Citizen Action Monitor

It’s inevitable civilization will collapse — The more important question is What will this collapse look like?

Since things are already happening rapidly, we are talking about timescales of the next few decades.

No 2376 Posted by fw, September 30, 2018

NOTE — To access my other posts related to Dr. Garrett’s research on a global economic/civilization collapse by the end of this century, click on the Tab in the top left margin, titled Civilization/Economic Collapse ~ Links to All Posts By or About Dr. Tim Garrett’s Research

“I believe that the universe is determinate, that things will unfold as they will unfold, and in the same way that they have always been determined to unfold. And I see this as a direct result of the laws of physics, specifically thermodynamics. I appreciate that others will not share that point of view and appeal more to human agency. The one thing I do believe is that if there is a solution out there, we should be very critical of those who advertise things that may be fairy tales – that are things that are as they might wish them to be. There may not be clear solutions that are the most obvious ones. It turns out from the work I’ve done for example that pursuing increased energy efficiency probably makes things worse rather than better because it aids to help the civilization and the healthier civilization is, the more it consumes. … Because it is only by understanding how civilization works that we can then start to think about how the future might change if there were certain adjustments that might be made. That’s where I, as a scientist, I would prefer to see the focus, not on the politics, rather on the science.”Tim Garrett, 2016 Radio interview

Note: This post replaces a similar one posted on September 27, 2018, which has now been deleted.

Below is an abridged transcript of a fascinating 2016 radio interview with physics professor Tim Garrett of the University of Utah. I say ‘fascinating’ because the program host and interviewer, Doug Bennett, asserts that “climate change and solutions to the problems we are facing has been a focus of mine for quite awhile.” He adamantly believes there are solutions to the economic growth- and climate-driven existential crisis humanity faces. However, when Doug is confronted by Tim Garrett’s lengthy, tight, physics-based reasoning, which blows huge holes in his (Doug’s) suggested “solutions”, he stubbornly clings to his disconfirmation biases. Or is it that he simply does not grasp Garrett’s information-rich thinking, even when Garrett does his utmost to simplify his explanations. And, in fairness to Doug, Garrett’s use of familiar terms like ‘wealth’ in an unfamiliar way can be confounding to the untutored. As well, Garrett’s introduction of analogies into the conversation can be disorienting, and the counter-intuitiveness of some of his arguments can be perplexing to ordinary folks.

Despite some bumps in the conversation, of the several Garrett posts on my blog, this one is the one that I found to offer the most helpful explanation of the professor’s thinking about the collapse of civilization.  

Regarding my transcript of the interview, posted below, because Bennett’s rambling comments take up almost half of the one-hour interview, I have omitted all but his introduction. These omissions in the transcript are indicated by ***** DB OMITTED *****

When listening to the audio, the only way to skip through Doug’s remarks is to fast-forward the playback. Since the audio of the interview is set to play in another Tab, it is possible to listen to the audio while following the transcript in an adjacent Tab.

To access the radio program click on the following linked title, which opens the program in another Tab. To read the transcript, simply scroll down. The transcript includes a chronological index to the audio, added subheadings, and highlighted text. The subheadings provide an excellent summary of Garrett’s thinking.


We Talk the Thermodynamics of Civilization with Professor Tim Garrett, Radio Broadcast by, on Unspun: An Experiment in Truth-Telling, February 13, 2016

Host Doug Bennett (DB) / Guest Tim Garrett (TG)


DB 01:55 – 3:30 — Today our guest is Professor Tim Garrett. He’s currently the head of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah. After getting his doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Washington in 2000, he spent two years as a Huber fellow at Princeton Environmental Institute, Princeton University, 2000-2002. He has been a visiting professor Université de Lille I, Lille, France, 2016-2017, and at Université Blaise Pascal II, Clermont-Ferrand, France, Summer, 2013.

He is a co-founder and president of two start-up companies: Fallgatter Technologies 2012-2015, and Particle Flux Analytics 2015 – present.

His research focus is the physics of clouds. He has developed “simple physical models for describing civilization’s growth. While clouds and economics may seem disconnected, both are complex systems that evolve according to non-equilibrium thermodynamic rules.”

