We are now well into a global
crisis that may mark the end of this cycle of human civilization.
In this note I present a summary of what’s going on as far as I can
tell, as well as a scenario for how things might develop over the next
75 years or so.
The issue is enormous, so an overview like this is inevitably going to
be skimpy on details. This is, after all, not an academic
journal. However, like every other fact in the known universe,
those details are just a Google away...
Because the global predicament manifests itself in some way in
virtually every area of human endeavour, any useful approach to it must
be massively cross-disciplinary. Fruitful areas for investigation
Energy and Resource
- Finance (especially the characteristics and behaviour of
- Peak Oil and oil production in general
- Classical electrical generation (coal, nuclear and hydro
- Renewable electrical generation (wind, solar, geothermal,
tidal and biomass)
- Biofuels (including ERoEI considerations)
- Rare Earth metal supplies
- Copper and Iron ore concentrations
- Ecology (especially related to carrying capacity and
- Climate change
- Ocean acidification
- Methane tipping points (permafrost and oceanic hydrates)
- Species extinctions (including oceanic overfishing)
- Deforestation and desertification
- Fresh water depletion
- Soil fertility depletion
- Pollution: chemicals, heavy metals, radioactive waste,
eutrophication, oceanic debris fields etc.
Each of these 30 points is a field of study on its own. When we
realize that “the global problem” is a result of interactions between
them, we are faced with a combinatorial explosion of issues that must
be considered even to understand what’s going on, let alone to make
- Complex adaptive systems and resilience theory
- Complexity theory and “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum”
- Genetic engineering (especially related to agriculture)
- Habitat loss due to human numbers/activity
- “Peak Food”
Most of us will only have enough time and expertise to skim most of the
fields I listed, but even a cursory examination reveals a web of
interconnections that far exceeds any ability to intellectually
“dominate" the problem in its entirely. It is enough, however, to
allow this summary of our predicament to emerge.
The situation is easier to
understand if we look at it in three time frames: the Past, Present and
Looking at the Past involves trying to determine, as honestly and
deeply as possible, the origins of the problem, its evolution over
time, and the reasons for that evolution.
The Present is, of course, a description of the current situation, both
in terms of particular manifestations of the problem in various human
domains as well as the interconnections and feedbacks between
them. These interconnections may be between widely different
domains, such as the role of neuro-psychology in the adoption of
The Future should be considered in two ways: what is possible and what
is probable. When assessing future actions, we should always keep
the past in mind: how did we get into this fix in the first place, and
how should that inform our response to it? As the saying goes, those
who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Hold on tight, here we go...
- Evolution has given human beings a common set of
psychological characteristics rooted in our brain structure. They
have been modelled by Dr. Paul MacLean as the “Triune Brain”, which is
a useful framework for understanding fundamental human behaviour
patterns. These patterns include such behaviours as dominance,
submission, competition, cooperation, altruism, xenophobia and our
herding instinct (aka “group-think”). It also hints at the
reasons why most human decisions are non-rational. These
neuro-psychological qualities also give us a “hyperbolic discount
function” in which distant, abstract threats are heavily discounted
relative to immediate, tangible threats – regardless of the relative
levels of existential threat involved.
- Human culture is largely determined by the physical
situation that exists at any particular place and time – specifically
the food and water supply, material resource availability, and the
climate. Culture is our structural response to those conditions,
as mediated by our neuro-psychology. As conditions change, so
does our culture.
- Human population, our culture and our impact on the
environment were all relatively stable from the first appearance of
Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago.
- Human numbers and environmental impact began to increase
dramatically 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. The
reason we developed agriculture at that time is open to speculation,
but it probably had something to do with changing conditions following
the last ice age.
- The development of agriculture was also followed by a
significant development of technology (in its broadest sense) that
permitted people to manipulate their environment more easily and
- The invention of writing about 5,000 years ago permitted
the cross-generational storage and accumulation of knowledge, assisting
the development and dissemination of technology.
