By Ronald Wright: A Short History of Progress Revisited

Ronald Wright - A Short History of Progress

Ronald Wright presented his book “A Short History of Progress” in 2004 via the Massey Lectures that were broadcast by CBC Radio.

It’s my all time favorite lecture series and I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times. You can listen to it here.

Last month Wright launched the 15th anniversary edition of his book and was interviewed by CBC Radio which you can listen to here.

“I almost don’t want to say what I really think.”

Wright also wrote an essay last month updating our “progress” in the 15 years since his book was published.

Wright’s understanding of the gravity and historical precedents of our predicament is excellent. What to do about it, not so much, as he is an archeologist and not an engineer or physicist. Nevertheless, Wright is a brilliant writer with a superb command of history.

https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/09/20/Ronald-Wright-Can-We-Dodge-Progress-Trap/

h/t Apneaman

Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?

In the 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, I wrote about the fall of past civilizations and what we might learn from them to avoid a similar fate. Societies that failed were seduced and undone by what I called a progress trap: a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it’s too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.

The first trap was hunting, the main way of life for about two million years in Palaeolithic times. As Stone Age people perfected the art of hunting, they began to kill the game more quickly than it could breed. They lived high for a while, then starved.

Most survivors of that progress trap became farmers — a largely unconscious revolution during which all the staple foods we eat today were developed from wild roots and seeds (yes, all: no new staples have been produced from scratch since prehistoric times). Farming brought dense human populations and centralized control, the defining ingredients of full-blown civilization for the last five thousand years. Yet there were still many traps along the way. In what is now Iraq, the Sumerian civilization (one of the world’s first) withered and died as the irrigation systems it invented turned the fields into salty desert. Some two thousand years later, in the Mediterranean basin, chronic soil erosion steadily undermined the Classical World: first the Greeks, then the Romans at the height of their power. And a few centuries after Rome’s fall, the Classic Maya, one of only two high civilizations to thrive in tropical rainforest (the other being the Khmer), eventually wore out nature’s welcome at the heart of Central America.

In the deep past these setbacks were local. The overall experiment of civilization kept going, often by moving from an exhausted ecology to one with untapped potential. Human numbers were still quite small. At the height of the Roman Empire there are thought to have been only 200 million people on Earth. Compare that with the height of the British Empire a century ago, when there were two billion. And with today, when there are nearly eight. Clearly, things have moved very quickly since the Industrial Revolution took hold around the world. In A Short History of Progress, I suggested that worldwide civilization was our greatest experiment; and I asked whether this might also prove to be the greatest progress trap. That was 15 years ago.

What has happened — and not happened — since then to alarm or reassure us?

First, our numbers have risen by 1.4 billion, nearly a hundred million per year. In other words, we’ve added another China or 40 more Canadas to the world. The growth rate has fallen slightly, but consumption of resources — from fossil fuel to water, from rare earths to good earth — has risen twice as steeply, roughly doubling our impact on nature. This outrunning of population by economic growth has lifted perhaps a billion of the poorest into the outskirts of the working class, mainly in China and India. Yet those in extreme poverty and hunger still number at least a billion.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest billion — to which most North Americans and Europeans and many Asians now belong — devour an ever-growing share of natural capital. The commanding heights of this group, the billionaires’ club, has more than 2,200 members with a combined known worth nearing $10 trillion; this super-elite not only consumes at a rate never seen before but also deploys its wealth to influence government policy, media content, and key elections. Such, in a few words, is the shape of the human pyramid today.

The 2008 crash triggered by banking fraud was staved off by money-printing and record debt. This primed a short-run recovery, which has in turn revived illusions we can borrow from nature and the future indefinitely — illusions fed by corporate think-tanks, irresponsible politicians, and Panglossian cherrypickers such as Steven Pinker. But what about the long run? In 1923 the great economist John Maynard Keynes famously answered, “In the long run we are all dead.” By that he meant, let’s deal with the problems we see now and leave the unforeseeable to those who come later. Fair enough in the 1920s, when there was only one person on Earth for every four today and the future seemed to have room for endless outcomes, good or bad. Nearly a century later, Keynes’s quip sounds more like dire prophecy, as short-term thinking lures us ever deeper into very difficult problems that science can not only observe but foresee. Predicted consequences of global warming — blighted coral reefs, melting glaciers, spreading deserts, and extreme weather — are already upon us.

