By Alice Friedemann: German Military Study on Peak Oil

German Military - Peak Oil Study - 2010

Alice Friedemann summarizes here a 2010 study on peak oil conducted by the German military.

The original full report can be found here.

And what was the German government’s response to this excellent report on peak oil by their own military?

They increased their population with immigration.

Denial is amazing!


Today approximately 90% of all industrially manufactured products depend on the availability of oil. Oil is not only the source material for producing fuels and lubricants but is also used as hydrocarbon for most plastic. It is one of the most important raw materials in the production of many different products such as pharmaceuticals, dyes and textiles. As the source material for various types of fuels, oil is a basic prerequisite for the transportation of large quantities of goods over long distances. Alongside information technology, container ships, trucks and aircraft form the backbone of globalization. Oil-based mobility also significantly influences our lifestyle, both regionally and locally. For example, living in suburbs several miles from their workplace would be impossible for many people without a car.


Societal risks of peak oil

  1. Economic collapse
  2. Transportation restricted
  3. Erosion of confidence in state institutions

There are not sufficient alternatives to oil for transportation, so when oil grows short, there are likely to be extreme restrictions for private vehicles, especially in suburbs, resulting in a “mobility crisis” that would make the economic crisis much worse.

Scarce or expensive oil would drive up the cost of all goods. Our current international movement of goods has largely been made possible by the technological progress in the field of freight traffic (container ships, trucks, cooling systems), which are based on fossil fuels.  So trying to switch all modes of transport to alternative energy sources is much more complex with today’s common means of transportation and technology. Mobility on the basis of fossil fuels is likely to remain a long time.   Oil shortages could lead to bottlenecks in delivering food and other life-sustaining essential goods.

After peak oil, there would be significant differences from past food shortages:

  • The crisis would concern all food traded over long distances, not just single regions or products. Regions that are structurally already at risk today would however be particularly affected (see figure 6).
  • Crop yields also depend on oil. Lack of machines or oil-based fertilizers and other chemicals to increase crop yield would therefore have a negative effect on crop production
  • The increase in food prices would be long-term
  • Competition between the use of farmland for food production and for producing biofuels could worsen food shortages and crises.


After oil shortages people will experience a lowering of living standards due to an increase in unemployment and the cost of oil for their vehicles. Studies reveal that only continuous improvement of individual living conditions provide the basis for tolerant and open societies. Setbacks in economic growth can lead to an increase in the number of votes for extremist and nationalistic parties.


Other likely consequences

Banks left with no commercial basis. Banks would not be able to pay interest on deposits as they would not be able to find creditworthy companies, institutions or individuals. As a result, they would lose the basis for their business.

Loss of confidence in currencies. Belief in the value-preserving function of money would dwindle. This would initially result in hyperinflation and black markets, followed by a barter economy at the local level.

Collapse of value chains. The division of labor and its processes are based on the possibility of trade in intermediate products. It would be extremely difficult to conclude the necessary transactions lacking a monetary system.

Collapse of unpegged currency systems. If currencies lose their value in their country of origin, they can no longer be exchanged for foreign currencies. International value-added chains would collapse as well.

Mass unemployment. Modern societies are organized on a division-of-labor basis and have become increasingly differentiated in the course of their histories. Many professions are solely concerned with managing this high level of complexity and no longer have anything to do with the immediate production of consumer goods. The reduction in the complexity of economies that is implied here would result in a dramatic increase in unemployment in all modern societies.

National bankruptcies. In the situation described, state revenues would evaporate. (New) debt options would be very limited, and the next step would be national bankruptcies.

Collapse of critical infrastructures. Neither material nor financial resources would suffice to maintain existing infrastructures. Infrastructure interdependencies, both internal and external with regard to other subsystems, would worsen the situation.

Famines. Ultimately, production and distribution of food in sufficient quantities would become challenging.

War.  Oil shortages are likely to be seen by importing nations as a national security issue leading to conflict, which could also emerge over renewable energy resources.

By Chris Martenson: Signs of Distress

What if there’s nothing wrong with the people who are anxious or depressed, but the exact opposite is true; those who are cheerful and chipper are missing the plot?


