Simulation Scenarios of the Transition to Sustainability
The key working hypothesis is that the transition from consumerism to sustainability will revolve around the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and this transition will come to pass whether we like it or not. However, the amount of human suffering during this process will depend on human adaptability and social cohesion. The simulations are not meant to be predictive but to show a range of plausible scenarios.
Solidarity reinforces Sustainability and vice versa
The horizontal and vertical scales are not shown in order to avoid giving the impression that this is a prediction. This is a simulated scenario, not a prediction. It portrays dynamic modes of system behavior that can be expected during the transition from consumerism to sustainability, as follows:
~ Population, production, and consumption peak, stagnate and/or oscillate with downward trend, and eventually decrease to long-term sustainable levels.
~ The peak in energy availability is followed by a long decline until it settles to the steady-state flow that is allowed by solar (and perhaps other cosmic) sources of energy.
~ The solidarity index is an indicator of social cohesion, which is tightly coupled with the sustainability of resource usage.
This is not intended to be an "alarmist" scenario. However, it would be wise to take the Precautionary Principle into account when formulation sustainable development policies as we enter the Anthropocene Age. Widespread violence is bound to emerge if demographic and consumption adjustments are to be made involuntarily. Is this "the future we want" for the entire community of nations? NB: The current SDSIM 2.0 is a demo, not a capability.
Pope Francis Explains 'Integral Human Development'
Originally published in
La Croix, 5 April 2017 Republished with the kind permission of La Croix
Addressing participants at a conference on Paul VI’s encyclical “Populorum Progressio", Pope Francis explained the various dimensions that need to be “integrated” into a holistic concept of development.
Pope Francis traced the road map for the new Vatican dicastery on integral human development on Tuesday, April 4.
He did this by offering his own interpretation of the concept launched by Paul VI in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, which was published 50 years ago.
“It was he who set out in detail the meaning of ‘integral development’ in that encyclical and it was he who proposed the apt and synthetic formula 'the development of the whole man and of every man'," the pope told the participants at an international conference in Rome onPopulorum Progressio.
He insisted on the word “integrate", which “I hold dear", Francis said.
“It is about integrating the various peoples of the earth,” he began, emphasizing “the duty of solidarity that obliges us to seek fair ways of sharing".
In the pope’s view, integrating also involves “offering effective models of social integration".
“Everyone has a contribution to make to the whole of society, everyone has something particular to offer that could enable people to live together. No one may be excluded from contributing to the good of all,” he continued.
However, the pope emphasized that it is also necessary “to integrate into development all the elements that make it genuinely so", including the various systems involved such as “the economy, finance, work, culture, family culture, and religion".
Integrating the individual and communal dimensions
“None of these can be absolutized and none of them can be excluded from a conception of integral human development that gives consideration to the fact that human life is like an orchestra which only performs well if all the various instruments are in tune and follow a common score,” the pope noted.
From this perspective, the pope pointed to the need to “integrate the individual and communal dimensions". He added that western culture “has exalted the individual to the point of turning him or her into an island as if he or she could be happy alone".
On the other hand, “ideological visions and political authorities have crushed the person, standardized it and deprived it of that freedom without which man no longer feels like a man", the pope said.
Integrating body and soul
In Pope Francis’s view, “such a standardization also involves economic forces that wish to profit from globalization rather than promoting a fairer sharing among people simply in order to impose a global market over which they themselves dictate the rules and from which they draw profit".
Addressing the conference, which took place in the Synod Hall at the Vatican, the pope also insisted on the need “to integrate body and soul"; that is, to promote a form of development that “does not consist simply of making ever more goods available for a purely material well-being.”
“Integral development... does no wrong to either God or man since it anticipates the consistency of both dimensions,” Pope Francis stated.
He added that the concept of the person, which was “born in and developed by Christianity helps to pursue fully human development".
“This is because the word ‘person’ always implies ‘relationship', rather than ‘individualism’", the pope concluded, outlining the major fields of action for the new dicastery that he created at the beginning of this year.
Concept of Integral Human Development
Integral Human Development is an expression based upon the truth that human development cannot be reduced or divorced into constituent parts. True progress does not and cannot happen, if only one aspect of the human person is being addressed to this end.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs
Adapted from Wikipedia
As a matter of principle, any strategy for the transition to clean energy must recognize integral human development as the most fundamental requirement to guide both public and private initiatives. Integral human development builds on respect for human rights and diligence on human duties, both individually and institutionally. A fundamental document is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.
Hierarchy of Human Needs
Abraham Maslow (USA, 1908-1970) created the "hierarchy of human needs" in the 1940s. Maslow's model explicitly takes into account the physiological, safety, emotional, love/belonging, esteem/self-esteem, and self-actualization stages of integral human development. The hierarchy of human needs is usually represented as a pyramid, with the most basic needs at the bottom and the socialization needs at the top. There are many variations of the pyramid: one is shown to the right and others can be easily found. Going upward, the progression for each human being is to satisfy (1) the basic physical and physiological needs, (2) the need for safety and security, (3) the need psychological well-being, (4) the need for self-actualization (self-esteem, social responsibility), and (5) self-giving to others, or at least the desire to seek the common good in conjunction with legitimate self-interest. For further discussion of Maslow's "levels of human development" - and other models of human development - the reader is referred to the May 2010 issue of Mother Pelican. Attaining a culture of solidarity and sustainability is practically impossible under level 3, and generally requires level 4. This means that enabling people "to live to their full potential" requires, beyond meeting basic physical needs, access to educational and job opportunities as well as freedom for each person follow their "vocation" in life under conditions of human solidarity, social justice, and ecological sustainability. It is becoming increasingly difficult to provide such opportunities in the context of current population growth trends.
Today, much of the media and our most influential thought leaders have a blind faith that as-yet-undiscovered technologies can save us from overpopulation and ecological overshoot. With the likes of Elon Musk and other giants of Silicon Valley leading the way, belief in technological progress has assumed the contours of a civic religion. Plans for colonizing Mars, mining asteroids, and conducting planet-wide geo-engineering to combat climate change are all on the drawing board for dealing with our ecological overshoot. And their dreams and technological visions unfortunately garner more serious media attention than in-depth stories about overpopulation and our very real and down-to-earth ecological predicament.
But there is now mounting evidence – and hugely underreported evidence – that technological progress has actually been slowing in recent decades compared to earlier decades and centuries. That statement may seem wholly counter-intuitive to many readers, but I ask you to consider some of the building evidence supplied from technology reporters, economists, and scientists. As overpopulation activists we need to marshal the evidence and push back against those who believe that technology can save us from ecological overshoot and collapse.
Low-Hanging Fruit of Innovation
We all know about the “low-hanging fruit” principle as it applies to resource use: like any species we humans take the easiest, best resources first. Early European American settlers sod-busted 3-foot thick Iowa topsoil, felled the towering white pines of northern Minnesota and New England, fished the teeming fisheries of North Atlantic cod, tapped the gushing oil of Pennsylvania and Texas, and mined the richest ores. Now we’re left with Iowa topsoil reduced to half what it was 150 years ago, forests reduced to mono-crop tree plantations, fisheries depleted or collapsed, and land and water ravaged and abused in the search for harder-to-get oil and coal.
As economist Tyler Cowen notes in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation, evidence is mounting that the “low-hanging fruit” principle also applies in the realm of human technical innovation. We first solve the easiest technical problems that deliver the greatest benefit at the lowest cost. Penicillin was discovered in 1928. It’s estimated to have saved 200 million lives, and it formed the basis for all modern antibiotics. The basic research cost less than $300,000 in today’s dollars! In contrast, the “war on cancer” has received over $105 billion from the U.S. government alone and the death rate, adjusted for the size and age of the population, has decreased by only 5 percent since 1950 (Kolata,2009).
Huge innovations that transformed daily life were carried out by Edison’s small group of researchers at Menlo Park. Life-changing technologies such as the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, movie camera, and electricity distribution came from this small team of researchers. Now, scientific and technological progress requires ever-larger teams of researchers working in interdisciplinary fashion with huge budgets. And, as the problems they’re attempting to solve become increasingly and incredibly complex, the resources required grow ever-larger.
Innovation in Bits, Not Atoms
The fact is that technological advancement of the past 40 years or so has occurred primarily in the realm of electronic bits. We’ve seen amazing advancements in all kinds of digital communications technologies. And yet in the world of matter – of atoms – we’ve seen precious little.
In transportation, we abandoned supersonic passenger airplane travel in the 1970’s, and if you’d told people in the late 1960’s that we’d no longer have human space missions they’d think you were crazy. Blockbuster drug discoveries are fewer and farther between and the cost of biomedical research and development continues to soar. Renewable energy technologies have increased at a rapid rate in recent years, but they supply only a small fraction of the world’s total power needs. Fossil fuels still supply over 80% of all global energy.
Global industrial civilization relies on massive amounts of renewable and non-renewable resources. Many “bright-green” believers in technology have faith that increased efficiency will translate into less consumption of resources. And yet a recent MIT study found the opposite. With nearly all the major 57 materials the researchers studied – from aluminum to silicon chips to solar panels – they found that more efficiency in production led to lower costs which, in turn, led to greater consumption.
The End of Moore’s Law
Most of the current dreams of the “internet of things”, driverless cars, widespread robotization and artificial intelligence are based on expectations of the silicon chip revolution continuing. In the world of silicon chips we’ve enjoyed a half century of nearly uninterrupted operation of Moore’s law – the tendency for the number of transistors on a silicon chip to double every two or so years with a dramatic decrease in cost. John Markoff, decades-long technology reporter with the New York Times, notes that “It is hard to overstate the importance of Moore’s Law to the entire world.”
Now, even in the realm of digital technologies, we are seeing diminishing returns in innovation. Over the past year many under-reported stories have appeared about the recent and rapid slowing of Moore’s law. As Markoff notes, “If you begin to pick it apart, the fundamental argument of Silicon Valley, it's all about this exponential acceleration that comes out of the semiconductor industry. I suddenly discovered it was over…In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it's going to look more like it looks today than you think.”
Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?
That’s the question put by a team of Stanford and MIT economists when looking at the U.S. economy across a broad range of industries (Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb, 2017). Their answer is yes: “We find that ideas – and in particular the exponential growth they imply – are getting harder and harder to find.” In areas where exponential growth is observed they find that this growth “results from large increases in research effort.” For example, in the silicon chip industry, the number of researchers required to achieve the doubling of chip density today is more than 75 times larger than the number of researchers required in the early 1970s.
The authors find that across many different industries research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply. The researchers conclude that “just to sustain constant growth in GDP per person, the U.S. must double the amount of research effort searching for new ideas every 13 years to offset the increased difficulty of finding new ideas."
We can’t afford doubling the resources given to research efforts every 13 years for the simple fact that we can’t all be researchers. Someone has to grow the food, tend the sick, teach the children and do all the thousands of other jobs necessary for life in modern societies. And, on top of that, much of the developed world is faced with a maintenance crisis of crumbling infrastructure that requires enormous resources just to maintain what we already have. We simply won’t be able to afford the ever-increasing amount of resources required to push the technology frontier forward.
We need Social Innovation, not Technical Innovation
As overpopulation activists we need to question the dominant narrative of the broader culture that seems to worship a lazy technological “optimism” – an almost child-like faith that technological miracles can deliver us from ecological overshoot and collapse.
If technological innovation is slowing, as much evidence suggests, then we must rely more than ever on social innovation to create a sustainable future.
Technology can’t save us. Solving overpopulation can. Smaller families and a smaller global human population are essential if we want to create a future worth inheriting.