One of the sad ironies of our time is that we have become very good at studying nature just as it begins to sicken and die under our weight. “Weight” is no mere metaphor: of all land mammals and birds alive today, humans and their livestock make up 96 per cent of the biomass; wildlife has dwindled to four per cent. This has no precedent. Not so far back in history the proportions were the other way round. As recently as 1970, humans were only half and wildlife more than twice their present numbers. These closely linked figures are milestones along our rush towards a trashed and looted planet, stripped of diversity, wildness, and resilience; strewn with waste. Such is the measure of our success.

The archaeologists who dig us up will need to wear hazmat suits. Humankind will leave a telltale layer in the fossil record composed of everything we produce, from mounds of chicken bones, wet-wipes, tires, mattresses and other household waste, to metals, concrete, plastics, industrial chemicals, and the nuclear residue of power plants and weaponry. We are cheating our children, handing them tawdry luxuries and addictive gadgets while we take away what’s left of the wealth, wonder, and possibility of the pristine Earth.

Calculations of humanity’s footprint suggest we have been in “ecological deficit,” taking more than Earth’s biological systems can withstand, for at least 30 years. Topsoil is being lost far faster than nature can replenish it; 30 per cent of arable land has been exhausted since the mid-20th century.

We have financed this monstrous debt by colonizing both past and future, drawing energy, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides from the planet’s fossil carbon, and throwing the consequences onto coming generations of our species and all others. Some of those species have already been bankrupted: they are extinct.

Others will follow. Whether we are triggering an extinction as severe as that which killed the dinosaurs, when three-quarters of all species were wiped out, is still to be seen. By the time the answer is clear, there could be nobody left to know it. The lesson of fallen societies is that civilization is a vulnerable organism, especially when it seems almighty. We are the world’s top predator, and predators crash suddenly when they outgrow their prey. If the resulting chaos unleashes nuclear war, it could bring mass extinction in a heartbeat, with Homo sapiens among the noted dead.

Awareness of our predicament is spreading, if slowly and with mixed results. The warnings of science are growing more urgent and precise, gaining wider attention and sparking grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the schoolchildren’s strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. People are beginning to see the world dying before their eyes. The dwindling of birdlife in their gardens and bugs on their windshields backs up the scientists’ alarm that falling insect numbers threaten a “catastrophic collapse” of natural systems.

Effective reform will take political will at world level. Yet the very idea of international cooperation is under attack — just when it is needed most. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its October 2018 report, keeping global warming below 1.5 C “is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics” but will require “unprecedented changes” before 2030.

Conservation and environmentalism have had some success, a few species have been pulled back from the brink, a few Green politicians have been elected, a few promising fixes (renewable energy, electric cars, etc.) are being developed. Yet at this writing, the momentum of extraction, consumption, and destruction is still gathering speed, driven by the delusion of endless growth, and the willingness of corporations to set financial profit above life itself. Even if fossil energy were replaced at once by clean sources, our other problems — overpopulation, overconsumption, erosion, deforestation, and accumulating waste — would still persist.

The failure of democratic governments to stand up for the greater good over the long run is fuelling disillusionment with democracy itself. There is something badly wrong with an economic regime in which 26 individuals own as much as half the world’s population. Such extreme disparity has never been seen before. Inequality is the main driver behind rising population and consumption. The highest birthrates are in the poorest places, mainly Africa and the Indian subcontinent. At the other end of the seesaw, obscene wealth — the kind which owns mansions around the world and gigantic yachts with helicopter pads — has a colossal footprint, while its undue influence amounts to a dark tyranny.

Back in Classical Greece, Plato suggested that in a just society there should be no more than a 5:1 spread in income between richest and poorest. That was a hard sell then, and still would be. But what might be reasonable today? Where should the balance be struck to help the weakest while still rewarding effort and achievement? Given the seriousness of what we face, this is a conversation we must have. The wealth already wrenched from nature might just be enough to buy us a lasting future if it were shared, managed, and ploughed into solutions.

Of one thing we can be sure: if we fail to act, nature will do so with the rough justice she has always served on those who are too many and who take too much.

