Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Foxtrot Collapse

Salvador Dali's 1957 'Dance' 

There’s always a lot of discussion on peak oil forums about whether the decline of industrial civilzation will take the form of a vertiginous descent, or whether it will be something long and grinding that will be measured in decades and centuries rather than years or months. In the fast-collapse camp are the likes of Dmitry Orlov (who bases his assessment on his experience of seeing the USSR implode) and Ugo Bardi, who expects a ‘Seneca’s Cliff’ dropoff. James Kunstler, Michael Ruppert and any number of others can probably also be added to the fast-collapse camp.

By comparison, the likes of John Michael Greer reckon we are in for a drawn-out era of terminal decline punctuated by serious crises which, at the time, will seem rather severe to all involved but which will give way to plateaux of relative stability, albeit at a lower level of energy throughput. At the end of this process we will be back to something resembling the Middle Ages, with smoking nuclear power plant dead-zones. His basis for this is a study of history, and in particular the work of writers such as Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler and Joseph Tainter, whose books emphasised the cyclical nature of all civilizations  These, they assert, can  be seen to go progress serially through stages of ebullient expansion, cultural dynamism, acquisition  entropy, overshoot, decay and eventual collapse. Our current industrial civilization, he argues, is but the latest in a long line of civilizations shuffling slowly towards the global compost bin.

But is it? Many would argue that scale matters and that today’s too-big-to-fail hyper-complex, bisophere changing civilization is such a different kettle of fish to its predecessors that when it enters the overshoot and collapse phase, as can be observed to be happening right now, the resulting calamity will be on a scale never before seen or experienced. All buildings fall down eventually, but would you rather be standing next to a fisherman’s cottage or a skyscraper when that happens?

In addition to these criticisms, some would point out that today’s global economy, aided and abetted by instant communications, is far more prone to cascading collapses, in which one strand in the web breaking leads to the whole web being destroyed. A bank collapse in China, for example, could lead to other banks seizing up and cause commerce to freeze as notes of credit go unwritten. By comparison, a mercantile trader in 15th century Venice would not have known that the bond guaranteeing his cargo was worthless for up to several months following the bankruptcy of a creditor, and trade would have carried on as normal in the interim. Inefficient communications, in this case, meant resilience.

Anyway, all the talk about fast collapse/slow collapse can seem a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. The simple facts of the matter are that we have exhausted all of the cheap energy options available to us, which is causing the global financial system - an entirely fabricated construct that can only run on blind optimism, greed and political largesse - to exist in a state of total crisis. Virtually every large economy in the world is facing up to its own pet crisis, although the scope and nature of each one is quite different. Europe is mired in unpayable debt, the US is addicted to pumping illusory ‘money’ via the Print button on the Fed’s keyboard and is just starting to realise there is no way back down the ladder, China’s gargantuan credit bubble is deflating, Japan is playing Russian roulette, and commodity producing countries such as Brazil and Australia are reeling from lowering demand from formerly insatiable importers. This is not just part of the business cycle as most talking heads assert.

It does seem quite likely that we are facing an uber Minsky Moment - that moment where investors realise their assets are vastly over-valued and stampede for the door. But where will they stampede to? The US dollar and world stock markets look like safeish havens for the time being to many, which would explain the Dow Jones’ and FTSE’s phenomenal head-scratching rises in recent weeks. Precious metals and land are being snapped up, especially by China which wants to simultaneously dump risky American assets and build a global network of agricultural land to feed its too-late-to-the-game middle class consumers (leaving ravaged ecosystems and raging mobs of dispossessed people in their wake). It’s a game where the stakes keep getting higher and higher with every passing week.

But the planet, of which our human economy is simply one small subset of, is a complex system to say the least, and complex systems are difficult to break all in one go. That’s why in my opinion collapse will not come about in a neatly linear fashion, but will be of a stop-start nature, like a badly-maintained fairground ride with a sadistic teenage operator. Of course, when I say the word ‘collapse’ I am mostly talking about the impacts it will have on the lives of we who live in the ‘West’ - most countries and people in the world have been living with collapse for centuries. Try telling a Malawian subsistence farmer that we may be in for a bumpy ride and see how he responds.