News reports tell of the devastation left by a direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans already coping with damage from Hurricane Irma, which grazed the island just days before, were slammed with an even stronger storm on September 20, bringing more than a foot of rain and maximum sustained winds of at least 140 miles per hour. There is still no electricity—and likely won’t be for weeks or months—in this U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, many of whom also lack running water. Phone and internet service is likewise gone. Nearly all of Puerto Rico’s greenery has been blown away, including trees and food crops. A major dam is leaking and threatening to give way, endangering the lives of tens of thousands. This is a huge unfolding tragedy. But it’s also an opportunity to learn lessons, and to rebuild very differently.
Climate change no doubt played a role in the disaster, as warmer water generally feeds stronger storms. This season has seen a greater number of powerful, land-falling storms than the past few years combined. Four were Category 4 or 5, and three of them made landfall in the U.S.—a unique event in modern records. Puerto Rico is also vulnerable to rising seas: since 2010, average sea levels have increased at a rate of about 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) per year. And the process is accelerating, leading to erosion that’s devastating coastal communities.
Even before the storms, Puerto Rico’s economy was in a tailspin. It depends largely on manufacturing and the service industry, notably tourism, but the prospects for both are dismal. The island’s population is shrinking as more and more people seek opportunities in the continental U.S.. Puerto Rico depends entirely on imported energy sources—including bunker oil for some of its electricity production, plus natural gas and coal. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is a law unto itself, a monopoly that appears mismanaged (long close to bankruptcy), autocratic, and opaque. Over 80 percent of food is imported and the rate of car ownership is among the highest in the world (almost a car for each islander!).
To top it off, Puerto Rico is also in the throes of a debt crisis. The Commonwealth owes more than $70 billion to creditors, with an additional $50 billion in pension obligations. Puerto Rico’s government has been forced to dramatically cut spending and increase taxes; yet, despite these drastic measures, the situation remains bleak. In June 2015, Governor Padilla announced the Commonwealth was in a “death spiral” and that “the debt is not payable.” On August 3 of the same year, Puerto Rico defaulted on a $58 million bond payment. The Commonwealth filed for bankruptcy in May of this year after failing to raise money in capital markets.
A shrinking economy, a government unable to make debt payments, and a land vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather: for those who are paying attention, this sounds like a premonition of global events in coming years. World debt levels have soared over the past decade as central banks have struggled to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis. Climate change is quickly moving from abstract scenarios to grim reality. World economic growth is slowing (economists obtusely call this “secular stagnation”), and is likely set to go into reverse as we hit the limits to growth that were first discussed almost a half-century ago. Could Puerto Rico’s present presage our own future?
If so, then we should all care a great deal about how the United States responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico. This could be an opportunity to prepare for metaphoric (and occasionally real) storms bearing down on everyone.
It’s relatively easy to give advice from the sidelines, but I do so having visited Puerto Rico in 2013, where I gave a presentation in the Puerto Rican Senate at the invitation of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies of the Universidad Metropolitana. There I warned of the inevitable end of world economic growth and recommended that Puerto Rico pave the way in preparing for it. The advice I gave then seems even more relevant now:
Invest in resilience. More shocks are on the way, so build redundancy in critical systems and promote pro-social behavior so that people’s first reflex is to share and to help one another.
Treat population decline as an opportunity. Lots of people will no doubt leave Puerto Rico as a result of the storm. This represents a cultural and human loss, but it also opens the way to making the size of the population of the island more congruent with its carrying capacity in terms of land area and natural resources.
Rethink transportation. The island’s current highway-automobile dominance needs to give way to increased use of bicycles, and to the provision of streetcars and and light rail. An interim program of ride- and car-sharing could help with the transition.
Repudiate debt. Use aid money to build a sharing economy, not to pay off creditors. Take a page from the European “degrowth” movement. An island currency and a Commonwealth bank could help stabilize the economy.
Build a different energy system. Patching up the old PREPA electricity generating and distribution system would be a waste of money. That system is both corrupt and unsustainable. Instead, invest reconstruction funds in distributed local renewables and low-power infrastructure.
These recommendations met with a polite response in 2013, but there was little subsequent evidence of a dramatic change of direction. That’s understandable: people tend to maintain their status quo as long as it’s viable. However, when people are in dire straits, they’re more likely to listen to unconventional advice. And when denial is no longer possible, they’re more likely to face reality.
In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein described how free-market policy wonks and neoliberal economists—and the financial and corporate interests that back them—look for moments of crisis as opportunities to trap countries in a cycle of massive infrastructure projects, rising consumption, and debt. No doubt neoliberal vultures are readying to swoop down on Puerto Rico at this very moment with their brand of “aid.” The government and people of the island will have some important choices to make in the coming weeks—whether to double down on infrastructure investments that lock them into a brittle and unsustainable way of life, or to break out in a different direction. They might take inspiration from Greensburg, Kansas—a town that was devastated by a powerful tornado in 2007 and chose to rebuild as “the greenest town in America.”
Obviously, the Puerto Rican people have immediate needs for food, water, fuel, and medical care. We mainland Americans should be doing all we can to make sure that help reaches those in the throes of crisis. But Puerto Ricans—all Americans, indeed all humans—should be thinking longer-term about what kind of society is sustainable and resilient in this time of increasing vulnerability to disasters of all kinds.
4. Adaptation to Habitat Degradation & Climate Change
PER CAPITA OIL
The key to understanding the end of the Industrial Age
John G. Howe
Originally published in the author's website PER CAPITA OIL, February 2017
Please read and personally forward through your contacts on cyberspace and social media the following facts, numbers, and science. This is the untold, non-political context for most of the world's growing ills and chaos. Your added personal energy is critical.
See linked Appendix A, and Book Power Point Summary Figures 2, 4, 10: oil is a finite resource. The world has already used 1.2 trillion barrels from an estimated ultimate recoverable resource (URR) of 2.4 trillion barrels, with half of that in the last 25 years at the rate of one billion barrels every eleven days. We are at, or near the midpoint of the two-lifetime, oil-fueled Industrial Age.
AMERICANS ARE THE NUMBER ONE OIL CONSUMERS
The U.S. with 1/25 of the world population uses 1/4 of world's oil.
World total oil use: 32 billion barrels per year
U.S. total oil use: 7 billion barrels per year
Of that 7 billion barrels, almost one half (3.2 billion barrels), is consumed just as gasoline to drive over three trillion miles per year. Most of the other half is for diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil as the basis for support of the energy-intensive, ubiquitous, mobile, American lifestyle. Americans use as much oil just for gasoline as China's or Western Europe's total oil consumption.
HOW MUCH TIME DO WE HAVE LEFT
See Power Point Summary Figure 9: at the present rate, and assuming world-wide consumers can afford higher-priced remaining oil, there are less than 40 years left in the world oil-age at the annual rate of 32 billion barrels (1.2 trillion barrels divided by 32 equals 37.5 years).
Based on the very optimistic assumption of 50 billion barrels left in the U.S. at an acceptable price, there are 7 years left of business as usual if only U.S. oil is used (50 billion barrels divided by 7 equals 7.1 years). If one half of U.S. oil is imported as is presently the case, there are 15 years left (50 billion barrels divided by 3.5 equals 14.3 years). To extend the U.S. oil age would require a higher percentage of imported oil. Note: In January 2017, the American Petroleum Institute would like us to believe we have so much U.S. oil we can "become an exporter of crude oil" (USA Today, January 13, 2017).
USING "PER CAPITA OIL" TO HELP US UNDERSTAND
Power Point Summary Figure 3 is another way of understanding the numbers as per-person consumption (per capita). Americans are burning oil at a per capita rate of 22 barrels per person per year (b/p/y). In sharp contrast, the average world per capita oil consumption (not including U.S.) is 3 b/p/y. A staggering half of the U.S. 22 b/p/y is just for gasoline (11 b/p/y). This is the same per capita rate as in industrialized Western Europe for all of their oil consumption which has been kept in check for years by very high gasoline taxes and small fuel-efficient cars.
LOWER PRICES AND GROWING U.S. DEBT EQUALS LESS DEMAND
How can this be? For years, conventional wisdom taught us that the decline of the oil age would be signaled by higher oil cost. Further thought argues against this theory. In the past, as long as there was enough wealth and purchasing power in the U.S. economy to support ever-more expensive extraction technology (horizontal fracking, tar sands, deep off-shore, polar, etc.), the rate of increased production was supported by a steady price increase.
Then, in the next ten years following 2005, when oil approached $100 per barrel and gasoline reached $4 per gallon, the average family of four spent $8,800 (22 b/p/y times $100) annually to fuel their petroleum-based lifestyle. A low income family trying to survive on minimum wage or social security could not afford the $8800 cost so gasoline demand, by a growing pool of poorer, increasingly indebted Americans, decreased (called demand destruction). This contributed to growing wealth disparity as wealthier Americans continued to consume more of everything.
In the same time period, Chinese imports continued to increase thus contributing to their economic growth but made by cheap labor living on a per capita oil consumption of 2 b/p/y.
This precarious world-balance between oil supply and demand continued until 2014 when the Saudi government tired of losing market share to the new, increasingly expensive, non-conventional sources. This, combined with growing economic woes from other world oil suppliers like Russia, triggered a reduction in world production. Marginal, non-conventional U.S. suppliers, along with oil-field service companies, were highly leveraged. Many ceased production and/or went bankrupt while waiting for a quick price recovery. The result was a sharp decline in extraction and a drop in price to the $40 per barrel range.
Classical economics would predict a concurrent rebound in demand, but the largest world oil-consumer bloc, the indebted American motorist, did not quickly respond thus keeping price and production at low level. Now, as we move into 2017, oil is moving back toward the $60 range. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword because the price of gasoline will climb back above to $3 per gallon thus forcing highly-indebted American motorists to end a temporary resurgence of prosperity in order to redirect their meager income back to gasoline and away from other discretionary sectors of the economy (see Figure 12 in the Power Point Summary).
In the spring of 2017, when Americans hit the road again, the new administration will be faced with the irreconcilable tension between the higher cost from a reinvigorated oil industry and the public's growing inability to afford gasoline. The economy will take a new hit as the cost of 400 million gallons per day at $3 per gallon (1.2 billion dollars) takes priority in spending habits.
U.S. GASOLINE RATIONING, SO ALL AMERICANS WILL EQUITABLY SHARE MITIGATION OF THE END OF THE OIL
Figure 14 in the Power Point Summary outlines a plan and lists the positives for a controlled, nation-wide reduction in gasoline demand by the number 1 consumer bloc in the world. Americans will eventually be forced by waning supply to reduce oil consumption to the world average of 3 b/p/y whether they like it or not. Rationing would anticipate this inevitability and help smooth the transition. Figures 13, 14, and 15 show the details along with the reduction in CO2 emissions to be expected from fifty-percent gasoline rationing.
POPULATION GROWTH, THE DENOMINATOR IN PER CAPITA OIL
Meanwhile, world (including U.S.) population increases inexorably as shown in Figure 7 of the Power Point. This is a looming tragedy of historically unprecedented magnitude. Nowhere-near adequate food will be possible without the inexpensive oil which made it possible for one individual farmer to grow and ship food thousands of miles to an average of three hundred consumers. Chapter 6 in the linked book, The End of Fossil Energy defines the math of "population momentum", and why a fertility rate of zero children per female would be necessary for population to decline in synch with declining oil.
