Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Great Pause Week 45: Theocracy Rising

"Capitalism is a system that centers capital and wealth. Socialism is a system that centers society and people. Theocracy centers God."

In a long string of investigative reports for The New York Times, Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, explained why so much of the money and manpower used to storm the Capitol on January 6 came from churches:

In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, [Senator Josh] Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at The King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.
***
The line of thought here is starkly binary and nihilistic. It says that human existence in an inevitably pluralistic, modern society committed to equality is inherently worthless. It comes with the idea that a right-minded elite of religiously pure individuals should aim to capture the levers of government, then use that power to rescue society from eternal darkness and reshape it in accord with a divinely-approved view of righteousness. At the heart of Mr. Hawley’s condemnation of our terrifyingly Pelagian world lies a dark conclusion about the achievements of modern, liberal, pluralistic societies.

Much of the 20th century was spent in a global battle between two opposing ideologies: Socialism/Communism and Capitalism/Mercantilism. Whether systems were democratic, monarchic, autocratic, or class-based was largely irrelevant because both socialism and capitalism came in various flavors.

 


For much of the nation’s history, the US right wing has whipped up anti-socialist fervor, conflating care for public welfare and egalitarian apportionment of public assets with tyranny; drilling red fear and racial anger into the skull of every child; and then either overtly or covertly subverting any democratically-elected government that dared to promote universal health care, a basic income, education, or other survival requirements for their people. “Compassionate capitalism” is an oxymoron.

One need only look at a US foreign policy tilting away from boots on the ground (repeatedly disastrous at home and abroad) in favor of economic embargo a la the Cuban template, or bankrupting Venezuela, being used to bludgeon foes like Russia and China with currency and trade sanctions. Alternatively, the US pays surrogates without actually appearing to hire mercenaries, by stepping aside for the Saudis in Yemen, the Turks in Syria, and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Call it weaponized capitalism, in the sense that “capital” gets directed the same way cruise missiles once were.

For the past half century trade unions in the US and elsewhere (ironically the same kind that toppled the Soviet Union from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk) have been undercut and marginalized. Essential infrastructure like water systems, power grids, energy supply, national forests, and even defense have been privatized. The exercise of power has been gravitating towards the dictionary definition of fascism — corporate control of government.

With the conversion of the USSR and PRC to free-access consumerism (markets require masses), there came a moment when it seemed Adam Smith would emerge a clear winner in his century long duel with Karl Marx. That moment was short-lived.

“There are as many definitions of capitalism as Heinz has pickles.” — Hyman Minski

It was little noticed while all of this was going on that capitalism and socialism did not exist as a balanced opposing pair, as the economic hawks would have it. Instead, they are parts of a triangle with theocracy. When Soviet hegemony began to crumble, the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan. When the United States pushed unorthodox pro-Israel policies on the Middle East, Iran elected an Ayatollah, restored Shariah, and students seized the US Embassy in Tehran. Lacking aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons, Arab militants resorted to asymmetrical strategies like blowing up the barracks of the foreign invaders, in the old style of warfare, or hijacking airliners and crashing them into financial trading centers in the new.

It was politically advantageous to label these responses “terrorism” and use that brand to fatten the larders of multinational contractors, even at the cost of ignoring genuine threats faced at home and abroad from climate change, resource destruction, plastic Armageddon in the ocean, or latent zoonosis. But “terrorism” is a poor choice of words when one tries to apply it to the third point of the triangle, which enjoys widespread (genetically-embedded) popularity (and legal protection except where Tibetians, Uighurs, Armenian Kurds, and Yemeni tribes are concerned).

 

 
And so it came to be that right wing Christian churches flying the tax-exempt banners of Alliance Defending Freedom, American Renewal Project, Conservative Action Project, Council for National Policy, The Leadership Institute, Family Research Council, Judicial Watch, and similar theocratic advance guards could raise millions to bus kevlar’d neo-Nazi minions to Washington to stop Congress from certifying the electoral college vote on January 6.

At a rally in Washington on Jan. 5, on the eve of Electoral College certification, the right-wing pastor Greg Locke said that God is raising up “an army of patriots.” Another pastor, Brian Gibson, put it this way: “The church of the Lord Jesus Christ started America,” and added, “We’re going to take our nation back!”