When not doing research, he teaches graduate and undergraduate classes — cloud physics, atmospheric radiation, and thermodynamics. He also serves as a co-editor for the Copernicus open access journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Though our guest is mostly focused on physics, I have asked him to be on the air today to talk about his models of civilization and economics and their implications for our future. As regular listeners know, climate change and solutions to the problems we are facing has been a focus of mine for quite awhile.

Now, let’s welcome our guest, Professor Tim Garrett. Welcome to Unspun, An Experiment in Truth-Telling.

***** DB OMITTED *****

Think about civilization as being like an organism that consumes energy to survive

TG 04:26 – 12:02 – Civilization — when we think about everything in our world, I think we often think about things at a very local, personal level. We think about our own lives, the lives of the people around us. And our work. We go to work. We go shopping. And it’s sort of a small-scale perspective that we often have. Even when we think about environmental problems, we might think about – thinking globally, acting locally.

The perspective as a physicist, that is preferable to take, is sometimes just to try to stand back as far as possible. To try to see if all this complexity of our individual lives can somehow be simplified by looking at civilization as a whole. That’s the approach I try to take, which was to say: Well, okay, let’s forget about even countries or people – rather try to think about civilization as being like an organism, like maybe even an amoeba in a Petrie dish – or it could be any other organism that consumes energy in order to survive and maintain its existing operations – its circulations, everything that it does.

Civilization’s billions of people take potential energy and use it to do whatever it is they do

So if we think about civilization as a whole, we have all the countries and all the seven plus billion people in it, and we all interact in very complex ways. We do things ranging from international trade to just going to the grocery store, to going to and from work, to shopping on the Internet, making Google searches – whatever it is. And all these activities, as a consequence of a very basic rule in physics – the Second Law of Thermodynamics – must require a consumption of energy. This is unavoidable. So, in order for us to do anything, we must take [what physicists would call] high potential energy and dissipate it. We must take some energy that’s potentially useful and then use it in order to do whatever it is we do. We can’t escape this. We cannot do anything without consuming energy.

At the global level of civilization, energy comes from “primary energy supplies”

And then the question becomes well where does this energy come from? At the very local level this becomes a rather difficult question because we have energy from many different sources in many different forms. But at the global level – at the level of civilization – it becomes a much simpler problem. The only energy that’s really available to us is the energy that comes from what economists would call primary energy supplies. So these are things that we’re all familiar with like oil, gas, coal, nuclear power, wind power, solar power – all these things combined are what provide that potential energy that we can dissipate in order to do whatever it is we do.

After using energy, it gets dissipated as heat (e.g., CO2 emissions that cause global warming)

So, at one end we consume this energy, and then, somewhere much further down the road, after being used in many different ways, this energy gets dissipated as what we might call heat. So, that’s where the idea of a “heat engine” comes in. We consume high potential energy, we dissipate low potential energy, heat, which gets radiated into space eventually, and in the middle do what an engine does, which is we do all our circulations – these things I mentioned – could even be a Goggle search. Information goes out, information comes back. It’s like a piston in an engine – it goes up and then it comes down. These are the circulations that are powered by consumption of energy.

Civilization isn’t fixed, it grows – But how does it grow?

So what I did was to try to think about this concept of – well, maybe civilization is like this. And then I tried to ask – Well, how does this relate to economic quantities, like something that could be expressed in terms of say dollars?  And there, what I did was I tried to think about, well, how does civilization grow? Civilization isn’t fixed. We are growing. We’ve been growing for thousands of years.

Civilization grows because it is made of material resources from mines and forests

And there, thermodynamics turns out to be really helpful, because civilization isn’t actually made of energy. We’re made of matter, or stuff that comes out of mines or out of forests, whether it’s wood or copper or steel – whatever it is. And what this energy, this available energy does is not only does it enable us to keep doing what we’re doing, but also it allows us to extract stuff from the forests and from the mines so that we can build ourselves, so that we can grow. And it is by growing that ultimately we get bigger.

The bigger civilization gets, the more energy it consumes to sustain itself

And bigger things require more energy. So there is a positive feedback loop that happens – what I mean by a positive feedback loop is that as we consume energy, we can incorporate more matter, and as we incorporate more matter that makes all the buildings and us even – more people, roads, whatever it is – we are able to access these reserves of matter – wood and copper ore – whatever, even more efficiently than we were before, and that enables us to consume more energy, and then grow even further into more sources of energy. And as we get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, the more energy we require to maintain ourselves.