OTHER SUBJECTS DIRECTLY RELATED TO OIL
Climate Change is a very real but much longer-range concern. Without cheap oil there will be a decline of all fossil fuels including coal, and therefore less green-house gas emissions. Many parts of the world will have an altered, but not life-threatening, climate. Figure 15 in the Power Point shows sources of the present world CO2 emissions, most of which are from burning eight billion tons of coal globally, with one-half of that in smoggy China.
Renewable Energy cannot possibly replace the concentrated energy of fossil fuels which took millions of years to accumulate. Figure 10 in the Power Point Summary shows dilute incoming solar energy as only one-percent of total present consumption. Any increase in solar energy, including wind, would require massive oil support and financial investment plus time, much longer than remains in the oil age. All solar energy is weak and sporadic thus requiring substantial storage, the "Achille's Heel" of all energy sources. Hydro is maxed-out because of required land mass and topography. Nuclear is limited by safety, fuel supply, and long-term expensive investment. In addition, renewables provide only electricity which will not fuel our transportation needs without massive investments of capital, finite fossil-energy, and time. Battery recycling is impossible without oil. Air travel and commercial diesel requirements cannot possibly be met with electricity from renewables. Biofuels require massive inputs of fossil fuels, compete with food, and do not return nutrients and energy (like "humanure") to their origin.
Interest-driven investment is a questionable economic concept in the face of declining growth. Nothing of substance grows without energy. The end of cheap oil will begin the decline of all energy sources and infers that interest returned on principal is an illusion of monetary growth without commensurate, real, energy-driven, economic growth.
Alternative transportation proposals are unrealistic because there is no energy source including biofuels remotely close to oil that can support the liquid-fueled mobility we take for granted. Nor is there the wealth and time to support such a transition. Only oil can provide the unique energy source we take for granted as we take the energy supply on-board along with us as we travel. Air travel and personal motorized transportation only work because of the unique energy intensity of oil-derived fuels. In some places, electrified third rail public transportation may revive. But this will take time and investment. It is totally incompatible with the post WWII, gasoline-fueled exodus to the suburbs.
On-line shopping, daily mail delivery, and all forms of ubiquitous personal service depend on profligate oil consumption that cannot continue without cheap oil.
Infrastructure repair is a popular concept but is entirely dependent on energy, specifically the need for oil at less than $10 per barrel as was the case when the infrastructure was originally built.
Building construction and maintenance are totally dependent on inexpensive oil. Although not as urgent as food and transportation energy, both private and public buildings require energy, specifically oil, to provide the shelter we need and expect. Already, buildings in the poorer parts of the country are neglected as discretionary spending and taxes take lower priority to gasoline and growing trillions of dollars of consumer debt. In some parts of the country heating oil will no longer be an option. As the price of oil climbs, the cost to keep warm is added to gasoline for mobility. Both are examples of rapidly burning-through our most precious finite resource. We cannot revert to firewood (where available) without fuel for the chainsaw, skidder, or delivery truck.
Public services we took for granted in the past low-cost energy age will come under increased pressure. From local law enforcement to national security, we expect the protection of an oil-fueled civil society. Readily available hospital care and out-patient medical services are further examples of energy-intensive needs that depend on inexpensive oil. Public water and sewage disposal systems require readily available gasoline and diesel for maintenance and supply. Schools need liquid fuels for student transportation, teacher mobility, and building heat. A world wide air delivery postal service cannot return to the pony express and sailing vessels. Fire protection and first responder response absolutely run on gasoline and diesel fuel. The list goes on and on. Shouldn't we be saving our remaining oil for these civil necessities? Our society has grown and is totally dependent on liquid, but finite, fossil fuels. As previous President Bush said, "We are addicted to oil."
Welfare and entitlements cannot be provided without the underlying support of a growing population supported, as in the past, with abundant energy. Social Security, Medicare, and Disability Insurance are examples of the ubiquitous, comfortable safety nets we've come to expect in the oil age and continuing economic growth. As our population grows older, almost every health need will compete with the cost of oil just as it becomes less available and more expensive.
Transition towns and other proposals for local, self-sufficient economies cannot provide the basic industrial-age goods we expect from a vast capital-intensive integrated economy. Small details like disposable batteries, light bulbs, computers, solar-energy components, paper products, rechargeable batteries, and recycling all depend on fossil fuels for manufacture and shipping. In addition, small close-knit societies must respect the mathematical laws of inexorable population growth.
Recreational oil use is especially problematic. From powering a snowmobile to mass travel to a major sporting event, the oil we consume now will not be there for survival in the post-oil age. The fuel used for an internal combustion race of any type leaves less for growing food in the future.
Fighting mother nature consumes prodigious amounts of liquid fossil fuels. Every time there's a tornado, hurricane or snowstorm we expend prodigious quantities of liquid fuels to respond. The linked essay: "Winter in Maine" describes the annual battle in rural New England to keep us going, including ten gallons of diesel fuel per mile to plow snow. Will we even need to plow snow with no fuel for our cars?
Oil to support other energy sources. Coal cannot be mined and delivered without oil. Natural gas access and pipelines are directly dependent on oil. Nuclear plants and hydroelectric plants cannot be built and maintained without the oil necessary for a diesel-powered support system.
Oil to support other non-energy resources. All other finite resources we take for granted like steel, aluminum, and fertilizers, will decline despite a growing population. Notwithstanding less oil available for mining, there will be less available for future needs. The book, Scarcity, in the linked bibliography, describes this growing challenge in quantified detail.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
Clearly, we are a world-wide industrialized society that has grown in population and complexity only because of, and in lock-step with, the availability of cheap oil. One would think that human brains capable of inventing space travel and microchips would recognize the magnitude of the cliff we are now facing at the looming end of the oil age. Americans living on ten times the per capita oil as the world average have ten times farther to fall.
Many will argue that the resurgence in U.S. oil extraction and the lower price of oil is proof that the long-term reality of oil depletion will not happen. This narrative is especially dangerous because it encourages avoidance of the dire facts and changes we must make.
But all is not hopeless. First, the public needs to know the numbers and total story, hence the need for this web site to be forwarded in every and any way possible, by you! There is a desperate need for a focused, honest, apolitical leadership to tell truth. Arguably, in times of pending crisis, only a heroic autocratic figure could lead and teach why we must all expect gasoline rationing as a first step to mitigation. When urgent action is required, cumbersome, traditional forms of governance like a Democracy, Socialism, a political party system, or Communism cannot respond, especially if there is the tendency for every societal member to grab whatever possible for personal survival and perpetuation of a past energy-intensive lifestyle. When declining resources are overwhelmed by increasing demand, especially with ethnic or wealth disparity, survival trumps peaceful group response: "too many forks in a shrinking pie".
Addendum to Per Capita Oil ~ WARNING!
John Howe, May 2017
Nearly all of the material world we expect and enjoy is dependent on readily-available, inexpensiveenergy from finite hydrocarbons in either gaseous, liquid, or solid states. Of these three forms, the short Industrial Age has been a time when our personal energy needs for food, warmth, shelter, transportation, security, entertainment, health care, etc. have been most rendered superfluous by oil.
As would be expected with any biophysical process, continued expansion was commensurate withthe steady increase in utilization of these temporary bonanzas of relatively free energy sources. Energy-intensive growth included food, population, infrastructure, climate change, and the basis forthe interest-added-to-principal foundation of the financial-banking-economic model we take forgranted.
Since 2005, affordable world oil extraction leveled off at 80 million barrels per day and has nowreached a critical beginning of contraction as population continues to increase. Many reputablevoices have warned for years of this pivotal point in history, but the mainstream public does not hearthe facts. All other energy sources can only be a tiny fraction of the fossil fuels we’ve come to takefor granted. Oil is especially problematic because it is absolutely necessary for transportation plusaccess to all other energy sources as well as essential non-energetic finite resources, also limited infuture supply. Oil dependency is frequently the basis for global turmoil where a growing populationhas already exceeded availability of affordable oil, and therefore food, which is also constrained byclimate change.
Any hope of mitigating this looming catastrophe of civilization will require all of the following, beginning immediately:
Honest leadership and public recognition of the overarching enormity of the finite-oil/energy crisis.
A return to the growth days of ten dollar per barrel oil is impossible. Liquid bio fuels are tooenergy-dependent to substitute for oil.
A well-publicized movement to begin population contraction by reproduction at less than one childper female. Those nations that achieve this will avert starvation.
An honest quantitative understanding of the feeble contribution, cost, and energy storagelimitations of alternative “renewable” energy sources, all dependent on oil.
Immediate curtailment of the gross waste of oil in the U.S., specifically for gasoline consumption at10 million barrels per day. Rationing would be far better than higher prices or taxation which onlylead to further wealth disparity.
If every one of these were to happen, we and our descendants could have at least one more generation of the waning oil age and prepare for a low-energy future.
Elinor Ostrom shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her lifetime of scholarly work investigating how communities succeed or fail at managing common pool (finite) resources such as grazing land, forests and irrigation waters. On the Commons is co-sponsor of a Commons Festival at Augsburg College in Minneapolis October 7-8 where she will speak. (See accompanying sidebar for details.)
Ostrom, a political scientist at Indiana University, received the Nobel Prize for her research proving the importance of the commons around the world. Her work investigating how communities co-operate to share resources drives to the heart of debates today about resource use, the public sphere and the future of the planet. She is the first woman to be awarded the Nobel in Economics.
Ostrom’s achievement effectively answers popular theories about the “Tragedy of the Commons”, which has been interpreted to mean that private property is the only means of protecting finite resources from ruin or depletion. She has documented in many places around the world how communities devise ways to govern the commons to assure its survival for their needs and future generations.
A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.
Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers 8 principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community.
8 Principles for Managing a Commons
1. Define clear group boundaries.
2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay Walljasper is Senior Fellow and Editor of On The Commons. He
is a writer and speaker who chronicles stories around the world that point us in the direction of a more equitable, sustainable and brighter future. He is the author/editor of OTC’s All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and The Great Neighborhood Book. He has been executive editor of Ode magazine and was editor of Utne Reader for 15 years. He is a Senior Fellow at Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Citizenship & Learning and a Senior Associate with the urban affairs collaborative Citiscope. His personal website is: www.JayWalljasper.com. Jay has worked with On The Commons since 2007.
Could declining world energy result in a turn toward authoritarianism by governments around the world? As we will see, there is no simple answer that applies to all countries. However, pursuing the question leads us on an illuminating journey through the labyrinth of relations between energy, economics, and politics.
The International Energy Agency and the Energy Information Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Energy) anticipate an increase in world energy supplies lasting at least until the end of this century. However, these agencies essentially just match supply forecasts to anticipated demand, which they extrapolate from past economic growth and energy usage trends. Independent analysts have been questioning this approach for years, and warn that a decline in world energy supplies—mostly resulting from depletion of fossil fuels—may be fairly imminent, possibly set to commence within the next decade.
Even before the onset of decline in gross world energy production we are probably already beginning to see a fall in per capita energy, and also net energy—energy that is actually useful to society, after subtracting the energy that is used in energy-producing activities (the building of solar panels, the drilling of oil wells, and so on). The ratio of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for fossil energy production has tended to fall as high-quality deposits of oil, coal, and natural gas are depleted, and as society relies more on unconventional oil and gas that require more energy for extraction, and on coal that is more deeply buried or that is of lower energy content. Further, renewable energy sources, especially if paired with needed energy storage technologies, tend to have a lower (some say much lower) EROEI than fossil fuels offered during the glory days of world economic growth after World War II. And renewables require energy up front for their manufacture, producing a net energy benefit only later on.
