Key words :
The (Not So) Invincible Society
3 Nov, 2008 03:11 pm
Policymakers and the public think of modern industrial society as being resilient and durable. Are they right?
Popular culture adds to the illusion. The enduring fantasy embedded in the many iterations of the original Star Trek television series is that humans will soon be a space-faring species. The hidden and never-discussed prerequisite, however, is limitless, cheap energy. This also turns out to be the assumption behind contemporary projections of ever-increasing prosperity.
Our failure to wean ourselves off finite fossil fuels is a major vulnerability. But our vulnerabilities go beyond energy. The complex networks that allow are society to function may not be as resilient as people generally believe. Harrison Browne in his 1954 book, "The Challenge of Man's Future," painstakingly lays out a path to a sustainable industrial society and then concludes that the most likely trajectory for industrial society is a reversion back to agrarian society. He reasons that if a significant portion of the complex, interdependent systems that make up our society fail, society will collapse. And, if that happens, it would be all but impossible to restart industrial society. He argues that industrial society relies on the continuous operation of these systems to obtain essential minerals from very lean ores using copious amounts of energy, energy procured using these same complex systems.
A major disruption could come in the form of a nuclear war which damages enough infrastructure to make recovery impossible. But it might also come from a precipitous decline in the availability of fossil fuel energy if no substitutes of comparable magnitude can be found and deployed in time. It could come as well from multiple ecosystem failures that might make it difficult to grow enough food or purify enough water within the limits of our technology.
Technology has so far been winning its race with the depletion of minerals, soil and fresh water. But there is no guarantee that it always will. In fact, our technology has a tendency to degrade the eco-services which we rely on, for example, fertile soil. So far, technology has allowed us to grow more and more food. But will there be a point of diminishing or even declining returns? It is likely that per-capita grain production has already stalled, though total production continues to increase. Keep in mind that about 80 percent of the world's food calories comes either directly or indirectly from grains.
Perhaps the biggest known side-effect of our technology is climate change. Climate modelers say that climate change could present anything from mild challenges requiring adaptation to catastrophic warming that would turn the world's grain growing areas into deserts and destroy modern economies in the bargain.
Many people believe that industrial society is a one-time historical event. We humans are using up fossil fuel resources which are irreplaceable on any human time scale, and we are scattering essential metals in such a way as to make any start-up of a future industrial society from scratch all but impossible. Of course, it may be possible to start up a future industrial society from scratch on some other basis than metallurgy and fossil fuels, but that basis is not obvious to me.
The best path for industrial society would be to reduce its footprint radically and move to the sustainable use of renewable resources. That would require careful planning and execution of a transition strategy. But such a transition might also result in regimentation beyond anything we in modern democratic states have ever experienced. I am not advocating such regimentation. I am only pointing out that its opposite, a freebooting attitude toward the exploitation and use of resources and toward the expansion of world population, does not offer a plausible path to sustainability.
It turns out that the invincible society isn't so invincible after all. Unless and until we are willing to accept that, the possibilities for a successful transition to a sustainable industrial society are severely diminished. Those who would say otherwise have yet to offer a warranty that would give us our society back if they turn out to be wrong.
Key words :
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Any high tech end product is at the top of a many layered hierarchy of tools which "grew up" during evolution, furthermore some levels at the bottom of this hierarchy have been superseded by more recent and effective tools than the ones which were used during the growth phase thus introducing circular dependencies.
If due to some glitches in the economy some of thoses circular dependencies are broken (even temporarily) by disappearence of some low level but critical tools we will not be able to rebuild the full "fabricatory tree".
