Sunday, 12 March 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 2: Non-anthropogenic Threats

Last time, I talked about worry as a driver to action, and how to evaluate problems as to whether they are worth worrying about or not. I think that my approach does work for smaller scale, day-to-day problems, but I was mainly focusing on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. And I promised to go into detail about some such threats.

Today we'll look at a number of "non-anthropogenic" (non-manmade) threats. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think it is a good introduction to the subject.

Non-anthropogenic threats tend to be large scale—forces of nature. In many cases there is little we can do but run away and/or try to be well prepared to cope with their effects. Fortunately, when it comes to coping, similar preparations work for many different types of threats.

For those who like the precise use of terminology I admit to being a little sloppy in my use of the term "existential". As Wikipedia would have it:

A "global catastrophic risk" is any risk that is at least "global" in scope, and is not subjectively "imperceptible" in intensity. Those that are at least "trans-generational" (affecting all future generations) in scope and "terminal" in intensity are classified as existential risks. While a global catastrophic risk may kill the vast majority of life on earth, humanity could still potentially recover. An existential risk, on the other hand, is one that either destroys humanity (and, presumably, all but the most rudimentary species of non-human lifeforms and/or plant life) entirely or prevents any chance of civilization recovering.

They actually have a pretty good article on "global catastrophic risks"


A nearby supernova

And for this first one we'll look at all four of the criteria I mentioned in my last post.

From Wikipedia:

A near-Earth supernova is an explosion resulting from the death of a star that occurs close enough to the Earth (roughly less than 10 to 300 parsecs (30 to 1000 light-years) away[2]) to have noticeable effects on its biosphere.

On average, a supernova explosion occurs within 10 parsecs (33 light-years) of the Earth every 240 million years. Gamma rays are responsible for most of the adverse effects a supernova can have on a living terrestrial planet. In Earth's case, gamma rays induce a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere, converting molecular nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, depleting the ozone layer enough to expose the surface to harmful solar and cosmic radiation (mainly ultra-violet). Phytoplankton and reef communities would be particularly affected, which could severely deplete the base of the marine food chain.


Once in 240 million years? But actually, a closer look shows that the occurrence of supernovas is not a random event that can happen to just any star.

Type II supernovas mark the end of the life of certain massive stars that are bright enough so that they are hard to miss, especially if they are nearby. And it is possible to identify when they are nearing to end of their lives, to within some thousands of years, anyway. The good news is that the nearest of them is over 500 light years away, far enough not to be a concern.

Again from Wikipedia:

Type Ia supernovae are thought to be potentially the most dangerous if they occur close enough to the Earth. Because Type Ia supernovae arise from dim, common white dwarf stars, it is likely that a supernova that could affect the Earth will occur unpredictably and take place in a star system that is not well studied. The closest known candidate is IK Pegasi. It is currently estimated, however, that by the time it could become a threat, its velocity in relation to the Solar System would have carried IK Pegasi to a safe distance.

Even if a Type Ia candidate is lurking nearby, the odds of it being at the end of its life during my lifetime are small.


Earth's upper atmosphere, in particular the ozone layer, is very effective at blocking x-ray and gamma rays, so radiation from a supernova is not the main concern at ground level. But gamma rays can cause chemical reactions between nitrogen and ozone and deplete the ozone layer. There is the possibility that this effect of radiation from a nearby supernova could result in a mass extinction, and may have done so in the past.

Difficulty of Mounting a response

It is difficult to see how we could do much about the effects of a nearby supernova. As I've said before, it seems likely that our capacity for global scale responses to such challenges is either at of just past its peak. In other words, in my opinion, they are in the realm of science fiction—fun to dream about, but unlikely to happen.


It appears that there the likelihood of a nearby supernova in the near future is quite small.


The rarity of the event and the difficulty of doing anything about it would seem to make this a threat that there is no point in worrying about.

A Nearby Gamma Ray Burst

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. A nearby one (thousands instead of billions of light years away) would affect our upper atmosphere in the same way as a nearby supernova.

My evaluation is that we need not worry—the risk is small and there is little we could do in any case.

A change in the sun's output

Our Sun is a remarkably constant star, its output varying only by 0.1% over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. NASA has a good article about how this can affect our climate. And while it is true that the changes during the solar cycle do seem to be amplified beyond what one might expect, their impact is far from existential.

A large solar flare

From Wikipedia:

A solar flare is a sudden flash of brightness observed near the Sun's surface. It involves a very broad spectrum of emissions, an energy release of typically 1 × 1020 joules of energy for a well-observed event. A major event can emit up to 1 × 1025 joules (the latter is roughly the equivalent of 1 billion megatons of TNT.... Flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day or two after the event.

The Carrington Event (Solar Storm of 1859), from Wikipedia:

The Solar storm of 1859—known as the Carrington Event—was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm during solar cycle 10 (1855–1867). A solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth's magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record, September 1–2, 1859. The associated "white light flare" in the solar photosphere was observed and recorded by English astronomers Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875) and Richard Hodgson (1804–1872).

Studies have shown that a solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause more widespread problems for a modern and technology-dependent society. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth's orbit without striking the planet....

The probability of a solar storm striking Earth in the next decade with enough force to do serious damage to electricity networks could be as high as 12 percent.

Again from Wikipedia:

In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the U.S. alone at $0.6–2.6 trillion.

This cost would result from damage to electrical and electronic equipment that isn't sufficiently hardened against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). In and of itself, this would cause relatively few human deaths. But it would cause widespread and serious damage to our power grid, and our transportation, communication and computing infrastructure, which could leave many of us without the necessities of life while the damage was being repaired. And it would take many months to replace damaged power transformers which are a critical part of the power grid.

Both the risk and the level of severity seem quite high, and measures to mitigate the effects of such an event are definitely within our grasp, albeit at some considerable cost. I would say that this is definitely something to worry about. For the individual two actions come to mind immediately:

  1. Prepare for extended outages of the power grid, the phone systems, the internet and GPS and expect that many of your electronic devices will not survive the EMP associated with the flare.
  2. When your local grid authority announces that power prices will be going up due to measures being taken to harden the grid against large solar flares, rather than complaining, support them. The same goes for other infrastructure that may be affected.

A collision with an asteroid

From Wikipedia:

Small objects frequently collide with Earth. There is an inverse relationship between the size of the object and the frequency of such events. The lunar cratering record shows that the frequency of impacts decreases as approximately the cube of the resulting crater's diameter, which is on average proportional to the diameter of the impactor. Asteroids with a 1 km (0.62 mi) diameter strike Earth every 500,000 years on average. Large collisions – with 5 km (3 mi) objects – happen approximately once every twenty million years. The last known impact of an object of 10 km (6 mi) or more in diameter was at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.

Based on the odds quoted above, large collisions are rare enough to disregard but asteroids large enough to survive their trip through the atmosphere (larger than 35 m in diameter) and less than 1 km. in diameter are more common and can still do enough damage on a local or regional scale that it may be worth doing something about them.

As is often the case, though, this threat is not completely random. Astronomers have already identified a large number of asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth and efforts are underway to identify the rest of them, map their orbits and determine if/when they are likely to constitute a threat. Because an asteroid's orbit is changed by the Earth's gravity when it passes nearby, this is an ongoing task. And occasionally large asteroids, that have been missed previously, do show up on surveys.

Several methods have been proposed to divert an asteroid and prevent it from hitting Earth. Some of these are within our current technological and economic grasp, at least for now. If we were to make preparations ahead of time and have the appropriate hardware standing by in orbit, we could even divert asteroids on fairly short notice.