The Gross World Product, at the level of civilization, is an expression of this growth

And it turns out this can be expressed economically. It turns out that the GDP, the Gross Domestic Product – or the Gross World Product at the level of civilization — is an expression of this growth. And because there’s a clear link to energy consumption, we can also make a clear link to things that are more closely related to my interest in atmospheric sciences. Because energy largely comes from fossil fuels, we can also relate global economic quantities now to things like carbon dioxide emissions.

Physicist Garrett thinks about the economic problem as a physics problem, which allows him to make predictions about the economy and how much CO2 civilization will emit in the future

And that’s where things get interesting, where you start to be able to think about the economic problem as a physics problem. Can we predict economic growth? Well, sure. I mean, physics is really hard. I struggle with it. But it is physics, it is something that we can sort of work through and understand. Now we can start making predictions about the economy. And we can also start making predictions, too, about things like how much carbon dioxide civilization will continue to emit in the future.

***** DB OMITTED *****

The conventional economical view of ‘wealth’ is antithetical to thinking about how the universe actually works

TG 13:17 – 18:22 – There are many criticisms of the GDP. It doesn’t encompass much of what we do in our lives. I mean a common criticism of the formulas in the GDP is it doesn’t encompass things like, for example, work at home, which doesn’t get tallied as — in the GDP is some sort of a financial quantity. And I would totally agree with that criticism except I don’t think that’s a flaw of the GDP.

What the GDP expresses is the growth of wealth. It expresses the growth of civilization. It is not actually tied to the energy consumption itself, but it’s an expression of how the system, how civilization as a whole gets hungrier.

Let’s just take an example here. Let’s take you or I or anybody else, let’s say we produce. GDP means Gross Domestic Product. Let’s say we have somehow, through consuming more food, rather more than we have dissipated through exercise and just living, then we’ll get fatter. We’ve produced more of our body. And what happens when we get fatter? As a general rule, as we get bigger, or we grow through childhood to adulthood, we get hungrier. We must consume more energy in order to maintain our body mass.

If we’re going to draw an analogy here, the GDP is an expression of the increase in our requirement of energy. And then our wealth is a bit more like our body mass; it’s more closely linked to how much energy we currently consume.

Now, you think about “What is our wealth?” Traditionally in economics, wealth is thought about as one thing, plus another thing, plus another thing, plus another thing. This house is worth however much. And then if we had five houses there’s going to be five times as much in terms of wealth.

It’s more important to think about wealth as connections among things, relationships among aspects of civilization

I find that to be antithetical to how I would think about how the universe works. When we think about wealth, I think it’s more important to think about connections between things, about relationships among aspects of civilization – whether it’s us, or between anything in civilization, rather than the things themselves.

So let’s say we take a bar of gold. I think we’d all agree that a bar of gold is worth something. It’s worth quite a lot. But if it’s lost in the middle of the desert and nobody knows about it anymore, it’s worth nothing. That bar of gold is only worth something, it only contributes to our wealth if it’s part of a larger system where it has connections to other aspects of the system.

Wealth is a measure of our connections to civilization, which facilitates dissipation of energy along those connections

So the way I think about wealth is that wealth is a measure of our connections to the civilization. It’s a measure of connections where connections are important because they represent our ability to dissipate energy. You cannot dissipate energy without there being one thing that’s connected to another thing. There has to be a flow from high to low in order to dissipate energy. That dissipation is along connections.

So that’s how I think about wealth. It’s about our connections. It’s about how we relate to one another. It’s about – I think we all feel that we are more wealthy personally if we have more social contacts, for example. So it’s connections that give us wealth.

Garrett calculates wealth as “the accumulation of production over the entire course of history”

But then the trick becomes — How do we calculate the wealth? And that requires a bit of extra thinking. And there, what I did was I calculated wealth as the accumulation of inflation-adjusted GDP over the entire course of history. It’s the accumulation of production, like the accumulation of body mass, over time that leads to our current body mass or our current wealth.