The quantities and qualities of energy available to any society have impacts that ripple through its economy, and hence every aspect of daily life. As Lynn White, Marvin Harris, and other anthropologists have shown, the political and social institutions of every society are determined—in broad strokes, though certainly not in the details—by what Harris called its infrastructure, or its ways of obtaining energy, food, and materials. Abundant, easily transported and stored energy from fossil fuels made industrial expansion possible during the twentieth century, and especially after World War II. This period of turbo-charged economic growth had repercussions in fields as diverse as manufacturing, farming, transportation, and even music (via the electrification of live performance as well as the flourishing of the recording industry). That’s right: your favorite rock band is an epiphenomenon of fossil fuels.
Further, as archaeologist Joseph Tainter has pointed out, societies often use complexity (an increase in the variety of tools and institutions) as a means of solving problems. But complexity carries energy costs, and the deployment of complexity as a problem-solving strategy is subject to diminishing returns. Tainter argues that this is a comprehensive explanation for the historic collapse of civilizations—one that has obvious implications for our own society: clearly, if its energy supplies are compromised, its capacity to successfully deploy complexity to solve problems will be impaired.
All of which suggests that if and when energy sources decline, industrial societies will face systemic challenges on a scale far beyond anything seen in recent decades. In this essay, I propose to examine just one area of impact—the realm of politics and governance. Specifically, I address the question of whether (and which) societies will have a high probability of turning toward authoritarian forms of government in response to energy challenges. However, as we will see, energy decline is far from being the only possible driver of authoritarian political change.
The Anthropology and History of Authoritarianism and Democracy
It is often asserted that democracy began in ancient Greece. While there is some truth to the statement, it is also misleading. Many pre-agricultural societies tended to be highly egalitarian, with most or all members contributing to significant decisions. Animal-herding societies were an exception: they tended to be patriarchal (men made most decisions), and, among men, elders and those with more property (women, children, and captives were treated as chattel) held sway. (Herders, whose social relations reflect the harshness of their environment, typically live in places unfit for farming, such as deserts.) A good example of democracy completely independent of the Greek tradition is the Iroquois confederacy of the American northeast, whose inclusive decision-making system incorporated checks and balances; it served as an inspiration for colonists seeking to design a democratic government for themselves as they threw off the yoke of British rule.
Early agricultural societies were often rigidly authoritarian. Marvin Harris explained this development in infrastructural terms: stored grain surpluses required management and distribution authority, as did irrigation systems. But the appropriation of so much power by an individual or family required further justification; hence new sky-god religions emerged, valorizing kings and pharaohs as wielders of divine power. Greece, however, differed from Egypt and other “hydraulic” civilizations (i.e., ones based on huge irrigation systems): it enjoyed enough rainfall so that irrigation wasn’t required. Farmers could grow diverse crops independently, without relying on state controls over water and grain. Hence it was in Athens that democracy emerged (or re-emerged) as a political system—imperfect though it may have been (Attica’s total population was likely between 150,000 and 250,000, but free citizens numbered only 20,000 to 30,000: women, slaves, and foreigners could not participate in the public process of making decisions).
Prior to the fossil fuel era, Europe enjoyed a significant injection of wealth from its sail-based pillaging of much of the rest of the world. Merchants, as a social class, began to jostle against the aristocracy and clergy, previous holders of political power. Wealth and abundant energy supported the development of science and philosophy, which—when combined with newer technologies like the printing press—helped usher in the age of reason. The autocratic rationale for rule, “because God granted me divine power,” no longer seemed reasonable. In Britain, the monarchy began reluctantly to cede some of its authority to parliament during the mid-seventeenth century; then, a little over a century later, thirteen of Britain’s colonies in North America rebelled and formed a federated republic. Revolution in France further stoked demands throughout Europe and elsewhere—by philosophers and commoners alike—for wider distribution of political power.
In modern times, industrial expansion based on abundant energy from fossil fuels has led to urbanization and to the employment of much of the population in factory, sales, and managerial positions. This detachment of people from land has in turn produced greater geographic and social mobility, as well as opportunities to organize collective demands for power sharing (via trade unions and political organizations of all kinds), including women’s suffrage. Democracy has spread to more and more nations—always kept at least partly in check by centralized economic and military power. Meanwhile, an ever-greater mobility of capital, goods, information, and people has also led to the geographic expansion of polities—nations of larger size, alliances between nations, trade blocs, and an intergovernmental organization offering membership to all countries (the United Nations).
Now, in all likelihood, comes an era of declining and reversing economic growth, as well as reduced mobility. Existing forms of government will be challenged. Ultimately, larger political units may tend to break up into smaller ones, and many democracies may be vulnerable to authoritarian takeover. But the risks will vary significantly by country, based on geography and local history.
Election of a dictator. Mussolini initially came to power in Italy through election, as did Hitler in Germany, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti. Why do people elect authoritarians? Typically, they do so because they feel threatened—by a foreign or domestic enemy, or by hard times—and want a strong man to take charge. Usually the elected authoritarian-in-waiting only assumes dictatorial power later, without asking the consent of the electorate. For example: in a recent essay, Ugo Bardi recounts how declining exports of British coal to Italy after World War I led to an energy famine, which in turn resulted in riots, shifting political alliances, and the rise of Mussolini and the Fascists.
“When Daniel Ortega was elected president in 2006 with a twiggy 38 percent victory, Nicaragua had a constitutional ban on consecutive reelection as a safeguard against dictatorship. . . . Eleven years later, Ortega is starting his third consecutive term as president after rewriting the constitution, banning opposition parties, and consolidating all branches of government under his personal control. Ortega orchestrated his power grab by polarizing the country, dividing the opposition, attacking congress, demonizing the press, forbidding protest, demanding personal loyalty from all government workers, and turning all his public appearances into campaign rallies for his core base of supporters. He institutionalized his cult of personality and normalized . . . threats of violence and chaos. . . .”
Military coup. The list of military dictatorships in recent decades is long. Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell maintain a coup dataset, according to which there were 457 coup attempts worldwide from 1950 to 2010, most by military factions. Of these, about half were successful. The reason military putsches are so common is not hard to discern: the taking of power by armed force is likely to be most often—and most successfully—attempted by those who are already professionalized wielders of weaponry.
Foreign interference or foreign support for a coup. If a powerful nation wishes to exert near-total control over a weaker country, one of the most effective ways to do so is to install a puppet dictator who can then be bribed and threatened. This is a strategy the United States has deployed often, beginning early in the twentieth century with its support for dictators in Central and South America. Also, in the early 1950s, the U.S. supported Shah Pahlevi over Iran’s elected President Mohammad Mossadegh, leading to decades of dictatorship there. However, the U.S. is far from the only country to have ruled other nations by remote control: Britain, France, and Russia/USSR did the same in one instance or another.
Revolution. Most revolutions are fought against authoritarian regimes or foreign rulers. On rare occasions, however, the people—typically a rambunctious faction of the people—attempt to overthrow an elected government in favor of a would-be dictator. Such revolutions are usually more accurately described as civil wars. Coups in which an elected leader is overthrown in favor of an authoritarian with the help of foreign influence can be stage-managed to appear as revolutions (this happened in the case of Mossadegh in Iran). More frequently, however, revolutions that are widely intended to result in democratic reforms eventually result in the coalescing or emergence of an authoritarian regime (for example, in France at the end of the 18th century, in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949, in Cuba in 1959, and in Cambodia in 1963).
Risk Factors for Authoritarian Takeover
Economic decline led by energy decline probably won’t automatically result in despotism, just as industrialism and economic expansion didn’t everywhere lead to democracy. What are the circumstances that are likely to push nations to adopt more authoritarian governments?
Below are some notable risk factors (this is not an exhaustive list). From here on, I will occasionally refer to the Democracy Index (compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit), which seeks to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries based on 60 indicators.
Economic decline or instability. Periods of high joblessness, disappearing savings, and declining incomes can lead to widespread dissatisfaction with government, offering an opening for demagogues, military coups, revolutions, or foreign takeovers.
Weak democratic institutions with a short history. Democracy is a habit that needs reinforcement. It also needs institutions—parties and election machinery (polling places, fair counting of ballots, etc.). If those institutions have shallow roots, it is easier for them to be undermined or corrupted.
Dysfunctional media. Democracy only functions if the public is well informed with regard to issues and the actions of government. Media organizations can become weak, dominated by special interests, polarized, or suppressed by government. Their ownership can be consolidated by a few companies with similar political interests. In our current age of electronic information, media are vulnerable to outright propaganda, “fake news” (i.e., reporting characterized by ideologically spun, inaccurate, or even wholly invented stories), and the clever use of social media (bots and trolls).
High and growing levels of economic inequality. Some of the early observers of democracies, including Toqueville, noted that procedural democracy (equality before the law, universal voting rights, the right to express oneself in the political sphere) can be undermined by the power of wealth. Rich people can buy influence in ways both obvious and subtle. This is why healthy democracy is often correlated with progressive taxation and the availability of government-run social programs for those who are unemployed, retired, or sick.
Simmering resentments among social/racial/religious/ethnic groups, offering fodder for scapegoating. In hard times, demagogues can play upon such resentments to gain support and take power.
Deep political polarization. Polarization drains people’s attention from areas of shared interest and potential cooperation, and focuses it instead on points of disagreement. As each party demonizes the other, former political extremists may find their way into the mainstream. Polarization can offer an opening for a demagogue who promises to trounce the opposition party once and for all, if given dictatorial powers.
Weak financial systems heavily dependent on debt.As economic historians have shown, heavy reliance on debt always results in an eventual financial crash. See “economic decline” above.
Special vulnerability to foreign influence or takeover. If a country is militarily weak but has a strategically significant geographic location (for example, along the route of an important oil or gas pipeline), or if the country happens to possess strategically important resources (minerals or fossil fuels), more powerful nations are likely to have a keen interest in keeping that country controllable.
A powerful military with a history of domestic intervention. If social chaos ensues for whatever reason, the military is likely to step in; and when it does it is more inclined to install a dictator than to restore or build a democratic system. That’s because the military itself, in virtually every nation, has an authoritarian internal structure. (The Iroquois insisted that peace chiefs be different from war chiefs—an idea borrowed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which specifies that no acting military leader may assume the presidency).
Special vulnerability to climate change or other environmental disasters. People don’t inevitably turn to strong leaders after natural disaster. Over the short term, they tend instead to band together. Old grievances tend to be temporarily forgotten, and distinctions between rich and poor are at least somewhat erased. However, over the longer term, ecological disruption can lead to scapegoating and either revolution or a turn toward strong men who promise to restore order. For example, the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, was preceded by a long and devastating regional drought linked to climate change; refugees from the countryside flooded cities, straining infrastructure already burdened by the influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War. These refugees provided recruits for the Free Syrian Army, which rebelled against the authoritarian Assad regime.
High population growth rate. Nations with high fertility rates typically find it difficult to overcome poverty, absent a robust resource-exporting economy. Indeed, of the ten nations that currently have the highest population growth rates (Lebanon, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Jordan, Qatar, Malawi, Niger, Burundi, Uganda, and Libya), seven have fully authoritarian regimes according to the Democracy Index, while three have “hybrid” governments; only two (Qatar and Lebanon) have a per-capita GDP higher than the world average. As world energy declines, countries with fast-growing populations will probably see higher-than-typical per-capita decline rates in energy usage, likely leading to economic and social instability.
Most of the above might be considered generic risk factors, in that they apply to all societies even without taking energy decline into account. Other risk factors are more directly related to potential energy supply problems:
A high dependency on food imports. History has shown (for example, in Egypt in 2011) that food shortages can rapidly lead to social unrest and ultimately to revolution or authoritarian takeover. High food import dependency is therefore a point of vulnerability in societies given the likelihood that energy decline will also entail a decline in mobility, including the movement of food and other necessary goods.
