First, the change of our climate away from the Holocene and into the Anthropocene is without any historical analog, even looking back hundreds of millions of years. Nafeez Mosadeq Ahmed terms this "Earth System Disruption."
Industrial civilization is undergoing a second geophysically driven change that will shake it to its roots. It has never happened before and it cannot happen again. You can call this “peak oil,” but as Richard Heinberg pointed out, it's really "peak everything."
The thin driving wedge that will crack open our assumptions about what is normal will be financial collapse, but that is just a reflection of what the peak oil community has been saying since M. King Hubbert presented a paper to the 1956 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute:
[W]e are living on a finite world and infinite growth of material consumption is simply not possible.
Nor, as Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned nearly half a century ago, is exponential population growth. Ahmed terms this "Human System Destabilization."
The unprecedented part — something few advocates for a renewables revolution yet grasp — is that each time humans moved from one dominant energy supply to the next it was towards greater caloric density at lower cost. We went from firewood to charcoal, to whale oil, to coal and coal gas, to petroleum and natural gas, and each time we got more bang for our buck, production and automation revolutionized, and our population and its footprint leaped another notch. After conventional oil peaked in the first years of the new millennium (just as Hubbert forecast in 1974), unconventional sources like fracked gas and oil shales filled the gap, but with a significant hitch — they cost more.
The same is true of renewables. We set aside discussion of nuclear energy here — even though it has the greatest power density of any — because that industry is a colossal con-game when it is not busy concealing its silent death toll. Even Hubbert was misled on that point. One might also boil water to make steam to make electricity by burning human embryos, children and old people, but it would cost more and have the same stranded ethics as atomic energy. Just imagine for a moment a gigawatt-sized Auschwitz- or Buchenwald-like furnace powering every major city. Fukushima is morally indistinguishable from that.
Solar and wind energy is now cheaper across much of the world than coal, oil or nuclear energy, but the real cost is not the market price, but rather the non-renewable components made from rare earths like ion-absorbing lanthanum, super-magnetic neodymium and luminescent, paramagnetic europium. At present China mines 90 percent of the world supply of those rare earths (at untold human and ecological cost) but a 2012 government assessment put the reserves to extraction ratio at 15, meaning a 15-year supply at then rates of removal.
Last week Barack Obama wrote for the peer-reviewed journal Science (with ghostwriting by John Holdren and Brian Deese):
[T]he business case for clean energy is growing, and the trend toward a cleaner power sector can be sustained regardless of near-term federal policies."
Unless a new Saudi Arabia of rare earths magically emerges in the next 10 years (or a date far sooner, given the exponential expansion of the solar industry), renewable energy will meet a hard biophysical limit.
After climate and energy, the third onrushing constraint to our present civilizational structure is “Whole System Disruption.” The global consumerist culture seems nearly oblivious to its dependence on a web of life — the inability of humans to go it alone. We seem unaware that our solar orbit is at the inner edge of the zone where biological life is possible this close to the Sun.
Our political capital — the wiring diagram for modern societies — is built on denying these three pillars — climate, peak everything and respect for limits. Dysfunctional systems have a way of disassembling themselves, with no assistance required. In his new book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Naffiz Ahmed gives the recent example of Syria (forgive the extended excerpt but this may soon be behind a paywall and it's worth it):
The conventional narrative of the causes and consequences of the 2011 'Arab Spring' tends to focus on the idea of a democratic deficit in the region as the primary trigger, but fails to integrate this with a wider vision of the range of factors involved.
It is increasingly recognized that climate change played a major role in establishing conditions of societal vulnerability for the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring (Johnstone and Mazo 2011). Others argue correctly that the uprisings of the Arab Spring itself were triggered by unprecedented global food price spikes, (Lagi et al. 2011) while still others show that peak oil occurred in Egypt and Syria prior to the uprisings (Hallock et al. 2014). However, these studies neglect the systemic interconnections across these different factors. They thus fail to offer a truly systemic understanding of these phenomena.
In reality, the string of state failures across the region, and the inexorable swing toward multiple conflicts spurred on by the rise of various Islamist militant groups, can be traced directly to ESD (Earth System Disruption) phenomena unravelling the local sub-systems underpinning state integrity. In short, HSD (Human System Destabilization) in the form of the escalation of political violence has been fueled by ESD driven by interconnected biophysical processes of climate change, energy depletion and food crises.
The collapse of Syria into internecine warfare is, as with the Arab Spring, largely viewed as a direct consequence of the extreme political repression of President Bashar al-Assad, and the competing role of outside powers. To that extent, international policy has focused on viewing the conflict through the lens of geopolitical interests and regional security.