 

Ronald Wright Quote (Studious Fox)

By Tim Watkins: What Extinction Rebellion is Getting Wrong

It's Not Denial

Tim Watkins, with some help from Chris Martenson, is very good today.

I observe that people fighting for our species to acknowledge its predicament, like Extinction Rebellion, are as much in denial as the people they oppose.

In his last section, Watkins suggests that the environmental movement has a choice to make between two paths. This implies that they understand what is going on. Here I disagree. I think genetic reality denial blocks almost everyone, including environmentalists, from understanding what is going on, as Varki’s MORT theory predicts.

An an aside, there is a Canadian federal election in a few days. I read the platforms of all the parties. Not one has a clue what is going on. I refuse to vote for idiots in denial.

http://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2019/10/16/what-extinction-rebellion-is-getting-wrong/

Firstly, there is no net zero because humans have failed to figure out a viable means of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide for the several centuries that would be required after we ceased burning fossil fuels to restore the climate to something akin to conditions today.  At this point, no doubt, some readers will object that trees and soils are natural carbon sinks; and so we might plant more trees and restore more soils.  The question, however, is which trees and soils, and to what end?  Few trees live beyond a century (especially when some idiot comes along and harvests them to use as “green” biofuel).  And when a tree dies and falls to the floor, it dumps all of the carbon back into the atmosphere.  Similar problems affect attempts at soil restoration since any further use will unlock the carbon stored there.

There is, you will be pleased to know, one natural process that can sequester and lock up all of the carbon that we have dumped into the atmosphere in the course of the last three centuries.  It involves a warmer and wetter climate washing nutrients off the land and out to sea; where plankton and algae blooms can flourish and multiply; giving off noxious hydrogen sulphide – which causes “red tide events” – as a by-product.  As these microscopic plants die, they sink to the ocean floor where, along with the carcasses of any marine creature that happened into the oxygen-starved red waters beneath the surface, they gradually decompose into a glutinous mud.  Over time, layers and layers of this hydrocarbon-rich mud will pile up.  And over centuries it will be subsumed beneath the Earth’s crust, where it will be heated and compressed beneath an impervious layer of rock that prevents it from leaking to the surface.  With the carbon sequestered in this way, over millions of years the climate will cool once more.

My more alert readers will be aware that the process that I just described is the one in which the fossil fuels that we have been burning for the past 300 years were created in the first place.  As far as I am aware, it is the only process currently known that can lock up large volumes of carbon dioxide for the geological time period required to repair the damage that we have already done.

 

There is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already to raise the temperature above 3 degrees over pre-industrial levels; so that even if we ceased burning fossil fuels today, it is highly unlikely that the global economy and a population approaching 8 billion can survive the devastation.  Indeed, those at the more pessimistic end of the spectrum argue that we will be lucky if there are any humans at all on Earth by 2030.  But even knowing that the current debate is between those who think things are about to get very, very bad and those who think they are about to become fatal will not be enough to prevent humanity from continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The reason is simple, the only way in which we can support a global population that is at least eight times the sustainable level; is to use fossil-powered industrial agriculture on a global scale.  And while switching the diet to lower the volume of cow belches will make an insignificant difference, the fact remains that fossil-powered global plant farming is still a major source of greenhouse gases.  Nor do we dare dispense with the fossil-powered global supply chains that have saved the largest part of humanity from the kind of famines that were commonplace just a few decades ago.  Growing excess food in favourable regions and transporting it to less favourable ones has always been the means by which humans combatted famine.  The only difference today is that we do it on a global scale; meaning that disruption in any one supply chain can rapidly undermine the entire system.

 

At this point, of course, the techo-utopian journalists, politicians and protestors will complain that I am ignoring renewable energy and the fourth industrial revolution.  Once again, the reason for this objection is largely a product of an education system that is not fit for purpose.  In a recent article on the Peak Prosperity website, scientist Chris Martenson refers to the sheer scale of the task that would be involved just in substituting (i.e. ignoring all of the technical engineering challenges involved) the quantity of energy we get from fossil fuels with renewable energy:

“Suppose we agree on the goal to entirely replace fossil fuel energy by 2050.  (We’re going to have to do it by some point, because oil, coal and natural gas are all depleting finite resources.)

“With 2050 as a starting point we can run some simple math.

“We start by converting the three main fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – into a common unit: the “millions of tons of oil equivalent” or Mtoe.

