It’s 2018 and I’m not living in the end of the world. Energy consumption hasn’t plunged by 20% since 2015. People still drive around in cars, I still have electricity and noticed no signs of any brownouts. The supermarket shelves are stocked. In fact, last time I checked I could choose between two dozen different types of peanut butter in my local supermarket. Exploding methane clathrates have not drowned me in a megatsunami, drought induced food shortages haven’t reduced me to eating my pets, roving gangs of criminals haven’t set my house on fire, Fukushima hasn’t made the Northern hemisphere uninhabitable yet, I ate Chinese seaweed without developing cancer, I haven’t died in any government orchestrated bioattack and haven’t been lobotomized.
How is this possible? Wasn’t everything supposed to go to shit by now? The big mistake I’ve noticed people tend to make is their assumption that technological innovation makes the world more fragile, rather than making it more resilient. It’s easy to assume human beings are going to drop dead like flies, if you reduce us in your mental model to an animal dependent on non-renewable resources for our survival. But we’re much more than just an animal that consumes non-renewable resources. The primary mistake made by Michael Ruppert, Gail Tverberg, James Howard Kunstler, Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome before them and numerous other prophets of the apocalypse, is that their view of man is both excessively pessimistic and simplistic. If you take all the problems we’ve caused for ourselves and willfully ignore all the new opportunities we have developed over the years, of course you’re going to conclude that everything is going to fall apart. What annoys me is that these people don’t admit they were wrong. They delay their apocalyptic predictions by ten years, or they quietly move onto a different expertise. Alex Jones and his crowd quietly went from predicting we’re all going to be murdered by the Illuminati in FEMA death camps to making fun of fat blue-haired feminists.
I’m going to give you a very simple example of a new opportunity we have created, that I am convinced none of the high prophets has attempted to fit into their grand apocalyptic model: Wind turbines. You probably know wind turbines as ugly grey monoliths that inefficiently generate electricity. What you don’t know is that rows of wind turbines placed in the ocean can reduce wind speeds in hurricanes by 92 mph and reduce the storm surge by up to 79%. The modern huge wind turbines are more efficient than turbines built in the past, generating cheaper electricity and more efficiently mixing different layers of the atmosphere.
Besides countering hurricanes, they have another noteworthy effect: By mixing different layers of the atmosphere, they reduce heatwaves. Wind turbines increase temperatures during the night, but decrease temperatures during the afternoon, when temperatures are normally highest. As a consequence, agricultural yields near wind turbines tend to increase. The most useful wind turbines are located in the sea however. Here the wind turbines serve as attachment points for mussels, giving birth to new oceanic ecosystems in places that were formerly barren.
How do you even fit such complexity caused by rational actors (human beings) interacting with a complex system (the world around us) into a scientific model? How do you predict that billions of people are going to die in a world where wind turbines boost agricultural yields? This is like a group of ornithologists trying to bet which branch a bird is going to sit on because they have specialized themselves in understanding various subsystems of the overall organism. The amount of complexity involved here is so immense that you become dependent upon heuristics, rather than on complex models.
I do not imply that the climate models we have are wrong. Instead, the climate models we use tend to emphasize the huge range of uncertainty. If your scientific models can’t predict whether a doubling in CO2 will warm the world by three degree or by six degree Celsius instead, then you’re admitting that you’re dealing with a complex system the overall behavior of which is neigh impossible to predict. More importantly, the models can’t be used to predict how changes in our climate will affect our civilization, except under extreme conditions. Instead we should primarily base policy in cases like this on simple heuristics. One of such heuristics is the precautionary principle. If we’re radically changing the composition of the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace, it would be wise to stop carrying out such destabilizing actions in a complex system.