— Katherine Stewart

Preliminary data suggest 28 percent of voters in the US 2020 election identified as either white evangelical or white born-again Christian, and of these, 76 percent voted for Mr. Trump, a singularly poor example of Christian values if not the Antichrist Himself. Why? Under all that halo of righteousness, they were realists. Mr. Trump’s success in packing some 220 God-fearing, Bible-thumping federal judges and three Supreme Court justices onto the courts will have lasting impact on religious affairs in coming decades. The legacies of Mitch McConnell and Newt Gingrich — and what Stewart termed “politics of total obstruction” — are merely preparation for the return of what the Hawleys and other antipelagians know to be the only “legitimate” ruler — the Prince of Princes.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. If you are not that keen on Patreon I am experimenting with a new platform called SubscribeStar. Check it out. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon or SubscribeStar get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Great Pause Week 44: Auguries of Change

"Forbidden from attending the annual rites of football in facepaint and cheesehead-hats, frustrated masses bused to Washington to chant in unison and smash tribal effigies in their nation’s marbled HaDvir.

It is not particularly difficult to position the Capitol Riot of 2021 in the timeline of the life and death of complex societies. Were we to apply Orlov’s Six Stages of Collapse to this moment, we might find ourselves hovering over some midpoint in the implosion sequence:
  • Financial
  • Commercial
  • Political
  • Social 
  • Cultural
  • Environmental.
Ideally, it would start with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.

 — Dmitry Orlov

Today is Hawaii Day. Three days after this essay publishes on Sunday, Joseph Biden will be President of the United States. When Barack Obama took over the 2008 economic crash and the absurd war legacy of his predecessors, he kicked those smelly cans down the road. Rather than investigate, prosecute lawbreakers, and legislate lasting correctives, or — dare we suggest? — make reparations to those harmed, “Look forward, not backward” became the Democrat’s mantra. How did that work out? The Beltway scoundrel class took their free pass as a birthright. When opportunity next presented, they repeated the calumnies, with vastly greater profits. They are getting very good at what they do. 

Coiled in the inbox of the Resolute Desk is Medusa. Iran recently said it would resume de-nuclearization talks with the US only after the US repays the billions of dollars it imposed in illegal and unjustified sanctions. Russia could easily demand the same vis-a-vis START talks. Trade compacts with China and others are in tatters. The Kushner Middle East peace plan has hardened Apartheid. While nothing will put Humpty Dumpty back together again, punishing guilty parties could at least show well intentions. Sadly, the new Administration will never venture to the roots of its problem, and so collapse on all fronts will continue, and accelerate.

Orlov advises that the progression of the decline is not necessarily meant to be linear. Rather, the steps are similar to the Kubler Ross 7 stages of grief. Any one of them may come to the fore, recede, and be supplanted by another.

  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope.

Several years after publishing The Five Stages of Collapse, Orlov conceded that he had missed a sixth stage — environmental — and issued a correction. In that 2013 essay he also revisited two points raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment:

The phenomenon is well understood: sunlight reflected back into space by the atmospheric aerosols and particulates generated by burning fossil fuels reduces the average global temperature by well over a degree Celsius. (The cessation of all air traffic over the continental US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has allowed climate scientists to measure this effect.) If industrial activity were to suddenly cease, average global temperatures would be jolted upward toward the two degree Celsius mark which is widely considered to be very, very bad indeed. Secondly, even if all industrial activity were to cease tomorrow, global warming, 95% of which is attributed to human activity in the latest (rather conservative and cautious) IPCC report, would continue apace for the better part of the next millennium, eventually putting the Earth’s climate in a mode unprecedented during all of human existence as a species.

Fortunately, Orlov and the IPCC of that era were wrong. Climate scientist Joeri Rogelij, a lead author of the forthcoming IPCC Sixth Assessment told Covering Climate Now last week that a rapid heat rebound from removal of global dimming aerosols is a misplaced concern: “It is our best understanding that, if we bring down CO2 to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two.” Climate scientist Michael Mann called IPCC’s new finding a “game-changing new scientific understanding.”