Granted, grain production in the developed world on a per hectare basis is probably approaching a limit and thus accounts for little of the growth. On the other hand, in the developing world, China has seen emormous increases in its capacity to grow food. However, the outlook for the rest of the Third World looks bleak. Indeed, it is in the so-called third world that the problem lies. Yields in sub-Saharan Africa are about 5-10% that of North America and Europe and those pitiful yields in Africa have actually been FALLING. Even worse, land usage for agriculture in Africa has also fallen. American producers, who have overproduced for a long time, may actually be doing Third World producers a favor by diverting their resources to biofuels since this action raises prices and makes it easier for Third World farmers to make a living. This extra capital can then be plowed into capital to increase production. Unfortunately, for those individuals who are living in burgeoning Third World cities, this will also likely increase starvation rates since city dwellers in the Third World rely increasingly on cheap food from Developed countries for nourishment.
The fact is that the Malthusian argument does not apply to grains either. Poor yields and reductions in landusage are predominantly the result of misapplication of technology (e.g., using what little organic material is found in the soil in Africa as sources of food instead of attempting to use it to improve soil quality; overreliance on genetic engineering, which simultaneously improves quality of food but reduces diversity and thus threatens sustainability), undercapitalized farms, mismanagement of property rights, and a misguided program of providing cheap food to the Third World that makes it so that farmers cannot make a living off the land and so end up abandoning it for the cities. We can certainly do better but has simply been not a priority for the developed world to come up with a development strategy that assists the Third World rather than subjugates it.
Yes, poor resource management and farming techniques that hurt the underlying soil conditions are a problem that must be addressed but realistically the problems that technology has created are more due to the uneven distribution of technology that results in a disproportionate share of farm income going to huge corporate concerns in the developed world than the depletion of soils by technology itself.
Associate Professor of Economics
Winston-Salem State University
Huh? Did you even read the article you are commenting on?
The premise of the article is that modern industrial civilization is fragile and subject to disruption by numerous actors, including energy depletion, metals depletion, climate change, pollution.
And then you come along and say the solution is more industrialization? I don't think so!
If anything, I think the Third World is in a better position to survive the coming catabolic collapse of industrial civilization. They know how to work the land with animals. They know how to care for the soil, other than using it as a sponge on which to turn fossil fuel into human biomass.
And then, as most economists do, Madjd-Sadjadi confuses "capital" with money. "Capital" is "the means of production," and it used to have a relationship with money, before Nixon took the US off the gold standard. But now all money is, is an I.O.U. for future generations to pay off; it is indebtedness in non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, metals, and nutrients.
And keep in mind that it's modern economics that enslaves city dwellers in poor countries. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has been raping poor countries for decades, dangling loans for development, but snatching them back unless markets are opened. This is a one-two fatal punch to poor countries, who must pay back crushing "tribute" while being flooded by cheap foreign goods under the guise of free trade that their local labour force cannot compete with.
I think the First World should start looking to the Third World for strategies for coping with the coming catabolic collapse. One of the best is Permaculture, a set of ethics, principles, strategies, and tactics for living on earth as if we intend to stay. Hint: it doesn't have much to do with little bits of green paper.
No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always exceed production levels; thus oil depletion will continue steadily until all recoverable oil is extracted.
Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.
We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.
This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html
I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207. http://survivingpeakoil.blogspot.com/
"The premise of the article is that modern industrial civilization is fragile and subject to disruption by numerous actors, including energy depletion, metals depletion, climate change, pollution."
And my point is that the premise of the article is misguided. The problem is not industrialization and technology per se, although I do agree that certain agricultural methods (such as overuse of pesticides and bioengineering of plants that has reduced genetic diversity) are highly problematic. At the same time, other technology innovations have proven quite useful (such as the development of high-protein rice, which could lead the way to reductions in meat consumption).
"And then, as most economists do, Madjd-Sadjadi confuses "capital" with money. "Capital" is "the means of production," and it used to have a relationship with money, before Nixon took the US off the gold standard. But now all money is, is an I.O.U. for future generations to pay off; it is indebtedness in non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, metals, and nutrients."