Government’s budget tied to fossil fuel export revenues. If a government derives most of its revenues from fossil fuel exports, it will eventually face a declining revenue stream. Even Saudi Arabia, which has been a top oil exporter for decades, recognizes this (it is an authoritarian monarchy; several other major oil exporters are likewise classified as authoritarian regimes by the Democracy Index). Norway has sought to prepare for the inevitable by saving its oil export revenues in a permanent investment fund; currently that nation enjoys the highest rating of any country on the Democracy Index, and its citizens also rank high in terms of per capita income and self-reported happiness.
High per capita energy usage. Countries that have high per capita rates of energy usage have further to fall as energy becomes harder to produce. Countries with low rates of per capita usage typically already have ways of meeting basic needs relatively simply and directly—with a higher percentage of the total population engaged in food production, and a more robust informal economy.
High dependency on energy imports. If heavy dependence on revenue from fossil fuel exports can constitute a vulnerability for democracies, heavy dependence on imports can as well. Even though the U.S. was a major oil producer throughout the twentieth century, by 1970 it was increasingly dependent on imported crude; hence it faced economic hardship due to the 1970s Arab oil embargo.
There is something missing from these lists that is hard to define but nevertheless crucial to our present discussion. Perhaps Pankaj Mishra captures it best in his recent, difficult book, The Age of Anger. There he describes how, from its beginnings in the eighteenth century, modern capitalist, urban, industrial life disrupted previous patterns of settled existence. People lost their connections with land and tribe, and traditional livelihoods, and hence some essential aspects of their identity. In return, economic liberalism promised mobility, comfort, and intellectual and moral advancement. Instead many experienced anonymity and alienation, and the result was widespread resentment. This in turn led to decades of revolution and terrorism in Europe throughout the nineteenth century, with many prominent assassinations (U.S. President McKinley, French President Marie François Sadi Carnot, Bavarian Prime Minister Kurt Eisner, Russian Czar Alexander II, Serbian King Aleksandar Obrenovic, Spanish Prime Minister Juan Prim, and many others) as well as bombings and other violent events.
Today urbanization, commercialization, and technological disruption are proceeding at a faster pace than ever and reaching billions in formerly rural nations in East and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Millions of young people are being educated for life as consumers and workers, yet are finding the promises of “development” ringing hollow. Unemployment rates among young males are often very high in these nations, and young men educated for urban industrial life are being attracted to militant fundamentalism. The rise of militant fundamentalism, along with high rates of immigration from fast-urbanizing countries, generates fear in the first-wave industrialized countries—a fear that leads to a rise in “traditionalism” and a turn toward authoritarian leaders who promise to suppress terrorism and reduce immigration. In effect, for both the young Islamist radical and the older Trump voter, tribalism is a powerful motivator. We will return to this subject later as we consider ways to counter or mitigate risks to democracy.
Typically, a surplus of unemployed young males also increases the likelihood of war. During wartime, the combatants gain a sharper sense of meaning and purpose. Democracy seldom flourishes during war, though it can persist and blossom anew afterward.
Clearly, nations are in widely varying circumstances, with different areas and degrees of vulnerability to energy decline; and they are thus likely to react differently to the ensuing economic stresses. Full “democracies” according to the Democracy Index (Norway, Canada, New Zealand, etc.) are probably best situated to respond in ways that preserve democratic institutions and traditions. Nations currently listed by the Democracy Index as “flawed democracies” (United States, Philippines, Indonesia, etc.) are probably most at risk of shifting further toward authoritarianism via election. Countries that are currently “hybrid states” (Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, etc.) or “authoritarian” (Russia, Egypt, China, etc.) are more likely to experience revolutions or coups.
Countering the Risks to Democracy
How could nations in the “democracy” or “flawed democracy” categories resist a tendency to slide toward authoritarianism? It stands to reason that, if risk factors are present, reducing vulnerability would entail countering those factors as much as possible:
Build and support independent media. Governments and leaders should resist the temptation to favor media outlets that simply parrot their own talking points, or that disparage current leaders’ enemies. Maintain full press freedoms, including legal protections for journalists.
Work to limit climate change and other ecological drivers of human misery. This includes not only efforts to adapt to higher sea levels, but also to reform agricultural practices (carbon farming) and dramatically reduce carbon emissions in transportation and manufacturing.
Work to reduce extreme political polarization. Avoid wedge issues. Nations with more than two major parties sometimes fare better at avoiding polarization.
Support and strengthen democratic institutions. Prioritize fair elections (universal voting rights, public financing of campaigns, limits to campaign contributions, plenty of accessible polling stations that are open a sufficient number of hours, transparent methods of ballot counting).
Promote tolerance. For a nation, ethnic, religious, and cultural homogeneity can be an asset in avoiding political unrest during hard times. But many nations are ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse, and any effort to reduce that diversity would necessarily entail human rights violations. Nations with diverse populations must simply make the best of the situation, celebrating and honoring their diversity and protecting minorities.
Discourage inequality. Most nations already counter economic inequality through progressive taxation and social welfare programs. But economic stresses from energy decline will require more creative thinking and experimentation, including encouraging worker-owned cooperatives and discouraging shareholder-owned corporations; implementing high inheritance taxes with no loopholes; and finding ways to reduce the role of debt in society.
Minimize power of military and intelligence agencies. Keep the military separate from governance institutions. Keep the military budget within modest bounds. Don’t over-glamorize the military. And don’t permit “black ops” or domestic surveillance.
Build low-energy infrastructure, habits, informal economy. This implies a change of direction for most nations, which tend to be hooked on large-scale infrastructure projects (highways, airports) that lock in energy dependency. Promote low-energy ways of providing for basic human needs, such as solar hot water heaters and cookers, walking, and bicycling.
Promote population stabilization. Support family planning and elevate the social status of women.
Build local food production capacity. Support small farmers, local food, and agriculture that minimizes dependence on fossil fuel inputs.
Stabilize the financial system. Reduce reliance on debt in every way possible, shrinking the size of the financial system relative to the “real” economy of goods and services.
Decentralize both the economy and the political system. Encourage distributed energy, local currencies, and local food. Allow city and regional governments to make all decisions except those that require national or international deliberation.
Avoid being the target of foreign political meddling. Maintain vigilance with regard to electronic and propaganda warfare. Don’t take on big international loans.
These recommendations are far easier to spell out than to carry out. And at least two of them are seemingly at odds with each other: a nation that keeps its military and defense budgets at minimum levels might be more likely to be the target of foreign meddling or intervention. Further, while most democracies are making at least some efforts along some of these lines, in many cases they are being overwhelmed by trends toward increasing polarization of politics and media, and increasing economic inequality.
Further, most of the above recommendations fall within the bounds of modern liberal norms and discourse. But, as we have seen, the entire project of industrial and social “progress,” as framed within the liberal economic tradition, has produced whole classes of casualties and rebels. The endemic risks to urban, capitalist, industrial societies stemming from the resentment and alienation described by Mishra—that lead increasingly to terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and authoritarianism—are inherently difficult to track or counter. To defuse this deep, amorphous threat to democratic values and institutions, perhaps something more is needed beyond the mere strengthening of media and democratic institutions—something that ties people back to the land and gives them both a “tribal” identity and a larger sense of purpose. A new religion might fit the need, but it is difficult to summon one at will. If advocates of democracy and cultural pluralism continue to fail to fill this void, authoritarians of various stripes will certainly seek to do so.
Are Dictatorships or Democracies Better at Responding to Energy-Economy Decline?
In the contemporary world, democracy is widely (though not universally) prized over authoritarian forms of government. This is certainly understandable: authoritarianism leads to the regimentation of thought and behavior, and often to the subjection of large segments of the population to psychological and/or physical violence. But are democracies inherently superior to authoritarian regimes in dealing with crises such as energy decline, climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, and financial instability?
To adapt proactively to environmental limits and impending scarcity, governments may have to do some unpopular things. Restrictions on consumption (such as rationing) may be required, along with the encouraging of smaller families. Such policies cannot help but rankle, following decades of rising economic expectations. Economic redistribution could help reduce the stress of scarcity for a majority of the populace, but many will still resent the new conditions. Elected leaders may find it difficult to maintain sufficient popular support for such policies. Could authoritarian regimes fare better? A few historic examples come to mind.
During the early 1990s, Cuba saw a sharp decline in energy supply due to a cutoff of low-cost oil imports from the now-defunct Soviet Union. At the time, Cuba’s food system was highly centralized and dependent on oil-fueled farm machinery and food transport. Cuban leaders responded to the crisis by decentralizing food production, reducing fuel inputs, and encouraging urban gardening. The result was a rapid and thorough restructuring of the nation’s food system that averted widespread famine. It is unclear whether such measures would have been feasible outside a command-and-control authoritarian political context.
Both China and Iran managed to substantially reduce their nations’ high birth rates—China (beginning in the 1970s) via its compulsory one-child policy, and Iran (starting in the 1980s) through vigorous but voluntary family planning efforts. Both nations formulated and managed these programs via top-down, centralized, and authoritarian methods.
These examples might suggest that authoritarian regimes are inherently more resilient than democracies. However, there are instances where authoritarian regimes have instead proven brittle. For example, when Soviet Union failed to deal with economic decline in the 1980s the government collapsed, as did the nation’s economy. In contrast, some democracies (such as the U.S. during the Great Depression and Britain in the 1930s and ’40s) have persisted during privation, though somewhat authoritarian temporary measures were instituted, including greater control of the media by government.
Many authoritarian regimes are poorly situated to help the populace weather economic crisis simply because their leaders are too obsessed with self-enrichment, self-aggrandizement, and self-protection. It could be argued that if a society is already impoverished due to the incompetence of its authoritarian leadership, its people will have fewer expectations to be dashed, and their standard of living will not have as far to fall before hitting subsistence level. But this is faint encouragement. There must be some better recommendation for today’s nations than “crash your economy and suppress your people’s aspirations now, so that they won’t be disappointed later.”
* * *
The relationship between energy, the economy, and politics is messy and complicated. There is not a simple 1:1 correlation between energy growth and economic growth: the Great Depression occurred in the United States despite the presence of abundant energy resources. Similarly, there will probably not be a strict correlation between energy decline and economic contraction.
One important wild card is the role of debt: it enables us to consume now while promising to pay later. Debt can therefore push consumption forward in time and (for a while, at least) make up for declining energy productivity. It would appear that the “fracking” boom of the past decade, which probably delayed the world oil production peak by about a decade, depended on the power of debt. But when debt defaults cascade, an economy may decline much faster than would otherwise be the case (default-led financial crashes have occurred repeatedly in modern history). And debt defaults can cripple the financial and thus the economic system of a nation with plenty of energy resources (as happened in the U.S. in the 1930s).
As we have seen, dictatorships can sometimes adapt well to scarcity. We can only hope that, if scarcity does indeed lie in our immediate future, authoritarian leaders will minimize rather than add to their people’s suffering. Similarly, we should hope that everyone in democracies has access to information that helps them make collective choices that lead to successful adaptation to inevitable, impending scarcity. Unfortunately, flawed democracies may be particularly vulnerable when energy supplies decline. Given their political polarization and saturation with “fake news,” they are more likely to succumb to demagogues who promise to return the nation to a condition of abundance if granted extraordinary powers.
It is highly likely that, as events unfold, the causal criticality of energy decline will be hidden from the view of most observers, whose attention will be fixed instead on shocking but comparatively superficial and secondary political and social events. A more widespread understanding of the role of energy in society, and of the likely limits to future energy supplies, could be extremely beneficial in helping the general populace adapt to scarcity and avoid needless scapegoating and violence. Perhaps this essay can help in some small way to deepen that understanding.