The world is edging closer to the final moments after which everything will be forever changed. Grand delusions, perpetuated over decades, will finally hit the limits of reality and collapse in on themselves.

We’re over-budget and have eaten deeply into the principal balances of all of our main trust accounts. We are ecologically overdrawn, financially insolvent, monetarily out past the Twilight Zone, consuming fossil fuels (as in literally eating them), and adding 80,000,000 net souls to the planet’s surface — each year! — without regard to the consequences.

Someday there will be hell to pay financially, economically, and ecologically as there simply isn’t any way to maintain these overdrafts forever. Reality does not renegotiate. Its deal terms aren’t compromisable.

For those who have the neural plasticity to actually see what’s happening around us, the changes are already here, blatant and frightening. Younger folks, with their fresher eyes and fewer ties to the past, can see them a lot easier than their elders.

The prosperity enjoyed by the past few generations — especially the Baby Boomers — was stolen from future generations. All the while, they pretended as if their borrowing-heavy standards of living were the result of sheer genius and intelligence; like trust fund babies who mistake being born on third base for hitting a triple.

Young people have sussed this out; and are now pulling back from many of the principal occupations of their forebears — like marriage, babies and buying homes and cars. This perplexes older folks, who are beginning to find themselves increasingly at odds with the generations following after them.

Humans can be very very smart, but the flip-side of our ingenuity is our capacity for self-delusion. We’ve very consistently preferred to look past our faults. That can work for a while, but eventually an incomplete view will lead to a complete disaster. For example: depleting our topsoils today to grow more eventually leads to a collapse of our food system tomorrow. Similarly, increasing societal complexity ultimately drains the resources out of an empire, until it withers and fails. Such is what we can learn from history. Each of these examples is rooted in the self-delusion that today’s actions don’t have real consequences.

Monetary printing experiments like those currently being run by the world’s central banks are the ultimate form of self-delusion. Money is the most potent form of social communication, underlying all contracts and agreements. Violate those and literally everything falls apart, as we are seeing happen in real-time in Venezuela right now.

Money printing and its other historical debasement equivalents, serve to cover up (barely) critical signals. Derelict ideas that should die a quick death, instead, persist. Mis-priced money leads mal-investment (e.g., Italian junk debt selling with the same yield as ten year US Treasury debt!!). Extremely unfair redistributions of wealth from the bottom to the top result. Every. Single. Time. This time is no different.

By Kurt Andersen: How America Lost Its Mind (On the History of Denial)

This is an interesting (and lengthy) article on the recent history of denial of reality.

In summary, we’ve always denied reality, but lately it’s getting much worse.

I observe that the author does not understand the genetic basis of denial and therefore is like a fish explaining the history of swimming without being aware of water.

And, of course, after pages of facts showing the trend and likely outcomes are very bad, the author supports Varki’s theory by ending on an optimistic note that everything will work out ok in the end.



Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.


Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

And this was all true before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.


How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.


People see our shocking Trump moment—this post-truth, “alternative facts” moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history.


The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In 2008, three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in 2012 it was down to a third, and then in 2016, just one did. That one, Jeb Bush, was careful to say that evolutionary biology was only his truth, that “it does not need to be in the curriculum” of public schools, and that if it is, it could be accompanied by creationist teaching. A two-to-one majority of Republicans say they “support establishing Christianity as the national religion,” according to Public Policy Polling.


Trump doesn’t like experts, because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.


Not all lies are fantasies and not all fantasies are lies; people who believe untrue things can pass lie-detector tests. For instance, Trump probably really believed that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years,” the total falsehood he told leaders of the National Sheriffs’ Association at the White House in early February. The fact-checking website PolitiFact looked at more than 400 of his statements as a candidate and as president and found that almost 50 percent were false and another 20 percent were mostly false.

By Alice Friedemann: Why Did Everyone Stop Talking about Population & Immigration?

Alice Friedemann lists the top 20 reasons we stopped talking about the most important issue we should be talking about: population reduction.

I wrote an essay on the same topic here.

I note that we also stopped talking about the importance of living within our means and avoiding excessive debt.

And we don’t talk like adults about climate change.

