Table of Contents
We have reached a turning point in society. What we do as a civilization in this century will determine whether we thrive or perish. Although every generation seems to believe that they are somehow special, the technological and societal changes that are coming are on a scale that’s unique in the history of humanity.
If we stop being obsessed with the minute details of our daily lives for a moment, take a step back, and look at the big picture beyond next few weeks, months or even decades, according to David Holmgren, we can envisage four broad futures in which we humans will potentially find ourselves.
Techno-explosion: this is a future where we progress to a Type 1 civilization, a civilization that has found a way to rise above the physical and natural constraints of this planet and new, large concentrated sources of energy drive technological progress – this is a Star Trek scenario where we colonize other planets as well.
Techno-stability: what I like to call Green Tech – is a future where we slowly make the transition from what we have today, unsustainable material growth based on fossil fuels, to a green, sustainable future where we use renewable energies and technologies. The quality of our lives and technology improves but we stay within our means – this would be the Venus Project scenario.
Energy Descent: in this more pessimistic future, we keep on using fossil fuels until they are almost totally depleted, despite the growing environmental destruction. With a no real Plan B, we are forced to resort to renewable resources of lower energy density. All of this eventually leads to a reduction of economic activity, societal complexity, and population – this would be the scenario that David Holmgren and Bill Mollison have been preparing us for since the 80s.
Collapse: finally, and needing no introduction, is the Doomsday scenario. In this future, we experience a complete failure of the systems that have been maintaining supporting our industrial society. We have used up all the quality fossil fuels, and we have damaged our ecosystems beyond repair. Put bluntly, we’re screwed – this would be the barren post-apocalyptic wasteland familiar from the Mad Max films.
The advancing technology
Certainly, looking at the rate of our technological progress we humans have made, one could say that we’re steadily (or, more accurately, exponentially quickly) moving towards the techno-explosion future. The astounding increase in computer power, speed, and memory, coupled with a significant drop in both price and size, is an example of exponential technological change at work.
Think about it for a moment, in 1982, the year I was born, a bleeding edge ‘portable’ computer weighed in at a hefty twenty-eight pounds (12.kg) and cost a little over $2,500. Today, we have smartphones that weigh 1/100th as much, at 1/10th of the cost, while sporting 150 times the processing speed and more than 100,000 times the memory.
Things are changing fast when it comes to technology, according to Kevin Kelly the author of The Inevitable, powerful technological forces will shape our future. Today’s trends in IT (big data, internet of things, social networks) and automation and advanced manufacturing technologies (3D printers, AI, and robotization) are painting a future so radically different that, if it continues, it will make the progress we have seen over the last 20 years look as archaic as the steam engine.
Processing power and data storage are becoming almost free, so in the future, you can expect that everything you do will be tracked and recorded by the numerous sensors in each of the various devices you own and uploaded to the Cloud.
Corporations and governments are already collecting this information for their own ends. Just wait for them to improve the analysis part and create detailed profiles of the citizens and consumers where they start to predict your behavior. I would encourage you to think again about using your loyalty card or posting every little detail about your personal life onto Facebook.
In the next 10-20 years, manufacturing will be largely run by industrial robots and non-industrial (humanlike) robots will become a part of our daily reality. These robots still need a cognitive boost, but since we are told that we can expect a powerful superintelligence that would far surpass all human intelligence by 2045, it’s safe to say they’re coming, and things will never be the same again.
Before we’re really aware of it, we’ll be 3D printing material goods, all while autonomous vehicles and remote-controlled drones deliver our products. Soon, you’ll probably need a special kind of license to drive your car manually for recreation.
These trends will usher in the automation of farm vehicles and make growing food in big AG resemble automated manufacturing facilities. Big AG will finally get rid of the human labor component that has been an albatross around its neck for a long time – at last, someone who won’t complain about all the chemicals and inhuman working conditions. Wait, they won’t even be human.
