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.

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