Nor do we discuss peak oil.

Or species extinction.

All of these issues are dimensions of human overshoot and are underpinned by denial of reality.

As you read Friedemann’s excellent essay observe that every one of the 20 reasons has denial at its core.

1) The Consumption of Wealthy Nations is the problem. Not the Poor.

2) It’s taboo to mention the link between poverty and population

3) Don’t worry, America’s birth rate went down

4) Feminists and Human-rights groups took over the Sierra Club

5) Cornucopian and Leftists Environmentalists also destroyed immigration and population stabilization goals

6) The American public is not scientifically educated and ignores warnings from scientists

7) Educating Women to lower population a nice idea but…

8) Only humans matter, screw the other species on the planet

9) Anyone who wants to limit immigration or population is portrayed as a racist

10) The Sierra club and other environmental groups abandoned immigration level goals

11) We must have more population growth to fund retirees and grow the economy

12) Immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want

13) We’re wealthy, so we’re obliged to offer shelter to immigrants, and we are a nation of immigrants

14) Nature keeps us alive

15) 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development

16) Standard demographic theory

17) It’s Human Nature not to worry about overpopulation

18) Don’t worry: the fertility rate and disease are driving population down

19) Propaganda from anti-abortion activists, religious leaders, and right-wing think tanks

20) Many people don’t understand how powerful exponential growth is

By Richard Heinberg: Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Talk.


Richard Heinberg is one of the early voices that sounded the alarm on limits to growth. He has a wide and deep understanding of the issues, and is an excellent and prolific writer.

In earlier years he usually concluded his books and essays with some variation of “the good news is everything will be ok if we just do xyz”.

Lately he has been speaking more openly and honestly.

This latest essay is a no holds barred full-on dose of reality.

Good on him. Someone needs to speak the truth.

One quote stood out for me:

Accepting that a crash is more or less inevitable is a big step, psychologically speaking. I call this toxic knowledge: one cannot “un-know” that the current world system hangs by a thread, and this understanding can lead to depression. In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually. Some willfully ignore their own mortality for as long as possible; others grasp at a belief in the afterlife.

Heinberg, apparently without awareness of Varki’s theory, is dancing around the fact that denial of reality is central to what makes us human, as it was the barrier created by awareness of mortality, and nature’s solution of evolving denial of death via a more general denial of realty mechanism, that enabled us to evolve an extended theory of mind, which we used to take over the planet, and to enter an extreme state of overshoot.



Are we doomed if we can’t maintain current and growing energy levels? And are we doomed anyway due to now-inevitable impacts of climate change?

First, the good news. With regard to energy, we should keep in mind the fact that today’s Americans use roughly twice as much per capita as their great-grandparents did in 1925. While people in that era enjoyed less mobility and fewer options for entertainment and communication than we do today, they nevertheless managed to survive and even thrive. And we now have the ability to provide many services (such as lighting) far more efficiently, so it should be possible to reduce per-capita energy usage dramatically while still maintaining a lifestyle that would be considered more than satisfactory by members of previous generations and by people in many parts of the world today. And reducing energy usage would make a whole raft of problems—climate change, resource depletion, the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy sources—much easier to solve.

The main good news with regard to climate change that I can point to (as I did in  this essay posted in June) is that economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with lower-emissions climate change scenarios. As BP and other credible sources for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves figures show, and as more and more researchers are pointing out, the worst-case climate scenarios associated with “business as usual” levels of carbon emissions are in fact unrealistic.

Now, the bad news. While we could live perfectly well with less energy, that’s not what the managers of our economy want. They want growth. Our entire economy is structured to require constant, compounded growth of GDP, and for all practical purposes raising the GDP means using more energy. While fringe economists and environmentalists have for years been proposing ways to back away from our growth addiction (for example, by using alternative economic indices such as Gross National Happiness), none of these proposals has been put into widespread effect. As things now stand, if growth falters the economy crashes.