All of the above sounds simultaneously so exciting in its potential and so disturbing in its ramifications that we can clearly say without any doubt that, looking just at technological progress, we’re in for the ride of our lives. However, ultimately, all of this is not dependent on scientific and technological progress, but rather energy, because in the end how much energy we have as a society will determine our future…
The energy reality
This kind of exponential technological progress will require energy, an amount of energy that couldn’t even have been conceived a century ago… Just in the next 15-20 years, the demand for energy will rise dramatically – around 50%. That’s 50% more than the level we’re producing now!
Currently, our society is largely built upon a dependence on cheap oil. From the cars we drive, to the machinery we operate, to the food we eat and the buildings we live in, almost everything that we take for granted today is powered by oil, produced from oil, or made by machines powered by oil.
However, what we’re seeing in the energy sector today is the growing gap between what is being discovered and what is produced. We have increased production for sure, but there are noticeably fewer discoveries being made.
Many petroleum geologists believe that roughly 95% of the world’s petroleum resources have already been found. Now I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but the pivotal event known as “Peak Oil,” already happened in 2006 according to research Matthew Stein did for his book, and the world didn’t end…
Well, the reason it didn’t end because Peak Oil didn’t mean that soon we’ll run out of oil; it just means that despite our best efforts, the level of available oil will shrink each year – though at increasing extraction costs. The reality is, Peak Oil is already here but it’s not yet catastrophic, but that’s only because of substantial substitution by non-conventional oil and gas compensating for the significant declines in conventional oil production.
So, what we see today is fracking and the extraction of oil from tar sands; both wreaking havoc on the environment. In his book The Crash Course, Chris Martenson concludes: “all of this is telling us that getting oil out of the ground is obviously getting harder and more expensive – the easily available fossil fuels are all gone. If there were any left, we wouldn’t be drilling in ultra-deep waters, fracking at enormous expense, and boiling tar residue off of Canadian sand.”
And because we need to expend more and more energy to get oil from the ground, we thus have less energy to fuel our industrialized society. The simple math of energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is telling us that, at some point in the future, it’s going to be so expensive to get oil from the ground that it simply won’t be worth the effort.
For example, the easy oil of 1930 had a ratio of 100:1 (meaning it took 1 barrel of oil to get 100 out). Today, we’re globally at 10:1, the ratio of tar sand is almost 1:1, well, that’s not really an energy source at all! Which means that we need to have Plan B ready if we were to avoid the Energy Descent scenario.
Alternative energy coming to rescue?
Plan B – i.e. alternative energies – really do have great potential. In his book Abundance, Peter H. Diamandis writes: “when it comes to solar energy there is currently PETAWATTS (thousand billion watts) available – and our current global energy use is 16 terawatts. So energy isn’t scarce, we just haven’t figured out yet how to properly utilize it.”
Alternative energy has been progressing nicely, PV tech is improving very fast, and we’re seeing plummeting costs for solar modules. We can also see wind technology being increasingly used and improved but despite these trends, wind energy remains, compared to solar, a relatively small fraction of worldwide electricity supply – meeting roughly 1.8% of worldwide electricity demand.
Renewables have made considerable gains, but the biggest obstacle to a proliferation of this technology is that they are increasingly reliant on the existing infrastructure, which would need some significant adaptations. Moreover, both solar and wind energy are an intermittent energy source, generating power only when the sun is shining or wind blowing. Without some efficient form of energy storage, such as large batteries, they won’t be able to fully replace other energy-generating systems.
Furthermore, solar and wind power are only sources of electricity. Electricity generation represents only 40% of the energy needs (in the case of the US), and we therefore need to think how to offset the other 60% – split between transportation (29%), and office heating/cooling (31%). To end our oil addiction once and for all, we’re going to need to replace this remaining 60% – meaning we need something more.
