Archive for February, 2012

The Lifeboat Hour


Mike Ruppert and I spent the entire hour chatting about the accelerating rate of collapse we are seeing, its causes and what it portends. Maybe it will give you optimism, maybe it will calm you down. Just because the entire planet is on the verge of a nervous background doesn\’t mean that you have to be.

A Pile of Straw at the Bottom of the Cliff


[In Japanese — 崖の底にある藁の山 — Thank you, Masayuki!]

[In italiano—Un po\’ di paglia in fondo al dirupoGrazie, Massimiliano!]

There is an old Russian saying: “If I had known where I would fall, I would have put down some straw there.” (“Кабы знал я где упал, я б соломки подостлал.”) It is one of thousands of such sayings that are the repository of ancient folk wisdom. Normally, it is used to express the futility of attempting to anticipate the unexpected. Here, I am using it facetiously, to underscore the madness of refusing to anticipate the unavoidable.

I started thinking along these lines when I was invited to speak at the annual conference of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil), which was held in Washington in October of last year. It was shaping up to be something of a victory lap for the Peak Oil movement, now that the moment when global conventional oil production reached its historical peak is well and truly behind us, while the newer unconventional sources of liquid fuels have turned out to be insufficiently abundant and too costly both to the pocketbook and the environment. I wanted to use this opportunity to try yet again to correct what I see as a major flaw in the narrative of Peak Oil: the idea of a gentle, geologically-driven decline in oil production, which seems quite unrealistic, which I had detailed in my article “Peak Oil is History” more than a year before. But I also wanted to look beyond it and sketch out some plans that would work after oil production dives off a cliff, and what it would take to get them off the ground.
It\’s all well and good to present verbal arguments, but words don\’t stack up against numbers and curves, so I started looking around for a mathematical model that would capture the essence of what I was setting out. I put out a call for people to contact me if they wanted to collaborate, and was very happy to receive an email from Prof. Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence, asking what I had in mind. Ugo is an authority on the Club of Rome\’s much maligned but now vindicated \”Limits to Growth\” model, having provided it with a recent book-length update.
I wrote back to Ugo:
“I would like to argue that whereas the method used to model Peak Oil using a Gaussian is reasonable when looking at individual oil fields, provinces and countries, it is not reasonable when looking at entire planets, because, unlike oil-producing provinces and countries in decline, planets can\’t import oil, while oil shocks cause industrial economies to collapse rather than decline gradually along some geologically constrained curve. In [my] article [\”Peak Oil is History\”] I have a long list of effects such as EROEI decline, export land effect, etc., to make the case for a stepwise decline rather than a gradual one.

“If we take our nice simple Gaussian model of Peak Oil and zoom out sufficiently far, it looks like an impulse. The peak amplitude and the width are not so interesting; but we do know what the area under the curve is: the ultimate recoverable. This is the \”Odulvai Gorge\” view of Peak Oil. Zooming back in, we see that the leading edge is the \”growth\” edge, influenced by economic growth, technological improvement, ever-wider exploration and so on, and we expect and see exponential growth. The trailing edge, on the other hand, dominated by the sudden collapse of industrial economies, due to all the factors I listed, would be expected to resemble exponential decay, but is so steep that we might as well approximate it as a step function. This is what we generally see when a growth process reaches a limit. Beer-making is one popular example: yeast population and sugar-use increases exponentially, then crashes.

“As oil is the \”enabling\” energy source, which makes it possible to deplete all other resources at a high rate, a stepwise decline in the availability of oil would halt the process of depleting (almost) all other resources (firewood in rural areas and a few others are the exceptions). So, the further the collapse is delayed, the less there will be left to start over with, making any attempt to prolong the oil age quite unhelpful. This is an ecological argument: the greater the overshoot, the more the eventual carrying capacity is reduced. Therefore, investing in \”collapse-proof\” schemes and businesses is harmful.
“An alternative is to set resources aside (supplies, tools and equipment, designs, skill sets) that can be rapidly deployed once collapse occurs. Entire turnkey business schemes can be developed and capitalized, in expectation of collapse. These would 1. hasten collapse by withdrawing resources from the pre-collapse economy (a net positive) and 2. provide for rapid development of viable post-collapse businesses, such as manual, organic agriculture, sail-based and other non-motorized transport, and so on (also a net positive). Seeing as there is already a distinct lack of good ways to invest money (US \”subprime\” Treasuries? Gold bullion? African drought-stricken farmland?) this can be presented to the investment community as a way to hedge against collapse.”
Ugo wrote back:
“Hmmm…. let me see if I understand your point: you say that a Gaussian is no good; that the descent on the \”other side\” of the peak should be much faster than the growth. Am I right?

