle perpetuated into eternity.
We have reached a lot compared to other primates. It was quite a feat, but this doesn’t mean that we can extrapolate technological progress into infinity. Our species has maxed out the power of fire with the use of heat engines — and that is it. Be proud, or be ashamed of what we have achieved. Now, it’s time for reckoning.
Pulling it all together
In the previous chapters we have seen a wide gamut of future possibilities from nuclear annihilation to business as usual forever. We have faced the potential ramifications of each scenario on sudden loss of human lives and on ecosystem health, as well as the visions and hopes of our leaders.
Looking at the picture above, it looks like no one will be really happy with the future. Starting with politicians: my best bet on the coming realities have almost zero overlap with our leaders expectations towards the future. Now you can see why they feel an urge to apply magical thinking on an industrial scale… This picture also shows that there is a tremendous opportunity for aspiring leaders (at least for those who see reality as it is) to grab the steering wheel when involuntary simplification kicks into gear.
Looking at the intersection of ecosystem health benefits (green line) and our leaders desires (blue) one can easily identify the green movement, from de-growth to the green new deal with increasing political support for the later. The rest of the leaders wishing for eternal growth on a finite planet are simply ecocidal: advocating human progress to the detriment of nature.
What does the future hold then in a world of involuntary simplification slipping into catabolic collapse in some places? First, further damage to the environment and more pollution (represented by the falling green line). Second, a lot of disappointed people and frustrated leaders (see the yawning gap between the red and blue?). Third, rising (but not catastrophic) death toll (black line) from: suicide (due to expectations falling far from realities), local wars and insurgencies, an occasional famine, pandemics, air and water pollution, climate change (floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, wildfires etc.). Add to this the decreasing child-births and the net result is steady population decrease halving the number of inhabitants of the planet every 20–40 years (2–3% annually). What will it be like for the wast majority of the people surviving to their sixties and seventies then? As Indi Samarajiva wrote brilliantly:
Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.
If you’re waiting for a moment where you’re like “this is it,” I’m telling you, it never comes. Nobody comes on TV and says “things are officially bad.” There’s no launch party for decay. It’s just a pileup of outrages and atrocities in between friendships and weddings and perhaps an unusual amount of alcohol.
Perhaps you’re waiting for some moment when the adrenaline kicks in and you’re fighting the virus or fascism all the time, but it’s not like that. Life is not a movie, and if it were, you’re certainly not the star. You’re just an extra. If something good or bad happens to you it’ll be random and no one will care. If you’re unlucky you’re a statistic. If you’re lucky, no one notices you at all.
Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.
Expect this to happen to more and more countries as economic hardships start to kick in. The process has already begun in the US and other countries — whether you took notice or not. There will be bad times marked by great peril as well as good times full of opportunities. As climate change and resource depletion proceed on their tracks though, expect more and more hardships and challenges. It will take years if not more than a decade for the rest of population to realize that this is not a simple recession but a steady downward trend.
While the quote above describes the beginning, or first phase of collapse pretty well, which will take up 10–20 years from our lives (with a date for a “launch party” varying country by country), it does not tell us much about a world without fossil fuels, electricity and large scale agriculture — not to mention climate change which will get increasingly worse year by year, decade by decade. The world will be too busy with societal breakdown caused by economic hardships (i.e. decreasing net energy) in the coming decades to do anything about global heating. It is already turning into self-sustaining mode with 9 tipping points now active, but it will take — I guess — another ten years to officially realize that it has become unstoppable (indeed it was always so). Chances are, no one will care by then with elites still pushing the agenda of net zero to make energy conservation measures acceptable for the public, while the later being too busy staying financially afloat. In later decades climate chaos will be a fact of life slowly slipping into the self-evident category together with resource depletion and energy scarcity. Warming will first act as an accelerator on the looming energy crisis, increasing infrastructure breakdown destroying houses, roads, railways and overloading electric grids, while later this will be the factor to put an end this civilization… condemning later generations of people to live with much higher temperatures and climatic instability.
I have started this post with a question: Should we be optimists or pessimists when it comes to our future? After discussing the scale of possible scenarios I leave the decision up to you. I personally think though – knowing the complexity of the situation which we are in – that this question cannot be answered by a simple A or B type of choice. There are things in which I’m an optimist (like humanity avoiding a nuclear war or its own extinction within a decade or within this century) – I might be simply uninformed on these topics.
Viewed from a humanist perspective however, I’m surely a pessimist. I’ve long lost belief in humanity saving itself from itself (a nice self-contradiction on its own) and the misery it created, transcending to a higher form of consciousness on a moral basis. In my view this civilization has simply reached an end of its long life-cycle with another one waiting to be born. Instead of answering overly simplistic dichotomies, the thing what became important to me is to see things as they are, as complex adaptive systems — and presenting a worldview devoid of how things should or shouldn’t be.
How about this as an opportunity? As the world sinks into uncertainty soon everybody will look for answers. What would you say someone who just realized that this lifestyle is soon to be permanently over? What would be the benefits of stopping the denial on the end of growth and the end of this civilization?
As always, take your time — this is a lot to think about.
As for what can we do, will be a topic for next week.
Note: this post turned out to be more subjective and speculative than I first thought. First, I had the idea to post it under an editorial title, then I realized that the topics I’m discussing here (and presented earlier) contain enough subjective ideas already, making the whole editorial differentiation meaningless. That’s the beauty of blogging: you never really know what comes out in the end, but learn a ton in the process. I hope it did provide learning to you as well.