The Juggler's Lament, Ecological Collapse and Making Change

Sharon May 17th, 2007

I really recommend that you check out this article at The Oil Drum, Professor Francois Cellier does a fascinating analysis of the impact of ecological footprints, the Human Development Index and the problem of population. Although I don’t agree with everything Professor Cellier says, I think he does an excellent job of reviewing the peculiar, and serious stresses on our society and environment. He leaves some important points out, including the possibility of further reducing our footprints voluntarily, and also of voluntarily reducing populations.

Now I’m going to play prophet for a moment, with the caveat that I’m really no better at it than anyone else, and that I’m often wrong. But my guess is that within the next two decades, probably sooner, things will get very, very different, and not in a very nice way. And that when we get there, instead of our being able to point to a single cause “Oh, it was peak oil” or “Damn that climate change” the problem will be a concatenation of factors, many of which we won’t recognize when they happen.

Believe it or not, that true of the great depression. Economists and historians still don’t have a clear consensus on why the great depression happened, or why it lasted as long as it did. There are theories and arguments, but there is no single event that one can point to. And I predict that we’ll find ourselves puzzling (to various degrees) about what went wrong eventually.

One of the most fascinating passages in _The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update_ is one that describes the way their computer models began to show collapses not due to any single factor, but due, ultimately, to the system being unable to cope.

Wait a minute, you say, _The Limits to Growth_? Didn’t we debunk that a long time ago? Actually, the answer is no. The original LTG was a series of models that offered projected possible outcomes. What people remember about it was the direst set of predictions, which were only one of three such models offered up, and which authors specifically said were not intended to be specifically predictive. When you look at the moderate predictions offered by LTG, in fact, it turns out that it was fairly accurate. The problem lay mostly in the publicity.

Since then, the original authors from the Club of Rome have put together two further volumes, the most recent of which was released in 2004. They are now using even more complex computer modelling (than existed in the 1970s), but generally speaking, their current modelling validates their older models as well.

In the 30 year update, Meadows, Meadows and Randers ran multiple models of their “World 3″ program, with different inputs. In some of their models, a single factor brought about a crisis - pollution and global warming, or resource depletion. But in others, the origins of the problem were multicausational - the intersection of multiple problems like capital shortages, failures of food production, pollution, soil degradation, depletion began to intersect and exacerbate one another. As they write,

“A second lesson is that the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is to run into several of them at the same time. In most World3 runs, including many we have not shown here, the world system does not totally run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability. What it runs out of is the ability to cope.” (TLG30, 223)

In one scenario, society addresses the fundamental problem of pollution, but cannot, because of it, resolve the problem of declining agricultural yields. In another, so much capital is diverted to compensatory strategies for dealing with loss of services and new crises that the economy collapses. Or investment in human resources (education, health and welfare, etc…) are eternally deferred to fund war or address crises, until it isn’t possible to resolve the technical problems forthcoming.

Over at Running on Empty, Robert Waldrop recently made the connection between the news that tornado cleanup and response were delayed because too many national guardsmen were off at war, the failure of Hurricane Katrina and this basic problem - the inability of the system on a small scale to cope with one too many problems. We can juggle only so many balls in the air before they start to fall, one by one, to the ground. Whether or not Robert’s contention is right, one of the reasons I am less than wholly optimistic about our long term future is simply this - we now have an awful lot of balls in the air. I know most of you already know this, but just in case, let’s go over some of them:

1. As far as anyone can tell, world oil production seems to have peaked in Spring of 2005. There are some new fields coming on line, although they will not do more than (at best) offset the massive declines of major energy sources. Cantarell (Mexico) is declining at double digit rates. The Saudis are down by 8% in the last year, and show no signs of being able to raise production - in fact, they are predicting decreasing demand due to conservation (probably wishful thinking), which looks awfully like an excuse for not producing. While we may yet see a slightly later peak, the GAO report notes that a majority of petroleum analysts now believe we are at peak.

2. Natural gas is likely to reach its peak in the next decade, and has peaked for the US, and probably North America as well. Two new studies on coal resources suggest that we could reach the halfway mark on coal extraction in as little as 10 to 15 years. Since a vast majority of mitigation plans for climate change have depended on the vision of “clean” coal as an unlimited resource, this means a real reduction in the likelihood that this will be possible. Add to that the fact that the Americas are most likely already past their peak, and that coal is tremendously expensive to transport (as is LNG), and it seems unlikely that either fuel will fill the depletion curve.