This is one to worry about. There is appropriate action which an individual can support when voting, if nothing else. A comprehensive and on-going asteroid survey would be relatively inexpensive and would allow us to evacuate the population from the area where a small to medium size asteroid is about to strike. And if it turns up a larger asteroid that is headed our way, it would give us the option of trying to do something about it.

A reversal of the earth's magnetic field

The Earth's magnetic field does reverse on a regular though seemingly random basis. Since the magnetic field goes to zero during the reversal and that field plays a role in diverting cosmic radiation and solar flares, there is some chance that more radiation would reach the Earth's surface during that period. Currently, expert opinion says this is unlikely to be an existential or even catastrophic threat.

There is some (less creditable) chance that seismic activity might increase during a magnetic reversal, causing earthquakes and tsunamis. My guess is that if you live in an earthquake or tsunami zone, the preparations you should already be making would suffice.

An eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano

If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park ever had another massive eruption, it could spew ash for thousands of miles across the United States, damaging buildings, smothering crops, and shutting down power plants. It would be a huge disaster.

From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they "see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable." This conclusion was reiterated in December 2013 in the aftermath of the publication of a study by University of Utah scientists finding that the "size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought." The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a statement on its website stating, "Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a 'supereruption' in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not 'overdue' for a supereruption."

That's good enough for me, so I won't be worrying about this one.

A Pandemic arising from nature

From Wikipedia:

The death toll for a pandemic is equal to the virulence (deadliness) of the pathogen or pathogens, multiplied by the number of people eventually infected. It has been hypothesised that there is an upper limit to the virulence of naturally evolved pathogens. This is because a pathogen that quickly kills its hosts might not have enough time to spread to new ones, while one that kills its hosts more slowly or not at all will allow carriers more time to spread the infection, and thus likely out-compete a more lethal species or strain. This simple model predicts that if virulence and transmission are not linked in any way, pathogens will evolve towards low virulence and rapid transmission. However, this assumption is not always valid and in more complex models, where the level of virulence and the rate of transmission are related, high levels of virulence can evolve. The level of virulence that is possible is instead limited by the existence of complex populations of hosts, with different susceptibilities to infection, or by some hosts being geographically isolated. The size of the host population and competition between different strains of pathogens can also alter virulence. However, a pathogen that only infects humans as a secondary host and usually infects another species (a zoonosis) may have little constraint on its virulence in people, since infection here is an accidental event and its evolution is driven by events in another species. There are numerous historical examples of pandemics that have had a devastating effect on a large number of people, which makes the possibility of global pandemic a realistic threat to human civilization.

The Wikipedia article on Global Catastrophic risk estimates the chance of a naturally occurring disease causing the extinction of the human race before 2100 is .05%, or 1 chance in 2,000. So it seems that this threat is worthy of some degree of worry. But existing public health organizations are on watch for diseases spreading from animals to humans, and quarantines can be put into effect to control the spread of such a disease until vaccines can be developed. In case one finds oneself under quarantine, a well stocked pantry would be handy to have, and that is also a basic preparation for many other sorts of disaster.

Small scale threats

While volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and so forth may not be existential threats for the human race as a whole, they can be quite serious to the individuals who find themselves at ground zero. And in many areas the degree of risk is fairly high. Being prepared for emergencies is always a good idea, in my opinion.

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a couple of posts on emergency preparation, and I think they have stood the test of time.

The only thing I might add is that in some locations, taking the progress of climate change and/or growing political unrest into account may lead you to think about moving to a less hazardous location. This is best done sooner, rather than later, while the infrastructure to support your move is still intact and you can still get a least some of the value out of your home.

Looking back over this list of non-anthropogenic threats, it's interesting to note that the majority of them are not something to worry about. Of those that are worthy of our concern, a few observations can be made in the light of the collapse that I expect is coming during the next few decades:

  • A large solar flare in only dangerous because of the unprotected high-tech infrastructure that we have become dependent on.
  • Asteroid collisions, on the other hand, will continue to be a threat regardless of the level of technology we are using. An effective response to the approach of a large asteroid requires the capability to conduct operations in space, and an economy that is doing well enough to finance such expensive endeavours. Evacuating people from the areas where smaller asteroids will touch down would require some intermediate level of technology and financial support.
  • Pandemics are another thing again. Crowding millions of people together in large cities and making it easy to travel between those cities certainly makes it easier for a pandemic to spread. A smaller and less connected "post-collapse" population would be less vulnerable, but without the full force of modern medicine and public health infrastructure, they would be less resistant to infectious diseases in general.

In my next post I'll look at anthropogenic (manmade) threats and explain why I think some of them are more serious than the threats we've looked at this time.

Note on Wikipedia as a source:
some will no doubt have noted with distain that I have used Wikipedia as a reference throughout this blog post. But I was not trying to write an academic article, and I can assure you I do approach the information I find in Wikipedia with a skeptical eye. I've noticed that the biggest critics of Wikipedia are those who are disappointed that they can't find support therein for their favourite brand of pseudoscience. To me, that is a pretty good recommendation, and it supports what I have found, i.e. that Wikipedia does a pretty good job of excluding pseudoscience, and of presenting the current scientific consensus on most subjects.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats

In a recent post, I talked about how most people are loath to discuss collapse, some even believing that talking about it makes it more likely to happen. After all, Business As Usual is working just fine and everything is going to be alright. Right?

In contrast to this sort of head-in-the-sand optimism there are people (admittedly a much smaller number of us) who like to focus on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. When you start looking into this you'll find that there are quite a variety of such threats. In my next two posts, I'll take a look at a selection of them. I'll explain why I think that the kind of collapse that I've been talking about is the threat most worthy of most of our attention. And in the process we'll get a clearer picture of what kind of collapse that is.

This post, though, is about the virtues of worrying and how to evaluate existential threats.

What "virtues of worrying", you ask? Worry certainly isn't in fashion these days. On social media one frequently sees this little flowchart about when to worry. All paths seem to leads to the same conclusion—"don't worry".

Now, I admit to being somewhat of a worry wart. Perhaps because of that I can see several things wrong with this flowchart. First, when you don't know, you need to find out. While you are finding out, worry serves as an incentive. And at the bottom of the chart the possibility that there is a problem, and that you can do something about it, is very much under emphasized. Worry serves as an incentive to find out what you can do, make a plan and then execute it. When you've set that in motion, I guess maybe you could quit worrying, but instead I would swing back around to the top left of the chart and see if there is anything else to worry about.

On the other hand, it is true that you can waste a great deal of time and mental anguish worrying about things over which you have no real influence. You have to identify problems that you can actually do something about and concentrate your efforts there. Of course, different people will reach different conclusions—it's a big world and there is lots of room for disagreement. We can't really determine what the right thing to do is without a lot of trial and error, so a diversity of response is a good thing in that it makes it more likely that some of those responses will be more or less successful.

I'll borrow a "new word" from John Michael Greer—"dissensus". The opposite of consensus, dissensus means agreeing to disagree and wishing the other guy all the best even if you think his ideas are outright crazy or stupid. Provided, of course, that he extends a similar courtesy to you. I've noticed that when people are willing to do this, and then find themselves faced with a serious threat, it often turns out that on important points like "what the heck do we do next" there is a remarkable degree of agreement. Ideological differences can be set aside when we are dealing with more immediate problems.

What I am expressing here on this blog is my own point of view, which you are free to disagree with. I do wish you all the best in pursuing your own point of view. And if we find ourselves coming up with similar plans, it may be that we can help each other to put them into action.

What is my point of view? Well, I have a great deal of faith in the scientific consensus—we really don't have any better way than science of finding out about the world around us, and in the last few hundred years science has built up a pretty useful picture of that world.