Wealth has an invariable constant relationship to civilization’s rate of energy consumption

And there it turns out to be a rather wonderful result, the  result that’s at the core of my work, which is that our wealth, calculated this way, from year, to year, to year has the exact same relationship to civilization’s rate of energy consumption. It works out that every thousand dollars of wealth, in every single year is tied to seven watts of energy consumption globally. And that is an invariable constant for the past 40 plus years of data for which we actually have data.

***** DB OMITTED *****

At the basic core, there’s a relationship between how big civilization gets and how much energy it consumes

TG 21:04 – 21:54 — You can’t be fatter and stay fatter and eat much less. It doesn’t work that way. If you’re fatter and you want to stay fatter, you have to keep eating more because your body’s going to keep doing more and more stuff. You’ve got more blood cells, You’ve got more of everything in your body. And you’re going to radiate more heat and you have to sustain that with more food.

And civilization is the same way. I mean, our bodies are complex organisms, civilization is a complex organism. Sure they’re complex, but at the basic core level there’s this central relationship between how big something is and how much energy it has to consume. If we want to get more wealthy, it is unavoidable that we consume more energy and also more matter.

***** DB OMITTED *****

The notion that civilization’s economic system can achieve and maintain a “steady state” is a fiction because everything is always changing

TG 23:33 – 28:00 — So, maybe a couple of points here. Actually this is where it gets totally fascinating, for me at least. Because now we’re talking about how systems evolve through time. You brought up the “steady state” question. Steady states are useful idealizations of reality but they are fictions. Nothing can ever be in a steady state because things grow in response to their environment. As a thing grows it consumes more energy from its environment. So the environment’s always changing. So the relationship between the system and its environment is constantly changing over time. And for that reason, it is impossible for the system to achieve any sort of steady state where it is either growing or staying a fixed size. Things constantly evolve over time. Things may look to be somewhat steady over some short period of time but the reality is that everything is always evolving.

Nothing can continue growing for forever, everything must eventually collapse

And that leads to a second point, which is that nothing can continue growing for forever. Everything must eventually collapse. We look at a wave and a wave might rise and then ultimately it will run out of energy that caused it to rise in the ocean and then it must eventually fall. Sometimes the question then is whether the wave will decay gradually or whether it will break and collapse. So there’s two possible options there, which is what gets interesting.

What’s frightening is that civilization is now growing faster than it ever has before – 2.3% annually

One aspect of this with relation to civilization — and this is both amazing and I think somewhat frightening – it is that right now civilization is growing faster than it ever has before. Typically throughout most of history civilization grew at about a couple of tenths of a percent per year, so it was always growing between, let’s say, [the year] zero and a thousand AD or something like that. It was growing, but just rather slowly. And then, beginning around the Industrial Revolution we discovered these incredibly tasty sources of fuel like coal and then later oil that enabled us to accelerate our growth faster, and faster, and faster until, at this point, today, we are now growing at a rate of about 2.3% per year.

At an annual growth rate of 2.3%, in 30 years civilization would double its energy and material consumption

Now that may not sound like such a big number if we talk about, say, GDP growth, or even growth of wealth – they are different things – but economists might say that 2.3 % per year, they might use a word like ‘anemic’. This is actually a fairly small rate of growth. But let’s put this into context. A rate of growth of 2.3% per year means that things double in a course of about 30 years. So let’s think about that. That means that civilization will put on as much fat in the next 30 years as it has in all of its prior history. It will go from one basically to two. That is extraordinary because you think, 30 years, well that’s in many of our lifetimes. Thirty years. That means that civilization would – based on this anemic, people might call it, growth rate – would be at a stage where it is consuming twice as much energy and twice as much matter as it is currently.

The world’s environment is already struggling under the current growth rate

And we already talked about the world’s environment struggling under our current rate of growth. So, this is the point where myself and many other people start to think well, at some point something has to give. Either we run out of resources or, alternatively perhaps we pollute the environment enough that we can’t continue to grow. At some point I don’t see that growth can be continued. Eventually, it must switch towards decay.

