Archive for the ‘The Plan’ Category

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?

Monday, March 17th, 2014

“With the enemy’s approach to Moscow, the Moscovites’ view of their situation did not grow more serious but on the contrary became even more frivolous, as always happens with people who see a great danger approaching.

At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant.”

– Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

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Natural and social scientists develop new model of how ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global system

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:

“…. appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”

Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that “with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites.”

In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”

Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:

“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth:

“Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business – and consumers – to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.

Although the study is largely theoretical, a number of other more empirically-focused studies – by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance – have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.

– To the original article:  ➡


Paris notes: 5 August 2013

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I have to say that sometimes the news brings me down so badly.

I’ve been thinking about and advocating the idea that until humanity decides that its highest priority is to maximize the quality of life for all, we will inevitably fall victim to the default alternative which is that every individual’s highest priority is to look out for themselves.

And, by themselves, I mean both individual people and corporations.

Today, I read the August 5th copy of the International Herald Tribune and there was this:

In need of a new hip, but priced out of the U.S.” – A man went to Belgium and had his hip replaced for $13,600 USD. You’ll have to read the article to see how much it would have cost him in the U.S., and why.

I warn you, it’s going to be all about profits over the welfare of people.

And then this:

Nuclear scandal snowballs in S. Korea” – A story about how many of the tests and inspections that were intended to ensure the safety of S. Korean nuclear plants has been discovered to have been faked by the testing companies and the nuclear plant designers.

I warn you, it’s going to be all about profits over the welfare of people.

And then this:

As cost of importing food soars, Jamaica turns to the earth” – a little story about how the Jamaican government is now strongly advising people to begin to grow their own food.

I wonder if any of you saw the documentary entitled, ‘Life and Debt’ 10 or 15 years ago? It was about Jamaica, Mon.

It was about the arrival of “Globalization’ and how the low price of imported grain had driven most of the small farmers off their land and into the cities since they could not complete with the price of the grain being dumped into their market.

But, at the time it was explained, ‘Globalization’ was all for the good of all of us long-term.

Now that the Jamaicans don’t grow much food, it’s the time to hike the prices and squeeze them. And so the circle turns.

I warn you, it’s going to be all about profits over the welfare of people.

And that was just one issue of the paper on an apparently normal day.

And then when I tell people that the corporations, looking out for their own best interests, are steadily taking over governments and their regulatory processes – and I see that they think I’m peddling conspiracy theories to them, I’m stunned.

It’s as if I’m watching a line of cows entering the slaughter house and I’m warning them about where they’re going and they all laugh; sure that they are off to a Caribbean vacation.

I haven’t posted much here for awhile since I’ve been traveling.  But, not much need.   Nothing’s changed.


Should we care about the human future?

Friday, April 20th, 2012

– I generally like Curt Cobb’s writings.   Here’ he’s discussing possible human futures including the one I’ve advocated in The Plan.

– But, he says, it might not be worth doing because at some time in the future, they might change their minds and throw all our good works aside.

– In the end, he decides that our best option might be to seek to live in a sustainable fashion today because that leads to happier lives and that we give up “the inherently impossible task of seeking to assure human continuity indefinitely into the future“.

– Interesting but I think it ignores that many of us now already understand the inherent virtues of living sustainable.  

– But many of our kind also see the world as their playground within which to accumulate money and power and they have no notion of sustainability that extends past the end of their lives unless it is to leave a pile of money and priveledge (gathered at the expense of the rest of us) to their progeny.

– No, I think Cobb’s naive here.  Some of us ‘doing good’ now, even if it makes us feel personally good, isn’t going to assure future generations of a sustainable world.  

– And I don’t buy his argument that there’s little point in leaving future generations a sustainable world.  

– One doesn’t give gifts or do the right thing because of quid-pro-quo considerations.  Some things are inherently right in and of themselves and what others do or don’t do down the line will be their business (and their karma).   We can only do the best we are capable of now and leave to future generations the clearest understandings we can of human nature and its inherent limitations and then the ball’s in their court.

– On the other hand, if we do not act, the possibility of a sustainable world will never fall within their grasp and we, these generations living now, will have deprived future generations from having a sustainable world to save.

– Here’s his article.   I’ve marked in red the sections I find of particular interest.

– Dennis

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In virtually every institution in human society, we humans concern ourselves with the continuation of the species. We have children, we raise them in some sort of family, we educate them for the world of work and citizenship, and then we see them couple and start the cycle all over again. All the while we seek to defend ourselves from disease, violence, economic deprivation, in fact, anything that might cut short our lives or those of our children. It ought to be self-evident that human beings do care about the future. What I want to examine is whether they should and if so, how much.

For this I will need to take you through some simple thought experiments which will test just how much you might do for the sake of human continuity and just how far into the future you might project your own responsibility.

It is a truism that parents concern themselves with the well-being and happiness of their children and grandchildren (and great grandchildren if they live that long). So, a concern about the general state of human society will extend two or perhaps three generations into the future or roughly 50 to 75 years. After that, it’s hard for us to put a lot of emotion into making things right for people we will never know.

But let’s say you have an altruistic streak that transcends time. You actually believe that people you will never meet deserve your consideration now. You believe that you should leave them a society that makes a good life possible, however you conceive of that good life. How far into the future will this concern carry? 100 years? 1,000 years? 10,000 years? I sense your commitment fading the further out in time I go. After all, how can any of us possibly foresee what human life will be like in 10,000 years (assuming humans survive that long)? How can we even conceive of what a good life will look like then?