There has been some important recognition that climate change played at least an indirect role in catalyzing the Syrian conflict by creating a drought that led to social pressures conducive to civil unrest. Yet there has been no recognition at all that a primary factor in the Syrian state's extreme vulnerability to such pressures was peak oil.
Prior to the onset of war, the Syrian state was experiencing declining oil revenues, driven by the peak of its conventional oil production in 1996 (Ahmed 2013). Even before the war, the country's rate of oil production had plummeted by nearly half, from a peak of just under 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) to approximately 385,000 bpd in 2010 (Department of State 2014).
Since the war, production dropped further still, once again by about half, as rebels took control of key oil producing areas. Faced with dwindling profits from oil exports and a fiscal deficit, the government was forced to slash fuel subsidies in May 2008—which at the time consumed 15 % of GDP. The price of petrol tripled overnight, fueling pressure on food prices (IRIN 2008).
The crunch came in the context of an intensifying and increasingly regular drought cycle linked to climate change. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has provided the most compelling research to date on how climate change amplified Syria's drought conditions, which in turn had a "catalytic effect" on civil unrest. The authors found that the 2007-2010 drought was the worst "in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers", and was made three times more likely than by natural variability alone: "We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict" (Kelley et al. 2015). Compounding the impact of climate change, between 2002 and 2008, the country's total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste (Worth 2010).
Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria has become increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports, which rose by one million tonnes in 2011-2012, then rose again by nearly 30% to about 4 million in 2012-2013. The drought ravaged Syria's farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority. The exodus inflamed sectarian tensions rooted in Assad's longstanding favouritism of his Alawite sect—many members of which are relatives and tribal allies — over the Sunni majority (Agrimoney 2012).
Syrian refugees in Bulgaria - Milwaukee Jewish Federation
Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics was increasingly repressive even by regional standards, while Assad's focus on IMF-backed market reform escalated unemployment and inequality. The new economic policies undermined the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empowered the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy. Then from 2010 to 2011, the global price of wheat doubled — fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities — impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad's inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation (Friedman 2013).
As of 2010, Syria's then 20 million-strong population had one of the highest growth rates in the world, at around 2.4 %. In the first two months of 2011 alone, Syria's population grew by a monumental 80,000 people, most of whom were concentrated in the poorest eastern regions most badly affected by drought conditions (Sands 2011). The food price hikes triggered the protests that evolved into armed rebellion, in response to Assad's indiscriminate violence against demonstrators. The rural town of Dara'a, hit by five prior years of drought and water scarcity with little relief from the government, was a focal point for the 2011 protests. The emerging Syrian conflict then paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups. Regional and international geopolitics fanned the flames of various rebel movements who moved into the widening vacuum of Syrian systemic state-failure to build new proto-state criminal enterprises.
Yet parallel processes have also been at play across the border, where ISIS is also active. US meteorologist Eric Holthaus specifically points out that the rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq, recognized as being the warmest on record to date, from March to May 2014. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have also played havoc with Iraq's agriculture. With water supplies dwindling, and agriculture waning, Iraq's US-backed Shi'ite-dominated government has largely failed to address these burgeoning challenges, even as ISIS has moved quickly to exploit these failures, for instance by using dams as a weapon of war. Holthaus points out that climate-induced droughts have accompanied rapid population growth and agricultural stagnation, both of which are straining the capacity of the central government to feed its own population and deliver basic goods and services. As that state-level failure has been exacerbated, ISIS has rapidly filled the vacuum (Holthaus 2014).
|Outgoing UN leader Ban Ki Moon and Bashar al-Assad|
“Too many leaders seem content to keep climate change at arm’s length, and in its policy silo. Too few grasp the need to bring the threat to the center of global security, economic and financial management.”
It is easy to understand why policymakers ignore the elephant in the room. In a 2015 study by the George C. Marshall Institute, Fossil Fuel Energy and Economic Wellbeing, the NeoCon think tank turned the need for change on its head, arguing that everything we’ve just argued above is a reason not to change.
