Archive for May, 2017

Collapse Mitigation Strategies


Almost a decade ago I wrote an article in which I defined the five stages of collapse, defined as inflection points at which faith in key aspects of the status quo is shattered and a new reality takes hold.

It is useful to have a taxonomy of collapse, even if it’s a tentative one. Treating collapse as one big ball of wax is likely to cause us to believe that everything will melt down all at once, and, barring certain doomsday scenarios, which are probably not even useful to consider, this is probably not a realistic or a helpful approach.

Also, one big ball of wax is not what we have been observing in the years since I wrote that article. By now, the Earth is a petri dish populated with various strains of collapse—or a collapse soup, if you will. It is an open-air collapse laboratory running many uncontrolled collapse-related experiments at the same time. Perhaps, if we observe carefully, we can learn to discern the various stages and to determine how they interact.

In this update on my February 2008 article, I tackle the issue of collapse mitigation: What can we do to avoid the various worst-case scenarios?

Continue reading… [2884 words]

A Speech


How would you like to build yourself a free place to live that doesn\’t take up land?

A Walk in the Garden of Unintended Consequences


“Blow a horse in the nose, and it will swish its tail,” goes one saying. It’s a silly one, but it captures a common thought pattern: do A to achieve B. As we grow up, we learn many such thought patterns, and as adults we expect them to continue working. We don’t necessarily know why they work. We don’t have time for complicated explanations and rationalizations; but we do know that they work. A time-saving approach is to simply try them and see. Do they still work?

And then there is a thought pattern that work at a meta-level: use any given trick too many times, and it will stop working. Blow a horse in the nose too many times, and it will will bite or kick you. “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” one might say. This is something else that we learn growing up, and it tempers our enthusiasm as adults for pushing things too far. Very interestingly, this only works at the level of the individual or the small group; as societies, we always push things too far—to the point when they stop working.

When we push things too far, we restrict our future choices. Blow a horse in the nose too many times, and not only would blowing in its nose become a bad idea, but so would harnessing it, riding it or even just walking it. That’s because the horse wouldn’t like you any more. That’s yet another thing we learn as children: once you ruin a good thing, it stays ruined. But as societies we seem to lack such childish wisdom. We keep pushing things too far and then each time we ask ourselves silly questions, such as, “What is the solution to this problem?” Anyone who proposes that we don’t have any options except to suffer through the consequences—which is more often than not the truth—is unlikely to be the least bit popular and is virtually guaranteed to be ignored by those clamoring for solutions.

Another way to look at this is in terms of consequences. Actions have consequences, and at first any given action may produce the intended result: blow in the nose, tail swishes. But later on, if pushed too far, that same action will produce an unintended result: blow in the nose, get kicked. Not only that, but past that point almost any action will produce unintended consequences. Give it water—get kicked. Muck out its stall—get kicked. Try to gentle it—get kicked. The solution to this class of problem, at a meta-meta level, is to first of all admit that there are no solutions. But when a society reaches that point, anybody who proposes that is, again, likely to be roundly ignored.

Running the risk of being unpopular and ignored, I believe that this needs to be explored further. We have lots of complex models to explain to us why things stop working. But we lack simple ones—ones that would be obvious even to a child.

Some quite complex models have been proposed. One is by Joseph Tainter. He has argued that society develops until it reaches some abstract pinnacle of societal complexity, at which point it crosses the point of diminishing returns. There is no mechanism for it to decrease complexity in a controlled manner. Instead, it continues to invest in ever-greater complexity, going from diminishing to negative returns. Complexity consumes ever more resources, and eventually society runs out of resources and collapses; hence, we need to prepare for The Collapse of Complex Societies. But I don’t think this model works any more. Let me explain.

Continue reading… [3027 words]

A Boat for the Reluctant Sailor


A couple of days ago I conducted an interesting social experiment. I joined the largest Facebook group dedicated to sailing a cruising, and started a discussion thread about QUIDNON:

“Looking for some advice from group members. For the past two years I have been working on a boat design with two other engineers. It is a 36-foot houseboat, with private accommodations for 3 couples and 2 single people. It is also a surprisingly seaworthy and competent sailboat. We\’ve tested a radio-controlled scale model and it sails really well. Now we are looking forward to building the first full-size hull. It\’s going to be a kit boat, featuring high-tech manufacturing and rapid DIY assembly. Don\’t hold back, what do you think?”