Some will no doubt ask, "How can you question BAU and expect it to collapse and yet still be in favour of the scientific consensus?"

It is a common error to conflate the scientific consensus with the "official stories" that are the basic myths of Business As Usual. You can hardly blame anyone for jumping to the conclusion that BAU and science are on the same side, since every effort is made to use science to legitimize the ideas of BAU. Those myths are pushed by politicians, economists and business. They are dressed up in the kind of pseudoscientific costumes that make them hard to distinguish from reality. The "Biggest Lie" that I talked about recently, the idea that our population and consumption can go on growing forever on a finite planet, is at the heart of this false worldview.

There are lots of people who don't completely buy into BAU. And there are multi-billion dollar per year businesses (organic farming, health food, and alternative medicine to name just a few) who take advantage of that, spending a great deal on propaganda and doing a good job of positioning themselves as being in opposition to Business as Usual. There is money to be made in that business, but the pseudoscience they are selling is just as bad as the myths from regular BAU. The people pushing both of these ideologies are very adept at finding the parts of science that happen to agree with their positions and flogging them for all they are worth to further their cause.

The idea of these two conflicting ideologies, both of which are wrong, is central to what I am talking about on this blog and you'll find it coming up again and again. Last year I wrote a series of posts on the subject:

If anybody can suggest a better term than "Crunchy", something less pejorative and more mellifluous, I'd sure be happy to use it. Setting aside all the pseudoscience for a moment, Crunchiness, in its opposition to BAU, is on the right track.

Anyway, if you actually take the time and make the effort to understand how science works and what the current scientific consensus is, you'll realize that it does not particularly support either of these ideologies. But for a great many people, who don't have any real background in science, the combination of conflicting ideologies and pseudoscience is extremely misleading.

One unfortunate side effect of this is that a great deal of worry and effort is wasted on problems that nothing need be done about (because the risk is vanishingly small), or that nothing can be done about (because solutions are beyond our reach). Risk assessment is the key to avoiding this sort of thing.

Ask yourself four things when considering any particular problem or threat:

  1. Risk: what is the likelihood of this happening?
  2. Severity: what are the consequences if this does happen?
  3. Difficulty: how hard will it be to do something about this?
  4. Timescale: how soon will this happen?

If you study up on any existential threat, you'll find reliable experts who have already considered the problem and have a lot of wisdom to offer.

Based on the answers you find to each of those questions, you will decide to worry or not:

  • If risk is small, there isn't much to worry about and little need to plan a response.
  • If the severity is small, same conclusion.
  • If it would be easy to do something about the threat, you may want to take some action even if the risk and/or severity are small. If response is difficult then it will require detailed planning and the mobilization of forces beyond yourself. And you will need time to mount a response.
  • Sometimes it is simply not possible to stop a threat from happening, so the action we can realistically take consists of preparing to cope its effects.
  • If the timescale is short, you'll want to plan and act immediately. Preferably to draw on resources you already have in place.
  • If the timescale is long then you may use that time to plan and mobilize your response, or, you may decide to just watch and wait until it is more clear what's going to happen and when. Of course, ignoring threats that are on a long timeline is a tempting but dangerous approach. Eventually that timeline will get a lot shorter.

You'll plan a response based on the nature of the threat and follow up with action, or go and look for something else to worry about. After the first few times you run through your list of threats, you will already have made plans and started to implement them, so the time for worry is over. Of course, you'll always want to keep a "weather eye" out for trouble that you haven't anticipated, or established threats that have changed and now require a different response.

There are a few challenges involved with this approach that we should consider here.

How to identify a reliable expert is certainly one of those challenges. Unfortunately the letters "Dr." in front of a name is no guarantee that someone is either an expert or reliable. I can recommend only skepticism, critical thinking and learning to identifying the many types of bias and the sort of dirty tricks used by those producing pseudoscience. After a while you will develop at sort of "BS" detector that goes off when you are confronted with pseudoscience. A big part of that is knowing what the current scientific consensus says and being skeptical about claims that contradict that consensus. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And it is reassuring to find many researchers turning up the same findings, and interpreting them in similar ways.

Some will be eager to point out that scientists working for business concerns are certainly not reliable and their work just can't be trusted, as it will be biased to the advantage of the company. Sometimes this is true, but just as often it is not true. Your evaluation of that work must be based on the evidence, not on ideology—theirs, or yours.

Evaluating risk can also be quite challenging. In my experience there are a couple of particular pitfalls that people encounter. There are probably more, but these are the ones I know personally.

People often look at risk as being "monotonic". That is, if something is dangerous in large quantities, it must also be dangerous in small quantities—it may take longer for the harm to become evident, but there is still harm. This certainly sounds reasonable, but in most cases it is simply not true. Take radiation as an example. There is no doubt that ionizing radiation can kill in large quantities. This makes it frightening and since it can't be seen and is poorly understood, many people don't want to have anything to do with it, assuming that any release of radiation will affect them negatively.

But life on earth has been dealing with small quantities of radiation since day one and has evolved mechanisms for coping with the "background radiation". Most releases of radiation result in a barely detectable increase in the background and are not a serious concern. Of course, if you work in the nuclear industry, where there is the chance of exposure to significant amounts of radiation, you should take safety procedures seriously. And that brings me to my second risk evaluation pitfall.

The majority of the people I worked with during my career in the electrical transmission and distribution industry were quite brave. We often worked in close proximity to serious hazards and while a healthy respect was vital, outright fear would have been crippling. So far, so good. But some of the hazards we encountered were less straightforward. If there is a one in ten chance of serious injury, essentially everyone will take the appropriate precautions. But at some level of decreasing risk, many people will decide to just accept the risk, rather than do much about it. Especially if the precautions they are expected to take (procedures and protective equipment) are rather onerous.

At what level of risk is that a reasonable response? One in a million? Probably. But what about one chance in a thousand? My experience is that there is a range of risk that is significant, but many people find hard to take seriously. The trouble is, if a large population is exposed to the risk on a regular basis, the odds good are that someone is going to get hurt fairly soon. That's why the safety rules are written and why supervisors (me at one point) have to enforce them, even if they didn't take them so serious when they were workers. Something to keep in mind when evaluating risks.

One final thing I should point out—it seems to me that mankind as a whole is at or just past the peak of our ability to respond to large existential threats. From here on in, as collapse proceeds, it's all a bumpy downhill ride. The best we will be able to do, in a great many cases, is to mitigate the effects of what is coming. And since it appears that governments aren't interested in, and increasing don't have the resources to organize such a response, this will have to be done on an individual, family, or at most, community level.

So, what are some of these threats? I've divided them into two groups: non-anthropogenic (not manmade) and anthropogenic (manmade), and I'll be covering them in my next two posts.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

What I've Been Reading, February 2017

Up until a few weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time on Facebook. So much so that more important things--writing this blog, as well as things in the real world away from the computer, were suffering. So, I gave up on the majority of things I was doing on Facebook. Such as:

  • spreading the word about the scientific consensus to those who have been fooled by the organic farming, health food and alternative medicine industries
  • trying to convince conventional farmers that their industry isn't sustainable.
  • "liking" and reposting articles about American politics--they are just going to have to get along without my input.
  • likewise for Canadian politics

As far as getting out the word about Peak Oil, Climate Change, economic contraction and collapse, I'd like to think this blog is a better vehicle than Facebook. I'm still posting links to my blog posts on the Facebook Peak Oil Group and a few other select places where the audience is receptive.

I'm no longer keeping Facebook tab open in my browser. For Facebook friends who'd like to reach me via Facebook messaging, I have the messaging application installed on my desktop, so I'll still get your messages, without having to open up Facebook and expose myself to temptation.