“If so, it is curious that I was working right on this concept today—and I think I cracked the problem just one hour ago! Maybe it was already obvious to other people, but it wasn\’t to me; maybe I am not so smart but, at least I am happy now. So, I can tell you that you are right on the basis of my system dynamics model. Descent IS much faster than ascent!

“When I received your message I was just starting to prepare a post for my blog \”Cassandra\’s legacy\” on this subject. So, if you can wait a couple of days, I am going to complete my post and publish it. Then you may give a look to it and we can discuss the matter more in depth. And I\’ll make sure to cite your post, because I think it is right on target.”

A little while later Ugo published his “Seneca Cliff” post. The name came from the following quote from Seneca:
“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.\” Lucius Annæus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91
I wrote back:
“The Seneca Effect is splendid, and well-named. (Last winter I re-read Seneca\’s letters to Lucillus while laid up with the flu, and found a lot that\’s relevant.) I think I should be able to build on this model to include a few other effects.”
Ugo\’s post detailed two very simple models.
The first model reproduces the canonical depletion curve, which looks like a Gaussian. It is based on just a couple of intuitively obvious relationships: firstly, the rate at which the resource base is exploited is proportional to both the size of the resource base and the size of the economy that is being used to exploit it; secondly, the economy decays over time (depreciation, entropy, etc.) Set up the initial conditions, run the clock, and out comes the expected curve.

The second model incorporates the idea of pollution, or bureaucracy, or overhead: the inevitable external costs of exploiting the resource. About a third of the flow is diverted into the pollution bucket, which also decays over time. The first model, it turns out, must be filling the “pollution” bucket by exploiting some other resource, through imports. But since the planet as a whole imports nothing, the first model is not relevant to modeling global Peak Oil, and so we have to use the second model instead.
I found the Seneca Cliff model very easy to reproduce, first using a spreadsheet, then by writing a short program in Python:
I showed my results to Ugo, and he wrote back: “Yes, it seems to be working.” I then started adding elements to this model, to see what it might take to “reboot” the economy into a post-fossil-fuel, post-industrial “operating system.” I made a highly idealized, wildly optimistic assumption: when a critical mass of people realizes that global Peak Oil has occurred and that the global economy is beginning to crash with no hopes of recovery, they will do the right thing: take 10% of the remaining industrial output, divert it and stockpile it, to be used to “reboot” into a post-industrial mode once the crash has largely run its course.
There is a problem with this plan: to a layman, global Peak Oil is rather hard to detect, leading to much confusion and dithering. Up to the final crash, it looks like a plateau, where oil production refuses to increase in spite of historically high prices.
But ignoring this issue (you have to idealize somewhat, for the sake of clarity, when working with conceptual models), if we start setting aside a “Peak Oil Tithe” around when Peak Oil occurs, and if we deploy all that we\’ve stockpiled when the fossil fuel economy can no longer support us, the picture looks like this:
Zooming in, there are two triggers: when the “tithe” starts accumulating (shortly after the peak), and when it is deployed to build a post-collapse economy (when the fossil fuel economy is 50% down from its peak).
The resulting post-collapse economy is quite a lot smaller than the fossil fuel economy, but still large enough to support a significant portion of the current population, albeit at a much lower standard of living. There might not be indoor heat or hot water, certainly no tropical vacations in wintertime or fruit out of season, no advanced medical treatment and so forth. But it would still be better than the alternative, or, rather, the complete lack thereof.
I presented these graphs at the ASPO conference, where they were greeted with polite silence. There were some “investors” at the conference, but they were busy attending a session dedicated to discussing opportunities to invest in the fossil fuel economy. Nobody offered any counterarguments, but then nobody felt compelled to act based on what I said either. Why do you think that is? Why is that reasonably rational individuals who are able to follow an argument and who are unable to refute it are at the same time incapable of making the transition from thought to action? What is stopping them? Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently? I will attempt to address this question in a subsequent post.

