Last week we have discussed the schizoid feeling related to living in two worlds at the same time: an old civilization unaware of its unsustainability and thus destined to fail, and a new world-view of limits. What are the core beliefs of this old world then, which has brought about its success, but will also lead to its inevitable end? Most would mention capitalism or inequality as the source of all things evil, but as usual things are bit more complicated than that. If you have ever contemplated this topic in greater depth, you know it’s not easy to escape the cliches and find the pattern of tought leading to our predicament. Let’s give it a try anyway.
There are many religions in this world: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, just to name the “smaller” ones, but there is one above all. It is taught in public institutions from an early age, has many rites of passage till someone can become a high priest or a true practitioner of it. It is present in all countries in the world, its institutions are everywhere and there is a only small minority who doesn’t believe what it teaches. It is called Science. „What, a religion?!” – Yes, why…? Apart from spiritual practices it does give us a firm world-view, tells us our origin-story, explaining what we are and where we came from — a pivotal question in every traditional religion. (If you take meditation or relaxation — as scientifically proven methods for achieving an altered mental state — you might experience some sort of spirituality as well.)
Science is based on the scientific method, trying to find out how the world really works on an objective basis. Other religions use intuition or unwritten tradition to explain why and how things happen. Either way, a relatively small portion of the population has the time and capacity to explore the Universe for him- or herself. Thus everyday people have to trust the elders/scientists and simply believe that our bodies consist of atoms and the Universe is 14 billion years old — just like people a thousand year ago took Heaven and Hell for a fact. Religion helps us navigate in life and this one — Science — helps us in another regard as well, better than any of it’s predecessors. It gave us a dangerous illusion that we can solve every issue and achieve just about anything as a species – that humanity is above Nature.
First, it separated us and put Homo sapiens into a different category than the rest of the living world. It then divided everything else into sub-categories: animals, plants, rocks… Then divided these categories further into birds, chickens, wings, skin and bone, proteins, DNA, molecules, atoms… Then split the atom: electrons, protons, quarks, leptons, bosons… Till everything lost sense and the world started to look like a mirage: everything is just states of energy — or is it a string vibrating in the 13th dimension?
While the scientifically inclined pondered over these topics endlessly, more practical personality types took these definitions as an excuse to treat whole Mother Nature as a pool of resources. “It’s a not a forest — they say — it’s a billion cubic feet of wood, a few centimeters of topsoil and a million tons of coal underground, plus some gold and silver.” Never mind the birds, insects, mammals, rare plant species and their vital role in a complex system we call Earth. They don’t have a value in dollars, and even if they had, well, coal, wood, and gold worth more. Tough luck.
This leads us to the ultimate question: why are we doing this? “Because of Progress! We want to bring those poor tribesman living from less than a dollar a day in a middle of a forest into the middle class! Let them have houses, cars, roads and supermarkets! Down with poverty and hunger! Bigger, faster, higher is always better!”
Progress cannot be stopped — and it is unquestionably good. To question this tenet of modern civilization equals heresy. “Do you want to live in a cave, or what? Going to sleep terrified every night that wild men will come to rape your wife, kill your kids and make you a slave? That’s what you want?” According to more reasoned voices: “there are less undernourished people than ever, we have more food than we need, the planet can carry 11 billion of us, what is your problem? We haven’t lived so well in the past 10.000 years!” Yes, and does that mean, that it will always be this way? — I dare to ask. Will we have enough food when we start to run low on oil? Or, for that matter, do the tribesmen in the Amazon rain-forest want to be elevated into the middle class and their woodland “developed” into grazing land for cows? — I highly doubt it. Yes, progress is good — for a certain, privileged group of people, in privileged countries… However, it’s not unequivocal. Nor irreversible. Progress was a result of fortunate circumstances — not the other way around.
Greed is good
Progress is a mere fig leaf in front of the true driving force: personal greed; called Capitalism on a systemic level. Once you have degraded nature and people into raw materials and consumers it is absolutely logical – and perfectly justified – to treat them as mere sources of profit.
The method is simple: buy resources cheap (including work) and sell your product at the highest possible price (ideally well above your costs). If you happen to own a company and manage to do this long enough you can get absurdly rich.
According to the socially sensitive, every cent of profit is unpaid wage to the worker / engineer / etc. who actually made your product possible. While this is true, it is somehow always gets forgotten, that all these profits we are discussing here were taken from Nature by force. A woodland cut clear to raise cattle. A mountain exploded and mined away. Pollution released unfiltered into a river or into the atmosphere — killing billions of living things in the process. Should we want to do our activities without causing harm, we could might as well say goodby to profits. Under a truly sustainable scenario no exploitation is possible on the long run and no surpluses can be hoarded. Think about that.