There’s bad climate news as well: even with current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, we’re seeing unacceptable and worsening impacts—raging fires, soaring heat levels, and melting icecaps. And there are hints that self-reinforcing feedbacks maybe kicking in: an example is the release of large amounts of methane from thawing tundra and oceanic hydrates, which could lead to a short-term but steep spike in warming.  Also, no one is sure if current metrics of climate sensitivity (used to estimate the response of the global climate system to a given level of forcing) are accurate, or whether the climate is actually more sensitive than we have assumed. There’s some worrisome evidence the latter is case.

But let’s step back a bit. If we’re interested in signs of impending global crisis, there’s no need to stop with just these two global challenges. The world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to current industrial agricultural practices; if we don’t deal with that issue, civilization still crash even if we do manage to ace our energy and climate test. Humanity is also over-using fresh water: ancient aquifers are depleting, while other water sources are being polluted. If we don’t deal with our water crisis, we still crash. Species are going extinct at a thousand times the pre-industrial rate; if we don’t deal with the biodiversity dilemma, we still crash. Then there are social and economic problems that could cause nations to crumble even if we manage to protect the environment; this threat category includes the menaces of over-reliance on debt and increasing economic inequality.

If we attack each of these problems piecemeal with technological fixes (for example, with desalination technology to solve the water crisis or geo-engineering to stabilize the climate) we may still crash because our techno-fixes are likely to have unintended consequences, as all technological interventions do. Anyway, the likelihood of successfully identifying and deploying all the needed fixes in time is vanishingly small.

Many problems are converging at once because society is a complex system, and the challenges we have been discussing are aspects of a systemic crisis.

Many problems are converging at once because society is a complex system, and the challenges we have been discussing are aspects of a systemic crisis. A useful way to frame an integrated understanding of the 21st century survival challenge is this: we humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species. We’ve been able to do this due to a temporary subsidy of cheap, bountiful energy from fossil fuels, which enabled us to stretch nature’s limits and to support a far larger overall population than would otherwise be possible. But now we are starting to see supply constraints for those fuels, just as the side effects of burning enormous amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas are also coming into view. Meanwhile, using cheap energy to expand resource-extractive and waste-generating economic processes is leading to biodiversity loss; the depletion of soil, water, and minerals; and environmental pollution of many kinds. Just decarbonizing energy, while necessary, doesn’t adequately deal with systemic overshoot. Only a reduction of population and overall resource consumption, along with a rapid reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels and a redesign of industrial systems, can do that.

Economic inequality is a systemic problem too. As we’ve grown our economy, those who were in position to invest in industrial expansion or to loan money to others have reaped the majority of the rewards, while those who got by through selling their time and labor (or whose common cultural heritage was simply appropriated by industrialists) have fallen behind. There’s no technological fix for inequality; dealing with it will require redesigning our economic system and redistributing wealth. Those in wealthy nations would, on average, have to adjust their living standards downward.

Now, can we do all of this without a crash? Probably not. Indeed, many economists would regard the medicine (population reduction, a decline in per-capita energy use, and economic redistribution) as worse than whatever aspects of the disease they are willing to acknowledge. Environmentalists and human rights advocates would disagree. Which is to say, there’s really no way out. Whether we stick with business as usual, or attempt a dramatic multi-pronged intervention, our current “normal” way of life is toast.

Accepting that a crash is more or less inevitable is a big step, psychologically speaking. I call this toxic knowledge: one cannot “un-know” that the current world system hangs by a thread, and this understanding can lead to depression. In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually. Some willfully ignore their own mortality for as long as possible; others grasp at a belief in the afterlife. Still others seek to create meaning and purpose by making a positive difference in the lives of those around them with whatever time they have. Such efforts don’t alter the inevitability of death; however, contributing to one’s community appears to enhance well-being in many ways beyond that of merely prolonging life.

But is a crash the same as doom?

Not necessarily. Our best hope at this point would seem to be a controlled crash that enables partial recovery at a lower level of population and resource use, and that therefore doesn’t lead to complete and utter oblivion (human extinction or close to it). Among those who understand the systemic nature of our problems, the controlled crash option is the subject of what may be the most interesting and important conversation that’s taking place on the planet just now. But only informed people who have gotten over denial and self-delusion are part of it.