As has been noted before, global financial collapse is likely to be the first step, and that could happen overnight. Hot on its heels will be commercial collapse and a very sustained period of, shall we say, discomfort. Political collapse, as well as the rule of law, are next up on the Magical Mystery Collapse Tour, and we can only pray that we don’t get to social collapse too soon.

But all of these will take time. There will be grey areas and stages that overlap one another. Some locations will be worse off than others that might be just down the road, and some regions and countries might get lucky and find they are suddenly in a far better position than they were previously. Indeed, the whole thing will bloom like a fractal - or should I say is blooming like a fractal because we are already several years into this adventure. Individuals, communities, families, governments, militaries, religious groups and organised crime syndicates will all have their roles to play as the game changes, and only those most able to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances, or just the downright lucky, will be in a position to see the next stage of collapse.

Some stages are likely to be faster than others. The collapse of credit availability, insurance and investor confidence will be more or less instanteous once the first big domino falls, but national currencies, cooperative arrangements and various forms of trade will no doubt linger on for some time. Commerce is complex, with some supply chains being more fragile than others, so we’re likely to see the availability of most high tech items severely curtailed, while more basic items that don’t have to be shipped halfway across the globe and rely on several hundred individual suppliers, will be available for longer. Rationing will prolong the agony and the black market will step in as people get used to the idea that things are not as they used to be. 

So, for most of us I expect to see collapse happening at different rates. Sometimes they will be fast and brutal, and other times they will be slow and unnoticeable to those concerned until viewed in the rear view mirror of history. It’ll be a case of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow - which we might as well call a foxtrot collapse, after the ballroom dance with the same moves. 

I’m sure that, when all is said and done, nearly all of those in the reality-based community who regularly write about peak oil, civilizational decline and environmental crisis (with the exception of the Near Term Human Extincion folks) would agree that collapse occurrs by stages and it is merely our own standpoints which determine how direcly we are affected and when. After all, a credit meltdown could seem like Armageddon to a Hong Kong banker, but would barely even register as news to someone living a sustainable life on an island in Greece. Conversely freaky weather caused by climate change could destroy the Greek islander’s livelihood, but the banker, unaware of the natural elements outside his air-conditioned trading floor, would not even notice.

Becoming aware of the proximity of the stages of collapse should be a priority for individuals and governments alike, but for a multitude of human reasons this is not the case. Nevertheless, if you’re reading this then you’re probably also one of ‘the choir’ and are acutely aware of all the mounting problems that we face. It’s a catch 22 situation, aided and abetted by most media, which are desperately blinkered when it comes to nebulous predicamants, and keen to focus on blaming individual people for their follies. Oh, and it doesn't help shift advertising space.

So for the time being we have blogs to use as communication tools, although when they are gone one day we might be back to the days of printed mailing lists and subscriber magazines and journals. In fact, I think I’ve already come up with one ...The Entropy Times - your daily dose of doom

You heard about it here first.

By the way - this is my 100th post. I can't believe I have actually got this far with this blog, and further can't believe that there are some 10,000 page views a month (although probably at least half are robots/government spies/friends checking that I am still batty). I'm thinking about actually trying to earn a few pennies from my endeavours and writing a book, making it available to buy from this site. It already has a working title - Mind the Vortex - How to Survive the 21st Century - but I'd be interested to hear if anyone thinks this is a good idea or a bad one. With all the work I am doing over at Fox Wood (this week I dug a humungous hole by hand and cleared half an acre of brambles with a sickle) I could do with a project that doesn't involve getting covered in mud and coming home with bleeding forearms and blistered hands. 

Thanks for reading 22 Billion Energy Slaves!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Up the Amazon on a Camel

Amazon rainforest cleared for soy production 

One unintended consequence of GMO and monoculture crops is the desertification of some of the most bio-intense regions on Earth. This guest post by Ray Neary explains more.