The logic of capitalism results in unchecked exponential growth: profits get reinvested in additional production capacities or innovation, resulting even higher profits, more re-investment and so on. According to company and government leaders, economists and the media growth is unquestionably good.
There is a fundamental problem with this however. Growth is eventually turning every natural habitat into either a mining site (mineral or agricultural), a dumping ground for our waste, or into a city. This leads to the depletion of all resources and the release of gigatons of waste, which the damaged eco-systems can no longer process. Does this sound sustainable? Not for me.
This is why global warming is just a symptom: it is the result of us releasing an ever increasing amount of waste (CO2 is by far the largest amount of waste by weight) while systematically destroying natural habitats (forests and the oceans) which could soak up our mess. If fossil fuel use together with all the high-tech we’ve ever used were limited to one state only (like Pennsylvania) and the rest of the planet were left to remain an uninhabited wilderness there would be no global warming at all. The heart of the matter lies at the proportion of manmade vs. the natural world – and we have long passed the point of a healthy balance. Today there is more artificial stuff by weight than the mass of all the living organisms – combined.
In the end it doesn’t matter how noble the purpose is: bringing food, shelter, warmth, safety to any given society, if these activities result in resource draw-down and emitting waste, or even worse: growth, both in population and consumption, it puts the given society onto an unsustainable trajectory. Look at Mesopotamia, the Greeks, Mayans and the rest of failed civilizations. They have all overexploited their resources and grew in numbers till the land could not sustain them any longer. Any resemblance to today’s dominant culture?
Yet growth — usually measured in GDP and population size — is still a sacred cow of every industrial nation and to question it is heresy. Reasons to this are perfectly understandable though: higher population equals more consumers and tax payers, working in bigger factories and buying ever more products. This results in higher profits and incomes for company owners and governments — and which one of them would want to let this boon go…?
Since science replaced the Genesis with Evolution and raised humans apart and on top of everything else, we have became the center of our own universe. Humanism is all about us: progress, the economy, just societies — everything revolves around a single species on this planet: Homo sapiens. Never mind the others, technology will replace them. This civilization has became so self-centered and overly self-confident, that it believes it can become a “steward” of this planet, carefully geo-engineering a nice climate, while putting other creatures in nice little (similarly well managed) cubicles of “natural habitat”. Kept under perfect control of course.
The problem is, none of the naturally evolved (i.e.: non-domesticated) species need us as their “stewards” — in fact they would be much happier and more successful without us. However without the support of bees, trees and many other species we would quickly starve to death or suffocate in our mess. Who is dependent on whom then? Who are the stewards and who are the passengers on this little spaceship, we call Earth?
Technology will save us
OK, there might be some problems, but “there is no limit to human ingenuity” — goes another core belief of this civilization. “Just look how much we have achieved! No one thought at the time of the first aeroplanes (in the 1910’s) that in a mere 50 years we will send people into space and land on the Moon…” Wow — similarly, no one thought that we would fly the same helicopter and aircraft design of the 1970-s – today, another fifty years later – and travel to space using good old rockets, never leaving low orbit in a manned flight ever since. What has happened to technological progress? Where is my warp drive, anti-gravitational shoes, weekend trip to Mars and the rest? Why are we still building huge water boilers (ahem, nuclear power plants) to rotate steam turbines invented in 1884? Where is fusion…?
Sure, we have invented personal computers, the internet, genetic engineering and many more supporting technologies, but the breakthrough in energy is still “30 years away”. We are still burning fossil fuels 80% of the time — just like fifty years ago.
Every type of technology has its own theoretical limits — with practical limits even lower than that. Most of the cars, all aircraft and heavy machinery are still propelled by combustion engines — a hundred year old tech, while electric drives are almost two centuries old. We are approaching the very limits of our key technologies and no significant development is in sight. This civilization was built on heat engines powered by coal, then we have converted them to use oil and gas — the rest, like “renewables” are just auxiliary tech extending the use of fossil fuels, not replacing them (just look at the above chart of fuel use, again).
Today, in the early 2020-s we are approaching the limits to oil extraction and stepping into the age of decreasing per capita energy use. While theoretically the same amount of oil we have ever used is still under our feet, it can be extracted with ever increasing costs and ever worse return on the energy invested only. We will not run out of oil: we will be slowly deprived of it — leaving less and less for luxurious purposes. That is why progress has been limited to information technology and genetic engineering lately, and this is why we don’t travel to Mars for a weekend trip.