Notes from the Field

Yin Jun

[Guest post by Mark. As I keep saying, being poor takes practice.]

You hear a lot of talk about relocalization and deindustrialization. The pastoral life, the good old days. How romantic! Reality pays you a visit when your pick-axe hits a rock, a chunk hits your face, and you taste your own blood.

Unaware of it at the time, I was a child of privilege, one of five born to a Chairman of Earth and Space Sciences at a State University in New York. We were all expected to be high achievers. I fulfilled the expectation and put in 32 years as an engineer helping the über-wealthy zip around the skies in personal rocket ships from one golf game to another while chalking it off as business expenses, when all I ever really wanted to do was sit out in the woods and cook some food on a stick over a fire.

In 1994 I acquired a 160 acre tract of land in southeast Kansas, for a price only slightly above chicken feed, as a weekender place to go sit by that fire and decompress from the rat-race. 18 years ago the future didn\’t look quite so ominous. Reel forward to the present and this full-time back-to-the-land experiment is starting to look like a pretty good idea. Some stark realities become self evident however when you are actually \’living the life\’. Talking about it is easy. Doing it is something altogether different. Here is where I wish to convey a few \’notes from the field\’:

1. You realize after a while it is mostly hard, dirty, repetitive and boring. Mud, blood, shit, sweat, discomfort, disappointment, death. There are rewards, but you have to have a passion for it to endure. People who have grown up ranching already know these things of course, but they don\’t have to adapt. They know the life.

2. If you create an artificial abundance of anything, Mother Nature will do her best to return things to the status quo. Plant a large garden and you will have more venison than you can eat. Goats are not native to this region, coyotes are. Eagles, hawks, owls, raccoons, possums, foxes and bobcats are also native here. Chickens are not. They will all eat your chickens, given a chance.

3. If you want to eat meat, you have to kill something. It\’s brutal and unpleasant. Blood is blood, you best get used to it. Warm guts smell bad. They smell different, depending on what you just killed, but they all smell bad. The first time you shove an arm elbow deep in warm guts and blood to tear loose some connective tissue, you are hard pressed to not lose your lunch. It begins to get a bit easier when you have a chilled carcass with the hide peeled off, and the pieces you hack off start to look like something you would buy in a grocery store, but the lifeless eyes continue to stare.  

4. Intellectual deprivation. This was unexpected. It doesn\’t become apparent right away because you\’re so damned glad to be away from the crush of humanity and the demolition derby approach to getting around. Land is inexpensive in certain regions for a reason. Living elsewhere is much easier (so far). In this case, the regional economy has been in decline for 70 years. The population has declined nearly 80% from its peak, and the brain drain is close to 100%. Most anybody with ambition left long ago, and most youth leave, never to return. It is not hard now to understand why, historically, tribes of 1 to 5 haven\’t fared well. You need some minimum critical mass of human interaction to be able to survive psychologically, and some degree of specialization and division of labor just to cover all the bases. For those of you considering it, the \’survivalist bunker\’ approach to dealing with the future would be ill advised. Social interaction is not just something nice, it is an imperative.

Not to be too glum, on the upside there is sunshine, fresh air, fresh meat, eggs, milk, cheese, honey, fruits, nuts, vegetables, abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery. You don\’t need to \’go to the gym\’ to stay in shape either.

To peer into the future and see nothing beyond an endless re-run of this hard living is enough to put fear and dread in most hearts. I find it increasingly difficult to believe that dispossessed cubicle dwellers will be able to adapt physically or mentally.

In this setting it is not hard to envision the emergence of a tradition where you take each seventh day off from the grunt work and get together with your friends and neighbors just to celebrate the fact you are still breathing. No deities or voodoo required. Then just for fun, throw a big feast every solstice and equinox and invite everybody. Wait… haven\’t we been there before?