I do not confuse capital with money although I do utilize the term in such a way that it might invite that comment. Capital has two meanings: financial capital and capital goods. Either is perfectly acceptable to use. Indeed, it appears that you have mistaken the two because your usage is not proper under either meaning. Money is a part of financial capital and has never had a relationship with the factors of production (such as capital goods) other than to purchase it. The notion that money has value ONLY because it is made/backed by gold, silver, etc. is fallacious. Money has value only because people accept it as payment, much as gold does. Indeed, if tomorrow people no longer wanted gold as payment, it would disappear as "money" just as surely as the (now defunct) Italian Lira.
The point I believe that you are trying to make is that fiat money lacks an absolute control on its abundance (unlike gold). However, this lack of absolute control is not necessarily a bad thing. If we were limiting money to the amount of gold then our money supply would be controlled by the amount of gold that is found (less any gold that is used for other purposes) and thus expansion and contraction of the money supply would be exogenous. While this would ensure that governments could not inflate their money at will, it would also mean that when a gold strike does occur, inflation of the money supply would occur at that time instead. I would prefer a monetary rule that sets the expansion of money at a fixed rate. This would be preferable to both a gold standard and the current mechanism that allows for subjective manipulation by the government.
"And keep in mind that it's modern economics that enslaves city dwellers in poor countries. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has been raping poor countries for decades, dangling loans for development, but snatching them back unless markets are opened. This is a one-two fatal punch to poor countries, who must pay back crushing "tribute" while being flooded by cheap foreign goods under the guise of free trade that their local labour force cannot compete with."
Not all of us economists are unfettered free traders. I do not have time to go into all of the details but I proved (using economic theory) that not only is unfettered free trade not free, it also is inaccurately portrayed in the economics profession as a free lunch. But, as we know in economics, there are no free lunches. This internal contradiction in economics has serious negative reprecussions for the solutions proferred by the IMF and the World Bank. By the way, I used to live in the Third World and witnessed firsthand the problems of free trade, among which is that trade really isn't free. However, the problem is not exclusively one of exploitation by the First World of the Third World. The Third World is also to blame for taking those loans in the first place.
" I think the Third World is in a better position to survive the coming catabolic collapse of industrial civilization. They know how to work the land with animals. They know how to care for the soil, other than using it as a sponge on which to turn fossil fuel into human biomass. "
I vehemently disagree. The Third World has seen its production fall dramatically. Have you ever seen the production figures for Sub-Saharan Africa? Not only are they 5-10% that of the industrialized world -- their production is falling and their soil nutrients are almost nonexistant. Indeed, the production collapse of the Third World is very well documented. On the other hand, newly industrializing nations of East Asia have seen dramatic increases in their productive yields. While there are certainly problems associated with modern farming techniques, the solution is more technology, more industrialization, and more research to solve these matters, not going backwards to an unsustainable crop yield. To do otherwise is to condemn much of the world's population to death because, quite frankly, a large number of the world's population would DIE if crop yields throughout the industrialized world were similar to that of the Third World (developed economies with roughly 20% of the world's population produce about the same amount of food as the other 80% do who reside in the developing world) . After all, when was the last time you saw a famine in a developed country? They don't happen but they happen regularly in the developing world.
No, the solution is a better trade regime, to be certain, but also access to technology for the Third World. We need to end the subsidization of First World agriculture that allows it to make Third World agriculture uncompetitive. Then we need to offer the Third World whatever technical assistance that it needs to replenish its soils and institute proper crop rotation techniques. Indeed, lack of crop rotation is one of the reasons for the complete collapse of Third World foodstocks. But Third World farmers cannot afford crop rotation because of it takes land out of production periodically (and also replaces money crops with crops that don't produce as much revenue at other times) and they can barely compete as it is (if at all) with imported foodstuffs.
Such a mechanism would also prove valuable to First World farmers: by discouraging monocropping via the elimination of subsidies, genetic plant diversity will likely increase, helping to buttress the American farm industry against crop failure due to the spreading of agricultural disease.
Now it is true that these activities will also reduce crop yields in the developed world but the corresponding increases in the Third World will more than make up for this. In addition, there will be a reduction in farm incomes in the developed world as well as an increase in the cost of food. However, the reduction in subsidies will also reduce budgetary deficits (and thus taxes), making the net result to the consumer indeterminate.