With some extra time now available, in addition to more writing, I am doing more reading, and I have noticed that I miss being able to post links to the interesting articles that I've found on the net and the good books that I've been reading. For some time I'd been think about doing a once-a-month post herer, consisting of links and books and this was just the added incentive I needed.

So, here we go. Other than being divided into links, fictional books and non-fictional books, these are in not grouped according to subject, nor are they in any particular order.



I've been reading for well over 50 years, so in addition to books I've read in the last month or so, I'll be including some that I've read less recently. It will take me a while to catch up.



Friday, 17 February 2017

The Biggest Lie

Lake Huron Shore
at Kincardine, Feb 16, 2017

For quite a while now I've been promising that I'd get around to talking about collapse: why I believe it's what lies ahead or, more accurately, what's already happening; the sort of collapse I'm expecting; the way it's going to unfold; and what we can do about coping with it.

Now, finally, I am going to get started on this, with a discussion about "Business As Usual" (BAU) and why I think a continuation of things as they are is among our least likely futures. If you try to discuss this with people who aren't already kollapsniks, you'll find it is not a popular subject. I can see a couple of reasons for this.

First, thanks to the media, collapse has come to mean apocalypse—the sort of rapid and disastrous change that results in a world like that portrayed in movies like Mad Max, The Road or Terminator. If you've been convinced that collapse is a swift, sure and final disaster, there's little wonder that you wouldn't want to dwell on the idea and would prefer to keep BAU going for as long as possible.

Second, many people see themselves as benefitting from BAU. In the short run they are probably right. These are the kind of people who have a certain amount (in some cases rather a lot) of power and influence. They don't want to consider anything that might "upset the apple cart", so to speak.

Of course, many other people aren't doing quite so well. Rob Mielcarski*, in a blog post titled It’s Time to Get Real: Trump’s a Symptom, Not the Problem comments that lower and middle class citizens around the world are angry for good reasons:

  • Their incomes have been stagnant or falling despite governments telling them the economy is strong.
  • Their cost of living for things that matter has been rising despite governments telling them inflation is low.
  • They see the upper class getting richer and not being punished for crimes.
  • They carry a high debt load and see that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.
  • For the first time in a long time they worry that the future may be worse than the present.
  • They sense that something is broken and that leaders are not speaking the truth.

But even these people don't want to want to talk about the demise of BAU—they just want it fixed so that it works for them as well as for the rich and powerful. Politicians are clever enough to realize that by promising to make such fixes they can win the support and votes of these folks. The pitch is that with just a few changes to the system—just some fine tuning, really—BAU can be made to work for everyone and as well as it "used to" in some mythical time a few decades ago when everything was good. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populist parties in many countries is proof that this is a winning political strategy. At least in the short run.

I'll go into much more detail in an upcoming post, but it seems to me that the changes promised by Trump et al, for instance, aren't likely to fix what's wrong with the world. Details aside, there is a simple reason for this—their strategy is based on a lie.

Richard Heinberg** recently put it this way:

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

There are some unstated assumptions built into BAU, assumptions that are seriously flawed. As David Holmgren*** points out:

At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussions of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.

  • Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
  • There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
  • Economic activity, globalization and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
  • The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
  • Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
  • Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.

If you have faith in BAU, this is what you believe in—probably without even realizing it. Holmgren intends this to be a list of improbabilities so extreme that the reader will see there is simply no chance that BAU can continue for much longer. I agree. But we have grown so far out of touch with reality that I fear many will look at that list and say, "So what's the problem?" And for those of us who do see a problem with some of these ideas, there are a couple more ideas that are often stated as reassurances to anyone expressing doubts:

The first is "infinite substitutability", the idea put forth by main stream economists that as resources become depleted they become more expensive and this creates the incentive to develop substitutes. They think this is the answer to resource depletion and that it has no limits.

The second is "decoupling", the idea that we can develop technology that will allow a continually growing economy (sustainable development) which does not place an ever increasing burden on the environment, allowing BAU to continue on without limits.

But these two ideas are at least as unrealistic as the ones that Holmgren lists. They stem from some serious misconceptions:

First, the view of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, ignoring its vital inputs (energy and materials) and outputs (waste heat and pollution). Because supplies of energy and materials, and sinks to absorb waste heat and pollution are all finite, there are real, concrete limits to how long BAU can go on.

And second, the idea that technology can continue to advance at an ever increasing pace—the supposed "law of accelerating returns". This comes from mistaking an "S" or logistical curve that levels off after a period of rapid increase for one that continues rising toward a singularity. It is true that technology has enabled us to inch up closer to those planetary limits over the last century or so—"kicking the can" down the road every time trouble looms ahead of us (excuse the mixed metaphors). But think back to my recent posts (1, 2) on Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies—we have done this by adding complexity to our global industrial society. Complexity comes with ever decreasing marginal returns on our investments in it. And it is powered by energy, of which there is a limited supply.

Already we have picked the low hanging fruit of energy and mineral resources, supplies of fresh water and arable land. There is good reason to think that the same thing is happening with technological innovation—we've done the easy parts, which have given us unwarranted confidence in what remains to be achieved with technology. But further advances will be much harder to develop, cost more, and bear diminishing returns.

Substitutability is running into limits as resources become more depleted—we are finding that there simply are no substitutes for many resources. And there is no evidence that decoupling is happening to any significant extent, or ever was.

So, BAU is based on growth, and a lie about the long term viability of growth. If growth is the problem, then why do we need growth? What if we stopped growing? A close look at the underlying structure of BAU reveals it is not structured to work without continued growth.

Economic growth is necessary in BAU because our financial system is based on credit. It creates money by issuing debt, which must be paid back with interest. If businesses are to pay that interest as well as the principle, they must grow. Likewise, individuals who borrow to finance education or housing early in their lives must make more money later in their lives to pay off those loans with interest. Population growth is also necessary since it supports economic growth. And since the younger generation supports the older generation in their old age (either directly or via taxes), the younger generation must be larger if this is not to be an onerous burden.

Last fall I wrote a series of posts about the book The Limits to Growth which examines in detail the consequences of growth using system dynamic computer simulations. This is the "discussion about planetary limits" that Heinberg was referring to. If you haven't read those posts, it's worth having a quick look.

The Limits to Growth study makes it clear that there really are limits to growth and if we try to exceed those limits, instead of accepting and living within them, the consequences will be severe. The standard run of the LTG world model, which assumes things just continue on as usual, ends with a drastic drop off of human population in the latter half of this century. Resource depletion and pollution result in a failure to produce adequate food supplies and essential services. Indeed every run of the model that tried to find a way around the limits ended in similar results. Those results were avoided only in the runs where a way was found to control our population and live within our limits.

Of course, that study was done in the early 1970s. In 2017 resource depletion and pollution (especially climate change) have progressed much farther and our population has more than doubled. I'd say there is every reason to doubt that a collapse can be avoided, regardless of what we do.

In the light of all this, then, is there anything at all that can be done to mitigate the situation?

Well yes, actually. While BAU is fundamentally, structurally flawed and trying to keep it working will only make the situation worse, there is much that could be done to slow its demise, make sure that collapse doesn't take us as far down as is otherwise might, and to make the crash when we hit bottom as gentle as possible.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled A Political Fantasy, exploring what enlightened governments could do to achieve this, if they weren't saddled with political realities.

If, like me, you have little faith in governments doing the right thing to any significant extent, the good news is that there are also a great many things that can be done to mitigate collapse at the individual, family and local community level. And that is why I want to discuss collapse with people.

In my next few posts I'll be talking about the course that I expect collapse to take, the political realities that will contribute to this and what we can do to cope.