- The development of money, also about 5,000 years ago,
decoupled the concept of value from the activity that actually
generated the value. The concept of value was largely transferred
to the money itself.
- The next major upward break in human numbers and activity
began about 200 years ago with the widespread adoption of fossil
fuels. Since 1800 our population has grown from one billion to
seven billion. Over 85% of that increase has come since the adoption of
oil as our civilization’s keystone energy resource around 1900.
There are of course many symptoms of the global problem, but these are
- Climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is
probably the most significant existential threat humanity faces
today. Climate change is altering weather patterns, causing
physical damage though extreme weather events, and is increasingly
disrupting rainfall and food production in various regions.
- Soil fertility is plummeting world-wide.
- Fresh water extraction from long-term and fossil aquifer
storage is increasing to support the intensification of
agriculture. Water tables are sinking around the world.
- We may have already lost the oceans, because of a
combination of over-fishing, acidification, temperature changes, and
pollution from plastic waste and agricultural runoff. Food fish
species exploited by humans are near collapse and the entire food chain
is showing signs of disruption (e.g. jellyfish population explosions).
- Desertification and deforestation are continuing largely
unchecked around the world.
- Species are going extinct at a very rapid rate, from a
combination of habitat loss due to human activity, climate change and
- The human food supply is showing signs of peaking due to
climate change and increasing input costs.
- Many genomes of agricultural species of plants and animals
have been streamlined to such an extent that the resilience of the
stocks is now in question.
- We hit Peak Oil around 2006. Global crude oil
production has been on a plateau since late 2004 (7 years now) despite
massive upward excursions in the price.
- The world economy is in a continuing recession caused by a
combination of human factors (excessive complexity and loss of control)
and a tightening of resource inputs – especially oil. The symptoms vary
from place to place, but the underpinnings are global.
The following points constitute a scenario based on my reading, that I
believe becomes increasingly probable as the time horizon is pushed
out. Take this as a 75 year scenario.
I do not believe, based on what I have learned, that new technological
developments offer any hope for escaping this scenario. Much of
the possibility for technological development hinges on the
availability of capital and oil, both of which will be in increasingly
short supply in the coming decades.
- Climate change will not be ameliorated by international
agreement. This is due to the cooperation problems identified in
the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, national and corporate self-interest, a
lack of urgency due to the hyperbolic discount function mentioned
above, and the complete lack of any realistic substitute for fossil
- The general replacement of declining oil supplies by
biofuels will not succeed due to the low ERoEI of such fuels.
- The global impact of Peak Oil will be made worse as
producing nations retain more of their declining oil output to satisfy
domestic demand. This will drain the international oil market of most
supplies by 2040 or so.
- Over the next 25 years the decline in oil exports will
trigger repeated rises in world oil prices. Those prices will in
turn trigger waves of economic instability, with the prices falling
during recessions/depressions and surging again during attempted
- The amount of capital available for new equipment
manufacturing and infrastructure maintenance and development will
decline in a stair-step fashion during the repeated recessions, as the
global debt bubble implodes.
- Nuclear power will not be developed any further because of
public resistance due to the perceived risk. Some exceptions may
occur in autocratic, centrally planned economies (esp. Russia and
- While much renewable power will be installed in some
places, in global terms renewable power will not save the day.
This will be because of the lack of capital, the huge disparity between
current renewable generating capacity and power needs, the inability to
upgrade or even maintain national electrical grids, and the difficulty
in addressing some transportation problems with electricity.
- Most new electrical generation capacity will be fuelled by
natural gas and coal.
- There will be spreading electrical grid breakdowns as
poorly-maintained infrastructure fails.
- The human food supply will fail to keep pace with
population growth, probably starting within the next two to five
years. Despite international aid, famines will begin to spread
out of sub-Saharan Africa into the rest of that continent and
Asia. Pockets of starvation will begin to appear in developed
nations over the next decade or two.
- International tensions will rise over access rights to
water, oil and gas. Regional and civil wars will become more
- Populations will panic, and demand strong protective
measures from their governments. This will result in an increase
in repressive, bellicose authoritarian regimes. Asymmetric
warfare will increase.