“A million tons of oil = 1 Mtoe, obviously.  And there’s an amount of coal, if burned that has the same energy as 1 Mtoe.  Ditto for natural gas.  If we add up all of the fossil fuels burned in a given year, then we can express that as a single number in the many thousands of Mtoe.

“Roger Pilke has run the math for us in his recent article in Forbes:

‘In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 Mtoe in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 Mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019’…

“So, what would it take to replace those 12,000 Mtoe with alternative fuels by 2050?

“Pilke answers that for us:

Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050.

To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of >1 Mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 Mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years…

“But that’s only half of the story.

“We’d also have to decommission and retire an equivalent 1 Mtoe amount of still-functioning fossil fuel property, plant and equipment.  Do you have any idea how much money and embedded capital is contained in all the world’s current energy infrastructure — including our cars and homes —  that’s built around fossil fuel use?

“Somehow, the world would have to replace the equivalent of the energy contained within 2.4 Ultra Massive crude ships.  Every. Single. Day.  For 11,000 days straight, without missing a single day.  A 7,000 mile long cargo train of ultra massive ships retired at the rate of 2.4 per day for the next 30 years…

“What would that take?  Again from Pilke:

So the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 [brand new] nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a nuclear plant’s worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.”

It has taken a Herculean effort in the developed western states just to deploy a relatively small number of wind turbines and solar panels into our electricity generation mix.  The idea that we are going to replace the far larger fossil fuel consumption in transport, building temperature control, industry and agriculture is no more than magic thinking.

 

This is where the charge of hypocrisy that is often levelled against Extinction Rebellion hits home.  It is doubtful that more than a handful of the protestors is prepared to make even a fraction of the lifestyle changes that would be involved just to lower the rate at which we are dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Certainly some will be prepared to give up flying, stop eating meat, use a refillable water bottles and put on an extra layer rather than turn the heating up.  Mobile phones are a different matter – even though the data centres on which they depend are among the most polluting buildings on Earth.  Few, one suspects, will be prepared to take the radical actions such as giving up the right to have children in favour of the birth licensing system that a rapid shift to a zero-carbon economy implies.

 

In the end, Extinction Rebellion is facing the same dilemma that has plagued the environmental movement from the start:

  • Should it spell out the enormous effort and sacrifice involved in changing course – and thereby risk alienating the majority of those who need to be won over? Or;
  • Should it pretend – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that a few windmills and solar panels will allow us to continue growing our planet-destroying economy without even pausing to draw a breath.

My fear is that – like the various green parties around the world – this latest manifestation of environmentalism will take the second option so as not to scare the horses.  And if those at the gloomier end of the spectrum are correct and that we only have 10 years left, this may not be such a bad thing; after all, they say that dying in your sleep is far preferable than consciously looking death in the face.  Either way, one can count on one hand the number of protest movements that have achieved the change they wanted to bring about.  The enormity of the predicament does not change this fact.  The sad reality is that we are all prisoners of the very system that is killing us; dependent upon it for the food, water, clothing and shelter that sustain us even as it destroys the habitat we depend upon.  We could end it tomorrow if only the majority of us chose to stop playing the game; but the sacrifice is too great… and few of us are prepared to take the hit while others continue to get a free pass.

And so, while I salute those who have taken to the streets this month (my son is among them and I am proud that he is standing up for what he believes in) I would also caution them that the changes that are coming are not the ones they want; still less the ones the leaders of their movement are pretending they can have.  Our current civilisation can be compared to the last moments of the Titanic – holed below the waterline and destined to sink into a watery grave.  Most of those who are protesting are merely akin to the frightened passengers begging a Captain and crew to respond to a situation that they have already lost control of.  The sensible few among the protestors will look to those who are assembling the lifeboats.  But the majority – whether they believe the emergency is real or not – will soon meet their tragic end.  And protesting icebergs and reckless Captains will do nothing to save them – or us – now!

On Boneheads

You Bonehead

Yesterday, the leader of the world’s largest and strongest economy called his central banker a “bonehead” for not lowering interest rates below zero.