* Rob Mielcarski is a fellow blogger, who I met when he commented on one of my blog posts. He is very concerned about human overshoot and the damage we are doing to a very rare and precious planet, and deeply fascinated by the depth and breadth of our denial of the situation.

** Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He is the author of thirteen books, and presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

*** David Holmgren is an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator and writer. He is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept with Bill Mollison. His website Future Scenarios looks at Four Energy Descent and Climate Scenarios.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Seeing Like a State

This time we'll be taking a quick look at James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

My purpose in reviewing Seeing Like a State is to draw attention to some concepts which I had never really thought about before reading this book. Awareness of these concepts has helped clarify my thinking since then. Or so it seems to me. As with my last post, I hope this may be helpful to my fellow Canadians. I certainly don't intend to speak down to my countrymen—they lean in a direction of which I heartily approve. But when it comes to evaluating the worth (or worthlessness) of states, a different approach is required here, where we are proudly carrying on with our experiment in progressive social democracy, than when talking to people from south of the border, whose newly elected leadership seems eager to dismantle much of their government.

I read this book a couple of years ago and there wasn't really time in the schedule I'd set myself currently to give it a thorough re-reading. So I went looking on the internet and found several detailed reviews and a youtube video of the author discussing the book.

As Scott says in the video, the essence of the thing is in the first 15 pages, the rest of it is just examples to prove the point.

Scott published this book in 1998, after he'd done his initial work on hill societies in Southeast Asia. He had noticed, and was trying to understand why:

...the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around"... In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill people on the one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarizations) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.

The more I examined those efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central project of statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it know precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed "map" of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to "translate" what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.

In order for a state to succeed in its projects, it needs control and to effectively exercise control it needs intelligence—information about its land and its people.

How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral (tax) surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

This project of making society legible has been going on for centuries and where I live it is pretty much complete. But my wife and I both grew up on farms that didn't have street numbers. You can bet there were lot numbers for tax purposes, but nobody bothered with them for addresses. We knew where we lived and so did our neighbours—it just wasn't a problem for any of the locals, and mail came to "general delivery" at the local post office. It was only in the process setting up the 911 emergency call system, in the 1990s, that every house and farm in Bruce County was finally given a number. In rural areas, those numbers are now proudly displayed at the end of our driveways, so the police, fire and ambulance drivers can find us when we need them.

There was a time (and it's still the case in the third world) when even cities didn't have maps, street names were very informal and houses didn't have numbers on them. Only the people who lived in a neighbourhood could reliably find their way around it. Very inconvenient for strangers, but awfully handy for a local trying not to be found...

The concept of legibility is the first new idea I encountered in this book. We in the modern world are immersed in legibility and, in most cases, hardly aware of it. Even some politicians—governing ones—seem to be unaware of it. Steven Harper (a former Canadian Prime Minister) comes to mind, doing away with our "long form" census, because he didn't want to collect (and be confused by) facts that didn't fit his ideology.

Anyway, the government knows where we live, how much we make in a year, our phone number, the license number, make and colour of the car we drive, and so forth. Most of us accept this very meekly. It enables government to deliver the services we count on and to some it seems that legibility is only a disadvantage to criminals or those who actively oppose the state. I'd say, yes, but only if the state is using all that information to do what you want it to. This isn't always so, especially for those who don't fit so well in the one-size-fits-all mold that states tend to stamp out for their citizens.

And that leads us to another concept that goes along with legibility: simplification. The world is a very complex place, full of distracting details, most of which we ignore. This is true for individuals in day to day life, but even more so for states. There are a great many details that a state simply cannot afford to be interested in. What it needs is a synopsis that contains just the information which is significant to its projects. Who's to say what's significant? Well, therein lies a whole range of problems.

When I was the foreman of a crew of electricians, my boss frequently grew frustrated with my usual answer to his questions, which was: "it depends". He wanted a simple yes or no, but often the situation just wasn't that simple and my point was that if he was willing to let a little more information through his filters he'd be able to make better decisions.

Having acquired a measure of legibility, modern states set about a number of huge development fiascos.

But "fiasco" is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind . The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivizations in Russia and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia are among the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasilia or Chandigarh) that have failed their residents.

It is not so difficult to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects or linguistic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

Scott identifies four elements, the combination of which leads to such tragedies. The first is the simplification that comes with legibilitiy.

The second element is what I call a high modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.

When I first encountered this it was another new concept for me, but when you look at it closely, it is nothing more than the religion of progress. In fact, I've rarely seen that faith so clearly described:

High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rational organized city, village, or large farm was one that looked regimented and orderly in the geometric sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization: the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.

By themselves, though, legibility, simplification, and an ideology like high modernism are not enough to do much real harm. A couple more elements are necessary for that.

The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.

A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarians state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.

But why is it that these four elements, when combined, have led to disaster?

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functional social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowances for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.

Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisations in the face of unpredictability. ...I contrast the high-modernist views and practices of city planners and revolutionaries with critical views emphasizing process, complexity, and open-endedness.

...I attempt to conceptualize the nature of practical knowledge and to contrast it with more formal, deductive epistemic knowledge. The term mētis, which descends from classical Greek and denotes the knowledge that can come only from practical experience, serves as a useful portmanteau word for what I have in mind. Here I should acknowledge my debt to anarchist writers (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Proudhon) who consistently emphasize the role of mutuality as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination in the creation of social order. Their understanding of the term "mutuality" covers some but not all of the same ground I mean to cover with "mētis."

Scott acknowledges that from today's perspective, a critique of the failings of high modernism is like a kind of quaint archaeology. Central planning has long since fallen out of favour.

...States with the pretensions and power that I criticize have for the most part vanished or drastically curbed their ambitions. And yet, as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.

There is much fertile ground today for the sort of thing Scott was talking about. Take out high modernism, substitute in the current ideological fad and combine it with legibility, simplification, a generous dash of authoritarianism and an unsuspecting populace and away we go. We must remember, when getting rid of a bad government, not to usher in something even worse. Right wing populism, techno optimism and eco-modernism come to mind as ideologies that I would really rather not have forced on me or my community. Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have already done enough harm. All these are certainly just as uncritical, unskeptical, and unscientifically optimistic as high-modernism.

Scott goes on for 9 more chapters with a plethora of examples illustrating his thesis. This review discusses them in some detail, if you're interested. It also has some criticism of Scott's ideas, which I think is probably somewhat unfair.

In several places in the book Scott mentions Jane Jacobs, whose activism against, and critique of, modern urban planning I had not previously been introduced to. Here is a biographically article about her that is well worth reading.

This is the last book review I'll be doing for a while. Next time I'll finally get around to talking about what I see as lying ahead of us—the slow and tortuous collapse of industrial civilization. Of course, many people I run into think I am being needlessly dramatic. They would say that business as usual is still in pretty good shape and has a long future ahead of it. I'll begin with why I think that is the single biggest lie we are being told these days.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Art of Not Being Governed

This time we'll be taking a quick look at a book by James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. This is a scholarly work and heavy going to read, but I think I can, for a change, distill the ideas that are relevant to our discussion here down to fit into a single blog post.

Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism. He is currently teaching Agrarian Studies and Rebellion, Resistance and Repression.

I am writing this post with my fellow Canadians in mind. States have to work at retaining their citizens, either by coercion or by providing sufficient benefits to balance the cost of maintaining the state, a burden which is borne by the populace. Traditionally there has been a striking degree of inequality between the upper classes who operate the state and the rest of the people. This is simply because those who are running things take advantage of their power to make sure that the surpluses created by economic activity are allocated to them and not to the people doing the work.