This discussion started in the 1970s, though I wasn’t part of it then; I joined a couple of decades later. There is no formal membership; the conversation takes place through and among a patchwork of small organizations and scattered individuals. They don’t all know each other and there is no secret handshake. Some have publicly adopted the stance that a global crash is inevitable; most soft-pedal that message on their organizational websites but are privately plenty worried. During the course of the conversation so far, two (not mutually exclusive) strategies have emerged.

The first strategy envisions convincing the managers and power holders of the world to invest in a no-regrets insurance plan. Some systems thinkers who understand our linked global crises are offering to come up with a back-pocket checklist for policy makers, for moments when financial or environmental crisis hits: how, under such circumstances, might the managerial elite be able to prevent, say, a stock market crash from triggering food, energy, and social crises as well? A set of back-up plans wouldn’t require detailed knowledge of when or how crisis will erupt. It wouldn’t even require much of a systemic understanding of global overshoot. It would simply require willingness on the part of societal power holders to agree that there are real or potential threats to global order, and to accept the offer of help. At the moment, those pursuing this strategy are working mostly covertly, for reasons that are not hard to discern.

The second strategy consists of working within communities to build more societal resilience from the ground up. It is easier to get traction with friends and neighbors than with global power holders, and it’s within communities that political decisions are made closest to where the impact is felt. My own organization, Post Carbon Institute, has chosen to pursue this strategy via a series of books, the Community Resilience Guides;  the “Think Resilience” video series; and our forthcoming compendium, The Community Resilience Reader.  Rob Hopkins, who originated the Transition Towns movement, has been perhaps the most public, eloquent, and upbeat proponent of the local resilience strategy, but there are countless others scattered across the globe.

Somehow, the work of resilience building (whether top-down or bottom-up) must focus not just on maintaining supplies of food, water, energy, and other basic necessities, but also on sustaining social cohesion—a culture of understanding, tolerance, and inquiry—during times of great stress. While it’s true that people tend to pull together in remarkable ways during wars and natural disasters, sustained hard times can lead to scapegoating and worse.

Most people are not party to the conversation, not aware that it is happening, and unaware even that such a conversation is warranted. Among those who are worried about the state of the world, most are content to pursue or support efforts to keep crises from occurring by working via political parties, religious organizations, or non-profit advocacy orgs on issues such as climate change, food security, and economic inequality. There is also a small but rapidly growing segment of society that feels disempowered as the era of economic growth wanes, and that views society’s power holders as evil and corrupt. These dispossessed—whether followers of ISIS or Infowars—would prefer to “shake things up,” even to the point of bringing society to destruction, rather than suffer the continuation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this last group may have the easiest path of all.

Can we succeed? It depends on how one defines “success”…

By comparison, the number of those involved in the conversation is exceedingly small, countable probably in the hundreds of thousands, certainly not millions. Can we succeed? It depends on how one defines “success”—as the ability to maintain, for a little longer, an inherently unsustainable global industrial system? Or as the practical reduction in likely suffering on the part of the survivors of the eventual crash? A related query one often hears after environmental lectures is, Are we doing enough? If “Enough” means “enough to avert a system crash,” then the answer is no: it’s unlikely that anyone can deliver that outcome now. The question should be, What can we do—not to save a way of life that is unsalvageable, but to make a difference to the people and other species in harm’s way?

This is not a conversation about the long-term trajectory of human cultural evolution, though that’s an interesting subject for speculation. Assuming there are survivors, what will human society look like following the crises ensuing from climate change and the end of fossil fuels and capitalism? David Fleming’s book, Surviving the Future, and John Michael Greer’s, The Ecotechnic Future, both  offer useful thoughts in this regard. My own view is that it’s hard for us to envision what comes next because our imaginations are bounded by the reality we have known. What awaits will likely be as far removed from from modern industrial urban life as Iron-Age agrarian empires were from hunting-and-gathering bands. We are approaching one of history’s great discontinuities. The best we can do under the circumstances is to get our priorities and values straight (protect the vulnerable, preserve the best of what we have collectively achieved, and live a life that’s worthy) and put one foot in front of the other.