After describing the inability of Captain Cook and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia to comprehend the others’ cultures, Orlov in his 2013 essay proceeded to write one of the most passionate and eloquent paragraphs of his long career:

Even when viewed from this rather bizarre perspective that treats our one and only living planet as a storehouse of commodities to be plundered, it turns out that most of our economic “wealth” is made possible by “ecosystem services” which are provided free of charge. These include water clean enough to drink, air clean enough to breathe, a temperature-controlled environment that is neither too cold nor too hot for human survival across much of the planet, forests that purify and humidify the air and moderate surface temperatures, ocean currents that moderate climate extremes making it possible to practice agriculture, oceans (formerly) full of fish, predators that keep pest populations from exploding and so on. If we were forced to provide these same services on a commercial basis, we’d be instantly bankrupt, and then, in short order, extinct. The big problem with us living on other planets is not that it’s physically impossible — though it may be — it’s that there is no way we could afford it. If we take natural wealth into account when looking at economic activity, it turns out that we consistently destroy much more wealth than we create: the economy is mostly a negative-sum game [and]… we don’t really understand how these “ecosystem services” are maintained, beyond realizing that it’s all very complicated and highly interconnected in surprising and unexpected ways.

Eight years after writing that, in January 2021, Orlov regularly repeats that Western Civilization’s collapse is well underway, albeit just not evenly distributed. Those nations that have invested in science, energy, manufacturing, large-scale infrastructure projects, and social safety nets …

“… are surging ahead (after scaling back while massacring their parasitic sectors such as international tourism). Nations that have gone all in on globalization, financialization, post-industrialism and virtualization are at best treading water; most of them are drowning in debt.”

In an obscure 2006 essay, “The collapse of complex systems,” Dale Allen Pfeiffer wrote: 

Consider treating pneumonia as a cold. You might be able to clear up the cough and sinus condition temporarily, only to have the untreated infection claim the patient. The civilization we live in is simply a complex form of ecosystem. As such, it obeys all the laws of ecology. Increased energy availability will result in population growth, given there are no other immediate limits to environmental carrying capacity. Already, the world population is almost twice again more than the carrying capacity of the planet without hydrocarbons. Should we find and implement the perfect technofix, population would continue to grow. The adoption of conspicuous consumption (otherwise known as the American lifestyle) by more and more people will result in graver problems. And the eventual population crash will be even worse. 
And for those who say that a technofix would work if we also practiced conservation, I submit that it is impossible for our current socioeconomic system to conserve. For one thing, conservation could endanger the economic growth upon which this system is so dependent. And even if we did succeed in conserving energy in some ways, Jevon’s Paradox implies that total energy consumption will still increase. This is why scientists and engineers have been warning us for over a decade not to expect technofixes. 
Our problems are too complex, and they result from basic conceptual flaws that lie outside of the realm of science and technology. It is too late for technofixes. Even if it existed, a technofix would only be a temporary fix. And, in any case, our efforts would be much more effective if we were to address the fundamental problems instead. 

What comes after? Orlov has stopped clinging to his early expectation that the crash of industrial civilization — even the restoration of a global aboriginal economy — would arrest our slide into Hothouse Earth. Still, that slide is glacial in comparison with political, social, and cultural collapse afoot, as witnessed in the events of January 6. 

It is not just that the next four years will look a lot like the last four years, it is that theocracy may be an idea whose time has ripened. Beware ye Satan-worshiping pedophiles hiding your alien presence in the pizza kitchens of Capitol Hill! Plagues, locusts, and firestorms are the wrath of God. Jihads of the righteous are now upon us. 

In addition to all of us having a genetic program that forces us to deny our own mortality, or the mortality of the soul, we likewise have an embed that inclines us towards tribal fealty. You cannot deprive us of our football spectacles without Hell to pay.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. If you are not that keen on Patreon I am experimenting with a new platform called SubscribeStar. Check it out. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon or SubscribeStar get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Great Pause Week 43: Two Physicists Walk Into A Bar…

"The question is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale up Carbon Dioxide Removal, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale."


On a hot summer night in 1992, or so we are told by a writer for MIT’s Technology Review, two particle physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory were staring out over the moonlit desert and sipping cold beers. Given the story that followed, I kind of wonder whether something more aromatic than beer was involved. 

“What if,” Klaus Lackner wondered out loud to his companion, Christopher Wendt, “machines could build machines? How big and fast could you manufacture things?” It was not a new idea. Science fiction writers had been drawing from that meme for half a century to populate whole galaxies. But Lackner and Wendt were real scientists, working at a real National Laboratory, the same one that invented the atom bomb.