People tend to think of a \’land of milk and honey\’ as something idyllic and easy. This land of milk and honey is accessible, tangible and real, but it comes with strings attached.

There\'s No Tomorrow

Here is an excellent new animated short that ties resource depletion, environmental destruction and the end of growth into a single tidy package. For those of you already versed in this subject matter, this might still be good review; for those of you who don\’t, PLEASE DON\’T PANIC! And when introducing this to people, please remind them that they will need a couple of years to come to terms with this, and should try to not panic in the meantime.

[The following comment has been promoted from the comments due to its excellence.]
parkslopegigilo said…
Thank you for that link DO, this film had the oddest effect of making me laugh out loud at the cartoon antics while simultaneously feeling very scared and alone. I want to send it to some friends of mine but it would scare them shitless.

I walked through Times Square today, the Digital Canyon, the High Altar of Waste, and remembered something I had said to a friend years ago while in school. We were both tripping out minds out on LSD and watching CNN. An image of an African man who had been crushed by a tank flashed on the screen and I spent the rest of the night with that image burning like a nugget of molten iron in my mind. Burning, mind you. His legs and lower torso were all that remained, the rest had been neatly cut off and ground to a white speckled bloody paste by the tank\’s treads.

(Note to all: NEVER do LSD and watch the international news…)

At one point in my very real agony, I turned to my old friend, a lefty like myself and a newshound and a reader of books about US atrocities in South America and Africa etc. and I said

\”Do you know how much fucking pain we are letting ourselves in for?\”

My point was that the more we learned about the world, the worse it was going to be for us because we would never be able to escape that knowledge. Look at a shiny new gift and you see the starving kids who made it in Taiwan. Thrill at the latest action adventure flick and you come away with a sour aftertaste of militarism, sexism, and racism. Buy a bag of cookies and you buy a bag of pesticides, GMOS, and corn syrup. Nothing can escape your critical eye, including yourself.

The constant whittling away of all illusions, or at least the attempt to do so, changes a person incrementally, so slowly you don\’t notice but suddenly you are outside of it all. Your critical eye has reached critical mass: now you see all things inside out and upside down that are supposedly right side right.

\”Through the veil!\” as one old history professor used to say. You no longer get elated at the latest iPhone commercials with your friends or marvel at the magic that is Disney or worship the Kennedy brothers in a secret crypt under the stairs. People begin to suspect something is wrong with you, you openly mock the SuperDuperBowl, you make cracks about Baby Jesus helping you to find your car keys, you refuse to Buy Now!at your local Toyota Deal-Athon dealer. Curmudgeon, Crackpot, Grumpy, the accolades pile up at your feet….

This came back to me as I watched the crowds watching the enormous digital monitors and billboards in the Square. The pain of not being able to slip into the biggest lie of all, the lie that everyone else around you has allowed to flow into and through themselves, that this is somehow an ok situation, that this waste and constant jabber of lies and hucksterism, this smear of harsh light and consumption, body counts and scenic views with advertising, disposable people and trash mountains represents some kind of healthy beating heart of something. I felt a twinge of that old pain, the alienation, the sense of not being plugged into the coolest Kool-Aid around. But then I said \”Who fucking cares?\” These people are lost, not their fault, they aren\’t all idiots but rather lost in an illusion, a maze of lies and pictures and warped mirrors. They can\’t see the man behind the curtain and they sure as fuck cannot see that the machine he is operating is nearing it\’s breaking point.

But when I watched that damned cartoon tonight it hit again. It\’s good to know these things because I like to know whats up, I\’m a bad news first kind of guy. It\’s just hard to be the bearer of such knowledge, in a sea of indifference and fantasy. Gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you, right?

On The Edge with Max Keiser


As an experiment in unfettered communication, try discussing this interview (or anything else you want) on this Reddit thread. (BTW, Reddit has a happening subreddit: /r/collapse.)

