Citizen Action Monitor

We’re headed for the biggest crash ever, warns fossil fuels expert, Richard Heinberg

Fossil fuels have propelled global civilization beyond our control and into an era of perpetual overshoot.

No 2529 Posted by fw, October 12, 2019

Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, a prolific author and speaker, is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost educators on the need to transition society off fossil fuels. Below is my repost of Heinberg’s very long, December 2018 article titled The Big Picture.

Because of its length, I am presenting it in two reposts. In this, Repost 1, I more or less organize Heinberg’s content in line with my take on his 5 main headings –

  • Why civilizations collapse, as explained by The Adaptive Cycle
  • Have fossil fuels propelled us beyond the adaptive cycle and its natural checks, into perpetual expansion?
  • Energy, especially fossil fuels energy, makes the world go round, not money
  • But there is a downside to fossil fuels – climate change and an accelerated pace toward ecological and economic ruin
  • Why is it so hard for us to see we’re headed for the biggest crash ever?

Given the length of Heinberg’s article, here is a synopsis of today’s Repost 1 (of 2) —

Mounting problems facing humanity suggest we’re headed toward collapse of global civilization. Somewhat like ecosystems, civilizations pass through 4 phases of an adaptive cycle — exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization. For example, following a major disturbance to a forest ecosystem, in a “reorganization” phase adaptable species of plants and animals fill in niches. An “exploitation” phase follows in which niche species build dominant relationships that are more stable but less diverse. In the “conservation” phase, the new dominant species monopolize resources, compromising the system’s stability, risking a collapse, which is the “release” phase.

Modern global industrial civilization appears to have outgrown this form of adaptive cycle, escaping the natural checks, and passing into “perpetual expansion”. What triggered this change? Beginning its rise to prominence in the 19th century, abundant cheap fossil fuel energy has facilitated the rapid growth and success of our global civilization, including, for example, the industrialization and automation of agriculture. Consider the beneficial properties of fossil fuels – they’re energy-dense, portable, storable, and until recently, cheap. Fossil fuels enabled. And although few realize it,  energy, not money, makes the world go round. The downside of fossil fuels is that they release CO2, triggering climate-changing global warming. The challenge of replacing fossil fuels with other energy sources is monumental. The frightening challenge we face — is energy transition even possible before a global ecological and economic collapse erupts?  Or will we accelerate toward ecological and economic ruin.

Why is it so hard for us to see that we’re headed for the “Biggest Crash Ever”? For starters, our leaders are habitually trapped in their business-as-usual economic growth modality. And the rest of us? – Well, we have a tendency to discount threats perceived to be in a distant future at some far off location. In addition, we have become addicted to our culture’s distracting glut of trivial pursuits. Then there are the powerful ruling elites who propagandize us, normalizing the unsustainable, and distracting us from the consequences and contradictions of their interminable lies. And be wary of well-meaning activists who insist we can overcome threats of climate change, because they may be blinded in their own denial of reality. Their practical efforts might moderate collapse but likely won’t prevent it. The reality is that global civilization is beyond our control and headed for overshoot and collapse

Below is my Repost 1 (of 2) of Richard Heinberg’s article, including my subheadings, highlighted text and his graphics. Alternatively, read Heinberg’s complete article as published on the Post Carbon Institute’s website by clicking on the following linked title.

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The Big Picture by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, December 19, 2018

[NOTE — The three components of Heinberg’s conceptual “Big Picture” are — The Adaptive Cycle, Role of Energy, and Overshoot Predicament]

Mounting problems facing humanity suggest we’re headed toward collapse of global civilization

Humanity has a lot of problems these days. Climate change, increasing economic inequality, crashing biodiversity, political polarization, and a global debt bubble are just a few of our worries. None of these trends can continue indefinitely without leading to a serious failure of our civilization’s ability to maintain itself. Taken together, these metastasizing problems suggest we are headed toward some kind of historic discontinuity.