7. Simulation Scenarios of the Transition to Sustainability
This section presents the emerging synthesis of all the information in sections 1 to 7. The synthesis is presented in the form of a concept that integrates the social, economic, and energy issues that must be resolved to attain a civilized (i.e., humane) transition during the first half of the 21st century. Energy balance for entropy control is a non-negotiable requirement, and gender balance for violence mitigation is an indispensable catalyst for the transition. The strategy is presented next from the process, time-phasing, and system perspectives:
INTEGRATED TRANSITION STRATEGY - PROCESS VIEW
The following is a conceptual diagram of the sustainable development process:
Bounded Population-Economic-Ecological System for Sustainable Human Development
Prosperity without Growth, Tim Jackson, 2011, Figure 12.1, Page 195
BASIC ARCHITECTURE FOR SDSIM 2.0
There are three sets of feedback loops: human development, human adaptation, and industrial mitigation. The human development loops (yellow arrows) improve gender equality and other human capabilities, and guide the allocation of income/commodities generated by the economic system. The human adaptation loops (red arrows) drive ecological investment so as to enhance the sustainability of ecosystem services. The industrial mitigation loops (green arrows) improve the productivity of energy and other resources by using "industrial engineering" methods. The working hypothesis is that mitigation loops are helpful as long as their operation is subservient to, and do not interfere with, the human development and human adaptation loops.
The convergence of gender balance, energy balance, and sustainability emerges from gender imbalance and energy imbalance jointly driving human civilization toward unsustainability. Many other factors are involved, but gender and energy imbalances are the most pervasive, and balancing them would have a neutralizing effect on all the other factors that conspire against a sustainable human society. If the transition from consumerism to sustainability is to be attained in a timely and civilized manner, i.e., before it is too late and minimizing violence as much as possible, balancing gender relations and energy flows would be the best (perhaps the only?) way to go.
INTEGRATED TRANSITION STRATEGY - PHASES VIEW
There are four phases: concientization, incentivation, redistribution, and democratization. Phases may overlap recursively. Time is of the esence, but the specifc start/end dates for the time windows are impossible to predict.
The following acronyms, and terminology are used in this transition concept and subsequent discussion:
Energy Return on Investment (EROI)
Energy return on Energy Investment (EROEI)
Financial Transaction Tax (FTT)
Global Citizens Movement (GCM)
Human Development (HD)
Human Development Index (HDI)
Human Development Report (HDR)
Integral Human Development (IHD)
International Standards Organization (ISO)
Land Value Tax (LVT) or Resource Value Tax (RVT)
Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs (MASLOW)
Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)
Principle of Solidarity (SOLIDARITY)
Principle of Subsidiarity (SUBSIDIARITY)
Principle of Sustainability (SUSTAINABILITY)
Sustainable Development (SD)
Sustainable Human Development (SHD)
Triple Bottom Line (TBL)
The formula I=PxAxT, known as "Ehrlich's Equation," is generally recognized as a good model for the ecological impact of economic activity. The impact is a nonlinear function of human population (P, # of persons), affluence (A) measured as consumption per capita ($/person), and a technology factor (T) that quantifies the impact (in physical units) per dollar of consumption. Note that for impact (I) to decrease, the technology factor (T) must go down faster than the product of population (P) and lifestyle (A) grows.
Several formulations are possible for IHD. The best known is the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI) which includes three components: life expectancy, years of schooling, and GNP per capita. The are many variations of the HDI to include, for example, the gender equality dimension. Other indices attempt to replace GNP with other measures of human wellbeing, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), the GINI Cofficient of Inequality, and the Happy Planet Index (HPI).
The transition entails maximizing human development and wellbeing as much as possible, and minimizing ecological impacts as much as possible, in a manner that leads to economic and ecological stability. Clearly, maximizing human wellbeing and minimizing ecological impact are mutually contradictory goals as long as human wellbeing is measured in terms of material consumption per capita. Since there are resource limits, and there are limits to efficiency improvements via technological innovation, something must give: humans must adapt by shifting expectations of wellbeing from economic affluence to other human development goals. It is impossible to predict how this adaptation process will unfold, but the following synopsis of the transition phases is proposed as a point of reference:
The first phase is concientization to enable incentivation. The objective is to create widespread popular support for the required revisions of tax codes and energy subsidies. In other words, the first phase is about creating a collective mindset of global citizenship and social responsibility, strong enough to translate into political will to face the inevitable transition and implement required reforms. Gender equity is key.
The second phase is incentivation to enable redistribution. The objective is to reform tax codes and energy subsidies to expedite the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Applicable reforms include shifting taxes from earned income to the usage (extraction) of unearned resources and the release of pollution, as well as taxing financial transactions of dubious social value. Gender equality is key.
The third phase is redistribution to enable democratization. The objective is to institutionalize democracy with gender balance and distributive justice. This may entail adopting a Universally Guaranteed Personal Income (i.e., a basic minimum income rather than a minimum wage) and a Maximum Allowable Personal Wealth (i.e., an upper limit on financial wealth accumulation) that can be democratically adjusted periodically.
The fourth phase is worldwide democratization. The objective is democratization of global, national, and local governance with deeply ingrained gender balance and widely institutionalized implementation of the solidarity, subsidiarity, and sustainability principles. Decisions are to be made at the lowest possible level consistent with governance capabilities and the common good of humanity.
The four phases are not envisioned to be strictly sequential. They most probably will overlap, with recursions and convulsions along the way. The term "gender equality" is not to be understood as "gender uniformity." By gender equality is meant equality of dignity and personal development opportunities across the entire gender continuum. In other words, full equality in all dimensions of human life: physical, intellectual, psychological, vocational, spiritual. The term "clean energy" is to be understood as "clean renewable energy" that is naturally replenished and does not produce GHG emissions when used. It does not include absurdities such as "clean coal." The combination of gender balance and energy balance is hereby proposed as the necessary and sufficient driver for a civilized (i.e., humane) transition, and are expected to have a multiplying effect throughout the global human system.
INTEGRATED TRANSITION STRATEGY - SYSTEM VIEW
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX
The following diagram represents the present world human system:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX
The positive signs indicate positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loops
Based on the Ecocosm Paradox Diagram by Willard R. Fey & Ann C. W. Lam, 1999
The downward flow at the center is the flow (lifecycle) for all kinds of merchandise. The feedback loop on the right-hand side is the population growth process. The feedback loop on the left-hand side is the economic growth process. If human consumption keeps increasing, natural resources are depleted and pollution accumulates. If human consumption decreases/stabilizes, the current economic/financial system destabilizes/collapses. This is the "infinite growth in a finite planet" paradox, which is more commonly referred to as the "sustainable development" paradox or simply the sustainability paradox.
The connecting arrows in the diagram indicate a ceteris paribus direction of influence. In the current world system the sense of every influence is positive, i.e., "more" leads to "more." However, the strength of the influence may change with time depending on various factors. For instance, the strength of the influence from "General Human Wellbeing" to "Net Human Fertility" may decrease after a certain threshold of wellbeing, higher levels of education, and accesibility to reproductive heath care. The strength of the influence from "Material Human Comfort" to "Decisions to Borrow and Invest" may increase when lines of credit with low interest rates are easy to obtain.
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX
WITH SUPERIMPOSED TRENDS
The following diagram represents the present world human system with samples of recent trend data for population, consumption, and the physical flows of energy and materials:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX WITH SUPERIMPOSED TRENDS
World Population 1950-2100 (UNDATA, 2010 Revision)
World Consumption Per Capita 1965-1995 (World Bank, 2011)
World Human Consumption 1960-2009 (World Bank, 2011)
World Energy Consumption 1990-2035(DOE EIA, IEO 2011)
World Average Land Surface Temperature 1800-2005 (Berkeley Earth, October 2011)
At the moment, the world's population is approximately 7 billion people but the rate of growth is slowing down. Global consumption of goods and services is approaching 60 trillion dollars, with 80% of commodities going to 20% of the population. Empirical data shows that consumption is growing faster than population, even though over one billion people remain in abject poverty. The global financial system is in total disarray. Worldwide, the rich-poor gap is increasing increasingly. Billions of tons of minerals and fossil fuels are being extracted from the earth each year, and billions of tons of waste and pollutants are being dumped back into the environment. Climate change, induced by global warming, is already impacting some human communities. Specific numbers are important, but recent growth patterns and their projected continuation are the main concern. It is impossible to predict the timing of forthcoming events, but it is reasonable to anticipate that infinite material growth in a finite planet is a mathematical impossibility.
The above hypothesis on how economic growth dynamics unfold can be refined in many different ways. For instance, the following diagram includes only the economic growth loops (left portion of the diagram) to show additional investment loops on financial credit, job creation, technology development, and advertising. Now we have a multiplicity of positive feedback loops that reinforce each other and jointly reinforce human consumption, as in the following diagram:
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX
WITH MULTIPLE ECONOMIC GROWTH & JOB CREATION LOOPS
The following diagram represents the present world human system with added detail on job creation in conjunction with the economic growth process:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX WITH MULTIPLE ECONOMIC GROWTH & JOB CREATION LOOPS
Another way to expand the hypothesis is by including the financial growth loops whereby banks lend to industry and, in addition, lend to investors seeking financial gain for the sake of financial gain (i.e., nothing is produced or consumed). Such is the case, for example, when investor A borrows money from bank X at a given interest rate, then lends the money to investor B at a higher interest rate and pockets the additional gain. This kind of financial speculation activity (which is perfectly legal and facilitated by currencies no longer being under the gold or some other tangible resource standard) that may lead to financial bubbles and crises as happened recently in the USA and more recently in Europe. Consider the following diagram:
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX
WITH MULTIPLE FINANCIAL GROWTH LOOPS
The following diagram represents the present world human system with added detail on the financial dimension of the economic growth process:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADOX WITH MULTIPLE FINANCIAL GROWTH LOOPS
There is empirical evidence that total world population is now increasing decreasingly, so current economic conditions suggest focusing on the economic side of the sustainability paradox. The economic growth process is driven by growing consumer demand for additional material comfort in the form of goods and services. This induces decisions to invest for expansion of industrial capacity, new technologies, and more advertising. Banks reinforce investment by lending to investors, and also by lending to consumers eager to increase their per capita consumption, which is currently growing faster than population. Since the dollar and other currencies are no longer based on gold, banks also can lend for trading in derivatives and other "financial weapons of mass destruction." This unbriddled capital accumulation process, driven by short-term profits and a systematic discounting of the future, assumes that there can be infinite growth in a finite planet, and actually requires continued and unlimited growth to keep functioning. This is the essence of the sustainability paradox.
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM
The following diagram represents the future world human system:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM
The positive signs indicate positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loops
The negative signs indicate negative (self-correcting) feedback loops
The new connectors at the top linking natural resources to population and consumption per capita create adaptation loops (dotted lines). As long as natural resources are not limiting, these loops remain inactive. When one or more natural resources (e.g., minerals, water, fossil fuels) become limiting, resource prices are bound to increase and adaptation must take place by limiting population growth, economic growth, or both. On the economic side, this entails reducing consumption, substituting one resource by another, or both.
The new connectors at the bottom linking waste/pollution accumulation to human comfort (material or otherwise) are mitigation loops (dashed lines). As long as environmental degradation does not affect human comfort, these loops remain inactive. When the accumulation of pollutants is such that human well-being (material comfort, health, etc.) is impacted, the costs of environmental remediation are bound to increase and mitigation must take place by shifting priorities from comfort to survival.