I don't normally do guest posts, but Ray and I go back a long way and went to school together and rode the rails around Europe as teenagers. These days Ray practices permaculture in the French Pyrenees and writes about GMO. See Monsanto Roundup Resistance for more info.


Camel riding isn't what you'd describe as a typical Amazonian tourist activity, but it might be a lot closer to becoming a reality than you imagine. We might not yet be surfing down the dunes of the Amazon basin, but the days of canoe trips up endless rivers through dense jungle are well and truly numbered. The only things that are endless in some parts of Brazil now are the soya plantations, and with three harvests a year they are very thirsty. Not only is the water disappearing as fast as the trees vanished, but the soil is too, now that there is nothing left to protect it.

On average for every kilo of food produced by the globalised food chain we have lost six kilos of soil. A kilo of cooked ham from a pig fed GM soya from Brazil has used 3,500 litres of water. Of course the majority of that production is bound for Europe and North America. Even though the majority of the charge falls on the food giants like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, ADM and Cargill, we also have a part of the responsibility for having allowed (and sponsored with our taxes) the globalisation of the food chain; we also have the responsibility to change things.

So while the world will be celebrating the feast of football that the World Cup in Brazil promises, we have to face the reality that if we continue as we are one day soon the only green things left in Brazil will be the football pitches. In some parts of Brazil fetching water has become the principal time consuming activity, just like in certain better known desertified regions including East Africa. Now there is also a growing problem of migration towards the slums of Sao Paulo as subsistence farmers are forced off their land.

It's a phenomenon unknown to many, yet it threatens almost half of the world's remaining land, and most of the worlds farmland. We've already almost turned half the world to desert - the barren Middle East was once called the 'fertile crescent'. It's called desertification and is incontestably the prevailing sign that our modern farming techniques are far from sustainable. If left unchecked its effects are disastrous. In Brazil we are witnessing the desertification of an area the equivalent in size to the surface of France and Germany combined, and purely due to deforestation, slash and burn destructive agricultural techniques and excessive ploughing. Sometimes in Brazil it takes as little as five years to transform woodland into desert.

This is not just happening to Brazil, it's happening to all the forests and farmlands of the world, even places considered traditionally to have green fertile farmland such as France are showing alarming signs of desertification. It doesn't have to be that way. Studies show that we are capable of feeding the world for future generations organically, without cutting down any more trees and even letting some grow back. 
In some areas of Brazil the desertification is being fought by using low-cost and ancient techniques, including constructing swales for water retention, and planting trees.

By doing this we might hope to save some rainforest - but that's not all we'd achieve, in doing so we'd reduce pollution, create humus that fixes carbon, increase the world's forests' potential to balance our carbon emissions, create jobs, provide healthier food, save energy and reduce emissions, have cleaner water (or still actually have some water), really start fighting hunger, improve living conditions for billions of people, reduce developing countries' dependence on providing cheap labour and resources or being forced into debt - indeed, what is there not to like, unless you are a corporation?

There have been many successful projects where desertification has been reversed. These are grass roots projects that have not involved the global giants of agribusiness; from South America to Africa, and China to the Middle East successful projects have been shown to work. Sustainable and regenerative projects, using principles like permaculture, are working with and improving not only the fertility and therefore the local ecology and biodiversity, but also living standards and animal welfare. 

Producing food locally with less energy limits waste, ends the speculation on food prices and limits the indexation of food prices with commodities such as oil - all of which lead to the instability of world food prices and elevated insecurity for poor communities and the tensions that creates. This is a distinct reality and we could be re-greening deserts the world over instead of creating them.

We don't need GMOs, we don't need intensive mono crops, we don't need to deforest the planet to feed the world, we just need better management, or even simply less “management”. Individually we can start making a difference today by thinking about what we eat and its consequences, and by getting more informed about where your food is coming from. If possible grow your own food (and teach the kids to as well) either in your back garden or by joining or starting a local community garden or free food initiative like Incredible Edible. When you buy food get organic and local or Fair Trade for imported goods. Boycott GMO, non-sustainable farming products, prepared food and the globalised food chain - your lives and those of many others depend on it.

by Ray Neary for Roundup Resistance