Luckily, we are seeing some really important developments in algae biofuel and fourth-generation nuclear power plants that could provide a substitute this remaining 60%. To be fair, however, while these innovations are happening, they’re only in their infancy stage at present. Moreover, considering the issues of scale and cost involved in making the transition to a cleaner energy future, the question is will we have time to engineer our way out considering the potentially catastrophic environmental changes that are upon us…
Environment, where the sh*t becomes real…
Currently, we’re nearing some 7 billion people, and by the year 2050, there will be 9 billion of us. As a highly social and work-orientated animal we tend to congregate into cities, and by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be urban, and in more developed regions of the world, these numbers are expected to reach close to 90% (North America, Europe…) There will be some cheap real estate going in those abandoned villages…
It’s not just that there will be more of us living in the cities, there is also the reality of developing countries becoming industrialized and consuming at the rate of the Western world. And why shouldn’t they? Is it reasonable for us to deny them of all the benefits that we’ve enjoyed all these years…
These trends of population growth, urbanization, global industrialization, and ever-increasing consumption are placing a great strain on the Earth’s resources. Not surprisingly, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain global food production and ensure enough water for everyone. This is simply the reality of an ever-increasing population consuming ever-more resources.
To produce this food for all these hungry, generally urban, mouths, agricultural production needs to expand, and it does so primarily by deforestation and land clearing. Once we have it cleared, we plough the hell out of it, completely destroying the existing ecosystem and eventually turning what were once forested and fertile areas into deserts devoid of any life. Ultimately, this destruction releases all carbon held in the soil instead of sequestering it.
Just think about this, it takes from 200 to 1,000 years for nature to generate one inch (2.5cm) of topsoil, yet modern agricultural practices often flush away inches/multiple centimeters of topsoil in a single year. We can even calculate the Judgment Day when we’ll have no fertile soils left. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, at current rates of soil loss, we have 60 years of harvests remaining.
The world’s oceans are not spared this insanity either. Fisheries and coral reefs are in as just as bad shape as the world’s forests, and are declining at an even faster rate. Today’s fisheries are at a breaking point, so far, 11 out of 15 of the world’s major fisheries are in serious decline or have already collapsed. If current fishing trends continue, all commercial fisheries will have been exhausted by 2050.
We are already living through the sixth period of mass extinction and losing, on average, several species per day… Biological diversity is the very foundation of the natural world, but for big AG, “they” are all pests eating and destroying our crops.
Climate change – from bad to worse
A very small minority of ‘experts’ claim that there is no proof that humankind is contributing to global warming. Even worse, this idea has become entrenched in certain strains of political rhetoric. And while we’re arguing over this, all of us are being slowly being cooked like a boiling frog. Yet there are almost daily reports of scientific evidence and a consensus that global warming is a real threat, and that the world appears to be warming at a more rapid rate than previously predicted.
In his book, The Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier writes that world’s climate has changed before many times, but this is much faster, the world’s ecosystems are already damaged, and we have a global civilization with vulnerable people, farms, and infrastructure.
We already see the impacts of climate change around the world. From melting permafrost to shrinking glaciers to less and less fresh water available and massive coral die-offs, along with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events: floods, droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, and so much more… This pattern is certain to continue unabated unless we fundamentally change our lives or somehow find a way to geo-engineer our way out of this mess.
The present emissions pathway will lead to almost a doubling of greenhouse gasses by mid-century. Based on an understanding of climate sensitivity and emissions, this concentration will lead to approximately 2°C warming by mid-century. Under the present emissions pathway, 6°C is more likely than 3°C by the end of the century, and will lead to even more significant impacts.
Overall, what we are witnessing is a giant experiment that we are inflicting on our planet and no one knows what the outcome will be. Much of the blame for this destruction can be laid squarely at the feet of our prevailing economic model…
The economy needs to grow or else…
Most of the environmental destruction we’re experiencing today can be directly attributed to our economic structure… and to understand why, we need to go to the core of our monetary system and work from there….
You see, all money is created as debt; all money is loaned into existence. (loans, credit, debt, no matter what you call it, it’s all the same). When loans are made, money appears – as if by magic.
There are two kinds of money out there. The first is bank credit, which is money that is loaned into existence by the bank. So when you happily get approved for a loan and make your down payment, the money you receive is actually a string of numbers typed into a computer keyboard and created by the bank… and you wondered why all the money is concentrated in the banking sector?