Associate Professor of Economics
Winston-Salem State University
"According to most independent scientific studies, global oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 9%."
So? That just is an argument that price will increase so as to eliminate the gap between quantity supplied and quantity demanded. Would that be such a bad thing? In reality, quantity demanded cannot exceed quantity supplied at the market price unless the government regulates the market. If the price of oil begins to rise, we will simply switch to alternatives (although it might mean that our existing gas guzzlers will have to be mothballed). Indeed, proponents of sustainable energy should WELCOME these changes because it will spur development of clean energy sources (such as wind, solar, etc.) Of course, it will also spur usage of other energy sources that, while abundant, are not exactly the best for the environment (coal, nuclear).
As to the notion that somehow we need liquid fuel, this is not true. At the beginning of the last century, in fact, electric car technology competed with gas powered technology for supremacy. It was the efficiency of the gas motor along with cost considerations that ultimately led to the victory of the gas engine. However, this is coming full circle and China may very well help us get to the electric car again even as Detroit appears ready to collapse: http://www.forbes.com/2008/10/27/china-electric-cars-biz-manufacturing-cx_wp_1027electric.html?feed=rss_news
In the end, however, I wonder why all the doom and gloom? I hear nothing about SOLUTIONS to these problems. Indeed, the Malthusian argument that I keep hearing from the Peak Oil Adherents is that there is no solution. I cannot believe that. I have faith that science will find a solution. Certainly it is better to try that than to attempt to wait for the much theorized "coming [worldwide] catabolic collapse" that has been promised but never delivered since Malthus.
The right word indeed, usually ends up in disappointment...
(tech note to the site maintainer: the HTML restrictions filter is genuine garbage, flips some tags, doesn't allow plain blockquote brackets, misses italics, mistranslates the escaped characters, etc...)
I don't think so. Electric motors are more efficient. Moreover, the first electric cars appeared in the 1830s, so they had over half a century head start on gas engines.
The reason the gas engine won hands down is because liquid petroleum is an infinitely superior fuel to electricity. Man's technological know-how at developing self-powered vehicles is neither here nor there, it's all down to fuel. Car+electricity = nada for 170 years. Car + gas = total transformation of societies that have unfettered access to both (e.g. US, Europe, Japan 1900-1972).
Look at any graph of population, energy consumption or food production and it's clear that humans have burned through about 1,000 years-worth of what was previously normal expansion in a couple of hundred years. Kicked off by coal, kept going by oil.
Now, when all the alarms are flashing red, I find it a bit tiresome to be told that man's "ingenuity and technological mastery" will enable us to continue the party with sunlight and corn cobs and big batteries.
I believe in solutions. We need to decide NOW where to channel remaining liquid fuel resources (for instance, towards food production and distribution) and what needs to be cut back on to give everyone a chance of a decent life in this century. What will certainly have a Malthusian outcome is trying to leverage more decades of insanely energy-intensive expansion out of the remaining fossil fuel reserves.
That is just what the US and many other so-called developed countries are doing financially - urged on by the high priests of economics (who, I suspect, many technologists envy because Governments listen to their crackpot ideas rather than those of the pure techno-cornucopians). When all the stimuli end in tears and societal breakdown, despite the "free energy" conferred by the power to print money, let's hope the rest of civilisation draws the right analogy about trying to solve a problem like an credit/energy bubble by blowing another same-sized bubble.
Otherwise, the faint sound coming below everyone's feet will be Malthus having the last laugh.
Economists often ignore it, and others often fail to consider its proper role in success; no education ever made people successful in society without the opportunity to apply it.
It is the best known policy to acquire productivity but so often people are left with the impression that success relies upon the use of resources alone even if by the fewer and the wealthier. Prosperity is spread by a broad inclusion of educated citizens; it is not yield per human that is important, but that yield that includes all that provides the fuel for expanding production.