Serious discontinuities tend to disrupt the timelines of all complex societies (another name for civilizations—that is, societies with cities, writing, money, and full-time division of labor). The ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Mayan civilizations all collapsed. Archaeologists, historians, and systems thinkers have spent decades seeking an explanation for this pattern of failure—a general unified theory of civilizational collapse, if you will. One of the most promising concepts that could serve as the basis for such a theory comes from resilience science, a branch of ecology (the study of the relationship between organisms and their environments).

Why Civilizations Collapse: The Adaptive Cycle

Ecosystems pass through 4 phases of the adaptive cycle — exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization

Ecosystems have been observed almost universally to repeatedly pass through four phases of the adaptive cycle: exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization.

Following a major disturbance to a forest ecosystem, in a “reorganization” phase adaptable species of plants and animals fill in niches

Imagine, for example, a Ponderosa pine forest. Following a disturbance such as a fire (in which stored carbon is released into the environment), hardy and adaptable “pioneer” species of plants and small animals fill in open niches and reproduce rapidly.

An “exploitation” phase follows — niche species build dominant relationships that are more stable but less diverse

This reorganization phase of the cycle soon transitions to an exploitation phase, in which those species that can take advantage of relationships with other species start to dominate. These relationships make the system more stable, but at the expense of diversity.

In the “conservation” phase, the new dominant species monopolize resources, compromising the system’s stability, risking a collapse, which is the “release” phase

During the conservation phase, resources like nutrients, water, and sunlight are so taken up by the dominant species that the system as a whole eventually loses its flexibility to deal with changing conditions. These trends lead to a point where the system is susceptible to a crash—a release phase. Many trees die, dispersing their nutrients, opening the forest canopy to let more light in, and providing habitat for shrubs and small animals. The cycle starts over.

Civilizations do roughly the same thing

Exploitation phase

  • In their early days, complex societies are populated with generalist pioneers (people who do lots of things reasonably well) living in an environment with abundant resources ready to be exploited.
  • These people develop tools to enable them to exploit their resources more effectively. Division of labor and trade with increasingly distant regions also aids in more thorough resource exploitation.
  • Trading and administrative centers, i.e., cities, appear and grow. Money is increasingly used to facilitate trade, while debt enables a transfer of consumption from the future to the present. Specialists in violence, armed with improved weaponry, conquer surrounding peoples.

Conservation phase

  • Complexity (more kinds of tools, more social classes, more specialization) solves problems and enables accumulation of wealth, leading to a conservation phase during which an empire is built and great achievements are made in the arts and sciences.
  • However, as time goes on, the costs of complexity accumulate and the resilience of the society declines. Tax burdens become unbearable, natural resources become depleted, environments become polluted, and conquered peoples become restless.
  • At its height, each civilization appears stable and invincible. Yet it is just at this moment of triumph that it is vulnerable to external enemies and internal discord. Debt can no longer be repaid. Conquered peoples revolt. A natural disaster breaks open the façade of stability and control.

Release phase

  • Collapse often comes swiftly, leaving ruin in its wake.

Reorganization phase leading to a new exploitation phase

  • But at least some of the components that made the civilization great (including tools and elements of practical knowledge) persist, and the natural environment has opportunity to regenerate and recover, eventually enabling reorganization and a new exploitation phase—that is, the rise of yet another civilization.

Energy Is Everything

Global industrial civilization now appears to be in its conservation phase

Global industrial civilization shows significant signs of being in its conservation phase.

  • Our accomplishments are mind-boggling,
  • but our systems are overstretched, and problems (including climate change, inequality, and political dysfunction) are accumulating and worsening.
  • However, our civilization is different from any of its predecessors. Unlike the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Shang Dynasty Chinese, Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans, we have built a civilization that is global in scope.
  • We have invented modes of transportation and communication previously unimaginable. Thanks to advances in public health and agriculture,
  • the total human population has grown to many times its size when Roman armies marched across North Africa, Europe, and Britain.

Have we perhaps outgrown the adaptive cycle and escaped natural checks to perpetual expansion?

It is cheap abundant energy that has facilitated the growth and success of modern civilization

In order to answer the question, we must first inquire why modern civilization has been so successful. The rise of technology, including advances in metallurgy and engineering, certainly played a part. These provided better ways of obtaining and harnessing energy. But it’s the rapid shift in qualities and quantities of energy available to us that really made the difference.