The Wheel of Misfortune


Jonas Burgert, Roulette
Predating all of the wonderful props at Harry Potter\’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (HSWW), the original Wheel of Fortune surfaced in Monday Begins on Saturday, a Soviet-era science fiction novella by brothers Strugatsky, where we find it installed at a the Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Magic (НИИЧAВO). It looks like the side of a moving conveyor belt protruding out of a wall: since it never repeats its course, the wheel must rotate slower than one RPE (revolutions per eternity) meaning that its radius must be infinite, and its edge, projected into our physical universe, appears as the edge of a conveyor belt moving past us.
Unbeknownst to most of our contemporaries, Fortune is actually a deity, like Allah or Jesus, but unlike them she has been worshipped since most ancient times, as Tyche in Greece and as Fortuna in Rome. She continues to be worshipped in the present times, around the world, but especially in the US, where her temples and shrines are everywhere, from the humble lottery machines at every corner shop, gas station and liquor store to the casino capitalists who inhabit the glass towers of Wall Street. Millions of mortals supplicate before Tyche daily. Virtually unnoticed, the cult of Tyche dominates the religious landscape in the US: just compare the sizes of the casino buildings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City to the country\’s largest cathedrals and temples: except for a few mega-churches, the former consistently dwarf the latter.
The essential act of worshipping Tyche is by drawing lots, from which derives the term “lottery.” Tyche\’s promise is that you too may win some day, and this simple promise is powerful enough to allow her to hold much of the population captive to her every whim, ready to gamble away their last dollar. Tyche\’s spiritual solace is that, whatever happens, it is never your fault, just your luck. Tyche also keeps the peace, allowing us to overcome the envy and rancor we inevitably feel against our betters: they succeed not because of their superiority, but because of sheer dumb luck; we could all be just like them, if only the all-powerful Tyche would favor us.
Of our two biggest religions, Islam was far more successful of purging all the older polytheistic deities, locking up their idols within the Kaaba at Mecca. (I would love to take a peek inside the Kaaba to see if Tyche is imprisoned there, except that, being an infidel, I would get beheaded for even trying.) While the Christians have attempted to negotiate with Tyche, thinking that there is room in the universe for both God\’s will and Tyche\’s random chance, Islam did no such thing: Allah is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omni-licious, so, if you please, check your questioning mind at the gate and prostrate rhythmically in the general direction of Mecca. Wagering is allowed, but only at camel races, and only among the participating camel jockeys, while “intoxicants and games of chance” are, according to the Quran [5:90-91], “abominations of Satan\’s handiwork,” and so they are haram (verboten). In a strict Moslem society the cult of Tyche can gain no purchase.
Meanwhile, Christianity seems to have utterly failed at resisting Tyche\’s charms. In the middle ages Fortuna and her wheel were temporarily absorbed into Christian dogma, making her a servant of divine will. But this gambit has failed, as we recently saw when the Pope tried and failed to answer a simple question posed by a young girl from a war-ravaged land: “Why did God allow my friends to be killed?” Why does a just and merciful God allow the murder of innocents? The real answer (“They were unlucky”) cannot be spoken, because it would indicate that Tyche\’s authority supercedes that of the supposed Almighty, causing cognitive dissonance within the flock. At a less intellectual level, salvation can be seen as an infinitely long winning streak, and the faithful feel luckier from being sanctified in the blood of the Lamb. At the almost completely non-intellectual level of superstition wherein many believers dwell, Jesus is a sort of good luck charm. But what all of this points to is that, in Christianity, nobody is really in charge up there, so Tyche feels free to step in and fill the void, incidentally absolving God of any responsibility for what actually happens. He may be all-merciful and love mankind, but then He is not really the one issuing the orders on a day-to-day basis. Bewildering, isn\’t it?
More bewildering yet, Tyche\’s claim to dominance is not limited to religion or gambling or finance. In modern science, randomness (that is, chance, which is Tyche\’s domain) is at the heart of all explanations of what happens at the level of elementary particles. The functioning of the transistor—the device at the heart of all electronics—is explained by saying that the instantaneous location of any given electron is not a point in space but a probability distribution, with the actual location picked at random. In spite of this, the observed behavior of transistors is quite deterministic (except for a bit of hiss which we ignore).