The results were roughly as follows:

Continue reading…

Venerating Stalin’s Ghost

Stalin’s Funeral

A few days ago, on May 9th, Russia celebrated the 72th anniversary of its victory in the Great Patriotic War, or, as it is known in the West, World War II. All but unnoticed in the West, this is a very big deal in Russia. All elements of the parade, the speech, the music—the iconography—are by now beautifully polished. It is a key ritual of Russia’s state cult. Its religious nature is manifested by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who, emerging from within the walls of the Kremlin standing in a classic Soviet-era limousine, makes the sign of the cross: if you are still stuck in the frame of “godless communism,” you need a rethink. Although the parade is a display of military might, unmistakable in the collection of modern military hardware that rumbles through the Red Square, the overall message is one of peace. “Russia has never been defeated, and never will be” is the overarching message. And although Russians want to be recognized for their tremendous sacrifice in pursuit of victory, they see this victory as everyone’s: everyone—even the Germans—benefited from the Soviet destruction of a perfect evil in the form of Nazi Germany’s genocidal machine.

Sergei Shoigu

Victory Day parades have been held ever since the first one was held on June 24, 1945. But over the past two years a new ritual has emerged: throughout Russia, the former USSR and beyond people in their hundreds of thousands and millions parade through the streets with portraits of their fallen relatives. This year, the count throughout Russia was eight million; 600,000 took part in the Ukraine, in spite of threats, harassment and outright violence from the Ukrainian Nazis—descendants and admirers of Nazi collaborators who have recently been posthumously rehabilitated as Ukrainian nationalist heroes.

In English, this popular movement goes by the name of “Eternal Regiment”; and, as usual, something is lost in translation. The word “eternal” in Russian is “вечный” (véchny)—but the word used here is “бессмертный” (bessmértny), which means “deathless” or “unkillable.” And the word “regiment” sounds quite a bit more… regimented than the Russian word “полк” (polk), which is a close cousin of “ополчение” (opolchénie)—a spontaneously formed military volunteer unit, and “ополченец” (opolchénets)—essentially a rebel or a guerrilla fighter. Perhaps the best English can do is this hodgepodge of Anglo-Saxon, French and Spanish: “Unkillable guerrilla.”

Eternal Regiment

The already tremendous and still growing popularity of this movement comes from the potent combination of emotions behind it. On the one hand, it is a veneration of the fallen and commemoration of their extreme sacrifice in the form of public recognition for members of one’s own family alongside all the others. On the other, it is fed by a wellspring of newfound confidence and pride: pride in the most decisive and significant military victory of the last hundred years; and confidence that, should the need arise again, Russia will be up to the task.

There is a popular theory making the rounds in the West that history is just a bunch of narratives, and one is worth another. For example, there is one narrative that the Russians like, in which the Ukrainians now venerated as heroes in the Ukraine were Nazi collaborators complicit in the genocide perpetrated against Jews, Poles and others. But there is another narrative, supposedly just as good, where these same Nazi collaborators were freedom-fighters opposing Soviet Communist oppression and helping fight off Soviet occupation of their homeland by fighting alongside valiant Germans who came to help them. To better make their point, the adherents of this second narrative have been busy desecrating monuments and graves and attacking veterans.

How is an innocent bystander supposed to figure out how to navigate this political and cultural war zone? These aren’t just narratives: people are being hurt and even killed. Nerves are frayed and tempers heated. Say the wrong thing to the wrong crowd, and you might end up having to pay for a whole new smile. There is a temptation to declare that “they are all a bunch of evil bastards!” Millions of people of all ages walking with portraits of their dead relatives through snow and sleet are all “evil bastards”? Really? Let’s look at what’s going on here in more detail.

Continue reading… [4169 words]

Olduvai on the Dnepr


I have been in the collapse prediction business for over a decade now, with relatively good results overall. One aspect of predicting collapses that remains troublesome is their timing. The reason why it is troublesome is well understood: collapse is a sort of phase transition, and phase transitions are notoriously difficult to time with any precision. It is also nearly impossible to establish what has triggered any one of them. When will a raindrop of supercooled water suddenly turn into a snowflake? Only the snowflake knows. What triggered the collapse of the USSR? If you too have an opinion on the matter, please stuff it. Thank you.

Another aspect of my method that could be improved is its lack of quantitative rigor. I have been able to make a great number of fairly accurate qualitative predictions, all of them based on reasoning by analogy. For example, after observing the collapse of the USSR and its immediate aftermath, then imagining, using thought experiments, how it would map onto the collapse of the USA, I was able to formulate something I called Superpower Collapse Soup. Its key ingredients are: a severe shortfall in the production of crude oil, a large, systemic trade deficit, an oversized, bloated military budget, an outsized military incapable of victory, crippling levels of runaway debt and an entrenched, systemically corrupt political elite incapable of reform. During the decade since I came up with it, the events I have predicted have been unfolding with some precision. The USA has been steadily losing its economic and military dominance; it can no longer get its way in the world diplomatically; the last straw will be the loss of its financial stranglehold over the global economy.

