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Cheery stuff I know, but its interesting to see some of the trajectories we are on, and maybe if we shed enough light on them, we can can change them.  Optimistic?  Absolutely, but I’d rather have the motivation to continue the struggle than the gilded-glitz peace of the nihilist who has given up.

 

Greer estimates that it takes, on average, about 250 years for civilizations to decline and fall, and he finds no reason why modern civilization shouldn’t follow this “usual timeline.”[3]

But Greer’s assumption is built on shaky ground because industrial civilization differs from all past civilizations in four crucial ways.  And every one of them may accelerate and intensify the coming collapse while increasing the difficulty of recovery.

Difference #1:  Unlike all previous civilizations, modern industrial civilization is powered by an exceptionally rich, NON-renewable, and irreplaceable energy source—fossil fuels.  This unique energy base predisposes industrial civilization to a short, meteoric lifespan of unprecedented boom and drastic bust.  Megacities, globalized production, industrial agriculture, and a human population approaching 8 billion are all historically exceptional—and unsustainable—without fossil fuels.  Today, the rich easily exploited oilfields and coalmines of the past are mostly depleted.  And, while there are energy alternatives, there are no realistic replacements that can deliver the abundant net energy fossil fuels once provided.[4]  Our complex, expansive, high-speed civilization owes its brief lifespan to this one-time, rapidly dwindling energy bonanza.

Difference #2:  Unlike past civilizations, the economy of industrial society is capitalist.  Production for profit is its prime directive and driving force.  The unprecedented surplus energy supplied by fossil fuels has generated exceptional growth and enormous profits over the past two centuries.  But in the coming decades, these historic windfalls of abundant energy, constant growth, and rising profits will vanish.

However, unless it is abolished, capitalism will not disappear when boom turns to bust.  Instead, energy-starved, growth-less capitalism will turn catabolic.  Catabolismrefers to the condition whereby a living thing devours itself.  As profitable sources of production dry up, capitalism will be compelled to turn a profit by consuming the social assets it once created.  By cannibalizing itself, the profit motive will exacerbate industrial society’s dramatic decline.

Catabolic capitalism will profit from scarcity, crisis, disaster, and conflict.  Warfare, resource hoarding, ecological disaster, and pandemic diseases will become the big profit makers.  Capital will flow toward lucrative ventures like cybercrime, predatory lending, and financial fraud; bribery, corruption, and racketeering; weapons, drugs, and human trafficking.  Once disintegration and destruction become the primary source of profit, catabolic capitalism will rampage down the road to ruin, gorging itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.[5]

Difference #3:  Unlike past societies, industrial civilization isn’t Roman, Chinese, Egyptian, Aztec, or Mayan.  Modern civilization is HUMAN, PLANETARY, and ECOCIDAL.  Pre-industrial civilizations depleted their topsoil, felled their forests, and polluted their rivers.  But the harm was far more temporary and geographically limited. Once market incentives harnessed the colossal power of fossil fuels to exploit nature, the dire results were planetary.  Two centuries of fossil fuel combustion have saturated the biosphere with climate-altering carbon that will continue wreaking havoc for generations to come.  The damage to Earth’s living systems—the circulation and chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean; the stability of the hydrological and biogeochemical cycles; and the biodiversity of the entire planet—is essentially permanent.

Humans have become the most invasive species ever known.  Although we are a mere .01 percent of the planet’s biomass, our domesticated crops and livestock dominate life on Earth.  In terms of total biomass, 96 percent of all the mammals on Earth are livestock; only 4 percent are wild mammals.  Seventy percent of all birds are domesticated poultry, only 30 percent are wild.  About half the Earth’s wild animals are thought to have been lost in just the last 50 years.[6]  Scientists estimate that half of all remaining species will be extinct by the end of the century.[7] There are no more unspoiled ecosystems or new frontiers where people can escape the damage they’ve caused and recover from collapse.

Difference #4:  Human civilization’s collective capacity to confront its mounting crises is crippled by a fragmented political system of antagonistic nations ruled by corrupt elites who care more about power and wealth than people and the planet.  Humanity faces a perfect storm of converging global calamities.  Intersecting tribulations like climate chaos, rampant extinction, food and freshwater scarcity, poverty, extreme inequality, and the rise of global pandemics are rapidly eroding the foundations of modern life.

Yet, this fractious and fractured political system makes organizing and mounting a cooperative response nearly impossible.  And, the more catabolic industrial capitalism becomes, the greater the danger that hostile rulers will fan the flames of nationalism and go to war over scarce resources.  Of course, warfare is not new.  But modern warfare is so devastating, destructive, and toxic that little would remain in its aftermath.  This would be the final nail in civilization’s coffin.”

I do like reading Aeon magazine.  In his essay Jeremy Adelman describes some of the competing historical narratives.  I like that his arguments intersect with another venerated historian, Ronald Wright conclusions’ about civilizations and their paths toward modernity.  Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress dovetails nicely with the thesis of Adelman’s essay.

“The real failure then of that financial mayhem was that its makers couldn’t see how their heroic story of decontrolled Homo pecuniaria was responsible for the crisis – and instead compelled bystanders and taxpayers to pay the price.

The beneficiaries of the doomsday narratives have been snarling nativists and populists, propped up by Fox News sages such as Jonah Goldberg and Yuval Levin who champion the old decline story: a dirge for ‘Western’ civilisation. The New YorkTimes’ David Brooks weeps about America’s inescapable demise. For Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, there is only one, stark, self-serving choice: cosmopolitan catastrophe or rescue, with themselves as uniquely mandated to liberate us from an apocalypse designed by global plutocrats. Meanwhile, liberals and cosmopolitans feud over whom to blame – thereby further fuelling the crisis consensus.

It’s important to recognise one of the catastrophist’s rhetorical moves. Stories of doom thrive on turning a tension into an incompatibility. A tension implies two forces at odds – like hot and cold, like price stability and jobs, like helping strangers and assisting neighbours; while they pull in different directions, they can be mixed. Earlier big narratives used to explain choices in terms of tension and unstable compromise. In the 1950s and ’60s, debates focused on how much the developing world could advance while being part of a wider global economy. A decade later, the tension was how to co-manage a troubled global commons.

Nowadays, the chorus of catastrophe presents differences as intractable and incompatible, the choice between them zero-sum. It’s globalism or ‘nation first’, jobs or climate, friend or foe. The model is simple: earlier leaders muddled, dithered, compromised and mixed. In their efforts to avoid hard decisions, they led the nation to the edge of disaster.

Pessimism helped exorcise post-1989 triumphalism; Piketty and Tooze are right about structural features of inequality and how the makers of catastrophe became its beneficiaries. But we also need to see how the consensus of catastrophe that straddles the ideological spectrum – but grows more dire and menacing as one approaches the extremes – favours the politics of the strong man glaring down the nation-doubters.

The alternative is not to be wistful about flat-world narratives that find solace in technical panaceas and market fundamentalisms; the last thing we need is a return to the comforts of lean-in fairy tales that rely on facile responses to a complicated world. To learn from collapses and extinctions, and prevent more of them, we need to recover our command over complex storytelling, to think of tensions instead of incompatibilities, to allow choices and alternatives, mixtures and ambiguities, instability and learning, to counter the false certainties of the abyss. If we don’t, it really will be too late for many people and species.”

Both Wright and Adelman champion a rational and reasoned approach to altering the self-destructive paths we’ve chosen collectively as civilizations on earth.  It is unfortunate, as Adelman notes, that the current political climate seems very well defended against the nuanced and complex solutions necessary to alter the calamitous course of our civilization.

 

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