Fossil fuel based energy began its rise to prominence in the 19th century

Previously, people derived their energy from annual plant growth (food and firewood), and manipulated their environment using human and animal muscle power. These energy sources were inherently limited. But, starting in the 19th century, new technologies enabled us to access and harness the energy of fossil fuels. And fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—were able to provide energy in amounts far surpassing previous energy sources.

Energy, not money, makes the world go round

Energy is everything. All terrestrial ecosystems and all human societies are essentially machines for using (and dissipating) solar energy that has been collected and concentrated through photosynthesis. We like to think that money makes the world go ’round, but it is actually energy that enables us to do anything at all—from merely getting up in the morning to launching a space station. And having lots of energy available cheaply can enable us to do a great deal.

Beneficial properties of fossil fuels – they’re energy-dense, portable, storable, and until recently, cheap

Fossil fuels represent tens of millions of years’ worth of stored ancient sunlight. They are energy-dense, portable, and storable sources of power. Accessing them changed nearly everything about human existence. They were uniquely transformative in that they enabled higher rates of harvesting and using all other resources—via tractors, bulldozers, powered mining equipment, chainsaws, motorized fishing trawlers, and more.

Fossil fuels enabled the industrialization and automation of agriculture

Take just one example. In all previous agrarian civilizations, roughly three-quarters of the population had to farm in order to supply a food surplus to support the other 25 percent—who lived as aristocrats, traders, soldiers, artisans, and so on. Fossil fuels enabled the industrialization and automation of agriculture, as well as longer-distance distribution chains.

Today only one or two percent of the U.S. population need to farm full-time in order to supply everyone else with food. The industrialization of food systems has freed up nearly all of the former peasant class to move to cities and take up jobs in manufacturing, marketing, finance, advertising, management, sales, and so on. Thus urbanization and the dramatic expansion of the middle class during the 20th century were almost entirely attributable to fossil fuels.

Harvesting corn by hand (left) versus harvesting by machine (right). Image sources: The Harvest Cradle by John Linnell, Public Domain (left). Deer Harvester by Wesley Hetrick, Creative Commons Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic License (right).

The downside of fossil fuels – they release CO2, triggering climate-changing global warming

But fossil fuels have been a bargain with the devil: these are depleting, non-renewable resources, and burning them produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, changing the climate and the chemistry of the world’s oceans. These are not small problems. Climate change by itself is far and away the most serious pollution dilemma any human society has ever faced, and could lead to crashing ecosystems, failing food systems, and widespread forced human migration.

The challenge of replacing fossil fuels with other energy sources is monumental

Replacing fossil fuels with other energy sources is possible in principle, but doing so fully would require massive investment, not just for building solar panels, wind turbines, or nuclear reactors (there are some other serious problems with this latter option), but also for the retooling of manufacturing, transportation, buildings, and food systems to run on electricity instead of solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels.

So, is energy transition even possible before a global ecological and economic collapse erupts? 

An energy transition is needed, but it’s not happening at even nearly the pace that would be required in order to forestall catastrophic climate change or to prevent economic decline resulting from the depletion of the world’s highest quality oil, coal, and gas resources. Industrial society’s failure to make this energy transition is no doubt due not just to well-funded opposition by the fossil fuel industry, but also to the enormous technical challenge posed, and to the failure of policy makers to champion and implement the carbon taxes and alternative energy subsidies that would be needed.

And so we accelerate toward ecological and economic ruin.

Why It’s So Hard to See that We’re Headed for the Biggest Crash Ever

Leaders are habitually trapped in their business-as-usual, economic growth modality

This is fairly typical of what happens toward the end of the conservation phase of every civilization’s adaptive cycle. Each problem that arises, taken by itself, is usually solvable—at least in principle. But, as problems accumulate, leaders who are accustomed to (and benefit from) the status quo grow increasingly reluctant to undertake the changes to systems and procedures that would be required in order to address worrisome trends. And as those trends are ignored, the level of effort and discomfort needed to reverse them soars. Once solving problems requires too much perceived sacrifice, the only realistic ways to deal with them are to deny their existence or to blame others for them. Blame has the advantages of enabling leaders to look as though they’re actually doing something, and of winning loyalty from their followers. But it does nothing to actually stave off snowballing crises.