It is fun and instructive to watch superpowers jostling for position and eventually collapsing, but that is just a backdrop to a far more important phenomenon that is starting to unfold with increasing speed: the waning of the industrial age. Here is another analogy: the idea that ten years from now most of the currently industrialized world will be clearly, obviously far along on the path toward deindustrialization seems just as outlandish now as the idea that the USA would rapidly lose its position as the world’s one remaining superpower seemed a decade ago when I first broached the subject.

But there is also an important difference: industrial activity is far more easily quantifiable than such matters as political and military dominance. In particular, Richard Duncan’s Olduvai theory provides a good guide to the upcoming events. Its longer name is “the transient-pulse theory of industrial civilization.” Its main idea is that the industrial age will span roughly a hundred-year period, from 1930 to 2030, with a peak somewhere near the middle. His prediction is that by 2030 industrial activity will decrease to 1930 levels.

The specific metric he decided to track is per capita energy use. His theory has come under some criticism in recent years because of two factors. First, instead of decreasing, in recent decades per capita energy use has in fact increased modestly. Second, various technological advances, including the ability to move information in the form of electronic signals rather than bulkier carriers such as paper, has led to improved efficiencies and has made it possible to increase the level of industrial activity given the same level of per capita energy use.

This criticism falls short on both counts. First, sustained and even slightly increased levels of per capita energy use have been enabled by constantly increasing debt that has temporarily compensated for the rising costs of energy production. The overall effect of this has been to depress both energy consumption and economic growth. Energy prices are low because that is all the consumers can afford and energy produces are forced to borrow to make up the difference between their production costs and their earnings. When economic growth stops and goes into reverse (what the French call décroissance) the debt burden becomes unsupportable, energy companies go out of business and per capita energy use drops precipitously. Thus, the phenomenon that has allowed per capita energy use to set some modest new records has produced an Olduvai plateau, which will be followed by an even steeper Olduvai cliff once this scheme, essentially one of attempting to borrow against the collateral of a nonexistent future, eventually fails. This moment is not far away: as I write this, the energy business has largely stopped being profitable, and there is a growing wave of energy companies entering bankruptcy.

On the second count, it is important to understand the key ingredient behind all of the modern technological efficiency gains. Yes, we have gained the ability to communicate electronically instead of moving pieces of paper about. We now have global supply networks and just-in-time delivery systems that have made it possible to largely eliminate the costs of maintaining local inventory. We have automated, robotic manufacturing and process control systems that have made industrial production far more efficient in the use of both materials and energy. But what is behind all of these advances? It is the availability of the electric grid; none of them would be possible without universal access to reliable sources of electricity. And it is precisely the demise of the electric grid that Richard Duncan saw as the signal event that will indicate the end of the industrial age.

When the trick of borrowing from a nonexistent future in order to maintain a high level of per capita energy use finally fails (as it is already showing signs of doing) energy availability will drop, electric grids will fail, and all of the technology-driven efficiency gains will be wiped out—all at the same time. Richard Duncan is not the only engineer to fail to predict the important function that the exponential increase in debt has played in extending the industrial age by a decade or two—while making its end even more abrupt. Engineers like to work with physical quantities, and are loathe to admit that something that is essentially a game played with numbers on pieces of paper—which is what debt is—nevertheless can act as a physical motive force by forcing people to act. Its most dramatic physical manifestation is in depleting nonrenewable natural resources more rapidly and more fully. Once again, the overall effect is to reduce the ability to accurately predict the timing of collapse; as far as predicting the final result, I believe that the predictions of Olduvai theory still stand.

Although all around us we can still observe a hectic pace of industrial activity—highways choked with traffic, lights on everywhere, container ships and supertankers pulling into ports on schedule—there are places in the world that are already in the grip of terminal industrial collapse. To see that this is happening, all we have to do is look at what’s happening a bit more carefully.

Continue reading… [4325 words]

Revenge of the Polite Men in Green


The US appears to be preparing for a nuclear first strike against Russia. It has installed ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and Romania, with the preposterous claim that they are there to protect Europe against nonexistent Iranian nuclear-tipped ICBMs. These supposedly defensive installations can also be used to launch nuclear missiles into Russia. And recently the US has placed its F-35 fighter jets in Estonia, which is just a few minutes’ flight from St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. These jets are capable of carrying nuclear payloads. Without any doubt, these steps have made nuclear war more likely, if only by accident.

There are two possible ways to view this aggressive posturing: as defensive or as offensive. Viewed as defensive measures, are they needed, and are they effective? Viewed as offensive measures, are they effective, and what will be the fallout (no pun intended)? And if the US were to engage in the extreme folly of attempting a nuclear first strike on Russia, what would be the effect of this folly, personally, on the aspiring American war criminals who would get behind such a plan? Should they be afraid—very afraid—and what precisely should they be very afraid of? Let’s take a look.

Continue reading… [1948 words]