The conversation I’m pointing to here is about fairly short-term actions. And it doesn’t lend itself to building a big movement. For that, you need villains to blame and promises of revived national or tribal glory. For those engaged in the conversation, there’s only hard work and the satisfaction of honestly facing our predicament with an attitude of curiosity, engagement, and compassion. For us, threats of doom or promises of utopia are distractions or cop-outs.

Only those drawn to the conversation by temperament and education are likely to take it up. Advertising may not work. But having a few more hands on deck, and a few more resources to work with, can only help.

By Ian Dunlop & David Spratt – Disaster Alley: Climate Conflict & Risk

Here is a new report on the extreme risks of climate change.

A theme of the report is that a “failure of imagination” has prevented us from acknowledging and acting on the climate threat.

What the authors are actually discussing, without being aware of it, is inherited denial of reality.

If you substitute “inherited denial of reality” for “failure of imagination” the report makes much more sense.

The authors conclude the report by calling for an emergency initiative to decarbonize the economy, without demonstrating that they understand the implications of such an initiative, which demonstrates that the authors are as deeply in denial as the governments they criticize.


Climate change is an existential risk that could abruptly end human civilisation because of a catastrophic “failure of imagination” by global leaders to understand and act on the science and evidence before them.

At the London School of Economics in 2008, Queen Elizabeth questioned: “Why did no one foresee the timing, extent and severity of the Global Financial Crisis?” The British Academy answered a year later: “A psychology of denial gripped the financial and corporate world… [it was] the failure of the collective imagination of many bright people… to understand the risks to the system as a whole” (Stewart 2009).

A “failure of imagination” has also been identified as one of the reasons for the breakdown in US intelligence around the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

A similar failure is occurring with climate change today.

The problem is widespread at the senior levels of government and global corporations. A 2016 report, Thinking the Unthinkable , based on interviews with top leaders around the world, found that: “A proliferation of ‘unthinkable’ events… has revealed a new fragility at the highest levels of corporate and public service leaderships. Their ability to spot, identify and handle unexpected, non-normative events is… perilously inadequate at critical moments… Remarkably, there remains a deep reluctance, or what might be called ‘executive myopia’, to see and contemplate even the possibility that ‘unthinkables’ might happen, let alone how to handle them.” (Gowing and Langdon 2016)

Such failures are manifested in two ways in climate policy. At the political, bureaucratic and business level in underplaying the high-end risks and in failing to recognise that the existential risk of climate change is totally different from other risk categories. And at the research level in underestimating the rate of climate change impact and costs, along with an under-emphasis on, and poor communication of, those high-end risks.

Existential risks are not amenable to the reactive (learn from failure) approach of conventional risk management, and we cannot necessarily rely on the institutions, moral norms, or social attitudes developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks. Because the consequences are so severe – perhaps the end of human global civilisation as we know it – “even for an honest, truth-seeking, and well-intentioned investigator it is difficult to think and act rationally in regard to… existential risks” (Bostrom and Cirkovic 2008).

Yet the evidence is clear that climate change already poses an existential risk to global stability and to human civilisation that requires an emergency response. Temperature rises that are now in prospect could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%. But this conversation is taboo, and the few who speak out are admonished as being overly alarmist.

Prof. Kevin Anderson considers that “a 4°C future [relative to pre-industrial levels] is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable” (Anderson 2011). He says: “If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4°C, 5°C or 6°C, you might have half a billion people surviving” (Fyall 2009).

Asked at a 2011 conference in Melbourne about the difference between a 2°C world and a 4°C world, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber replied in two words: “Human civilisation”. The World Bank reports: “There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible” (World Bank 2012). Amongst other impacts, a 4°C warming would trigger the loss of both polar ice caps, eventually resulting, at equilibrium, in a 70-metre rise in sea level.

The present path of greenhouse gas emissions commits us to a 4–5°C temperature increase relative to pre-industrial levels. Even at 3°C of warming we could face “outright chaos” and “nuclear war is possible”, according to the 2007 Age of
Consequences report by two US think tanks (see page 10).

Yet this is the world we are now entering. The Paris climate agreement voluntary emission reduction commitments, if implemented, would result in the planet warming by 3°C, with a 50% chance of exceeding that amount.

