The great unraveling — Part 1

Last week I published a completely retrospective post about finding acceptance. I hope it managed to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel we all go or went through while contemplating on the limited lifetime of civilizations. This is hard to process — I know. Take your time and never loose hope: after finding answers to the most important questions (those that you ask yourself), you will also find peace and serenity. Never give up looking for those answers.

If you feel ready, let’s continue with uncovering the untold stories behind the last stages of a civilization. Or shall I say: an end stage to an energy dissipating complex adaptive system? The two became synonyms for me after discovering all the properties of the later in our human societies and economy.

In my previous posts (here & here) I have spent a great deal of time explaining what is net energy and why is it central to all societies. If you hadn’t got the time to read them you have to take my word for it:

No surplus energy = No civilization

As I wrote earlier:

Food (as a source of energy) eaten by people exemplify this principle perfectly: hunter-gatherers had only lean (low fat) meat, chewy roots, and small berries on an average day (big sweet fruits or a fat mammoth was a rare feast). They maintained their way of life for tens of thousands of years — but built no skyscrapers either. They had a lot of leisure time, but little in terms of surplus energy and materials.

Mesopotamians on the other hand have found a much more concentrated energy source (grains) and could store surplus energy in the granary. This enabled them in turn to build huge stone walled temples and set up an army to obtain more land.

What has triggered this sudden switch of gears in energy use? The end of the last glaciation period brought dramatic changes, removing the megafauna (with the aid of humans of course) and the forest on the land we call Sahara today. This must have been a great shock to people living in the area: their food (and thus energy) source was gone and something had to be done. That something was scaling up agriculture — big time. This has brought with itself the creation of surpluses: besides having lower calories per kilogram previous food sources were perishable and could not be stored for too long. Grains however solved both problems: they provided high caloric values which could be easily stored for years — and at the same time could be easily transported, collected, taxed, robbed, hoarded… You know the rest.

Energy up until very recently meant food: we used our and our animals’ muscle-power to perform work. It was one of the most efficient use of energy known to humans (it had and still has a better calorie to power ratio than most man-made machines), but it was not scalable beyond a certain point. The size of arable land limited the number of people and animals living on its produce. After many empires fell this worrying trend was discovered by Thomas Malthus, but was quickly forgotten with the advent of industrial agriculture — which was solely made possible by even more dense energy source: fossil fuels.

Needless to say, for every value added economic activity you need energy: mining or harvesting raw materials, heating (smelting), cutting, manufacturing, delivery and finally the use of any product requires energy. Even internet based businesses need a lot of energy: think about movie streaming or cryptocurrencies. Decoupling energy use from economic growth is thus net nonsense: there are activities which require relatively less energy use for the money earned (like programming), but that money still will be spent on goods and services like food, or a gaming console with a subscription service, or an expensive trip to the other side of the planet… Contrary to modern beliefs, one cannot program himself a potato or warm clothing.

Decoupling only “works” on the small scale: like a country offshoring its energy intensive businesses (e.g.: iron and steel) to energy rich but environmentally poorly regulated countries. This is what happened to China a few decades ago, and this is what it tries to do now in turn (under the magic spell called net zero). They are openly trying to get rid of cryptos and limiting steel manufacturing — thus forcing investment in weaker countries like India or in Africa... We can toss heavy industries requiring high density energy around the globe, but at a certain point we will have no other place to move them to.

The trade of commodities, goods and services in the meantime became fully globalized. Everything is manufactured where it is the most economically viable (offshored to the cheapest spot on the planet with an adequate workforce and the right energy prices). If a low cost country falls off the map because of increasing cost of energy or labor, another one needs to be found. Since this is a finite planet with a finite number of countries, owning a finite amount of energy in their reserves, eventually we reach a point when this process can no longer be continued. Looking at net energy trends this time seems to have arrived.

It follows from the logic of globalization that we have to treat the world economy as a whole, a complex adaptive system, with its many contending players and no one at the steering wheel. This system has its global stocks and flows of energy plus materials, as well as its bio-physical limits. When these limits are crossed — which usually goes unnoticed — a short (5–20 years) grace period helps to maintain the illusion of growth (due to reserves in the system)… then crash happens. As James Rickards put it in Currency Wars:

“Social and financial collapses happened many times but are easily ignored or forgotten. Yet history does not forget, nor do complex systems refrain from doing what they are wont to do. Complex systems begin on a benign organizing principle and end by absorbing all available energy while destroying the system itself.”

