Monday, May 16, 2005

How Doomed are We?

I have been pondering that question a lot of late. On the grand scheme of things, everything has an end, from our earthly existence to that of the universe. But more immediately pressing is the continued viability of our global industrial civilization. Human history is littered with the remains of previous civilizations, with each major civilization having collapsed due to one or more factors that usually included resource depletion and population overshoot. There is no reason why our current civilization will be any different. The only difference will be the scale of the collapse; this time, no place on the planet will escape its effects.

Having acknowledged the inevitable, the big question I have been wondering about is whether the “best” aspects of human civilization will prevail to whatever comes next. Richard Duncan postulated that humankind will devolve its way back to a Stone Age existence due primarily to a complete and an utter depletion of resources. Unplanning taken to an extreme… His argument based on the effects that declining energy availability will ultimately have on the shape and nature of civilization. Ultimately, according to Duncan, we will once again find ourselves living in balance with our environment again, but never to rise to the same level of development due to a fundamental lack of energy. Richard Heinberg echoes this in the Party’s Over, when describing how declining oil supplies will ultimately cut short our technological progress by denying us access to technology, electricity and pharmaceuticals while leaving us impoverished and famished. Again, the implications are bleak; one hundred years from now, our descendents could conceivably standing around a fire amidst the wreckage our civilization, keeping warm by burning useless items such as cheap plastic toys.

On the other end of the spectrum are the techno-optimists. To them, there are no problems, just opportunities for new solutions. Their omnipresent sense of optimism has led to an unshakeable faith in human ingenuity being able to arrive at a solution to the “problem” of Peak Oil. In their eyes, past challenges to human progress has always resulted in a solution that warded off past predictions of impending shortages or collapse.

The answer (hopefully) lies somewhere in the middle. Personally, I am more inclined to believe the Duncans and Heinbergs than the optimists and without a change in of direction by our civilization, we could very well end up that way, particularly if the pending energy shortfalls trigger resource warfare and nuclear exchanges. With planning and a truthful acknowledgement of the magnitude of the problems that we face, the worst aspects of collapse (the loss of beneficial technologies, knowledge and culture) could be prevented or mitigated. Unlike Duncan, I think we could still avoid Olduvai Gorge fate, though the path to any sustainable existence would almost certainly still result in death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

To wind up at a low-energy but civilized existence, I think the following things have to be in place:

* A true understanding of “limits” in every sense of the word
* A coordinated effort to retain vital knowledge and processes.
* A shift in accounting and measurement of income and expenditures from fiat currencies or precious medals to that of energy based measurements.
* A review of all tasks and processes from an energetic efficiency stand point
* A coordinated effort to re-localize trade within much smaller regions to reduce or eliminate most forms of trading.
* An abandonment of a philosophy of never ending growth (in both population and economic activities)

I am almost certain that additional elements could be added. Whether or not any of them are followed on a global or national basis will remain to be seen. It is much more possible that smaller communities or groups may successfully transition to a low energy, civilized existence than the state and national governments could manage. The only question that I have not resolved is would those nascent communities and the ideas they embody spread upward and outward or would the chaos and disruption spread to the point to which they would engulf and extinguish those settlements.


Blogger Fool said...


it is funny how we seem to occupy our minds with all sorts of problems of all kinds of scales all the time, but never ask if the problem is real. What if the problem is not real? What if you really knew, you are hallucinating? What if you knew you made this all up? Would you believe in what you see, would you react to what you see?

You may have heard of A COURSE IN MIRACLES. It is a document around for quite some time now. All it says is that there is no world. All the choices you make are equally untrue. You made this all up, and infact are over and gone since a long time ago. You are merely reviewing mentally what was going on in your mind, which is all there is to you.

You might want to check it out. Maybe it is true, what this unworldy masterpiece says. You would have to experience it yourself, since there is no way anyone can prove anything to you. It offers a mindtraining for a change of mind that is inevitably required.

If I ask myself, would I want to be able to travel out into the universe, would I know of a world of Love and Peace, I say yes. If I ask myself, do I want pain, suffering, getting old and dying, I say no, I want an alternative. Maybe you really had enough of this world. I saw "Chrash" today. Sandra Bullock is in it with a great line. She finds out that she is continually angry without knowing why. That is lesson number 5 out of the COURSE: I am never upset for the reason I think. That goes for all emotional upsets. You are upset, because you see what is not there.

So you keep yourself occupied in order not to realize the situation you are really in. You make up all sorts of stories to justify your identity and your idea of yourself. Truth is, you are in hell, and as you write, it will become increasingly obvious. The only solution can be that you are its maker.

You might want to teach a real solution.
Kind regards,

5/17/2005 11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the previous commentor, I say that the Tao that can be spoken of, is not the eternal Tao.

Back to 'reality', I wonder how long it will take for whatever is going to happen, to happen. I'm a big 'let's get the bad news over with' kind of person. But I fear that with oil depletion it may be a slow painful death that we gradually "adapt to" by a sequence of measures, whereby our lives become worse and worse in various ways. What is needed is leadership - from politicians, from the media - we may be screwed.

5/18/2005 6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talking of growthfrr economics, and new currencies, you may find Margrit Kennedy's book interesting

also you may find other resources of use at

5/20/2005 3:37 PM  
Blogger Palimpsester said...

I was trying to think of what communities survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Monasteries? Is there a useful model there?

5/23/2005 7:44 AM  

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