They decided that the only way the scheme could work would be if you designed robots that dug up all their own raw materials from dirt, harnessed renewables to power the process, and taught succeeding generations of robots to copy themselves. Quoting from Technology Review, March 2019:

They eventually published a paper working out the math and exploring several applications, including self-replicating robots that could capture massive amounts of carbon dioxide and convert it into carbonate rock. “My argument has always been we need to be passive,” Lackner says. “We want to be a tree standing in the wind and have the CO2 carried to us.” The robot armada, solar arrays, carbon-­converting machines, and piles of rock would all grow exponentially, reaching “continental size in less than a decade,” the paper concluded. Converting 20% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would generate a layer of rock 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick covering a million square kilometers (390,000 square miles) — an area the size of Egypt.

In 1999, Lackner released a government study titled “Carbon Dioxide Extraction from Air: Is It an Option?” It was a bit starry-eyed, imagining that direct CO2 removal could be accomplished for $15 per ton. The machines that actually do that today require $1000 per ton but many working in the field hope to get that cost down to $600 or even $50 with further investment, at scale. Still, the idea had Lackner in its grip. He left Los Alamos in search of sponsors. Gary Comer, founder of the Lands’ End apparel catalog, gave him $8 million. Lackner founded Global Research Technologies and built a small prototype… and ran out of money. GRT was sold and its buyers went bust, too. The idea’s time had not yet come.

Still, Lackner had definitely started something. Other researchers he influenced became more successful by being less idealistic. They prototyped chemical removal processes by working on coal stack effluents. They sold CO2 to hothouse, dry ice, and beverage companies —a process I like to call “catch and release.” More importantly, they attracted enough venture capital from corporations like Stripe, European Space Commission, various airlines, and Bill Gates to form loss-leader companies — Carbon Engineering (Canada), Climeworks (Switzerland), Global Thermostat (USA), Antecy (Netherlands), Hydrocell (Finland), Infinitree (USA), Skytree (Netherlands) —to begin to commercialize designs and scale pilot plants. Articles in the scientific and popular media have proliferated. Now it would appear they even have the Biden transition team interested in moonshot level funding in the first 100 days of the new Administration.

For a generic DAC system in the long term, experts expect the costs for captured CO2 to go down to $37, 87 and 129 per ton CO2 for optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic assumptions, respectively. They estimate rates (in dollars per ton) of 0.12 for capital costs, 0.17 for energy costs and 0.17 for operational and maintenance costs. Under these assumptions, by 2029, DAC will drop capture costs to $55 per ton CO2, with possible further reduction to $28 by 2050 and $17 by 2100.

I have been for many years calling Direct Air Capture technology “artificial trees.” In a recent colloquy with Peter Eisenberger of Global Thermostat, he bristled, responding that each “tree” (a DAC capture unit the size of a shipping container that costs $500,000) can sequester the equivalent of 20,000 to 100,000 natural trees. I’ll have to check his math on that one.

First, the DAC unit is only part of the price, both in dollars and surface area. To go with DAC you need CS (carbon storage) and since DAC produces CO2 in a hot (>212°F) gaseous form that can be frozen and liquified, you’ll also need refrigerated pipelines, deep wells for geologic storage, pumps, etc. Also DACCS (DAC+CS) requires power to run, typically 200–300 kWh-e/tCO2. The cycling of chemicals requires significant heat, 1200–2100 kWh-t/tCO2. Add to the shipping container’s cost and land footprint, a solar array or wind farm, battery storage, road access, fencing, etc. and you are looking at considerably more capital cost (CAPEX) and operating cost (OPEX) than your average tree, or many hundred trees. What is the CAPEX of DACCS compared to the CAPEX of reforestation, on a per tree basis? What is the OPEX? Actually we already know that, because for millennia humans have profitably inhabited forested landscapes, drawing from them most necessities of life. Which of these necessities do artificial trees provide? Just one, it seems: carbon dioxide removal.

To withdraw the 1500 GtCO2 required to keep us under 2 degrees warming this century, builders, be they Lacknerian robots or mere human stainless steel or aluminum welders, would have to produce 51,368,863 artificial trees, each averaging CO2 withdrawals of one ton per day for the next 80 years, at the cost of $25 trillion in capital cost, excluding power plants and pipelines. 