As Einstein famously said, “God doesn\’t play dice with the world.” And he was right: it is not God who plays dice with the world, it\’s Tyche, and she is not shy about it. The scientists are certainly keeping her busy with the so-called Monte-Carlo models that are widely used in particle physics, which are driven by randomness. The gigantic particle accelerators at Fermilab and at CERN are the largest prayer wheels ever built, praying that Tyche might show us an exotic particle or two. Impressive though these are, perhaps the largest playground science has given over to Tyche is in evolutionary biology: we are who we are thanks to a sequence of random mutations. Thank you, Tyche, for the opposable thumb, for bipedal locomotion, binocular vision, and for the fact that we possess language! Without you, not only would we not exist, but life itself would not have evolved out of primordial ooze incessantly zapped by lightning.
I see all of this particularly clearly because I am by nature highly resistant to Tyche\’s charms. The idea of gambling revolts me, and I have never gambled, or purchased a lottery ticket or a raffle ticket, or made a bet. To me, chance and randomness are noise and garbage. I try to construct pockets of difference and meaning within what appears to me as an indifferent and meaningless universe. Any explanation that hinges on the work of chance strikes me as one lacking explanatory depth. I do whatever I can to eliminate chance from my life, and I actually detest the very idea of luck. This puts me at quite a considerable advantage vis à vis those who waste their energies on Tyche. This has nothing to do with luck; it just has to do with conserving energy, because that is precisely what Tyche is (in my opinion): a demon that haunts feeble minds, forcing them to expend their energies in futile pursuits, in order to keep other, even worse demons at bay.
Such futile pursuits can be quite pleasant (not to me, but then I will concede that I am unusual) when there is plenty of energy left to squander. But when that energy starts to run out (along with most other resources on this overcrowded, depleted, polluted planet), which it is currently showing every sign of doing, then everyone\’s luck starts to run out at the same time. As the situation goes from bad to worse, people gamble away their savings and drop out of the game. The US labor market since the financial collapse of 2008 is a case in point: the labor pool has shrunk to the point that something like 10% have lost their jobs, never to gain them back. There is a term for that: it is called a decimation.
Decimation is a Roman military practice that was used to discipline legions that did not perform well in battle. Soldiers were organized in groups of ten and drew lots. Out of each group of ten, one comrade drew the shortest stick, and was promptly bludgeoned to death by the others. This, to them, made perfect sense. In a superstitious culture, victory is a matter of luck, and so to achieve victory, all one needs to do is to identify and purge the unlucky ones, by the luck of the draw. Once they are gone, then by definition all those who remain are lucky, and can go on to victory confident in the knowledge that Tyche is on their side.
The decimation in the labor market has had a similar effect: a lot of people are gone and have faded from view, but the ones who were dismissed as companies “trimmed the fat” are seen as the unlucky ones. Those who remain are, by definition, lucky, and try to make the best use of their luck by working ridiculously long hours. That may work once, but what if the cycle of decimation is to repeat endlessly? The only historical case of repeated decimation (the Legion of Thebes) was an act of martyrdom, and so is not relevant. If a single round of decimation fails to rally the troops to victory, the next one should drive them to mutiny.
The labor market is just one example of this sort; the retirement debacle is another. Those people in the US who have managed to save for retirement are gambling with it, by investing it in stocks (whose upside is limited by the economy\’s inability to grow) and bonds (whose upside is limited by runaway public debt, currency debasement, and eventual sovereign default and/or currency devaluation). The financial collapse of 2008 has decimated their retirement savings, and yet they are still gambling with them. At what point will they refuse to keep playing? When all of their savings are gone, or at some point before then?
At what point does a society made up of gambling addicts refuse to gamble? Once they have lost everything? Or once it has become clear to them that the game has degenerated into “Heads you lose, tails you lose”? Tyche\’s charms are appealing only when she isn\’t cheating. But if you are invited to play, although you (and just about everyone you know) always loses while some perpetually “lucky” group always wins, then that fails to satisfy the gambling urge, and Tyche fades away, to be replaced by the far more destructive demons of envy and rancor which she previously held in check. It will be very interesting to see how this will (pardon the pun) play itself out. Obviously, I am not making any bets.