Accepting the assumption that we have reached the end of growth (in terms of net energy and thus real value added, not in fictitious financial terms) I came to believe that our nice little complex system called world economy has reached the final stage of its life. So, what are the effects of a coming decline in net energy for a complex system like our globalized economy? How does the final stage looks like in our ageing system?

In order to answer the question how complex systems collapse we have to understand the incentives of the system in question. The world economy is primarily driven by profit as its primary incentive. But what is profit in reality? It is the part of the deal you don’t have to pay for, and thus can keep it for yourself.

Take oil for example — the most profitable “product” humanity has ever encountered. Did anyone had to pay for the growth of algae hundreds of millions of years ago in terms of labor, land or water use? No. Did anyone had to pay for the heat and pressure provided by Earth’s crust (i.e. the energy bill)? No. What oil companies are paying for is finding and extracting this resource — and recently they have a problem with paying for these two activities as well. Explorations fell nearly to zero in order to save money for maintaining an ever costlier production. At this late stage it becomes needless to ask who will pay for the cost of removing the pollution they caused: uncapped oil wells poisoning the ground water, dangerous chemicals used in extraction now laying around uncovered, and most prominently the CO2 released by burning the “product”… You bet: all of us.

Everything above is considered an externality and thus not calculated into profit. Should you want to honestly calculate all externalities, making sure you have a truly sustainable business, your profits would quickly turn into losses. You want biodiesel? Go ahead, pay for the labor, land and energy costs, and let’s see how profitable your business will be (without the free money provided by governments in form of subsidies of course).

In a nutshell our economic system’s primary incentive is to extract as much wealth as possible from Earth at the smallest cost possible, turn it into monetary profit then re-invest it into further productive activities, resulting further profit. What we call capitalism has become a perfect positive feedback loop with only one possible outcome: expand till its no longer possible.

Capitalism is self-organized to find more and more sources of profit and thus use more and more materials and energy. Since it’s basis, contrary to modern belief, remains physical material extraction from Earth’s crust, as the energy and material resources start to wane the system will run into more and more problems. (It is worth mentioning here, that the biggest mining activity on Earth is agriculture. It uses plants to suck up the biologically important minerals from the land, then transport them through supermarkets to people’s bellies… and the whole operation is powered almost exclusively by fossil fuels.)

Our existing systems (roads, trains, bridges, buildings, electric grids etc.), which were installed at an exponential rate in the previous decades will require an exponential increase in physical repairs. Take a look at the chart below:

An illustrative example of decline in net energy vs increasing maintenance costs. The chart is not based on actual data, and thus it is an illustration of the concept only. The topic would well deserve a decent study though.

This is how a growth optimized system (as every adaptive system) meets its inevitable demise: exponentially growing maintenance and repair costs will intersect the exponentially decreasing energy availability. Just like old uncle Joe: eating less and less, getting weaker year by year until the two lines meet in the middle.

Let me quote Timothy J. Garrett here, author of the Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis:

The GWP [Gross World Product] grows when energy consumption grows super-exponentially (at an accelerating rate), or when global energy reserve discovery exceeds depletion.

If growth rates of wealth approach zero, civilization becomes fragile with respect to externally forced decay. This appears to be particularly true if prior growth was super-exponential.

Not the best news ever, is it? Add in the extra damage caused by climate change: floods, hurricanes, sea level rise… and your maintenance curve also goes from exponential to super-exponential.

This process is best described by the Seneca-effect — a term coined by Ugo Bardi. He did a great job in explaining why collapse is a process, and a much faster one than the way to prosperity. To put this into perspective: the collapse of modern civilization will surely not happen in a year, but certainly will not last 250 years either.

This asymmetry of a decline being faster than the rise of a system comes from delays. As the system approaches its natural limits instead of slowly letting itself go in a symmetric up and down manner it tries to expand its shelf life by drawing ever deeply into its reserves by “enhanced” recovery methods. Thus it maintains a semblance of growth and prosperity while in fact heading to a brick wall with an increasing speed.

In this sense it is a warning sign on its own, that in order to maintain the level of oil “production” more and more unconventional sources (fracking, tar-sands, deep water drilling etc.) had to be deployed. The consequences of oil depletion are thus not avoided, just delayed — and when the time of decline eventually comes we will start to run out of everything (both conventional and unconventional sources) at the same time.

