Party-on or Not?

When a person learns that over-population, over-consumption, and resource depletion are leading to collapse of civilization and extinction of many species, what should they do?

One response is to work hard to maximize income and to invest as much as possible to increase the probability of a comfortable life after the collapse.

Another response is to voluntarily reduce income and consumption and to have fewer or no children.

The problem with the latter response is similar to why efficiency alone cannot solve our energy or climate problems. If total consumption is to be reduced through frugality and/or efficiency then there must be a mechanism to prevent the newly freed resources from being consumed by someone else.

No such mechanism exists today.

In today’s global world if I choose not to consume a liter of gasoline it almost certainly will be consumed by someone else.

Despite this pessimistic view of the impact an individual can make, I have concluded that frugality is still the correct strategy.

It is probable that much wealth will be lost in the coming collapse as paper claims (money and investments) on future wealth vaporize. Any wealth that escapes the initial deflation will be threatened by the inflation that is likely to follow and/or governments in desperate need of taxes and/or angry mobs.

By voluntarily reducing consumption one builds material resiliency to coming shocks because less is needed to maintain your lifestyle, and builds emotional resiliency because less pain is associated with voluntarily doing something than being forced to do the same thing.

A modest lifestyle also sets a good example for family and friends. If enough people admire and emulate your actions then a meaningful positive impact might emerge.

You might also sleep better knowing that you did what you could.

What to Expect as We Collapse

What are we likely to experience as we collapse?

  • unemployment will rise
  • incomes will fall
  • interest rates will rise
  • stock and bond prices will fall
  • real estate prices will fall
  • credit availability will decline
  • trade will decline and may become sporadic due to credit system problems
  • fewer imported goods will be available — think about how few durable items are manufactured in Canada
  • food prices will increase due to less availability of imported food and consequent higher demand for local food
  • large-scale industrial food production may be disrupted due to rising interest rates and supply chain problems however governments will probably make it a priority to keep big agriculture going
  • energy prices and consumption will fall as fewer consumers are able to afford it
  • the upper bound on energy flow rates will decline because lower prices will not support expensive extraction like tar sands and fracking
  • total economic activity will shrink in parallel with declining energy consumption
  • air travel will decline or stop for all but the rich
  • many cars will be abandoned as operating costs becomes unaffordable and resale value approaches zero
  • roads and infrastructure will fall into disrepair
  • electricity may become intermittent in some regions
  • social unrest and crime will increase
  • tax rates will increase, tax revenues will decline, demand for social programs will increase, and governments will be forced to choose between more social unrest now due to deflation, or more social unrest in the future due to inflation — most will chose inflation
  • the severity of the pressure on governments will result in collapse or hyper-inflation for some countries, especially those will no indigenous energy or goods to trade for energy
  • war between countries competing for scarce resources and/or seeking scapegoats is probable
  • everyone will experience hardship but farmers without debt will probably do best

The collapse will likely occur in steps and will continue for about 100 years until all affordable fossil fuels have been extracted at which point civilization will resemble medieval life, assuming we have not gone extinct through famine, disease, or wars.

Layered on top of this economic and social chaos will be a rapidly changing and violent climate that will disrupt food production and cause economic damage. We can expect a warming impulse with unknown but likely negative consequences when aerosol particulates drop with declining industrial activity and air travel.

The Universe and Its Purpose

I have read many books on astronomy and physics. Here are a few of the important ideas that stuck with me:

  • We have deduced mathematical laws of physics that accurately describe and predict the universe’s behavior.
  • Some of the laws of physics, such as quantum mechanics, are very strange but they work remarkably well.
  • The universe began about 13.8 billion years ago as a big bang of extremely dense energy.
  • A few constants define how the universe evolved after the big bang. It seems these constants could have been different resulting in a completely different universe. We do not know why they are the way they are.
  • We do not and probably never will know what existed before the big bang, nor whether our universe is unique or one of many, nor whether our universe is infinite or finite.
  • As the big bang expanded and cooled some of the energy converted into light gases.
  • These gases formed clouds which collapsed under gravity to form stars.
  • As these stars aged some exploded and created heavier elements like carbon and other materials necessary for life.
  • Some of these heavier elements collapsed into new stars and planets including our sun and earth about 4.5 billion years ago. All life is thus amazingly composed of exploded star-dust.
  • There are a mind-boggling 300 sextillion (3×1023) stars in the universe and probably more planets.
  • Shortly after our earth formed it was randomly struck by a mars sized body which created our moon.
  • The moon helped to create an environment hospitable for life by stabilizing earth’s rotation and creating tides.
  • Our sun will use up its fuel and consume the earth in about 6 billion years.
  • The universe’s expansion is accelerating and we do not know what the “dark energy” is that is causing this.
  • We calculate more gravity than should exist for the mass we observe and we do not know what this “dark matter” is.
  • 95% of the universe is dark energy and dark matter (the stuff we do not yet understand).
  • The universe began as high quality dense energy and most scientists think it will end in about 100 trillion years as low quality diffuse energy – cold, black, and without life.