Here in Canada, we have been very fortunate in the 150 year history of our country to have had legitimate governments, with a minimum of corruption and a pretty steady effort to rule for the good of the country and its people. We do have party politics so of course there are disagreements as to exactly what that good might be. And we do have some inequality, with the rich having a disproportionate share of political power, though less so than in many countries. But I think there is broad agreement that while our system might benefit from minor tweaks in one direction or another, the idea behind it is basically solid.

And to a certain extent I can agree with this. It is an essential element of the human condition that we work together in groups for our mutual benefit. And this can work very well, but when the group gets larger than Dunbar's number (around 150) there are costs associated with organizing and administration, costs which increase disproportionally as the group gets larger.

Those costs are paid mainly in terms of energy and only the onetime windfall of fossil fuels has made possible an organization as large as our modern global civilization. But as fossil fuel depletion progresses, states are finding themselves less able to provide the benefits that they rely on to maintain their legitimacy. More and more of their citizens are beginning to wonder if the social contract is such a good deal.

Canada is no exception, although we are not quite as far along this curve as many other countries. Most Canadians don't realize that the good times we've had here have been made possible by generous amounts of energy from our huge forests, large amounts of falling water and, of course, generous reserves of fossil fuels. We certainly don't want to admit that we face the depletion of our energy resources, even though we certainly do—just like other countries.

Anyway, my intention here is not to dwell on energy issues, but rather to introduce the idea that having a government and being governed may not always be such a fine proposition. That's why I'm reviewing The Art of Not Being Governed. It talks specifically about "the anarchist history of upland southeast Asia", and more generally the ongoing conflict between the expansionary state and its agents on the one hand and the zones of relative autonomy and their inhabitants on the other. Historically speaking, those zones have been able to maintain some degree of autonomy because their geography made them difficult to subdue. Only in the most recent era have states gained sufficient power (fossil fuels again) to make subduing those zones an achievable project.

When Europeans reached Southeast Asia we found it populated by "civilized" valley people and "wild" hill people. The initial assumption was that the hill people were the remnants of the original inhabitants, who had never yet been "civilized". It turns out that this was wrong—but we'll get to that in a bit....

The area was settled not more that 60,000 years ago, and...

the region's first small concentrations of sedentary people appeared not earlier than one millenium before the common era (CE) and represent a mere smudge in the historical landscape—localized, tenuous and evanescent. Up until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been a standard human condition.

The founding of agrarian states, then, was the contingent event that created a distinction between a settled, state-governed population and a frontier penumbra of less governed or virtually autonomous peoples. Until at least the early nineteenth century, the difficulties of transportation, the state of military technology, and, above all, demographic realities placed a sharp limit on the reach of even the most ambitious states. Operating at a population density of 5.5 persons per square kilometer in 1600 (compared with 35 for India and China), a ruler's subjects in Southeast Asia had relatively easy access to a vast, land rich frontier. That frontier operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device—the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had. The frontier underwrote popular freedom. Richard O'Connor captures this dialectic nicely:"Once states appeared, adaptive conditions changed yet again—at least for farmers. At that moment mobility allowed farmers to escape the impositions of states and their wars. I call this tertiary dispersion. The other two revolutions—agriculture and complex society—were secure but the state's domination of its peasantry was not, and so we find a strategy of 'collecting people... and establishing villages.'"

So people were rounded up and put to work at rice paddy agriculture. This yields a high productivity in terms of the amount of food produced per land area, though it is quite labour intensive. Still, there were some advantages to such a settled existence, enough to keep the peasants around as long as the demands of the state did not grow too onerous.

There were always taxes in the form of a share of the rice crop and a certain number of days of labour on state projects or service in the army. If the ruler decided to build a new temple or palace, or wage yet another war against a neighbouring state and those taxes became too high, it was not too difficult for the peasants to head for the hills where it would be hard for the agents of the state to track you down. There they could take up a life of nomadic slash and burn agriculture, growing mainly root vegetables which are harder for state officials to find and take. And of course the forest itself provided much in the way of food and other useful materials, some of which were luxuries not available in the valleys that could be traded for goods that couldn't be produced in the hills.

So it turns out that, by the time Europeans arrived, the population of hill people was made up almost entirely of escaped peasants from the valleys and their descendants. Scott goes into a great deal of detail about the societies of the hill people in highland Southeast Asia (what he calls "Zomia"), but I think the idea is clear: that living in a state was often a chancy proposition and many people did just fine on their own.

As Scott says:

Any effort to examine history as part of a deliberate political choice runs smack against a powerful civilizational narrative. That narrative consists of a historical series arranged as an account of economic, social and cultural progress. With respect to livelihood strategies, the series, from most primitive to most advanced, might be: foraging/hunting gathering, pastoral nomadism, horticulture/shifting cultivation, sedentary fixed field agriculture, irrigated plow agriculture, industrial agriculture. With respect to social structure. again from most primitive to most advanced, the series might read: small bands in the forest or savannah, hamlets, villages, towns, cities, metropolises. These two series are, of course, essentially the same; they chart a growing concentration of agricultural production (yield per unit land) and a growing concentration of population in larger agglomerations. First elaborated by Giovani Battista Vico in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the narrative derives it hegemonic status not only from its affinity with social Darwinism but from the fact that it maps nicely on the stories most states and civilizations tell about themselves. The schema assumes movement in a single direction toward concentrated populations and intensive grain production, no backsliding is envisioned; each step is irreversible progress.

As an empirical description of demographic and agricultural trends in the now-industrialized world for the past two centuries (and the past half-century in poorer nations) this schema has much to be said for it . Europe's nonstate ("tribal") populations had, for all practical purposes, disappeared by the eighteenth century, and the non-state population of poorer countries is diminished and beleaguered.

My readers will no doubt recognize this story as the same one told by the religion of progress, missing only the conclusion where we shake off the chains of gravity and head for the stars. But is this the only story that history has to tell us? Scott thinks not:

As an empirical description of premodern Europe or of most poor nations until the twentieth century, and as an empirical description of the hilly areas of Southeast Asia (Zomia), this narrative is profoundly misleading. What the schema portrays is not simply a self-satisfied normative account of progress but a gradient of successive stages of incorporation into state structures. Its stages of civilization are, at the same time, an index of diminishing autonomy and freedom. Until quite recently, many societies and groups have abandoned fixed cultivation to take up shifting agriculture and foraging. They have, by the same token, altered their kinship systems and social structure and dispersed into smaller and smaller settlements. The actual archeological record in peninsular Southeast Asia reveals a long term oscillation between foraging and farming depending, it would seem, on the conditions. What to Vico would have seemed to be lamentable backsliding and decay was for them a strategic option to circumvent the many inconveniences of state power.

He goes on to look at several historical examples of this sort of "escape agriculture" in Europe and the Americas. I am reminded of what we covered in my last post on Joseph Tainter's book about the Collapse of Complex Societies: collapse may not be such a disaster if the populace has access to land and can grow their own food. "Escape agriculture" would seem to fit the bill and indeed seems to be pretty much what did happen with many collapsing societies—the peasants voted with their feet and left the state and the upper classes to fend for themselves.

Of course, in the modern world, things are a little different.

The level of comfort and convenience experienced by the populace in modern high energy societies is unprecedented. Royalty in the past did not live so well as our middle class. People are understandably unwilling to give this up. Modern medicine, especially when provided free of charge by the state, provides a huge opportunity for a state to legitimize itself and a wonderful argument for its citizen to stay put, even if the taxes are high.

Despite all this, there are still people who dream of going off grid and practicing "escape agriculture". But those who actually succeed in doing so are a very small percentage of the population. And having decided to escape, where can one go? The options are limited—the world is very full and the hinterlands have shrunk in size and remain in only the least desirable areas.