Despite the obvious reliance of the entire world on fossil fuels and the prospect that such reliance is likely to continue for decades, particularly in the developing world, it has become fashionable to argue that such fuels must be phased down and perhaps discarded entirely. The targets tend to be longer range, but they involve drastic proportions. For example, the European Council calls for an 80-95% reduction in CO2 emissions in advanced countries by 2050 which, because fossil fuels account for the great majority of these emissions, almost certainly would require an enormous reduction in their use. In 2009 the Obama Administration pledged the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but made clear this is just a first step towards much more stringent goals in future years.Yes, mobility becomes extremely important when you are leaving an area struck by famine, having lost its energy and agricultural underpinnings, and climate change is beating at your back as you confront hard physical barriers like the Mediterranean or Caribbean Seas. The disconnect between the risk assigned to something that might potentially damage the global economy by reducing mobility and that assigned to the alternative — auguring near term human extinction within the space of a lifetime — is stark. It is only made possible by the denial of the three pillars of this analysis — ESD, HSD and WSD — which of course can only be expected by the author of the paper, an oil industry flack working in a right wing echo chamber. His variety of “fake news” is what provides a lavish standard of living for the legions of ear whisperers in the Power Zone.
***It is simply a mistake, conceptually and practically, to propose a drastic phasing out of fossil fuels. Even a relatively high cost assigned to anthropomorphic climate change does not imply such a phase-out, and given the tremendous value of these fuels to country economies everywhere, no such phase-out is likely.
***Worldwide gasoline consumption is at least 2 1⁄2 times U.S. consumption, so we are speaking of at least 25 billion miles traveled every day worldwide. This mobility enables people to take jobs they otherwise would find hard to access and to move about more within those jobs as needed. It also enables them to access more goods and services, visit family and friends more, etc. The result is that people are more productive than they otherwise would be, and are able to experience a higher quality of life. It is hard to overstate how important mobility is to people around the globe.
The curious thing about what just happened in 2016 is that mostly the ear whisperers were exposed as clueless or misinformed. Most, like the pundits of K-Street, MSNBC and FOX, the President’s National Security Advisor, or the seers of Silicon Valley, assumed that BREXIT would be defeated, Hillary Clinton would become President of the United States, ISIS was a spontaneous anti-American insurgence, Assad and Erdogan would be deposed, and the Cubs would lose the World Series. If they had placed a $5 bet on Trump, Brexit and Leicester City they would have earned $15 million. Instead, rather than admit they were wrong, they create a kind of new “birtherism,” demanding that Vladimir Putin be held accountable.
Imagine for a moment a country that unexpectedly has their national presidential elections tampered with, not through the balloting process but by media buys, leaked documents, last minute revelations of corruption and millions of foreign dollars flowing in to boost the lagging candidate who gets a last minute, 10 percent surge over polling predictions. Imagine further that the new president is immediately surrounded by advisors from the same foreign power who trash universal medical coverage, abandon free education, and slash away the social welfare net while feathering the nests of a new class of billionaire oligarchs made fat off privatization of the former treasures of the state. Millions of the unemployed, sick and elderly simply die. The national economy of the country is in tatters.
He vowed to transform Russia's socialist economy into a capitalist market economy and implemented economic shock therapy, price liberalization and nationwide privatization. Due to the sudden total economic shift, a majority of the national property and wealth fell into the hands of a small number of oligarchs. The well-off millionaire and billionaire oligarchs likened themselves to 19th century robber barons. Rather than creating new enterprises, Yeltsin's democratization led to international monopolies hijacking the former Soviet markets, arbitraging the huge difference between old domestic prices for Russian commodities and the prices prevailing on the world market.
Much of the Yeltsin era was marked by widespread corruption, and as a result of persistent low oil and commodity prices during the 1990s, Russia suffered inflation, economic collapse and enormous political and social problems that affected Russia and the other former states of the USSR.
|Clinton, Yeltsin, Trump and Zyuganov —Russian Universe|
We have described the challenge. We need to move on to provide the solution, but first let us reiterate a phrase used by Bill Mollison: “the problem is the solution.” By pushing the system beyond the brink, the status quo protectors have now put it into free fall. It will crash, and there is really no way to avoid that. Nafeez Ahmed puts the date at 2018. James Howard Kunstler says don't count out 2017. But make no mistake: the coming collapse is a blessing in disguise.
Had Syria not experienced the twin curses of peak oil and climate change in rapid succession, it would have continued to grow its population at exponential rates until it invited the Whole System Disturbance. The outcome, even as bad as it has been, would have been exponentially worse. Now, with the benefit of experience with severe and radically transformational change, the Syrian people are more favorably disposed to something completely different.
What that might be, precisely, will be described in future installments.
The current recession is just a prelude. We have passed biophysical limits. This explains the current era of political weirding but it doesn’t help us to avoid or soften it. We shall get to that, but we have to concede, our situation will very likely get much worse before it gets better.