The second type of money is also printed out of thin air, but it is created by a central bank, and it forms what is known as the “base money supply” of the nation. This money provides the basis for all other loans in the economy. Worryingly, the central bank is NOT run by the government, it’s a privately owned bank as well… now that 1% of people holding 50% of world’s wealth suddenly starts to make more sense…
Now, because this money (loan, credit, debt), which is created out of thin air by the way, accumulates interest charges, it promotes the growth of the money supply – the interest represents money that accumulates over time. Therefore, together these two forms of money create a monetary system that will expand exponentially. Thus, essentially, we can conclude that perpetual expansion is a fundamental requirement of modern banking, writes Chris Martenson in his book The Crash Course.
And it’s not only that debt is forced to grow in this economic model. To feed the ever-expanding debt, the whole economy has to grow -manufacturing must increase, sales must increase, and consumption must increase. You have all heard that economy has to grow by a certain percentage over time, or else we suck at life, but something growing by percentage over time means that it is growing exponentially. For example, if China’s GDP grows 10% per annum, in seven years the entire economy would double…
The greatest experiment in money since, well ever
Thanks to how our financial system is set up, we have seen an enormous explosion in credit and debt since the 80s. Roughly, the total amount of debt doubles almost every ten years. What’s more important, debt has been growing far faster than GDP, which represents a nation’s income. The question is therefore, what kind of economy (income) is required to support all this ever-increasing debt? Well, obviously one much bigger than now. You see? That’s why we need to grow our economies or else…
Of course, not all debt is bad or unproductive, but consumptive debt that doesn’t provide a means of paying itself back, it just keeps on accumulating. Put simply, it’s this accumulation of bad debt that leads to the development of economic or asset bubbles, which are a recurring feature of our modern economy… but we seem to conveniently forget the almost perfectly cyclical nature of these kinds of events – for example, the tech bubble of 2001, the housing bubble of 2008…
Although each is unique in their own way, bubbles, as the name suggests, have shown the same pattern throughout history – they burst… and then the mayhem follows, like the one we saw in 2008 that wrecked millions of lives. However, financial crises are not necessarily bad per se; they are supposed to trigger deleveraging and eliminate the oversupply of poor-quality debt from the system, think about it as a controlled burn in the forest, but they certainly hurt us, the ordinary people, the most…
The year 2008 was supposed to be one of these controlled burns where the banking sector was supposed to change its ways and act in a more responsible manner, but instead they responded with more of the same behavior that created the crisis in the first place.
The “recovery” we’ve experienced since 2008 is primarily due to the world’s central banks issuing more debt (so-called printing money). Preventing defaults of the ‘too big to fail’ banks while transferring the risk to the public on a massive scale. Yes, it is you and I that are currently paying for banking sector’s wild speculations and insatiable greed, and if you live in Europe, you know exactly how the word austerity affects your daily life…
The money the central banks have been creating out of thin air is disappearing back into banking and creating an economic bubble once more. But this time, we don’t just have real estate inflating, we have student loans, bonds, stock and currencies, all inflating at the same time… and we all know what the end result will be…
What can we expect in the coming years?
It should be obvious by now that we’re living in a time where there are some real existential risks hanging over our heads, and the big question is, what are our world leaders doing about all this?
Well, in response to these threats we see a lot of handshaking, photo opportunities, soundbites, exchanging politically correct notes and the signing of non-binding documents. That’s some serious getting down to business!
I’m sorry to tell you, but national and state politics are not going to solve our problems by implementing a few policies or signing some agreements. Talk is cheap; real solutions will be probably among the most expensive and radical duties ever undertaken in our history. Our entire food and energy production systems are going to have to be re-engineered.
To do this, we’ll need consistent inter-governmental financial support for the development of innovative energy technologies and a smooth transition to new energy sources following oil’s imminent demise. We’re not, however, currently seeing anything along these lines. What’s even worse in our current free market is that coal and oil big businesses have been given huge tax advantages and subsidies, giving them an unfair advantage over renewable energies.
When it comes to our climate, David Holmgren concludes that mainstream policy is shifting from mitigation to adaptation. Obviously, it’s clear that no government really wants to limit its country’s economic growth by reducing emissions. Why should any nation place itself at a disadvantage in a competitive global economy when it does not trust that others will do the same?
Nationally, policies favor growth and profit, and of course, they do so since economic growth is essential to support a debt-based currency.