Furthermore, escape is now much harder to do. Aerial and satellite photography, the global positioning systems, and motorized vehicles, especially aircraft, have rendered the most rugged terrain much more accessible than it was even a century ago. If they really want to catch you, they likely can.

I've been observing a trend, though, that may set all this on its head.

Modern states are now beginning to feel the pinch of resource depletion and economic contraction. Their tax base is shrinking while at the same time (due to unemployment and the demographic bulge of the baby boom) the social safety net is growing more expensive to maintain.

A few countries have raised taxes, redistributing a shrinking pool of wealth to reduce economic inequality. This seems to actually make the economy work better and slow the downhill slide. It will be interesting to see how they cope as things get worse.

Most countries are loath to raise taxes, and have borrowed and accumulated large debts on the assumption that things will get better down the road. This makes their economies even worse and increases inequality. The next step, already underway, is to cut social spending, basically abandoning those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Many of these people end up homeless and starving. Tent cities have sprung up in or just outside a great many North American cities. Sadly, in response to this, many communities (if they can really be called that) have responded by essentially making homelessness illegal, bulldozing tent cities and driving the inhabitants away.

It would seem that people abandoned by the state should find escape agriculture a good alternative. There are even examples of such folks starting gardens, only to have them plowed under by the authorities. These days, all the land is owned by someone and even if it is not being farmed, it is unlikely to be made available to the homeless. At some point, though, the state may not have the resources to harass the poor or to protect land that is not being used. Perhaps the state could just come to the realization that unused land and abandoned people are a good fit, and simply stand back and let those people do what they want.

Some will say that we need every square inch of land to grow food for the growing human population. I have two comments about how that is likely to go as collapse progresses: first, at some point population will quit growing and start to decline; and second, as the rich countries become poorer and less capable, they will be less able and less inclined to help poorer nations and even the poor within their own borders.

I'll be considering the possibilities that lie in that direction a few posts down the road.

Next time I'll be looking at another book by James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. In the meantime, check out YouTube for some videos featuring James C. Scott.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Collapse of Complex Societies, Part 2

In my last post I started a review of Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

In that post, we saw Tainter develop his theory that complex societies collapse because of diminishing marginal returns on investments in complexity. He makes these observations:

  1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. sociopolitical system require energy or their maintenance;
  3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  4. investments in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns

I quoted Tainter on how, as marginal returns decline, societies find themselves spending so much on maintaining complexity that they don't have the resources to adequately responding to stress—various sorts of emergencies and disasters. I should have mentioned that this can also be looked at in terms of optimization and resilience. In order to minimize those decreasing marginal returns, complex systems are usually optimized as much as possible. That is to say, they are made as efficient as possible in terms of their intended output under ideal conditions. Unfortunately, this inevitable reduces their adaptability and resiliency. Such systems are very brittle and when even fairly minor things go wrong they tend to break (collapse) where a more resilient system would have been able to adapt and carry on.

He also makes it clear (to me, anyway) that adding complexity is our preferred strategy. Even when we reach the point where we are working as hard as we can to just maintain the status quo, we are very reluctant to simplify things. This would seem to imply that our path of progress from the caves to the stars is fated to be interrupted on occasion by collapse, and perhaps stopped altogether.

Of course, these ideas are very unwelcome to those of us who have been raised in the religion of progress. We have been taught that progress makes things work better, makes life more convenient and comfortable and holds great hope for the future. But very little is said about what it all costs. It is pretty clear to me that progress amounts to increasing complexity, even if some of that complexity is hidden. My dad's first car, for instance, (a Model T Ford) had a manual choke and manual spark advance and starting it took quite a bit of skill. Today the latest models have push button start which takes care of all those details and works pretty much every time. Much simpler you might say, but have a look under the hood and you'll find that it takes a lot of hidden complexity to achieve this "simplicity".

When I first read this book, I was unwilling to even accept the idea of decreasing marginal productivity. Even though Tainter offers extensive examples and statistics in Chapter 4 to show that this is indeed so. Whether it is agriculture, resource production, manufacturing, information processing, sociopolitical control, specialization or overall economic productivity—the law of decreasing returns does indeed apply. Indeed, it is one of the few areas of economics in which we have enough confidence to call a "law".

But what I couldn't understand is how you could have decreasing productivity when yields have been going up significantly. Of course, what we are talking about here is decreases in marginal productivity.

To use terminology from agriculture, the yields per acre have indeed improved. But the amount of additional (marginal) effort required has grown for each successive improvement. Effort means energy. Traditionally that meant muscle power, human or animal. Today we have achieved great reductions in the amount of muscle power required in agriculture, but only because we have learned to use energy (in the form of fossil fuels) directly to drive machines or manufacture fertilizers and pesticides. With all this, agriculture has become an increasingly complex endeavour which consumes more energy than ever before. And over the last couple of decades yields have started to level off despite heroic measures to improve them.

Another illustration of this is the development of the coal-based economy in England, covered by Tainter in chapter 4 of this book. One commonly hears the switchover to coal extolled as a great leap forward, due to the greater BTUs per unit weight to be had from burning coal. Unfortunately, that viewpoint suffers from a certain amount of tunnel vision.

Jumps in population at around AD 1300, 1600 and in the eighteenth century, led to intensification in agriculture and industry and as land was increasingly deforested to provide fuel and agricultural space, basic heating, cooking and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. A shift to reliance on coal began, gradually and with apparent reluctance. Coal was definitely a fuel source of secondary desirability, being more expensive to obtain and distribute than wood as well as being more dirty and polluting... Mining of coal from the ground was more costly than obtaining a quantity of wood of equal heating value and became ever more costly as the most accessible reserves were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater problems became a serious problem. Ultimately the steam engine was developed to pump water out of mines, using some of the coal as a power source...

The increased costliness per unit of thermal value in the initial shift from wood to coal is apparent, but unfortunately good data on returns to energy investment are not available before the recent period. Modern data not only illustrate the trend quantitatively, but indicates that the process of declining marginal returns is continuing.

That was written in 1988. It is interesting to note, from our vantage point in 2017, that coal mining in the UK peaked in 1913 and finally came to an end in 2015.

Another aspect of increasing complexity is that, in order to minimize those decreasing marginal returns, complex systems are usually optimized as much as possible. That is to say, they are made as efficient as possible in terms of their intended output. Unfortunately, this inevitable reduces thier adaptability and resiliency. Such systems are very brittle and when even fairly minor things go wrong they tend to break (collapse) where a more resilient system would have been able to adapt and carry on.

In Chapter 5, Tainter takes a close look at three examples of collapse to see if his law of decreasing marginal productivity works as an explanation. These are The Western Roman Empire, The Classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands and The Chacoan Society of the American Southwest. Tainter goes into quite a bit of detail about each of these societies, but I'll just share his conclusions:

  1. In each of the cases examined, the costliness of complexity increased over time while the benefits to the population declined.
  2. In each substantial increased costs occurred late, shortly before the collapse, and these were imposed on a population already weakened by the previous pattern of decreasing marginal returns
  3. For Rome and Maya, population leveled off or declined before the collapse and the well-being of most people deteriorated. This seems to have come about from the demands of supporting such complex systems. It is not currently known whether something similar happened in the Chacoan case, but it is noteworthy that the number of Outliers participating in this system dropped prior to the final collapse. Quite possibly, Outlier communities, whose participation could not be enforced (unlike the Roman and Mayan cases), withdrew from the network before declining marginal productivity adversely affected their local populations.
  4. For the Maya and Chacoans, subsequent abandonment of their territories, and the lack of a substantial reoccupation by agricultural peoples, suggests that there was environmental deterioration during the period of growth. This may indicate that pressures of population on resources had more to do with the Mayan and Chacoan collapses than with that of Rome. The Roman case is very different, for the later Empire was decidedly under populated.
  5. In each case, people on the periphery (the northern European barbarians, the northern Maya, and the Western and Eastern Pueblos) rose to prominence after the older society had collapsed.