The amount we understand about the universe is quite remarkable and is something to be genuinely proud of as a member of the human species.

We have found no need for a god to explain anything in the universe, unless we want to assign a reason for the laws of physics being the way they are, in which case such a god would have no resemblance to any of the gods worshiped by our many religions.

I find it enlightening to contemplate the purpose or objective of the universe.

Since the universe started as high quality dense energy and its destination is low quality diffuse energy it is reasonable to state that the objective of the universe is to degrade energy.

Structures and mechanisms which degrade energy can and will form provided they are consistent with the laws of physics. Those structures and mechanisms which degrade energy the most effectively are the most likely to exist.

Another way to think about this is that wherever an energy gradient exists, things (work) can happen, and given enough time they will happen, provided the laws of physics permit it.

This is important because life is an excellent mechanism for degrading energy. Life is thus probable everywhere in the universe that has conditions that permit it to exist.

Humans are the Earth’s most effective species at degrading energy. We dominate the planet because of this talent, and although in the process we are causing the extinction of many other species and probably causing our own collapse, it is interesting to observe that humans are doing what the universe wants. That is, burning all of the fossil energy as quickly as possible to convert it into low quality waste heat thus helping the universe to arrive at its destination as quickly as possible.

If humans had not learned to exploit fossil energy then some other species would probably have evolved to exploit this energy gradient.

It is probable that intelligent life has evolved many (but not too many) times in the universe but always collapses shortly after it learns how to exploit fossil energy. This may explain why we have not heard from any other intelligent life despite years of listening.

This interactive tool titled The Scale of the Universe 2 by Cary Huang is excellent for helping to visualize our place in the universe:

Or if you prefer to watch it as a video:

My Approach to Writing on the Economy

The economy is a very popular topic. Everyone wants more money. Everyone has a strong opinion. Lots of intriguing and murky stuff goes on. Many bloggers make a living from analyzing, predicting, muckraking, and titillating.

Many different sites cater to different perspectives. Do you want to blame the fed, or the rich, or the slackers, or the foreigners, or the right-wing, or the left-wing? Take your pick, you can find a big community of like-minded people to froth with.

What’s really hard to find is a deep unbiased understanding of what’s actually going on.

It’s there if you dig, but it’s hard work.

There’s little I can say about the economy that’s not already been said. So I will be brief and stick to the important things to know, and things I do not often see elsewhere.

Cognitive Dissonance Everywhere

Had lunch today with a successful small-scale farmer specializing in producing healthy meat.

He seemed oblivious to problems we face. He said peak oil had been proven wrong and that the new fracking technologies were going to make the US an energy exporter. He seemed an intelligent person, yet believed strongly in something for which he had no supporting data and chose not to ask me any questions about why I held a different view.

Nate Hagens was right. The data have proven peak oil a reality yet the public still views peak oil with hostile distaste and willful ignorance. I think Varki’s theory explains the willful ignorance.

I would estimate the number of people who understand what is going on is less than 1 in 10,000. What will happen when the economy collapses? Almost everyone will be surprised and unprepared.  The chorus will be “no one saw this coming”.

By David Collum: 2013 Year in Review

Once a year David Collum writes a summary of the previous year with a focus on the economy and investing. I think it is the best big picture economic summary available anywhere.

It’s a long read but well worth your time.

Also available on zerohedge if you like to read lots of diverse comments from highly opinionated readers:

By Nate Hagens: Navigating through a Room full of Elephants

Many people understand pieces of our predicament. Very few understand all of the pieces.

Nate Hagens has the best big picture understanding of anyone I know.

Nate has a new blog called The Monkey Trap that he set up after the The Oil Drum closed down.

Over the years I have collected a large library of books, articles, and video. If I had to chose only one item that best explains what is going on, this talk by Nate Hagens would be it.


And here is a different version of the same talk targeted at a younger audience with less background knowledge.