Today, the European Central bank (ECB), which according to Trump is not led by a bonehead, reduced interest rates and increased money printing:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-12/ecb-cuts-rates-restarts-qe-to-fight-slowdown-as-draghi-era-ends?srnd=markets-vp

The ECB reduced the deposit rate to minus 0.5% from minus 0.4%, and said it’ll buy debt from Nov. 1 at a pace of 20 billion euros ($22 billion) a month for as long as necessary to hit its inflation goal.

Trump and the ECB correctly understand that lower interest rates are required to stimulate growth, and yet rates are already near zero, which suggests real growth is no longer possible.

A non-bonehead would seek to understand the underlying reason growth is constrained. They might begin by reading today’s essay by Gail Tverberg in which she makes 11 important points:

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2019/09/12/our-energy-and-debt-predicament-in-2019/

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices that are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

[2] The general trend in oil prices has been down since 2008. In fact, a similar trend applies for many other fuels.

[3] The situation of prices being too low for many types of energy producers simultaneously is precisely the problem I found back in December 2008 when I wrote the article Impact of the Credit Crisis on the Energy Industry – Where Are We Now?

[4] In the right circumstances, a rapidly growing supply of cheap energy products can help the world economy grow.

[5] It is striking that the period of rapid energy consumption growth between World War II and 1980 corresponds closely to the long-term rise in US interest rates between the 1940s and 1980 (Figure 6).

[6] Starting about 1980, the US economy began substituting rapidly growing debt for rapidly growing energy supplies. For a while, this substitution seemed to pull the economy forward. Now growth in debt is failing as well.

[7] Since 2001, world economic growth has been pulled forward by China with its growing coal supply and its growing debt. In the future, this stimulus seems likely to disappear.

[8] The world economy needs much more rapidly growing debt if energy prices are to rise to a level that is acceptable to energy producers.

[9] The world economy seems to be running out of truly productive uses for debt. There are investments available, but the rate of return is very low. The lack of investments with adequate return is a significant part of what is preventing the economy from being able to support higher interest rates.

[10] Since 1981, regulators have been able to prop up the economy by reducing interest rates whenever economic growth was faltering. Now we have pretty much run out of this built-in source stimulus.

[11] The total return of the economy seems to be too low now. This seems to be why we have problems of many types, ranging from (a) low interest rates to (b) low profitability for energy producers to (c) too much wage disparity.

Having now learned that economic growth is constrained by the depletion of low cost non-renewable fossil energy, a non-bonehead would then focus on renewable energy to determine what is or is not physically possible, and the implications of trying to substitute fossil with solar and wind energy.

They might begin with this week’s essay by Tim Watkins and would quickly learn that the environmental costs of “green” energy are very high, that “renewable” energy is totally dependent on non-renewable fossil energy, and in any case only produces electricity which does not address the other 80% of fossil energy we depend on.

http://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2019/09/09/facing-our-inconvenient-truths/

Having now attained an understanding that there is no possible way to resume economic growth, a non-bonehead would then ask what’s the consequence of attempting to force growth with printed money and negative interest rates? A quick review of history would show there is no free lunch and that monetary shenanigans ultimately destroy currencies which leads to wars and revolutions.

Finally, a non-bonehead would integrate all of the above with an understanding of the ongoing collapse of our planetary ecosystem, including the loss of a climate compatible with civilization. They might begin with this week’s interview with Phillise Todd, who has a good grasp of the big picture, despite her occasional and understandable (as explained by Varki’s MORT theory) lapses into denial.

 

Understanding now the intractable nature of our predicament, and comparing reality with what our culture believes, a non-bonehead would conclude they are a genetic mutant and that most of our species are boneheads.

When challenged with the criticism that all they do is discuss problems without offering solutions, a non-bonehead would respond with a clear plan:

What would a wise society do?

And the boneheads would ignore it.

By Nate Hagens: Reality 101 Short Courses

 

Reality Check Ahead

Today Nate Hagens released a new series of short courses on the human predicament created for the University of Minnesota NEXUS ONE freshman program.

More information on Nate’s educational initiatives can be found at the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future (ISEOF).

You can also find another excellent Reality 101 course by Nate here.

 

Reality 101 Short Course #1: Metacognition in the Anthropocene

 

Reality 101 Short Course #2: The Fossils that Power the Global Economy

 

Reality 101 Short Course #3: The Real Stock Market

 

Reality 101 Short Course #4: Finding Resilience in an Age of Turbulence