- The use of transportation to move food from
producing to consuming regions will become increasingly difficult,
expensive. This will cause a re-localization of food production,
but some regions will not have enough land, water or skills – or a
suitable climate – to permit the replacement of imported food supplies.
- Sanitation infrastructure will suffer for the same reason
as electrical grids – the progressive lack of capital for maintenance
and refurbishment. Sanitation failures will trigger disease
- Fertility rates and birth rates are likely to plummet
world-wide over the next 30 years, due to the same influences seen in
Russia from 1987 to 1993 during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
These changes will largely be driven by personal choice rather than
centralized planning and legislation.
- Mortality rates will begin to climb somewhat later, due to
food supply problems and the regional spread of communicable
“breakdown” diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery. The spread of
diseases will be aided by the breakdown of local and regional
sanitation and health care systems.
- Population growth will slow faster than the UN currently
projects. World population may reach a peak of between 7 and 8
billion between 2030 and 2040, and then begin to decline. The
speed of the decline is unknowable. The world population will
begin to stabilize as it drops below two billion.
- The world’s political landscape will undergo massive
changes. In some cases there will be fragmentation as regional
populations secede or are increasingly isolated by traditional
geographic barriers (mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans and
deserts). In other cases there will be amalgamations as wars of
conquest are fought over resource access rights.
Some technological developments will cushion the shocks in some
places. For instance the OECD may be able to make use of new
low-energy or renewable technologies. However, the probability
that such changes will penetrate deeply enough into Africa and Asia to
prevent catastrophe is, in my estimation, vanishingly small. And in the
end, the entropic forces at work may overrun even the most
technologically sophisticated regions.
I do not support the use of genetic engineering or biotechnology to
address the food supply problem. In my opinion the risks are too
great and the probability of success is too low. Nor do I support
the further development of nuclear power, for similar reasons.
In any event, what we face is not, at its heart, a technology problem
amenable to an engineering solution. What we have is an
ecological problem. We are in an overshoot situation relative to
the ecological underpinnings that are required to support life, as well
as having drawn down most of the accessible resources on which our
civilization’s operation now depends. Our numbers and our needs
have filled our ecological niche, which we have expanded to include the
The good news is that human extinction is extremely unlikely.
This is a very large planet, and we are a very resilient species.
There is evidence that we rebounded from the Toba bottleneck when our
species was reduced to at most a few tens of thousands of
individuals. Barring a cosmic accident, humans will be around for
a long time. Our current civilization, though, is quite another
matter. On that scale we are about out of time, resources and
So what do we do about it? It’s not in our nature to simply roll
over and give up – our survival instinct is, after all, built into the
oldest reptilian part of our brains.
There will be some governments that will come to their senses in time,
and have the courage to institute helpful measures.
Unfortunately, institutional responses will usually be reactive rather
than proactive. The worse the situation becomes before they take
action, the more likely it becomes that panic will cloud the
decision-makers’ judgement, leading to short-sighted, mistaken and
ultimately harmful policies.
Most of the effective preparation for the coming changes will happen
where it always does – at the individual level. This is already
happening as people break free from the group-think of their cultures,
wake up and realize what’s going on.
This awakening is the source motivation that feeds all the small, local
independent environmental and social-justice groups that are springing
into being like antibodies throughout the infected bloodstream of our
global culture. These groups are independently addressing local
problems as diverse as water rights, education, local food production,
environmental cleanup, social justice issues, home energy production,
local currencies, cooperative housing and child care – the list is
As these groups do their work, they also wake up many of those they
come in contact with, to one degree or another. There may be over
two million such groups in existence today, and there is one or more in
every city on the planet. As far as I can tell their number is
growing by about 30% per year. They are the true repository of
hope in a gloomy landscape.
“Big solutions” are what got us into our current predicament. I
reject the notion that more big solutions will get us out.
Instead I prefer to count on the boundless courage, compassion, and
ingenuity of individuals. People like you.
July 8, 2011