This does not take into account “longer-term” carbon-cycle feedbacks – such as permafrost thaw and declining efficiency of ocean and terrestrial carbon sinks, which are now becoming relevant. If these are considered, the Paris emissions
path has more than a 50% chance of exceeding 4°C warming. (Technically, accounting for these feedbacks means using a higher figure for the system’s “climate sensitivity” – which is a measure of the temperature increase resulting from a doubling of the level of greenhouse gases – to calculate the warming.

A median figure often used for climate sensitivity is ~3°C, but research from MIT shows that with a higher climate sensitivity figure of 4.5°C, which would account for feedbacks, the Paris path would lead to around 5°C of warming (Reilly et al. 2015).)

So we are looking at a greater than one-in-two chance of either annihilating intelligent life, or permanently and drastically curtailing its potential development. Clearly these end-of-civilisation scenarios are not being considered even by risk-conscious leaders in politics and business, which is an epic failure of imagination.

The world hopes to do a great deal better than Paris, but it may do far worse. A recent survey of 656 participants involved in international climate policy-making showed only half considered the Paris climate negotiations were useful, and 70% did not expect that the majority of countries would fulfil their promises (Dannenberg et al. 2017).

Human civilisation faces unacceptably high chances of being brought undone by climate change’s existential risks yet, extraordinarily, this conversation is rarely heard. The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) says that despite scientific evidence that risks associated with tipping points “increase disproportionately as temperature increases from 1°C to 2°C, and become high above 3°C”, political negotiations have consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate change. In its Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 report, it concludes that “the world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change”. (GCF 2017)

In 2007, The Age of Consequences reported:

“Our group found that, generally speaking, most scientific predictions in the overall arena of climate change over the last two decades, when compared with ultimate outcomes, have been consistently below what has actually transpired. There are perhaps many reasons for this tendency—an innate scientific caution, an incomplete data set, a tendency for scientists to steer away from controversy, persistent efforts by some to discredit climate “alarmists,” to name but a few…”(Campbell et al. 2007)

For many critical components of the climate system, we can identify just how fast our understanding is changing. Successive IPCC reports have been reticent on key climate system issues:

• Antarctica: In 2001, the IPCC projected no significant ice mass loss by 2100 and, in the 2014 report, said the contribution to sea level rise would “not exceed several tenths of a meter” by 2100. In reality, the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been destabilised and ice retreat is unstoppable for the current climate state. It is likely that no further acceleration in climate change is necessary to trigger the collapse of the rest of the ice sheet, with suggestions of a 3–5 metre sea-level rise within two centuries from West Antarctic melting. (Spratt 2017)

• Sea levels: In the 2007 IPCC report, sea levels were projected to rise up to 0.59 metre by 2100. The figure was widely derided by researchers, including the head of NASA’s climate research (Hansen 2007) as being far too conservative. By 2014, the IPCC’s figure was in the range 0.55 to 0.82 metre, but they included the caveat that “levels above the likely range cannot be reliably evaluated.” In reality, most scientists project a metre or more. The US Department of Defence uses scenarios of 1 and 2 metres for risk assessments, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides an “extreme” scenario of 2.5 metres sea level rise by 2100 (NOAA 2017).

• Arctic sea ice: In 2007, the IPCC reported that summer sea-ice was “projected to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century”, even as it was collapsing that year. In 2014, the IPCC had ice-free projections to 2100 for only the highest of four emissions scenarios. In reality, Arctic sea ice has already lost 70% of summer volume compared to just thirty years ago, and expectations are of sea-ice-free summer within a decade or two.

• Coral reefs: Just a decade or two ago, the general view in the literature was that the survival of coral systems would be threatened by 2°C warming. In 2009, research was published suggesting that preserving more than 10% of coral reefs worldwide would require limiting warming to below 1.5°C (Frieler et al. 2009). The coral bleaching events of the last two years at just 1–1.2°C of warming indicate that coral reefs are now sliding into global-warming-driven terminal decline. Three-quarters of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost in the last three decades, with climate change a significant cause.

Climate change is now a wicked problem. Very rapid cuts in emissions are required, but are considered unachievable within the prevailing economic orthodoxy.

