Cyclical terms like "recession" and "depression" are looking less appropriate by the day. It's like calling the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance a "depression".
I know that our situation is vastly different from the state of the world in Roman times, but the idea that we could be on the brink of a fundamental reset of civilization is intriguing, to say the least.
I've been convinced for several years that we are looking at the convergence of a set of wicked interlocking global problems– ecological problems (climate chaos, the death of the oceans, fresh water shortages etc.), energy shortages due to fossil fuel depletion, and overpopulation with the resulting pressure on the global food supply. This convergence is happening under the umbrella of the current global financial collapse. That collapse in turn constrains our ability to respond to any of these problems individually, let alone any further problems that might emerge from interactions between them.
This unfortunate collision makes the future of our civilization very murky indeed. Writers like James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer, Carolyn Baker and Sharon Astyk (along with people like Stoneleigh and Ilargi at The Automatic Earth) have been warning about the possibility of a generalized, unrecoverable collapse of modern civilization for a while now. They have generally been derided by the mainstream as millennialist prophets of doom – driven by their own subconscious fears and dark desires, their research full of confirmation bias.
The events unfolding around us now, however, cast their optimistic mainstream critics in a somewhat different light. None of the economics professionals – not even the Roubinis and Krugmans – have fully appreciated the severity of the world's financial predicament. Their comforting bromides (and even their more pessimistic utterances) have been overwhelmed by events on a weekly basis. It has become clear that for all their careful analysis of trunks and tails, nobody truly understood the shape of the entire elephant.
This evident failure of comprehension brings their entire analysis into disrepute. And that should make us ask – if they failed to comprehend the underpinnings of a calamity in their own domain, what does that say about the possibility that they also failed to understand the dangers being trumpeted by the doomers they have dismissed?
After all, we are seeing the same outcome in the climate crisis as in the financial one – the trends are uniformly negative, and are unfolding much faster than the professionals in either field predicted. There are new signs from world bodies like the International Energy Agency that the same situation is developing with respect to the world's oil supply – the more pessimistic members of the Peak Oil crowd appear to be heading for vindication.
So, following a "major, rapid contraction" (aka collapse), could our civilization end up staying on the mat, unable to rise from the ashes of our former glory? That's unknowable of course, but hardly inconceivable. Several factors give that speculation some weight.
The first confounding factor is the spectre of irreversible climate change. That could irreparably damage the world's food production capacity through shifts in rainfall patterns and the reduction of snow and glacial cover that supplies much of the world's fresh water for agriculture.
The second factor is the permanent depletion of the compact, high-density, transportable energy supply represented by fossil fuels. We're putting a lot of effort into developing electrical alternatives, of course. There are two major challenges in the way, though. The first is the relative infancy of the alternative energy industry, and the fact that it will require both capital and fossil fuels to enable its continued growth. The second longer term problem is that the use of electricity requires a higher level of technology in the infrastructure needed to manufacture, distribute, store and convert it into work. This may not seem like much of a a problem today, but if our global industrial civilization goes into a decline, growing parts of the world may find the maintenance of such infrastructure increasingly difficult.
A third factor that may get in the way of recovery is the depletion of easily-recoverable resources such as metals. The decline in the average quality of various ores being mined today is well documented, and is likely to continue. While recycling can recover much of the metal currently discarded as waste, recycling facilities capable of producing enough output to feed our civilization's needs do not yet exist. They would face the same hurdles as the build-out of electrical supplies I described above.
You might think that such a situation will take so long to develop that we will be able to address the situation before it gets quite that dire.
One consideration that works against that hope is that human beings are not, for all their cleverness, fully rational creatures. Research has shown that most of our "rational" decisions are made at a deeply unconscious level, to be dressed up with rational justifications only upon their emergence into the conscious mind some time later. The truth of this proposition can be seen all around us in the competition between environmental remediation and economic imperatives, in the obstruction of alternative energy development, in our repeated creation of financial bubbles – in all the myriad ways in which we as a society work tirelessly against our own best interests as individuals and as a species.
Even worse, events have recently shown a terrifying ability to outstrip our expectations, in both speed and severity. We may not have nearly as much time left as we think. A lack of time coupled with an inability to respond rationally (or even to accept the evidence of our eyes) does not bode well for the future of this civilization.
It's conceivable that our current civilization will never regain its feet after this storm has burst upon us. We will endure as a species no matter what happens, of course, and it's even probable that we will rise to new heights. It's also quite possible that the rebirth of this Phoenix will take a long, long time and that those new heights will be unrecognizable to someone raised in today's world of 401(k)'s, Credit Default Swaps, personal automobiles and gigantic concrete cities.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Dec-15-2008)
The "Limits to Growth" theme is one of how to build and moderate systems. We have created a System of systems which has been refined over time to protect itself. That main system is consumerism (and the profits which come from a stable consumption system). Almost every action taken by government or groups has been to maintain the protections of the consumerism machine. Very few attempts have been made to understand and moderate the overall assumption that humans are endowed with special powers to always have anything they want, as long as someone is willing to steal from the future to pay for it. Even in the best recession/depression/recovery scenario, there is little sense of the reality that the people who are alive right now will not be the people living in the doomed future, if anyone is alive at all. Kunstler's book "A World Made By Hand" is probably the best example of the future, but the randomness of reality will be much different than anyone can predict. The only prediction I'm making is that it is going to be harsh until we are all dead. Peak oil has wrought peak money, peak comfort, and peak humanity, as well as a probable severe dieoff.
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Comment by: Steven Earl Salmony (Dec-6-2008) Web site
The global, human-induced predicament visible in our time to the family of humanity makes one thing clear: people with eyes to see, ears to hear and no speech impediments have got to speak out loudly, clearly and often now. Silence, the greatest power the rich and powerful possess, cannot be allowed to prevail. The reckless way a few people with wealth and power maintain a "golden" silence, one that protects their greed, gluttony and hoarding, is dangerous and cannot longer be endured because a good enough future for our children and coming generations is being mortgaged and threatened by these leading elders in my not-so-great generation.
Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the "answers" to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, "Can we teach one another to live within limits?"
It is necessary, I suppose, for human beings to recognize and affirm human limits
To do otherwise and, by so doing, choose willfully and foolishly to ignore the practical requirements of biophysical reality runs the risk of putting life as we know it and our planetary home as a fit place for human habitation in peril, even in these early years of Century XXI.
Steven Earl Salmony AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001 http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176
I am a Canadian ecologist with a passionate interest in outside the box responses to the converging crisis of industrial civilization.
The crisis of civilization is not simply a convergence of technical, environmental and organizational problems. These are symptoms that are themselves being driven by a philosophical and perceptual disconnection so deep that it is best understood as a spiritual breakdown. The disconnection goes by the name of Separation.
Our sense of separation is what allows us to see ourselves as different from and superior to the rest of the apparently non-rational universe we live in. In this worldview the complex mutual interdependence of all the elements of the universe is replaced by a simple dualistic categorization: there are human beings, and everything else in the universe—without exception—is a resource for us to use.
The only way to keep this planet, our one and only home in the universe, from being ultimately ravaged and devastated is to change our worldview and heal our sense of separateness. Unless we can manage that breathtaking feat all the careful application of technology, all the well-intentioned regulations, all the unbridled cleverness of which we are so proud will do little to delay the final outcome, and nothing whatever to prevent it.
My desire is to find ways to heal that sense of separation, with the goal of helping us prepare for ecological adulthood.