We are at an inflection point where growth slowly turns into a decline. Large enough systems — like our world economy — are not collapsing all at once however. Since they are being built up by smaller embedded and interconnected sub-systems (countries, companies, regions) it is possible to get rid of parts (involuntarily of course) via minor or larger avalanches’ without destroying the entire system. The bankruptcy of a company can trigger a cascade of failures, even a recession, leaving the rest of the economy in a tattered, yet in a still functional shape.

In systems terms this is a side-effect to self organized criticality’. These systems always (even in good times) dance at the edge of a cliff, like grains of sand piling up in an hourglass: the heap gets bigger and bigger, until a sudden collapse comes, after which the pile builds back up again — similar to the entire history of capitalism with its growth phases and times of “creative destruction”. When the fall of grains from above stops however, entropy (disorganization, randomness) takes over and the sand slowly levels itself in the glass. This is a similar process to civilizations getting simplified slowly (one failure at a time), till the point they cease to meet the criteria of an organized system.

Another side-effect of systemic avalanches (smaller or larger economic crashes) that they free up a lot of resources: the assets of bankrupt companies can be sold and the raw materials and energy they’ve been using while they were in operation now can be used by other companies… But only up to the point till the shrinking resource base collapses again — this time under the surviving companies’ feet.

This is catabolism’: when the system literally feeds on its dead parts until there is nothing left for it to eat. In capitalist terms it means that after a certain point in time growth for a region or company will be only possible to the detriment of other companies or regions — and will inevitably end in another crash. This process is present in well functioning healthy ecosystems as well (and required to reuse as much as possible of the scarce resources as possible), but become prominent once the taps of energy and materials are beginning to shut close.

The good news is, that this shutting off of flows (food, oil, metals, etc.) is gradual in itself, further dampening the fall. This is not to say that it is going to be a smooth slide down, sudden cascades of smaller systemic collapses will ensure hardships for many people, interluded with times of relative peace (even temporary growth). Remember: the end state is not a somewhat less energy intensive lifestyle, but almost total energy deprivation. People in the 22nd century will have to live with maybe 10% of today’s energy: mostly in the form of heat from biomass, with electricity as common as at the end of the 19th century.

The bad news is, that there is a sinister side to catabolic growth: in biological systems it is called cancer. This happens when a group of cells discover a way to rob others from their resources and multiply indefinitely. In the world economy this is called catabolic capitalism: the illegal way of doing business: smuggling, slavery, illegal mining and so on… These organizations thrive on the deprivation of others and will continue to do so in the lack of organized states to stop them. This way the system not only feeds on the carcasses but actively turns against itself.

Just like in any old living organism damages add up in an ageing economy as well. Maintenance costs rise exponentially, while the system keeps on going nevertheless. Once the system reaches a critical level of complexity (in road network, legal structure, food system etc.) maintenance costs start to exceed benefits. While energy consumption can increase exponentially this is not considered a problem. As soon as the trend of net energy use stops growing and turns into a decrease though, infrastructure becomes too costly to maintain and will be abandoned as the “solution” to the intersecting graphs dilemma I raised above.

Stranding regions, assets and sections of infrastructure networks one by one will be the standard practice in the near future. Unfortunately these simplification events will cause further avalanches down the road, which in turn frees up resources easing the burden of maintenance on the system. These free resources will deplete soon however and another round of closures come… This process is very similar to a ball bouncing down a staircase: the bigger it falls, the higher it bounces back, but never above the previous level. And it never stops till it hits the very bottom.

Our civilization will soon look like a sand castle left high and dry: it slowly gets desiccated, then a gust of wind fells a tower, which in turn starts an avalanche and destroys a wing of the castle... Someone rebuilds one of the many fallen towers, then for a long time nothing happens, only the whistling wind carrying away the castle one grain of sand at a time. Then another part collapses… and so on, till we end up with a regular heap of sand.

There lies a certain hidden connection between power use and complexity: the higher the available energy is, the more complex systems seem to grow. I came to believe that high energy use (and thus complexity) acts as a ‘strange attractor’ — a state toward which a system tends to evolve. Available energy calls systems like a siren, luring them to use more of its bounty and develop ever more complexity around it, then when that energy source starts to wane, the entire system collapses under its own weight. (Note: the topic energy use and hierarchy (i.e. organizational complexity) is well researched by Blair Fix — I recommend to check out his website for more great studies on the topic.)