None of these cases can be completely understood by the explanations commonly advanced for them.

  1. The fall of Rome was not due to barbarians, for the Empire was economically, organizationally, and militarily stronger than the besiegers. And it was not due to internal weakness, for the Empire remained essentially intact for a period of several hundred years. Rome's collapse was due to the excessive costs imposed on the agricultural population to maintain a far-flung empire in a hostile environment.
  2. The fall of the Maya was not due to a peasant revolt, for peasants supported this civilization for over 1000 years. It was not due to invasions, for which there is unclear evidence and uncertain causality, nor to agricultural deterioration, for the evidence of agricultural intensification indicates that the Maya were fully capable of increasing the productivity of their environment. The collapse of the Maya civilization was due to the burdens of an increasingly costly society borne by an increasingly weakened population. Peasant dissatisfaction, foreign pressures, internal conflict, or an agricultural crisis may have provided a final, insurmountable challenge, but such a challenge was effective only because the Maya were following a course that made them vulnerable to collapse.
  3. The Chacoan collapse was not due to drought or environmental deterioration, for these were factors which the Chacoans were technically capable of dealing with, and indeed had previously done so. The regional populations of the San Juan Basin chose not to continue participating in the Chacoan network, nor to rise to the challenge of the final drought because the costs of doing so had grown too high in comparison to the advantages conferred. Collapse and migration were economically preferable.

This chapter began with the observation that the framework for explaining collapse could probably not be subjected to a formal, quantitative test. The alternative was to investigate three cases in detail, asking whether the framework developed in Chapter 4 helps us to understand why these societies collapsed. The results lead us to answer the question affirmatively: the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Southern Lowland Maya and the Chacoan society can be understood as responses to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity.

In Chapter 6 Tainter summarizes what he has been saying so far, and then considers the idea that collapse may not universally be a catastrophe:

...under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response.

What may be a catastrophe to administrators (and later observers) need not be to the bulk of the population... It may only be among those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources that the collapse of administrative hierarchies is a clear disaster. Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.

Tainter concludes by considering the implications for contemporary societies. And here I believe he finds himself in something of a state of denial. Or it may be that he felt a wholehearted endorsement of the idea that collapse lies in our future would have just been too much for his audiences to swallow. Tainter was well aware of the response experienced by The Limits to Growth.

He acknowledges that his findings certainly point to the possibility of collapse of our complex modern society and that such a collapse could be devastating because much of the population does not have the opportunity or ability to produce primary food resources. In addition to mentioning existential threats like comet strikes, he lists a number of scenarios for contemporary collapse:

  • nuclear war and associated climatic changes
  • increasing atmospheric pollution, leading to ozone depletion, climatic changes, saturation of global circulation patterns, and similar disasters
  • depletion of critical industrial resources
  • general economic breakdown, brought on by such things as unrepayable national and international debts, disruptions to fossil fuel availability, hyperinflation, and the like.

He even acknowledges that industrialism will someday have to deal with resource depletion and its own wastes. The major question is how far off the day is. And he admits that patterns of declining marginal returns can be observed in at least some contemporary industrial societies in the following areas: agriculture; mineral and energy production; research and development; investment in health and education; government, military and industrial management; productivity of GNP for producing new growth; and some elements of improved technical design.

He identifies two opposing reactions to all this: economists who believe the challenges we faces are all solvable economic dilemmas (to be solved by economic growth), and environmentalists who believe that stimulating economic growth can only hasten the inevitable crash and hold that we should be aiming for economic undevelopment (what is known today as "degrowth"). He says that both sides are ignoring key historical factors.

He proceeds to do a good job of debunking techno-optimism, talking clearly about what is wrong with the principle of infinite substitutability:

One problem with the principle of infinite substitutability is that it does not apply, in any simple fashion, to investments in organizational complexity. Sociopolitical organization, as we know, is a major arena of declining marginal returns, and one for which no substitute product can be developed. Economies of scale and advances in information-processing technology do help lower organizational costs, but ultimately these too are subject to diminishing returns.

A second problem is that the principle of infinite substitutability is, despite its title, difficult to apply indefinitely. A number of perceptive scientists, philosophers, and economists have shown that the marginal cost of research and development... have grown so high it is questionable whether technological innovation will be able to contribute as much to the solution of future problems as it has to past ones...

It is not that R&D cannot potentially solve the problems of industrialism. The difficulty is that to do so will require an increasing share of GNP. The principle of infinite substitutability depends on energy and technology. With diminishing returns to investment in scientific research, how can economic growth be sustained? The answer is that to sustain growth, resources will have to be allocated from other sectors of the economy into science and engineering. The result will likely be at least a temporary decline in the standard of living... The allocation of greater resources to science of course is nothing new, merely the continuation of a two century-old trend. Such investment, unfortunately, can never yield a permanent solution, merely a respite from diminishing returns.

But then, in my opinion, he goes astray. He says that historical collapses were all of complex societies functional in isolation. Today's world is full of complex societies in competition with each other, which (he asserts) changes things.

Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbour or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power, or by an international funding agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other.

His comments on degrowth are limited to this:

Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Competition among political peers drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.

I do not wish to suggest by this discussion that any major power would be quickly in danger of collapse were it not for this situation. Both the primary and secondary world powers have sufficient economic strength to finance diminishing returns well into the future.

It is amusing (and sad) that this was written very shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, during which the rest of the world stood by and declined to finance the USSR any further. Evidently, there was insufficient economic strength to finance diminishing returns.

Since then we have witnessed numerous cases where the world powers have stood by and allowed an assortment of small countries to undergo something very similar to collapse. Why? Because it didn't make economic sense to do anything else. Off the top of my head I would point to Cuba, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Greece and Venezuela.

The major powers are simply no longer ready to finance diminishing returns in those cases where there is no profit in it for them. The phenomena of "throwing them to the wolves", both in the case of small economically insignificant countries, and inconvenient groups and individuals within countries, is becoming standard procedure. Help from international funding agencies has turned out to be the kiss of death for developing countries. And people are very unwilling to support governments that call for austerity as a path to economic recovery (rightly so).

Tainter goes on to say (as have so many others) that a new energy subsidy beyond fossil fuels will be necessary to finance declining marginal returns, and even that will only be a temporary fix. He believed that the lack of a power vacuum and the resulting competitive spiral have given us a temporary reprieve in which to search for that energy subsidy.

There is both cause for optimism and pessimism in the current situation. We are in a curious position where competitive interactions force a level of investment, and a declining marginal return that might ultimately lead to collapse except that the competitor who collapses first will simply be dominated or absorbed or dominated by the survivor... fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve paradoxically both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.

Sorry, Mr. Tainter—in the event, that's not the way it turned out. Whatever reprieve there was in the closing days of the twentieth century has slipped between our fingers. In the twenty-first century, those who collapse are largely abandoned by those striving to avoid a similar fate.

This just goes to show you how difficult making predictions is, especially about the future. But none of that takes away in the least from the main message of this book, which I would say is rock solid—human societies use complexity to solve problems and because of declining marginal returns, those solutions are always temporary and often lead to collapse. This principle should be kept very much in mind by those of us who are trying understand the events unfolding around us in the world today.

I recommend reading the book, but there are also a quite a few videos featuring Joseph Tainter on YouTube.