It’s not even open for discussion that maybe, just maybe, we would need to consider reforming the monetary system away from dependence on perpetual growth and our addiction to exponentially growing and largely ephemeral piles of debt and money.
What we’re really seeing today is that most of the developed nations have done little more than virtue signaling on a global scale, while continuing with ‘business as usual’ in the background. In contrast, a few, such as ‘politically incorrect’ plutocrat turned world leader Donald Trump, are at least publicly admitting that they are going down the business as usual route to ‘make America great’ again…
Governments won’t adapt and evolve until they absolutely have to
Which brings me to my main point: central governmental systems are rigid and slow to change; they don’t adapt and evolve until they absolutely have to.
I don’t think it’s realistic to expect our leaders and social institutions to make the necessary shift in mindset until they too find themselves lying in the beds they’ve made for us all. There are just too many people who have invested financially and otherwise in maintaining the status quo for as long as possible. Chris Martenson hits the nail on the head when he says that: “if the current establishment can deny, ignore or delay dealing with problems, it most certainly will.”
Even if you have informed and committed politicians actively seeking change, they still wouldn’t have the freedom of action that would be required to actually deliver. The system simply has too much inertia; it’s too bureaucratic, and too unresponsive.
In the coming years, we can expect more business as usual: The increase in global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities, expansion of the energy and resource industries through mega projects on an even more unprecedented scale, economic growth at all costs and accumulating more debt, more pollution and greenhouse emissions despite climate change…
Most likely, we’ll keep on doing what been doing so far until something truly catastrophic takes place on a global scale. The current system is corrupt and unlikely to change without such a crisis – it’s simply overinvested in business as usual, and even a smooth conversion to a steady-state economy running on renewable energy without massive and irreversible geopolitical and economic emergencies is unlikely.
So now the main question is:
Are we headed for a collapse?
Well, to help answer that question, we need to look at historical examples of ‘civilizational collapse’, as these are potential models for what could happen to global industrial civilization. However, the best documented historical case, that of the Roman Empire, actually suggests a more gradual and less complete process of atrophy.
You see, complex human societies start off in a situation where they can solve problems by adding additional complexity – institutions, regulations, taxes, a bigger and better-equipped military… sounds familiar, huh? For a long time now that’s been the way to solve problems – it works and produces a positive return on investment, at least for the ruling class.
At a certain point for such societies, they run up against limits on where to obtain energy and resources. They reach a situation where investing into additional complexity provides diminishing returns and eventually negative returns. Things start to decline, and it gets to the point where it becomes exorbitantly expensive to maintain the status quo. The unsustainable society finds itself hit by crisis after crisis…
According to David Holmgren ‘the collapse’ is most likely going to be something like that, a slow decline characterized by a series of steady states punctuated by crises of some variety that destroy some aspects of our civilization and then precipitate change. However, I would add, whether this change is going to lead to a more positive and sustainable future is yet to be seen.
These discontinuities or mini collapses are periods of crisis, breakdown and potential conflict. These can range from Hurricane Katrina type events, energy crises, water and resource wars, to yet another financial crisis such as we all witnessed in 2008 – where one day everything is fine, but then soon after, chaos reigns.
After every crisis, when the dust settles, this new reality becomes a new normal that could be more or less stable for decades before another crisis triggers potentially another fall and then another restabilization, in an ever-decreasing vicious circle of collapse. Each individual crisis rarely continues for very long, but they do shape the new state that emerges in the aftermath (9-11 was a great example of a new post-crisis reality).
Possible future disruptions
I want to keep things realistic, what I’m saying here is that when it comes to living your ordinary life in this huge complex system that is showing severe signs of stress, it is us, the ordinary people, who are the most vulnerable to these crises. We get to say the least, but suffer the consequences the most!
It’s not crazy to conclude then that the quality of your life will be directly proportional to how prepared for these crises you really are.
In part 2 of this post, I’ll discuss what these possible future disruptions/crises may entail in greater detail, and how can we design our farms and our lives to actually benefit from them. So be sure not to miss it, and if you haven’t already subscribed to my newsletter, do so now to be notified when the post is published.
Finally, thanks for reading, and let me know what you think about this complex subject and leave a comment in the comments section below!