For me it follows, that if the growth in energy resources drives an increase in complexity, then the decrease of energy flow will lead to increasingly reduced complexity, i.e.: reduced social hierarchy. When the flow of energy in form of what people call money (at least on real purchasing power basis) starts to decline the fight for even the tiniest share of the pie will intensify greatly. This will lead to the breaking up of larger countries or companies into smaller regional units with their reduced and much cheaper management team. Getting rid of the overly expensive federal or multinational leadership will be a model applied in many places. There are plenty of examples for this decentralization in the corporate world or in the Middle-East where some of the countries (Syria, Libya) have already experienced their own peak in oil extraction and the resulting decrease in energy flows. I believe we don’t have to wait for long for other countries or larger political units following the same path.

Peter Turchin, evolutionary anthropologist has came to similar conclusions about our future while studying the fall of ancient civilizations. Political infighting and strife was the ultimate end to the long process of ever increasing wealth inequality and the ‘overproduction of elites’ (both of them are already visible in modern societies). It is not by mere chance that we are about to enter an ‘age of discord’ right now: since our ultimate source of wealth — Earth’s thin upper crust — has ceased to provide the economy with an ever increasing amount of resources, wealth is now extracted from the lower and middle classes… yet another form of catabolism.

As demonstrated above the end stage of a civilization is not a straightforward or simple event: it is determined by the intricate balance of dampening and accelerating factors. The net result is a gradually simplified declining world with sudden crashes here and there. This is the great unraveling: the fabric of civilization coming apart first at the seams, then the disentanglement of the threads themselves.

It is very hard to imagine what will come: humanity has never really experienced a fall from this height. Not to mention the west: very few living in these countries have even a faint memory of what a real recession is, the Great Depression of the 1930’s was already ninety years ago. All what people knew in the West is growth and progress — so much so that it became first an expectation then an entitlement. Something “we deserve, if we work hard”. Progress became the mantra of the well to do — those who were lucky enough to be born in the right country and social status. It’s no wonder that such news are met with denial and disbelief.

Sure, there will be lucky regions, where social cohesion and cooperation will prevent the worst from happening, but less fortunate areas of the world, where democracy was nothing more than a couple of cheated elections, will end up like Libya today. Not to mention more and more regions affected by drought, heat and rising seas from climate change, or a loss of topsoil and biodiversity — none of this will stop at an arbitrary line we call borders. Sooner, or later all of us, even the most well to do will experience the great unraveling. William Gibson’s famous quote could not be more actual:

“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed”

To illustrate his point read this article published in The Guardian. Terrible isn’t it? Now replace Karachi with New York in 2030. I do not mean to terrify you, that would not lead anywhere. I want you to hold this as a possibility, because both socioeconomic and climate trends are pointing this way. How would you cope with such a situation…? Be creative and develop a sense of foresight — both of them will be priceless assets in your future. You can loose your job, your home, but armed with the right mindset and the necessary skills almost any situation is survivable.

As you have seen in the above example, your experience of the future will vary greatly depending on where you live and in which social strata you belong to. As for when collapse will begin in your town: don’t expect an officially announced start date though. Governments around the world will try to deny the fact that civilization is in its terminal decline, instead they will blame each other, the cartels, the migrants, the weather you name it. Personally, I would put the start date to 2005 when world conventional crude oil extraction has peaked, but this is as an arbitrary start date as any other.

One thing is for sure: there is no turning back on this road. Once a system reaches a catabolic state, it means that it has consumed whatever it made a great place to be. Voluntarily simplification and dreaming about going back to the 1970’s levels of consumption won’t cut it. The world population has doubled and its material consumption has quadropoled since then. These numbers won’t reduce back to that level just by wishful thinking. The easy to reach resources won’t replenish to their levels 50 years ago neither…

The current system is hemorrhaging from all it’s pores and holes from energy production to agriculture, finance, species loss, climate, pollution… the list goes on indefinitely. Dreaming about sustainability today is like for a 90 year-old wishing to stay fit and young forever despite having had three heart attacks, an Alzheimer’s and lung cancer at the same time. The world could have been stabilized in the early 70’s riding the wave of the first oil crisis, as it was proposed by the Limits to growth study, but that ship is now long gone.

Thinking in realistic terms about our civilization’s nature: it could not happen any other way. Understanding our minds’ hidden drivers (status, power etc.) and the behavior of complex adaptive systems this — what we have today — was really the only possible outcome. Now, there is only one way forward from here: onward, through the great filter.

As usual, I leave you with a final quote to contemplate on, this time from Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.”

Until the next time,


Note: the great filter is the answer to the Fermi-paradox answering the question: where is everyone (i.e. alien species). According to the great filter theory they must have met an obstacle which permanently crippled their efforts to leave their planetary system — it seems to me that we are about to meet ours.

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