Now, let me throw a little cold water on your warm-blooded altruism. Let’s say that today we as a global society decided to do everything we need to do to create what is roughly speaking a sustainable society. This would include ending our reliance on fossil fuels, adopting organic farming techniques, letting go of consumerism as an organizing principle, harvesting renewable resources only at the rate they can be renewed, gradually but drastically reducing population over time until it is below the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans, and creating a cradle-to-cradle resource management system for all finite resources. Certainly, this list could be expanded. But the point is that the system we create could, in theory, be bequeathed to humans for as long as there is a planet Earth.

Now, what if at some point, say, 500 years into this grand experiment, a society arises that decides all these rules on what we can and cannot do should be repealed, especially the restriction on burning fossil fuels? So, today we make great sacrifices to move from a doomed society to one that is sustainable out of concern and respect for future generations. Then, some future generation blows it by undoing everything we’ve done. How’s that for slap in the face? Except, of course, you won’t be around to actually feel the slap. Still, this thought experiment forces us to confront a very ugly possibility and question how much we should sacrifice now for a potentially ungrateful and lethal generation in the future.

Now, let’s go even further into the future. Let’s say humans remain responsibly sustainable indefinitely. How long will that be? Well, the fossil record suggests that mammalian species such as humans have an average lifespan of 2 million years. So, if we date humans using the classification Homo sapiens, then we are a young species, perhaps 200,000 years old. If we date humans back to the beginning of the entire genus of hominids at least 4 million years ago, then humans are essentially in evolutionary overtime.

But no matter what time line you use, one thing remains true: The chances that we humans will defy the logic of the fossil record seem slim. Some 99 percent of all species that have ever existed on Earth have disappeared. We are very unlikely to evolve into some superior being that carries on the traditions and cultures of humans. We are much more likely to go extinct at some point no matter how sustainably we live as a species.

And finally, let’s assume that somehow future humans evolve and adapt so well that they are alive billions of years from now. At some point, our Sun will expand as part of its death throes and consume the Earth. No more life at all on Earth at that point. (I know some of you are saying that perhaps humans will populate the stars. I see no realistic prospect that humans could actually do this even if they could find Earth-like planets. First, the distances would likely be so great that even highly advance spaceships would still take so long to reach such planets that the chance of survival would be small. Second, the Earth-like planet would almost certainly have micro-organisms that would kill humans almost as soon as they landed. Instead of the Andromeda strain coming to us, we would go to it.)

As I’ve lengthened the time line, no doubt you’ve found yourself wondering why any of us today should be concerned about the sustainability of human society in a future that is so vast that it is several orders of magnitude longer than human civilization has so far existed. Good question. The continuity of human beings simply cannot be guaranteed indefinitely into the future regardless of what our genes, our minds, or several hundred Star Trek episodes may tell us. We are largely powerless in that regard.

Now, I am not minimizing the impulse to make the world a sustainable place for our progeny. I recognize that as a very strong drive. And, it is one that is featured in countless environmentally-oriented appeals. But I am looking for bedrock here. Is there a way of thinking about sustainability that doesn’t involve the inherently impossible task of seeking to assure human continuity indefinitely into the future? I think I have an answer.

Sustainable practices must be in and of themselves a path to a good life. If that’s the case, then they are worth implementing simply because they lead to happier and more fulfilling lives. We can take a cue from the simplicity movement which embraced simple living as more fulfilling. Let me illustrate. I ride my bicycle for most of my errands and for exercise as well. Even if there were no climate change problem, even if there were no peak oil problem, even if there were no sustainability crisis, riding my bicycle would still enhance the quality of my life. I’m more fit. I’m more in touch with my physical surroundings. Typically, I’m still moving when traffic is halted. I can get closer to my destination. I pay no parking fees. I find myself now in a kind of universal brotherhood with every other cyclist on the road (a very underrated plus). I could go on. But I think it would be possible to say something similar about any practice that is truly sustainable.

I’m not suggesting that we give up on the rhetoric of creating a sustainable future for our children. But I am suggesting adding to that pitch that almost everything we call sustainable would make us happier even absent the problems we are trying to solve. That means people would ultimately have no regrets about adopting sustainable habits because, in general, they give us a fuller, more compelling life.

– To the original…



Truthout and The Plan

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Truthout is a site I follow frequently.   Today, they’ve stated the core problem before us as:

We, as a species, are coming up against a fundamental choice: Do we embrace our potential for good by coming together and working to reverse the damage we’ve done to each other and to the planet? Or do we choose the path of exploitation, separation and destruction? It’s the duty of the storytellers – independent journalists, writers and media makers – to use their time to try to make this choice clear. 

– This is the motivation for the ideas I’m calling The Plan.   We need, as they’ve said here, to choose to ‘reverse the damage’ or to continue to ‘choose the path of exploitation’.

– dennis


The Plan

Monday, April 16th, 2012

I’ve created a new category and a new permanent page; both are called The Plan.

Anything I write or republish that bears on the ideas behind The Plan will be linked to with the new catagory.

And I will maintain the new permanent page, The Plan, as one of the central ideas of this Blog.   Much as the concepts of The Perfect Storm Hypothesis, Eden Lost and our Biological Imperatives are central themes.

To read The Plan, click here: or click on the words The Plan in the right side column under Permanent Pages.