***** DB OMITTED *****

It’s inevitable that civilization will collapse, the more important question is what will this collapse look like

TG 31:28 – 33:37 — Part of this is that you could say we’ve always been on a path towards wiping ourselves out. I think this comes back to this basic principle, which is that all systems have birth, they grow, their growth eventually saturates, and then they decay. Personally, I think more of the fatalistic perspective on this, which is that, you know, this is not just inevitable but it has always been inevitable. I think the question in my mind is not whether or not civilization will collapse, because it will, all things eventually collapse, eventually, ultimately the universe will probably collapse – that’s a given – I think more the question is — What’s this [collapse] going to look like?

Since things are already happening rapidly, we are talking about timescales of the next few decades

Can we make a prediction of how things will unfold? And we’re not necessarily talking about the distant future here. Since things are happening so rapidly, currently, we are talking about timescales of the next few decades. These are things that are happening right now. And if we can use basic physics to understand how something as seemingly complex as civilization works, then maybe we can have a deeper understanding of how our world will unfold over the next ten, twenty, thirty years,

That is where – as depressing as some of the conclusions might be — that’s where I think some of the pursuit of understanding this phenomenon can ultimately be rather fascinating.

Now I do have kids and I worry about their future. But then there’s of course the academic interest of trying to understand where we’re all headed.

***** DB OMITTED *****

Individual actions will end up being awash in the larger constraints on civilization as a whole

TG 37:17 – 41:12 — I used to take that perspective. I live a fairly frugal lifestyle: my house is small — I rely on dry-air clothes; a push-mower – those sorts of things. And I continue to do those things largely out of habit. But I no longer believe that they contribute. That’s not because I think the contribution is small. But rather I think that whatever we do it ends up being awash in the context of the larger constraints on civilization as a whole, due to things like the availability of energy.

Individual reductions in fossil fuel use will enable others to consume more

This is a bit discouraging I must realize, but the situation here is that, let’s say I consume less energy. Let’s say I switch to solar power. On the face of it that sounds terrific, but by consuming solar power I would be consuming, say, less fossil fuels. And I would be reducing the demand on fossil fuels due to my small contribution. By reducing the demand on fossil fuels for myself, fossil fuels then become more available, essentially cheaper and more attractive to others. And so what that means is that because fossil fuels are useful – they’re most certainly useful – my reduction of consumption may simply enable somebody else to consume more, so that at the end of the day it hasn’t actually made any difference at all.

The correct perspective is to look at problems at a planetary scale

The correct perspective, I think, or at least the simplest most accurate perspective by looking at problems that are really at a planetary scale, such as climate change, is to treat the problem and consider the problem on these sorts of planetary, global scales. And there it looks like individual actions are entirely invisible to the behaviour of the larger scale organism.

Ultimately, I can model how civilization has evolved over the past say sixty years knowing really only about the discovery of energy reserves that is sufficient to create very accurate what we call ‘hindcasts’ – they’re like forecasts starting in the past – starting in 1950 that are able to predict current rates of energy consumption and GDP growth as a precedent.

Really only knowing things like the fact that we discovered massive reserves of fossil fuels in the 1950s, and that civilization has evolved just as an organic response to this sudden availability of food.

Civilization evolves in response to the availability of reserves of energy and matter

In this work, I do not see individuals. I would like to think that individual actions have the power to make a substantial difference to how things progress in the future. But ultimately it looks more like civilization evolved as a response to things like the availability of reserves of fuel and matter, like steel, iron and copper.

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“The intent of the approach I’m taking is to try to figure things out the way they are”

TG 44:03 – 47:54 – [Garrett responds to Bennett’s accusation of being ‘pessimistic’] There may be a couple of responses here. I don’t want to sound pessimistic because it’s not really the intent of what I’m doing. The intent of the approach I’m taking is to try to figure things out the way they are. It’s not about providing recipes for, or goals as, for example, Mark Jacobson, your prior interviewee had been giving.

Let’s say that switching entirely to renewables by 2050 is possible. To me that seems surprising given that all our current infrastructure – not all but a large fraction of our current infrastructure is based around the consumption of fossil fuels. We would be talking about getting rid of our current wealth in order to pursue  different wealth. Let’s say we talk about our body, we carry our current body with us into the future. To somehow get rid of one body and then replace it with another that consumes energy in an entirely different way is not something we really think of as being all that possible.