The rest of us have a tendency to discount threats perceived to be in a distant future at a distant location

It’s easy enough to see how elites could lose touch with reality and miss signals of impending collapse. But why would everyone else follow suit? Recent discoveries in neuroscience help explain why it’s hard for most of us to grasp that we’re on an unsustainable path.

We humans have an understandable innate tendency, when making decisions, to give more weight to present threats and opportunities than to future ones. This is called discounting the future—and it makes it hard to sacrifice now to overcome an enormous future risk such as climate change. The immediate reward of vacationing in another country, for example, is likely to overwhelm our concern about the greenhouse gas footprint of our airline flight. Multiply that future-discounting tendency in one instance by the billions of individual decisions with climate repercussions and you can see why it’s difficult to actually reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, we have become addicted to our culture’s distracting glut of trivial pursuits

We humans are also wired to respond to novelty—to notice anything in our environment that is out of place or unexpected and that might signal a potential threat or reward. Most types of reward increase the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine within the brain. Experiments have found that if an animal’s dopamine receptor genes are removed, it explores less and takes fewer risks—and without some exploration and risk taking, individuals have reduced chances of survival. But the human brain’s dopamine reward system, which evolved to serve this practical function, can be hijacked by addictive substances and behaviors. This is especially problematic in a culture full of novel stimuli specifically designed to attract our interest—such as the hundreds of advertising messages the average child sees each day. We have become addicted to stimuli that our culture has multiplied and refined specifically for the purpose of grabbing our attention (for fun and profit) to such a degree that we barely notice long-term trends that are as threatening as a charging rhino.

Powerful elites propagandize us, normalizing the unsustainable, and distracting us from the consequences and contradictions

The power holders in society incentivize smart people below them in rank and wealth to normalize the unsustainable, deny impending consequences, and distract one and all from worsening contradictions.

  • Economists who claim that economic growth can continue forever on a finite planet win Nobel Prizes.
  • Politicians who argue that climate change is a hoax attract big campaign contributions.
  • Pundits and entrepreneurs advance along their career paths by asserting that society can grow its way out of climate change and resource depletion traps through “decoupling” (service economies, it is claimed, can expand in perpetuity without requiring additional energy or physical resources).
  • Technology mavens win fame and glory by informing us that artificial intelligence, 3D printing, or Blockchain will usher in the “singularity,” at which point no one will have to work and all human needs and desires can be satisfied by self-reproducing machines.

Informed people and activists insist we can overcome threats of climate change – but is this just a denial of reality?

Denial comes in shades, some of them quite benign. Many thoughtful and informed people acknowledge the threats of climate change, species extinctions, soil depletion, and so on, and insist that we can overcome these threats if we just try harder. They are often on the right track when they propose changes.

  • Elect different, more responsible politicians.
  • Donate to environmental nonprofit organizations.
  • Drive an electric car.
  • Put solar panels on our roofs.
  • Start solar co-ops or regional non-profit utility companies that aim to source all electricity from renewable sources.
  • Eat organic food.
  • Shop at local farmers markets.

Practical efforts like those above might moderate collapse but likely won’t prevent it

These are all actions that move society in the right direction (that is, away from the brink of failure)—but in small increments. Perhaps people can be motivated to undertake such efforts through the belief that a smooth transition and a happy future are possible, and that renewable energy will create plentiful jobs and lead to a perpetually growing green economy. There is no point in discouraging such beliefs and their related actions; quite the contrary: they should, if anything, be encouraged. Such practical efforts, however motivated or rationalized, could help moderate collapse, even if they can’t prevent it (a point we’ll return to below).

The reality is that global civilization is beyond our control and headed for overshoot and collapse

But an element of denial persists nonetheless—denial, that is, of the reality that the overall trajectory of modern industrial society is beyond our control, and that it leads inexorably toward overshoot and collapse.

END OF REPOST 1

To access Repost 2, click on this title —  What To Do? about our existential crisis – Richard Heinberg proposes a four-fold strategy —

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