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM WITH EMBEDDED INPUT-OUTPUT MATRIX
The following diagram represents the future world human system enhanced to show the vector of resource intensities, the matrix of inter-industry transactions, and the vector of emission factors:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM WITH EMBEDDED INPUT-OUTPUT MATRIX
The positive signs indicate positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loops
The negative signs indicate negative (self-correcting) feedback loops
Intensity factors are in resource input units per unit of merchandise produced
The input-output matrix is the Leontief matrix of interindustry transactions
Emission factors are in emission output units per unit of merchandise consumed
SYSTEM VIEW OF THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM WITH PROPOSED
RESOURCE VALUE TAXES (RVT) AND FINANCIAL TRANSACTION TAXES (FTT)
The following diagram represents the future world human system further enhanced to show self-correcting environmental and financial management loops:
THE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM WITH ENVIRONMENTAL & FINANCIAL LOOPS
The positive signs indicate positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loops
The negative signs indicate negative (self-correcting) feedback loops
Resource Value Taxes (RVT) are a function of natural resource depletion/deterioration
Financial Transaction Taxes are a function of RVT and the volume of non-real financial assets
RVT and FTT serve to reinforce job creation and employment opportunities
The formulation of adaptation and mitigation policies will attempt to integrate several dimensions of scientific knowledge and human experience, including gender equality issues, in order to simulate some plausible (but by no means predictive) transition scenarios and trade-offs. For a detailed list of supporting references click here. Nothing is totally unrelated to sustainable human development, and there are many variations of any conceivable transition scenario. Some of the variations to be investigated are identified in the following section.
SDSIM 2.0 ARCHITECTURE
The architecture of SDSIM 2.0 integrates the sustainability paradox into the transition strategy:
SDSIM 2.0 ARCHITECTURE (WORK IN PROGRESS)
P1, P2, and P3 are the positive population-industrial-financial loops
which currently drive the sustainable development ("infinite growth") paradox
E1, E2, and E3 are negative energy production-consumption and behavioral loops, and
AMD stands for human adaptation-mitigation decisions in response to energy availability constraints
This architecture is proposed as the simplest possible model to capture both the positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loops of the growth paradox and the negative (self-regulating) feedback loops that are bound to emerge during the transition. It is anticipated that dominance will gradually (or not so gradually) shift from the P loops to the E loops as the transition unfolds. The E loops can be generalized to include natural resources other than energy, but energy is the primary concern for SDSIM 2.0. Consideration of other resources, such as water and minerals, is planned for subsequent revisions of the architecture (SDSIM 2.1, 2.2, etc.). AMD is a function of material consumption, financial gain, and energy scarcity and serves to calculate the adaptation and mitigation decisions that are forced by economic and energy constraints. The inverse of AMD is being investigated as a possible model of social cohesion, or the collective capacity to make adaptation and mitigation decisions motivated by human development incentives as opposed to biophysical constraints.
It is critical to take explicitly into account how people and governments will behave in response to changes in the mix of financial profitability and energy availability. What function could be used to model of how people will react to changes in financial profitability and energy scarcity in a given solidarity-sustainability culture? What would be the consequences for population growth (or decline), economic growth (or decline) and quality of life during the transition from consumerism to sustainability? These are the kind of questions to be investigated (via simulation experiments) with SDSIM 2.0. It is understood that social systems are more than closed-loop feedback structures no matter how highly refined the mathematical equations and parameter values. The intent of the SDSIM project is not to provide any final answers but simply to contribute, in some small way, to define more precisely the key questions that must be answered, in a broader context of practicality and wisdom, in order to attain the transition and avoid, to the extent possible, unnecessary human suffering in the process.
SOME PRELIMINARY SIMULATIONS
The current SDSIM 2.0 is a demo, not a capability. For instance, the graph below is a simulation of world population, gross industrial production, average consumption per capita, energy availability, and social cohesion ("solidarity index") trends, during 200 years (1900-2100):
Sustainable Development Simulation (SDSIM 2.0) from 1900 to 2100
This simulation suggests that, toward the end of the 21st century, population and social cohesion are declining while GDP and per capita consumption are still rising even as energy availability is peaking. Is this leading to a steady-state economy at high levels of production and consumption? The next graph shows the same system simulated during 1000 years (1900-2900, as shown in the horizontal axis):
SDSIM 2.0 BASELINE SCENARIO
Sustainable Development Simulation (SDSIM 2.0) from 1900 to 2900
Due to significant time delays in adjusting population growth and resource consumption rates, and further delays in developing new technologies to "do more with less," the system goes into an extended period of oscillations in population and consumption levels. The amplitude of the oscillations seems to be gradually declining toward new steady-state levels of population and consumption, but at the expense of significant decline in social cohesion (fierce competition over increasingly scarce energy resources?). However, toward the end, drastic adjustments are induced by energy availability returning to the pre-1900 level, i.e., after a very long tail, all fossil fuel resources are finally exhausted.
Extending the simulation for another 1,000 years (next plot), the calculations suggest that another transition would be needed before long-term stability is attained:
Sustainable Development Simulation (SDSIM 2.0) from 1900 to 3900
Beyond 2100, it would seem that the system is leading to steady-state albeit via a long series of oscillations of decreasing amplitude. However, after 2800 or so, energy availability is depleted to just above the 1900 level, or basically solar influx plus of minimum amount of energy from remaining fossil sources. Then, even if massive starvation is avoided by human adaptation, the system adjusts down to a much lower steady-state in terms of population, economic throughput, and "standard of living." Time will tell whether this will make social cohesion decline even further, or eventually induce a much higher level of solidarity (human capacity for virtue out of necessity?) as suggested by the simulation. It cannot be overemphasized that this is a simulation, not a prediction. The simulation simply shows that eventually the system must go back to an energetically sustainable steady-state.
SUMMARY OF BASELINE SCENARIO
This is a simulated scenario, not a prediction. It portrays dynamic modes of behavior that can be expected during the transition from consumerism to sustainability. Both simulated time (horizontal axis) and simulated variables (vertical axis) can be adjusted without changing the fundamental patterns of growth, oscillations, and degrowth. During the transition, undoubtedly there will be noise due to short-tem social, economic, and ecological perturbations, but the overall patterns of peaks and valleys will persist in the long-term, as follows:
Population peaking, then oscillating and finally decreasing to a long-term sustainable level. Note time-phasing with GDP and per capita consumption of material goods and services.
The peak in energy availability is followed by a long decline until it settles to the steady-state flow that is allowed by solar (and perhaps other cosmic) sources of energy. The "long-tail" is the result technological developments with gradually decreasing return on energy invested.
The solidarity index is currently formulated as a nonlinear function of human population, material consumption, and energy flows. It is an indicator of social cohesion, which is tightly coupled with the sustainability of resource usage. Solidarity reinforces sustainability and vice versa.
The general patterns of peaks, oscillations, and eventual settling to steady-state are indicative of turbulence during the transition, with high risk of cultural disruptions and violence. The myth of "infinite growth in a finite planet" will not be easy to overcome.
This is not intended to be an "alarmist" scenario. However, it would be wise to take the Precautionary Principle into account when formulation sustainable development policies as we enter the Anthropocene Age.
The past cannot be changed, and the future is unknown. The exact sequence and timing of events cannot be predicted, but the general transitional patterns can be anticipated on the basis of energy biophysics. Specifically, there is empirical evidence to the effect that:
1. Fossil fuel resources are high in energy content but are not infinite.
2. Fossil fuel emissions are environmentally detrimental and/or potentially unsafe.
3. Currently known clean energy alternatives offer relatively low energy content.
Given that fossil fuels are being depleted, pollution levels are damaging the environment, and clean energy alternatives may not provide enough energy to sustain industrial economies, is it wise to just continue doing "business as usual" and trusting that some earthshaking technological breakthrough will come to pass soon enough? Is it fair for people in the "developed" nations to keep indulging in energy consumption and waste while one billion people must subsist on $2 per day or less? How will population growth rate and per capita consumption change in response to impending resource constraints? Will demographic and consumption adjustments be voluntary or involuntary? If they are involuntary, there is a high risk of violence emerging in conjunction with fierce competition for resources throughout the world. Is this "the future we want"?
Modeling and simulating the basic variables shown above is not easy but is feasible (as forty years of Limits to Growth analysis has amply demonstrated), and it is self-evident that natural resources (energetic and otherwise) currently being used are not infinite. It is also possible to quantify other physical variables such as polluting emissions, food availability, etc. The big challenge is to formulate mitigation and adaptation decision functions (the AMD node in the architecture diagram) that could reasonably mimic some plausible ways in which human behavior might change as quality of life is impacted and resource scarcities cannot be ignored any longer. Needless to say, the intent is not to be predict but "simply" to analyze, hopefully in a way that yields some useful insight. Easier said than done, as complex financial and cultural factors will come into play.
The Human Development Index, the Environmental Performance Index, the Ecological Footprint, and other such metrics, are useful in the sense that they show the social and ecological impacts of past human decisions. However, they do not take into account how human behavior might change in response to forthcoming dynamics of the transition from consumerism to sustainability. It remains to be seen whether or not such functions can be formulated in a way that is reasonable and useful to enlighten the discussion.
INTEGRATION OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND CLIMATE DYNAMICS
It is becoming increasingly clear that anthropogenic climate changes may be a critical factor forcing human behavior changes during the transition from consumerism to sustainability. A comprehensive model should, therefore, integrate the human and climate systems. In terms of feedback loop structures, the following series of articles may provide a basis for such enhancement of the simulations:
VARIATIONS OF THE INTEGRATED TRANSITION STRATEGY
In terms of the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, there seems to be a convergence of outlook that is shared by business, agencies, and NGOs. This convergence is reflected in the UN IEA and US EIA scenarios. However, in terms off replacing fossil fuels with clean energy is a post-carbon world, the Paul Chefurka's scenario is the most "pessimistic" and Stuart Staniford's scenario is the most "optimistic." Actually, it is not a matter of being optimistic or pessimistic. The divergence between "best case" and "worst case" scenarios may be due different sets of explicit assumptions about the timing of supply peaks for non-renewables and ramping up capacities for renewables plus different sets of implicit assumptions about human behavior and policy decisions in the context of an exceedingly complex system. Energy in some form is behind everything that moves, and there are many moving parts in industrial economies.
In their recently published book, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Hall and Klitgaard point out that discrediting economic theories that have served us well in the past serves no purpose. It is not a matter of choosing between classical economics, or neoliberal economics, or behavioral economics, or ecological economics, or biophysical economics. But, as they also point out, it is the separation of the biophysical and social dimensions of economics that renders either one useless in confronting newly emerging issues at the intersection of human behavior and physical flows. In every case, however, energy flows are the point of intersection between the behavioral and the physical dimensions, and it could well be that "economic energetics" is the key for integrating both and developing a new synthesis, as proposed long ago by (among others) economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and ecologist Howard T. Odum. In this regard, the "ecological economics" synthesis of Herman Daly deserves especial mention. Hall & Klitgaard's contribution is to isolate energy flows as the focal point for analysis (and hypothesis testing) via the "Energy Return on Investment" (EROI) index.