Bruce Melton, an engineer who heads the Climate Change Now Initiative and is drafting a carbon neutrality plan for Austin, Texas, responded to Eisenberger that “In WWII we spent $19 trillion dollars globally (2019 dollars) in 7 years, 1939 through 1945, on industrial expansion and mostly heavy manufacturing or $2.71 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Total global GDP 1939 through 1945 in 2019 US Dollars was $44.6 trillion in 7 years or an average of $6.37 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Average annual global WWII spending then, was 43 percent of global GDP. If we were to mimic WWII industrialization infrastructure spending today at 43 percent of global GDP of $87 trillion annually in 2019, this would be $37 trillion per year, or $261 trillion in seven years.” 

“It’s all about motivation and risk, not money,” Melton concluded.

Of course there are many other problems with technofixes that do not involve money. The chemicals used in sorbent manufacture and the disposal of sorbents at the end of their useful lives must be handled in a responsible way. Sodium hydroxide is highly corrosive and the chlorine gas that is emitted during its production from brine is extremely poisonous. Concentrated CO2 is also potentially deadly. Deep geological storage of the captured carbon gas involves not negligible risk of leakage and upwelling because nowhere is the Earth completely stable. Deep ocean disposal raises issues of salinity, contamination, fragility and cost. The biological carbon pump operates everywhere, even in the deepest depths of the ocean.

Another consideration — which regular readers of this blog will recognize as a recurring theme — is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale artificial trees up to billions of tons carbon sequestration per year, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale implementation, and to make that worth doing even during the decline phase of a civilization? With other negative emissions technologies — mineral fertilizers, biochar, tree-planting — there is palpable benefit to be harvested at an individual farm-to-kitchen scale. Who would spend $500,000 to have a DACCS container in their village and feed it the heat and electrical energy it requires, with no tangible benefit, assuming this is not a village of robots who have been programmed just to do that?

We are once more confronted with the ideological conflict between wizards like Elon Musk and Bill Gates and prophets like Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva. It would be sad to see the United States throw trillions at technological chimeras like DACCS when the same money could and should be regenerating the hardwood, evergreen, and chaparral forests we desperately need to stave off the coming climate chaos.

It would be worth recalling by the Biden transition team that on a day when the Capitol was shrouded in a black blizzard from the Dustbowl, the 74th Congress appropriated the money for Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to build a great wall of trees from Texas to the Dakotas. Between 1935 and 1939, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Forest Service (USFS) planted 217 million trees on 232,212 acres. The New Deal turned back the desert and saved the American breadbasket. Now, since 2000, owing to agricultural subsidies, fencerow-to-fencerow planting, suburban sprawl, and a waning conservation ethic among Plains farmers and their lenders, most of those trees have been cut, burned, and buried where they stood. In Nebraska alone, 57 percent of the original plantings are gone, even as climate change threatens a repeat of the 1930s, on steroids. Whether Roosevelt’s great green wall will be replaced with real trees or artificial ones remains to be seen.

Sources:

Fasihi, Mahdi, Olga Efimova, and Christian Breyer. “Techno-economic assessment of CO2 direct air capture plants.” Journal of cleaner production 224 (2019): 957–980.

Gambhir, Ajay, and Massimo Tavoni. “Direct Air Carbon Capture and Sequestration: How It Works and How It Could Contribute to Climate-Change Mitigation.” One Earth 1, no. 4 (2019): 405–409.

Goodell, Jeff. How to cool the planet: Geoengineering and the audacious quest to fix earth’s climate. HMH, 2010.

Hailing, Tu, Sun Zongtan, Yao Yuan, and Xu Yuan. “Analysis and Insights from the MIT Technology Review “Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies” in the Past Six Years.” Strategic Study of Chinese Academy of Engineering 19, no. 5 (2017): 85–91.

Lackner, Klaus, Hans-Joachim Ziock, and Patrick Grimes. Carbon dioxide extraction from air: Is it an option?. No. LA-UR-99–583. Los Alamos National Lab., NM (US), 1999.

Temple, J. One man’s two-decade quest to suck greenhouse gas out of the sky, Technology Review (March 2019). 

Yao, Benzhen, Tiancun Xiao, Ofentse A. Makgae, Xiangyu Jie, Sergio Gonzalez-Cortes, Shaoliang Guan, Angus I. Kirkland et al. “Transforming carbon dioxide into jet fuel using an organic combustion-synthesized Fe-Mn-K catalyst.” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (2020): 1–12.

 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Great Pause Week 42: Taintered Passages

"Haaland’s very existence is proof that the collapse of Chaco culture did not augur extinction of the Pueblo peoples."

Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Murales de Tlaxcala

The popular science writer Jared Diamond defined “collapse” as “a drastic decrease in human population size and or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” If we conceive the Covid Pandemic of 2020 in these terms, it was pretty mild. It caused, as it now seems in December 2020, a temporary drop in the rate of increase in human population accompanied by slight reduction in political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for a short time. As collapses go, it was a light rehearsal. A table read. 

Covid should make us aware, however, of the potential for a novel virus or some other lethal infectious agent to bring global civilization to abrupt collapse; full stop. Had vaccines not been discovered, and had natural disasters simultaneously combined to produce widespread famines, this pandemic might have resembled the Black Death or a similar historic collapse that can unfold more rapidly than herd immunity can develop. Because Covid is only lethal in a small number of cases compared to those that are mild and confer immunity, however, a full-on collapse comparable to the fall of Rome in the 6th century or the feudal system in the 14th was never likely. Nonetheless, the zoonotic potential remains for that destiny to be fulfilled in our lifetimes.

A full scale SolarWinds cyberattack could have met Diamond’s defined threshold for collapse. It might still.

Last month I looked at the writings of environmental sociologist William R. Catton. This week I’ll dive into a parallel stream developed by the other scientist I sat down next to in that row of fold-down auditorium seats in DC on a brisk May day in 2006: anthropologist Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).

By studying the collapse of a number of monumental civilizations, Tainter teased out many causes of collapse and how they combine in synergistic ways. His analysis is illuminating when one tries to parse how nations like the US, UK and Sweden were laid low by Covid while others, like Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand, sailed through nearly unscathed. 

Collapse is seldom entirely the result of external or natural forces. Most often it comes from latent social forces, or entropies, that are brought to crisis by some triggering event. Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand are tight-knit cultures with deep reserves of social capital. When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called upon her “team of 5 million” to go into voluntary lockdown, they went, even if somewhat grudgingly, until they saw what following the advice of epidemiologists had got for them compared to other countries, and then the grudges wore off. In Senegal, graffiti artists painted Covid murals on city walls, warning the population to mask and supporting healthcare personnel. In the USA and a number of other countries, the inferiority of pay-to-play health care systems, deep-seated racial and social inequality, absence of rumor control and rational leadership, and many other, by now well-commentated flaws, ran up death tolls needlessly. Recklessly.

The end of the Covid pandemic, which at this writing is still a ways off into the future, will not be the end of the problems it exposed. Knowing about them does not equate to doing something about them. By largely ignoring them, as we are predisposed towards, we set ourselves up for still greater calamities to come. One of Tainter’s contributing factors is obstructed feedback.

When you fire the head of your Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and put in a lackey, you have no feedback to tell you that most of the Fortune 500 companies and half the government agencies have been breached by a hack attack of unknown origin, and so it can go on for months, quietly seeding malware.

I am writing this just as BREXIT is playing out upon the European stage even as the Covid pandemic rages across the UK and Northern Europe, graduating into its first Northern winter. Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand may seem remote, economically, but they are hopelessly tethered to what happens elsewhere because all depend heavily on imports and exports. 

In 2019, Iceland’s trade deficit amounted to around a billion euros. In 2020, its exports decreased 5.6 % while imports increased 7.5 %, which must have been a strain, except that since the financial implosion of 2008 they have become accustomed to running annual trade deficits and their lenders have tolerated it. Senegal is a net exporter of oil, phosphate, gold and fish. However, the country is dependent on the import of fuels, foodstuffs and capital equipment. Its sales from mineral, oil, and ocean exploitation are not able to keep pace with the demands of its growing population, causing a persistent trade deficit of 500 million. New Zealand’s trade sheet is always predictably seasonal — surpluses of 300 to 500 million in summer and fall; deficits of 800 million to a billion in winter and spring. Although its exports were down 4.4% in 2020, its imports were down an even greater 12.6%, so it managed austerity well (kudos again to Jacinda Ardern). It would be difficult to find a correlation between trade balance and pandemic response among these examples, but it is not difficult to say that all of these countries are fully integrated into the global economy and will be equally affected by what comes next.

So, what does come next? Tainter would likely say all of the nations in the world today, and their integrated network, can be described as “complex” societies. Complexity requires a substantial caloric subsidy to be maintained, which can be denominated in fossil energy, consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth. 