Even if we did switch to renewables, we would still not be out of the frying pan

But let’s say we did switch to renewables. We are talking about a situation where the fossil fuels are still out there, the fossil fuels are still just as useful as they ever were, but somehow there is some global – and it would have to be global to matter for climate change – accord that says nobody can consume these fossil fuels even though they are useful. I think politically that might prove to be a little bit difficult. But let’s say it is possible.

Even with renewables, we would still be extracting material from the environment

We are not out of the frying pan. Because what happens then is that yes, we may be consuming a different type of energy that does not lead to CO2 emissions, but, remember, civilization is still made of matter. What that energy enables us to do is to extract material resources from our environment.

Since 1970, civilization has doubled its energy consumption and halved its biomass

It is no accident, I don’t think, that over a period since 1970, during which civilization has doubled its energy consumption, the biosphere has halved its biomass. The fish in the sea are largely gone, as are the animals on the land. If we double our consumption yet again, as would happen by 2050, if we continue along the current path, whether it is from fossil fuels or from solar power, we are still talking about sustaining civilization through the consumption of matter. And that matter has to come from somewhere. And that has its own set of environmental issues.

Ultimately we will end up where continued growth is no longer possible

And then we go on for another thirty years – doubles again and again and again. Ultimately we end up in a similar predicament, whether it is from global warming and climate change or whether it is from just taking everything out of the environment, we end up in a situation where continued growth may no longer be sustainable.   

***** DB OMITTED *****

Change does not happen overnight; the force of inertia tells us what’s growing now will likely continue to grow

TG 53:10 – 54:20 — The thing is, we are growing extremely quickly right now. Civilization currently is extremely robust. Things do not change overnight. The most powerful force in the universe is inertia: things that are growing now are most likely going to continue to grow. And they will grow for as long they can based on past favourable forces until they can’t. Because there may be an accumulation of negative forces that eventually slow things down and perhaps switch things over. But that’s not going to be the ten years [that Jared Diamond talked about]. I don’t see that as being even remotely possible.

And growth creates the seeds for collapse; it’s winning now and will continue to win

It could however be relatively soon. I mean we lie along a continuum of both growth and collapse at the same time. Growth creates the seeds for collapse and as we are growing the forces for collapse become stronger and stronger. But right now, growth is winning and it will continue to win for the next few decades. I do not see a way around that.

***** DB OMITTED *****

Environmental degradation will eventually take over in a timescale of decades

TG 54:45 – 57:29 — I don’t see that [collapse happening in the US] because the United States is still a very rich country. The globe is still very rich in material resources and energy resources, and, of course, the biosphere will continue to increasingly suffer but those resources are still out there, for awhile. But things do have to start kicking in as what economists might call ‘negative externalities.’ There are things like environmental degradation that will eventually start to take over and that’s where I foresee that – in the timescale of decades, not years. Yeah, things will happen. We lie along a continuum of growth and collapse.

The universe is determinate – things will unfold as they will unfold

One thing I think I will say with regards to your prior comments, with regards to solutions. Myself, I believe that the universe is determinate, that things will unfold as they will unfold. And the same way that they have always been determined to unfold. And I see this as a direct result of the laws of physics, specifically thermodynamics.

We must be critical of those who tell us fairy tales, wishful thinking of how they would like things to turn out

I appreciate that others will not share that point of view and appeal more to human agency. The one thing I do believe is that if there is a solution out there, we should be very critical of those who advertise things that may be fairy tales – that are things that are as they might wish them to be. There may not be clear solutions that are the most obvious ones. It turns out from the work I’ve done for example that pursuing increased energy efficiency probably makes things worse rather than better because it aids to help the civilization and the  healthier civilization is, the more it consumes.

What seems like the obvious solution may not be the right one

So the obvious solution may not in fact be the right one. And I think if we are to find solutions, we should not be pursuing goals or plans or fairy tales, whatever they are, we should be trying to understand how the system really works.

It is only by understanding how civilization works that we can think about what adjustments might be made

Because it is only by understanding how civilization works that we can then start to think about how the future might change if there were certain adjustments that might be made. That’s where I, as a scientist, I would prefer to see the focus, not on the politics, rather on the science.

For more information about Tim Garrett, check out these two links:

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