3. Climate change is likely to take between 2 and 20 percent of the whole world’s GDP for mitigation over the next decades. As a large group of scientist warned recently, week, almost everything about climate change is proceeding faster than predicted in any model. The one consistent truth about climate change is that we have no idea exactly what we’re getting into, but it is probably bad.

4. Americans are increasingly living on the edge. Americans now have a negative savings rate, which means that they are living on borrowed money to an enormous degree. The housing market has fueled much of this borrowing, but seems to be on the verge of a crash - foreclosures are rising rapidly, and are expected to increase by 4000 percent over last year in California alone. Most major economists are now predicting a recession - which means job losses. Right now, people are able to get along spending more than they make and borrowing more than they can repay - what happens when job losses begin to rise and people begin to seriously lose their houses?

4. The American economy is also over-extended. We are enormously indebted, and there are troubling signs that China and Japan may not want to loan us money we have no hope of repaying forever. Our national credit rating has been effectively downgraded, and China particularly has been making noises about ceasing to buy US Treasuries. Since this is what is propping up our currency to a large degree, cessation will mean inflation, economic crisis, etc…

5. We are involved in failing wars on two fronts, and we are investing money we could spend on domestic resources in getting our own kids blown up in the middle east. There is every reason to believe that our current president plans to open a third front with Iran, perhaps via Israel, to give us a formal excuse to intervene. Meanwhile, domestic priorities are languishing. Real wages are falling, as are
high school and college graduation rates. The percentage of Americans with no insurance is rising, as is the percentage who are food insecure and truly poor. Social support programs like fuel assistance and food pantries are increasingly overwhelmed.

6. Worldwide, agricultural yields are falling while populations rise. We are eating our grain reserves, and because of our growing reliance on biofuels, we are risking starving the poor world, inflating prices for the rich world while depleting our remaining agricultural resources to keep our cars going. The world now has less than 3 weeks grain reserves, as Australia essentially gives up on a meaningful harvest and Europe struggles with a spring drought.

7. Economic inequity of every sort is on the rise. 60% of China’s much vaunted wealth is in the hands of less than 1% of its population. American economic inequality is as bad as it was right before the stock market crash. One out of every 7 Americans currently lives on $7 per day, which is roughly equivalent to the $2 per day that constitutes absolute poverty in third world nations - that is, one out of every seven Americans would, but for the increasingly shredded safety net, be living in the equivalent of a third world slum. Growing shantytowns in California and Arizona actually do look just like third world slums.

8. By 2050, one out of every 3 people in the world is expected to be short of water, and 1 person out of 7 can expect to be displaced. According to some climate models, much of the American west has a 100% chance of severe, annual warm season droughts. The same is true for much of Australia, the Mediterranean and Southern Europe, and vast parts of Europe and Asia. Almost 1 billion people may be water refugees.

There are more, of course - we could write about the decreasing critical thinking and educational skills of average Americans, the aging population, rising anger and rejection of the political process, corporate power, the problem of dealing with an increasing number of disasters, the structural problem of dismantling and rebuilding infrastructure like car based transportation systems and globalized economies, but you get the point. The problem isn’t peak oil, or climate change, or water depletion in and of itself. The problem is that the juggler has all the balls in the air right now, and more are coming. And no matter how deft and graceful, at some point, the juggler falters.

So here is the question. Can we voluntarily give things up? Can we change our rate of consumption, and choose what amounts to voluntary peasantry? Can we drop our ecological footprint, our needs and desires, our habits and practices enough that we can be ready when the juggler drops the ball? Or maybe even help the juggler hold on?

I know some of you don’t really believe in collapse. After all, the 20th century meant the invention of world-scale collapse, and ever since we discovered we could actually kill pretty much the whole human race, we’ve been fascinated with it and going on about it. If you are a baby boomers, you’ve lived through nuclear annhilation drills and ice age predictions, an energy crisis, worries about epidemics and y2k, and you are still a middle class guy with a mortgage. So why believe in this one?

I’d say for two reasons. The first is that the odds are so good - again, look at the models. Remember, TLG didn’t predict a likely collapse in the 1970s - new reporters fixated on TLG did. The timing