When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a devastating pandemic, it tends to create new layers of complexity to address the challenge, whether within existing agencies or by creating entirely new ones. Operation Warp Speed to develop a vaccine is an example of a new layer, and it was far more complex than, for instance, the Apollo moon landing program, in terms of numbers crunched, persons employed, or moneys spent. The physical resources required were “borrowed” in the sense that the US issued Treasury bonds (which the Fed purchased), and the European Central Bank or the Bank of China did the equivalent, and they lent the money to governments, companies, or consortia to produce results. While there was little immediate drawdown of real calories from food inventories, oceans, or oil refineries, these bonds were IOUs for future calories. The world went into caloric debt to fund Operation Warp Speed and all other parts of the pandemic response.


This entire exercise laid bare the hoax being perpetrated by politicians who claim there is no money to pay for a Green New Deal to address the climate emergency, because the trillions borrowed to respond to the Covid crisis were far more, cash wise, than anyone had dreamed of asking for to begin pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by safe natural means, or by sponsoring the experimental phase of new carbon drawdown economy. Still, borrowing from the future to spend now always carries consequences. Sooner than you expect, those debts come due.

Such debts are of little concern in a period of rapidly expanding resources, such as following discovery of two entire continents, each larger than Europe, populated only by inhabitants without gunpowder, Andulusian war horses, Toledo steel or any natural immunity to measles; or in 1595 in Balakhani, Azerbaijan, when Allah Yar Mammad Nuroghlu dug a 35m deep well to extract black oil, forever altering the balance of sunlight calories bouncing back to space or stored within our planet’s rock, by Watts per square meter as it turned out. It is only when such one-off expansions of carrying capacity begin to contract that debts to the future intrude and creditors come knocking.

In Collapse, Tainter identifies seventeen examples of rapid collapse and applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture. 

As Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita caloric availability dropped. The Romans “solved” their deficit not by borrowing but by investing in their military and expanding. They conquered their neighbors to gain more grain, metals, slaves, and armies. However, as they grew, the cost of maintaining supply lines, communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew faster. Eventually, as their currency devalued and their overstretched borders were overrun, the Romans learned lex minoratio redit — the law of diminishing returns. Hitler sent armies into Poland and Czechoslovakia for the same reason — too many people on too little land — and began strategic exterminations in conquered territories to make room for future Aryans. He followed Caesar’s dictum but neglected to read up on lex minoratio redit.

Complexity by itself produces diminishing returns. Conquest can be counterproductive, and as we saw last week, civilizations more often fall by their own hand — by neglect of the ecosystems that support them.

Terminal stages have many common elements. Shortages in things like land close to to urban centers drive up real estate prices, displacing service classes, which drives wage demand, illegal immigration, and poverty. Military conflict over depleting resources militarizes society at home. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion foster push-back by the oppressed populations. General strikes. Populist demagogues. Cabals. Elite escape refuges. There is seldom a catastrophic die-off; more often there is merely a fragmentation. In both the Mayan and Roman collapses, the welfare of the people improved by a devolution to rural simplicity. Tainter is not entirely a pessimist. While the cycle itself cannot be thwarted, he believes innovation can stave off the worst parts of contraction phase.

Debra Haaland by by Shane Balkowitsch, pure silver on glass for “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective” 23 June 2019

Joe Biden’s pick for Interior Secretary, Debra Haaland, is 35th generation Laguna Pueblo. Her very existence is proof that the collapse of Chaco culture did not augur extinction of the Pueblo peoples. If the Senate runoff election in Georgia goes well enough for her to be confirmed, Haaland will oversee about one-fifth of the land in the United States, 476 dams and 348 reservoirs, 410 national parks, monuments, seashore sites, 544 national wildlife refuges, much of Alaska, and the well being and demands of 574 federally recognized tribes, Hawaiians, Native Alaskans, Pacific Islanders, and the populations of other occupied territories that have been engaged in an unfulfilled civil rights, land and water struggle since at least the mid-1950s.

Harvard Lampoon cartoonist and Hasty Pudding cross-dresser Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While the pandemic of 2020–21 did not bring with it the collapse of complex civilization, it was one more small nail in an already fashioned coffin. A harbinger, if we care to notice.

This holiday season let us rejoice that we were bowed but not broken by the calamities that beset us in 2020. We have been given a learning moment. Pray we will use it.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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