Nevertheless, avid believers of progress still preach that we can achieve just about anything — if we set our will to it and use our imagination. “Resource problem? Not an issue, technological development will reduce the resource need of products!” — Sure, in fifty years time we will manufacture solar panels out of thin air, just like we conjure money by the trillions today. “Then let’s colonize Mars! Mine meteors and put manufacturing into outer space!” — Hmm, the waste heat of such efforts will make global warming look like a minuscule problem; not to mention the resources and energy needed to even start such an activity. “Did you just mention global heating? Hah! We will do geo-engineering!” — Well, what harm could a few million tons of sulfur-dioxide cause in the atmosphere…?
I wonder, what will it take for us to realize, that:
“The chief cause of problems is solutions.” – Eric Sevareid
When will the obvious answer dawn on us, that it was our ever increasing energy use that caused this mess? Replacing energy source A with B just shifts the resulting pollution to another form and will do nothing to restore the ecological balance.
Hubris has clearly reached a level never seen in history. One or two back of the envelope calculations could disprove any of these ideas above and prove that there are limits indeed — even to the mighty human enterprise. I encourage you to do the math, if you have the time. The key question is: what will provide the energy, and how will we harness it? Don’t forget about EROEI and timing: the solution has to be ready, up and running at a global scale in 10 years, while emissions should be falling like a rock at the same time. God speed and good luck…
Numbers are not a thing to bother an apostle with however. „Engineers will solve it!” — so they think. The masses won’t do the math either: they are not here for reality, but for a reaffirmed belief that this pleasant life of theirs can continue into infinity and beyond. They want to believe in science, progress and the power of the human mind. As Alan Watts noted though:
“…all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty”
That is why Homo sapiens came up with so many religions: to feel safe from death and to have answers without the need to think first.
Science and progress for the masses are no different.
No mans land
And here we are: on the shaky grounds of a no mans land between two civilizations. The old is nothing more than a set of dogmas propelled by its incredible momentum: like a fresh corpse whose nails are still seem to be growing.
Collapse is not an instantaneous event however. Everyone likes to think that it happens in a day or a week maximum and a new world is born overnight. No. It’s not like that. This system is so complex and has such a high impetus that it could not stop overnight even if it wanted to. Do you think, that the economy was brought to a halt by governments in 2020? Think again. Maybe a tiny fraction of it was paused for a while, enough so, that it has sent ripples through the entire thing, but if it were really stopped you would’ve found empty shelves in the supermarket next day, no gas at the pump, and no electricity in your wall sockets. That is full stop. Luckily this hasn’t happened yet and I have every reason to believe that this will not happen overnight anytime soon. Everybody in this system — and I mean everybody — is incentivized to keep it alive and functioning. If a major part were to break off, millions would jump to fill in the hole with alternative solutions. Not because of central planning or good will of course — but because of seeing it as a good business opportunity. This civilization clearly has its own immune system.
Collapse and its synonyms are often associated with a sudden Jenga-tower type of fall, but when it comes to the world economy (or natural ecosystems) it is rather like a transformation. It is not even an event: its boundaries are so soft and fuzzy that it is very difficult to assign a start or end date to it. It happens on all scales from individuals to continents, in parallel with other processes, taking decades if not more than a century to unfold. If you still want to hold the mental image of a collapsing Jenga-tower, then imagine it in ultra-slow motion where one second takes a 1000 minutes to unfold. At the beginning of the movie you have a standing tower while 16 hours later you have a heap of blocks – in the meantime however you can barely see things moving. That is societal collapse. And trust me: not everyone will wait to see the end of it. Many will simply walk away: quit their job, or stop looking for a new one, and start a garden. Or buy a herd of goats. Or start repairing and retrofitting old stuff and never pay a cent of taxes to any government. That is the end to a civilization: when people quit being citizens and take the road in hopes of a better life.
That is not to say that it will be a smooth joy-ride to eco-utopia. There will be a lot of unfortunate events, hunger, climate disaster, migration, poverty. One cannot choose which historical era to born into, but it would be equally unreasonable to think that one has any agency over how that era unfolds. We are part of a story much bigger than us, individuals. Some of us will be unlucky and find him or herself among the migrants fleeing a natural disaster while others will find themselves in a thriving community. We can do certain things to be better positioned, but we must also keep our expectations towards the future and our ability to control it at reasonable level.
„May you live in interesting times”
Until next time,