For the current level of climate change mitigation technologies, it would seem that Staniford's scenario is too optimistic in assuming that the production of fossil fuels can be sustained and the planet can absorb the resulting accumulation of GHG emissions without potentially catastrophic climate disruptions. On the other hand, Chefurka's scenario may be too pessimistic and hopefully will not come pass as the human-impact implications would be severe. EIA's scenario seems to be the most plausible with current technologies and economic conditions. However, the emergence of radically new and economically feasible technologies cannot be ruled out, and there is always the need to plan for the worst case scenario. With this range of scenarios in mind, the following variations are being considered for modeling and analysis:
Variations in the desired "Quality of Life"
Variations in the perceived value of human solidarity
Variations in the perceived value of ecological sustainability
Variations in the combined value of human solidarity and ecological sustainability
Variations in the timing and duration of human adaptations
Variations in the human propensity to consume (volume, choices, fix vs replace
Variations in the human propensity to adapt (climate, migration, transportation)
Variations in the pace of progress in secular gender equity, equality, and balance
Variations in the pace of progress in religious gender equity, equality, and balance
Variations in the adaptability of the world financial system (speculation, regulation)
Variations in the resilience of the human habitat (pollution, climate, ecosystem services)
Variations in fossil fuel reserves and the timing of "peak oil"
Variations in the timing and intensity of climate changes
Variations in the performance, schedule, and cost of clean energy technologies
Variations in the EROI values of non-renewable and renewable energy sources
Variations in the EROI values for resource discovery
Variations in the EROI values for resource development
Variations in the EROI values for resource extraction
Variations in the EROI values for resource conversion during production
Variations in the EROI values for resource conversion during consumption
Variations in the EROI values for resource conversion during disposal
Variations in the EROI values for resource emissions during production
Variations in the EROI values for resource emissions during consumption
Variations in the EROI values for resource emissions during disposal
Given the complexity and nonlinearity of complex ecological-economic systems, computer simulation methods are more promising for the analysis of dynamic modes of behavior related to both the "sustainability paradox" and the "sustainability paradigm" systems are diagrammed above. However, input-output analysis could be very useful to calculate specific interindustry propagations of energy resource substitutions within paradox/paradigm scenarios.
EDITOR'S NOTE: These variations are to be formulated and explored with SDSIM 2.0 (to view SDSIM 1.5, click here).
8. Emerging Patterns of Conscious Cultural Evolution
Seeing the Hidden Patterns of Culture
Originally published by
Medium, 15 August 2017 under a Creative Commons License
Often the most important things are invisible—we simply don’t have eyes to see. Feel the wind on your cheek and something undetectable to the human eye has been perceived. But what of the cultural patterns that have been invisible to us? How can we learn to see them?
In 2016, most professional media commentators didn’t see the upwell of support for Donald Trump. They also didn’t see how deeply conflicted the U.S. citizenry was about Hillary Clinton. These patterns were there for anyone who knew how to look for them, but were beyond the scope of analysis revealed by traditional polling or the standard tools of political science. Yet they proved to be very real come election day!
Similarly, the meshwork of relationships on social media are largely invisible to us. We cannot see who is connected to whom or how information cascades across our networks as we like and share each others’ posts. Yet these patterns too are very real.
The spread of email viruses made visible. See here for details.
There are social contagion effects as ideas spread with the same mathematical patterns as bacteria and viruses during a disease epidemic. This was seen with the global dispersal of “memes” during Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Or in the spread of news about the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Some researchers who study the evolution of language have even mapped out how they spread throughout history as part of the complex interplay of rising and collapsing empires, mass migrations, and pioneering exploration. These invisible fossils have been recreated by digitizing written text and mining it for patterns that would otherwise be impossible to see.
Tracing the movement of word sounds throughout history as part of human migration.
What other patterns of culture remain invisible today? And how might we go about learning how to see them? This is a question I ask as part of the team creating the Cultural Evolution Society—which now has 2,000 members in more than 50 countries who share a diverse methodological toolkit that includes Darwinian evolution as a framework for making sense of cultural change. Our first conference is scheduled for next month at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History where a gathering of researchers from anthropology, archeology, biology, psychology, primate studies, digital humanities, and more will come together and begin to map out all that is now known about cultural evolutionary studies.
The “Grand Challenges” for Cultural Evolution from a survey of our members. See here for more.
I am writing this article to prompt you to think about which cultural patterns YOU would like to make visible. Do you want to see the effects of runaway global warming on coastal cities? How hate groups arise during times of political struggle? Where the deep drivers of violence come from for the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States? There are so many cultural patterns that shape our lives—yet they remain invisible to us because we don’t have the eyes necessary to see them.
deluge of data alongside visualization tools that can be used to analyze and make their relationships understandable to the untrained eye. As the graphics throughout this article show, there is great power in visualized data and with this power comes new horizons of possibility for seeing and acting upon a rapidly changing world.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, we are living through an unprecedented time in human history. And the study of cultural evolution is more vital to our survival than most of us realize. So I invite you on this learning journey with me. Together, we can practice seeing the dynamics of culture with the tools available in 21st Century social sciences that map out networks, reconstruct historical patterns of development, and simulate interactions using computational models and visual tools.
Onward, fellow humans.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Brewer is co-founder and research director of Culture2 Inc., a culture design lab for social good. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement. (from Common Dream) More at Culture2 Inc.
Climate change has an image problem. Just one sign of that, among many, is a recent Gallup poll indicating that less than half of the U.S. population (42 percent) thinks climate change will pose a serious threat in this lifetime. That leaves nearly 200 million people in America so far unconvinced of the serious risks most in the science community see lapping at their doors.
A little threat denial may be understandable. Consider, for instance, the dual psychological challenges of a) coming to grips with scientific findings that are uncomfortable, and threatening, let’s say, the prospect of an increasingly inhospitable planet; and b) understanding how the often wonky and impersonal terminology common to climate change discourse – like 2 degrees C by 2100 and 400 ppm—has real and practical relevance to one’s everyday life.
“The way I think about it is, to tell someone that mean temperatures are going to change by two degrees Celsius is almost useless – not quite useless, but not really helpful,” says Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and former Chief Economist of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Obama administration. Greenstone is one of the principals involved in the Climate Impact Lab efforts.
“First of all, most Americans, including myself, still have difficulty going between Celsius and Fahrenheit, so two degrees Celsius as a global mean average is not even in units most people here understand,” he says. (It’s 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, for the record.) “And it also doesn’t tell anything that happens in our communities.”
The question of community impact is exactly what helped inspire Greenstone to seek new ways to bring more precise numbers to life, for more people.
Unlocking the power of visualization
It’s normal and common that it takes time for the public at large to accept science they can’t see for themselves. Take for example, the challenges of understanding and acceptance that plagued Western civilization long after Aristotle had begun asserting that Earth is round.
How could that be? Well, the land looks flat when you’re walking around on it, notwithstanding the valleys and hills and mountains. Right? But once sailors began circumnavigating the globe, and astronauts the atmosphere, more and more people could see there’s nothing flat about the third rock from the Sun.
Giving people 'a sense of what climate change is going to mean on the ground for them.'
The same out-of-sight/out-of-mind blind-spot can apply to climate change impacts. Except for farmers perhaps in the thick of it, watching profitability erode from recurring droughts, or fishers grappling with unprecedented flooding, climate change for some can seem a distant and invisible threat.
Connecting consequences to ‘everyday life’
So to bring it into real-world focus, Greenstone and three “like-minded co-conspirators” – Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group in New York, Solomon Hsiang of University of California at Berkeley, and Robert Kopp of Rutgers University – formed the Climate Impact Lab. Through it, they hope to quantify and better demonstrate how the changing climate is affecting humanity now and into the future. The group’s website, launched in May 2016, now represents the collaborative work of more than two-dozen climate scientists, economists, and data engineers from across the country.
“We’re trying to give people and communities a sense of what climate change is going to mean on the ground for them,” Greenstone says. By connecting data-driven climate damages to social and economic impacts, he says, the group aims to make the issue more relevant for policymakers, investors, business leaders, and households.
“Our thesis is that part of the reason that climate change is not at the top of most political wish lists is because people aren’t demanding it of their politicians,” Greenstone says. “And partly that’s because the consequences aren’t being expressed in ways that connect to everyday life.”
Mapping out consequences, one locale at a time
Different people want to know different things about climate change, and the Climate Impact Lab is among those trying to help them make those connections. The group on its website features an interactive map so users can explore the past, present, and future of extreme temperatures in 25,000 locales around the world.
Climate Impact Lab map, above, shows June-July-August historical temperatures.
For other USA and global interactive maps, see Climate Impact Lab
Second map, above, shows change in average temperatures for June-July-August,
assuming RCP 8.5 (representative concentration pathway) of radiative forcing in year 2100.
Assumes high greenhouse gas emissions in absence of policy changes and continued
high population growth. For other USA and global interactive maps, see Climate Impact Lab
Greenstone says he sees this hyper-localization as a major differentiator from previous modeling efforts of this scale, which have had to rely on much more aggregated data – inevitably resulting in some level of generalization. But with recent advances in computing and data science, Greenstone and his cohorts say they now can extract an unprecedented level of detail from massive data-sets, enabling them to uncover exceptionally nuanced relationships between climate and communities.
They say that “coming soon,” their online map will offer variable impacts alongside the current temperature data, from agricultural yields to coastal damage to energy costs. Projections can be filtered using different emission-level scenarios, and at different levels of probability.
Overall, the maps aim to tackle the socio-economic effects of various climate changes, from rainfall and humidity to sea-level rise. This means that in months to come, visitors to the site will be able to scroll between scenarios showing how temperatures and health data will change where they live, or plan to retire; planners can look at how flooding and drought will affect land use (and possibility); and policy makers could pinpoint where infrastructure improvements will be needed to accommodate increasing storm severity and sea-level rise.
Meaningful extrapolations abound from this level of insight. For example, researchers with the Climate Impact Labs partnership have confirmed that certain areas will be harder hit by warming trends than others – and they’ve priced it out. Some already hot counties, for instance in Arizona or Texas, could lose as much as 10 to 20 percent of gross domestic product by the 2080s. Why? In particular because of the combined hit of mortality loss, energy cost increases, and workers simply being too over-heated to do their jobs efficiently. It may sound dire, but this more detailed knowledge could help urban planners plan for adaptation, such as providing more cooling centers.
Now, throw in the social costs of carbon …
And that’s just one takeaway. The project also aims to calculate the cost of the multiple climate impacts mentioned above in order to present a more data-driven estimate of the social cost of carbon than so far has been possible. With more precise understanding of the socio-economic toll of carbon emissions, business leaders, insurance providers, investment advisors, and policy makers alike will be better able to assess risk, plan resource allocation, and strategize for adaptation.
By year-end, Greenstone says he expects the initiative will have estimates of mortality related to rising temperatures around the world. And, with the benefit of rapidly evolving data technology, he says the group plans to release its first estimate of the social cost of carbon by next summer.
The project is intended as an ongoing one, according to Greenstone. So, like any big research collaboration, funding will always be an issue. But so far the future is bright with strong support from a variety of funders cited on the group’s website, including EPIC at the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and a handful of individual benefactors.
Lofty goal: ‘Alter political dynamics’
For now, Greenstone says delivering on the group’s mission is “both exciting and challenging” – but he says it stands to be more than worth the while. “By giving people more detailed information about what climate change is going to look like,” he says, “we think it has the potential to alter the political dynamics around climate change.”
No small challenge that, as changing the politics and political dynamics on climate change is seen as being notoriously difficult to predict and more so to achieve.
But one thing does seem more than statistically feasible: With new advances in analytics and visualization, more data-driven insight on climate change and its continually unfolding effects on humanity is on tap in months and years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daisy Simmons is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, a nonpartisan, multimedia service providing daily broadcast radio programming and original web-based reporting, commentary, and analysis on the issue of climate change, one of the greatest challenges and stories confronting modern society.