The 2015 Paris climate conference declared its aim was “to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”, yet it agreed upon measures that would instead result in warming of 3–5°C (see page 5).

Warming of 2°C is now widely considered a boundary between “dangerous” and “very dangerous” climate change. Former NASA climate science director, James Hansen, says it is “well understood by the scientific community” that goals to limit human-made warming to 2°C are “prescriptions for disaster”, because “we know that the prior interglacial period about 120,000 years ago was less than 2°C warmer than pre-industrial conditions” and sea level was at least five to nine metres higher (Hansen et al. 2015; ABC 2015).

The scale of the challenge is reflected in a recent “carbon law” articulated by a group of leading scientists (Rockström et al. 2017). They demonstrated that for a 66% chance of holding warming to 2°C and a 50% chance of holding warming to 1.5°C (with overshoot), their “carbon law” requires:

• Halving of global emissions every decade from 2020 to 2050;
• Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from land use to zero by 2050; and
• Establishing carbon drawdown capacity of 5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.

Lead author Johan Rockström says: ”It’s way more than adding solar or wind… It’s rapid decarbonization, plus a revolution in food production, plus a sustainability revolution, plus a massive engineering scale-up [for carbon removal].” In other words, an emergency-scale effort.

As noted on page 21, the world has passed some disturbing climate milestones at the current level of 1°C of warming, so the goal must be the restoration of a safe climate well under that figure, if multi-metre sea-level rises are not to occur. The “carbon law” does not describe a safe-climate path. Such a path would include:

• A large scale transition to a safe-climate economy that delivers zero emissions and large-scale carbon drawdown as fast as humanly possible;
• All known safe solutions implemented at maximum scale now; and
• Critical research and development of solutions to close the gap between what is needed for effective protection and what is currently possible.

By Charles Hugh Smith: The Inevitability of DeGrowth

While there are no new ideas in this essay, I decided to post it because it is a well written primer on the intersecting issues of wealth, energy, debt, and limits to growth.


Even though we don’t know precisely how the future will unfold, we know a few things about it:

  1. Of the 7.5 billion humans on the planet, virtually every individual wants to enjoy a high-energy consumption “middle-class” lifestyle. As a generous estimate, 1.5 billion people enjoy a high-energy consumption lifestyle today; the remaining six billion are aspirants hungry for all the goodies enjoyed by the 1.5 billion—all goodies based on affordable, abundant energy.
  2. Our dependence on debt to fuel growth—more extraction of resources, more energy, more manufacturing, more consumption and more earned income to pay for all this expansion of debt and consumption—has built-in limits: debt accrues interest and principal payments, which reduce the remaining income available to spend on consumption.  Our dependence on fast-rising debt just to maintain low rates of growth eventually limits our ability to pay for more consumption/growth. When most income is devoted to servicing debt, there isn’t enough left to buy more stuff or support additional debt.
  3. The debt needed to move the growth needle is expanding at a much higher rate than the growth it generates. While growth is stagnant, debt is expanding by leaps and bounds to unprecedented levels. (Global Debt Hits A New Record High Of $217 Trillion; 327% Of GDP)
  4. Wages are stagnating for the bottom 90% of the workforce. We can quibble about the causes, but there is no plausible evidence to support a belief that this trend will magically reverse.
  5. The cost of the most valuable energy–high-density, easy to transport—will slowly but surely become more expensive as the cheap, easy-to-extract energy sources are depleted, notwithstanding the temporary boost provided by the fast-depleting wells of the fracking “miracle.”
  6. There are limits on our exploitation of resources such as fresh water and wild fisheries. Humans can print currency (money) but we can’t print fresh water, energy, wild fisheries, etc. If one unit of currency currently buys one liter of petrol, printing 10 more units of money doesn’t create 10 more liters of fuel.
  7. Creating currency out of thin air isn’t free in our system: all new currency is loaned into existence and accrues interest. As a result, all currency is a claim on future earnings. If we borrow enough from the future, and earnings remain flat or decline, eventually there’s not enough income left to support the debt service and the expanding consumption the status quo needs to keep itself glued together.