Attempts are made to look at the collapse of various pre-industrial empires, to extrapolate conclusions for our own current situation. What’s generally missed however, is that the fragility of these civilizations tends to be a consequence of their complete reliance on a limited number of variable conditions and a near inability to react to changes in their environment in a productive manner. As a simple example, consider that we live in the first civilization in human history with access to reliable contraception and abortion. A decline in our standard of living is now generally met with a reduction in fertility. It’s much easier to envision catastrophe in societies where a temporary abundance of food leads to the birth of a dozen children per woman than it is in a society where we can voluntarily reduce our numbers.
When it comes to food production, we have to comprehend the simple fact that almost all cases of starvation in recent history have been associated with war and political instability. People die of hunger, not because of a lack of food, but because they live in conditions that isolate them from the global economy. In the middle of a war zone we find ourselves unable to deliver food aid to people who are hungry. Biafra-child became a term associated with a child with a swollen belly, but Biafra was a Nigerian region placed under a severe military blockade. We live under conditions of food abundance, we throw away vast amounts of food and feed perfectly edible human food to animals. Almost ninety percent of edible tomatoes have to be thrown away due to their appearance, simply because consumers won’t buy ugly tomatoes. If we live under such circumstances, how can you imagine starvation to occur?
The economy is disrupted by sudden catastrophes. It adjusts itself to slow catastrophes. This is in contrast to previous eras of history, when slow catastrophes could not be adequately responded to. If the fish you ate slowly went extinct, you died out together with them. What happens to us when we can’t find fish in the ocean? We migrate to other food sources. In 1978, China produced 60,000 tons of mushrooms. In 2002, China produced 8.2 million tons of mushrooms. Today China is an industrial powerhouse, the world’s second largest economy. This is what happens in a society that is flexible and capable of grasping new opportunities when old ways of doing things become unsustainable.
What people forget, is that ancient civilizations did not have the opportunities we have. Trying to apply simplistic mathematical models to our way of life is bound to set you up for embarrassment in the future, because technology has allowed human beings to respond to scarcity in one area by migrating to alternative ways of sustaining themselves. The Mayans, the Rapa Nui, the vikings in Greenland and all these other historical civilizations reduced to poor analogies in the minds of those praying for a catastrophe did not figure out how to grow shellfish and seaweed on ropes in the ocean, mushrooms on cow feces or rotten logs, meat in Petri dishes, Quorn in fermentation vats or tomatoes in Dutch greenhouses kept warm with waste-heat from nearby industrial facilities. They had two or three traditions on which the bulk of their economy depended and if those traditions became threatened by ecological exhaustion or environmental changes then they went down with the world around them.
I’m not claiming the world is a paradise, or that it is soon to be a paradise. I’m claiming that preparing yourself for a global catastrophe means setting yourself up for disappointment. There’s a rough global transition underway, in some places it will be very rough. One thing that hasn’t changed from the past is that those places that will face the roughest transition are the places that refuse to transition to new ways of life. If people in West Virginia were to think that an economy based on coal production can be sustained, they would set themselves up for catastrophe. The lowest hanging fruit was exploited long ago, so today mountain tops are removed to mine the last easily accessible coal. Some grass is then sown and people will insist the mountaintop has been ecologically restored, even as the soil has become toxic and barren.
As another example of the problem, consider India. India simply doesn’t have enough accessible coal to develop an industrial economy for one and a half billion people. Much of the coal it does have is located under people’s houses and farmlands. If this nation were to pursue industrial development in a manner akin to that of Europe in the past, catastrophe would ensue. Keep in mind that I’m not just referring here to a lack of coal. India also doesn’t have sufficient cold water to power the turbines that drive a coal plant. A nuclear power plants or a coal plant needs cold water to cool the device, the warm water is then dumped into the local river or ocean, where it can kill the fish or rapidly evaporate. Half of all water consumption in India is caused by power plants right now, it’s not hard to envision what would happen if India pursued the same path of economic development as Europe did in the past.
This ties into another point I wish to make, which is that the different horror scenarios people envision tend to cancel each other out. In particular, the business as usual scenario of the IPCC envisions a world destroyed by global warming long after it has surpassed ecological limits that would destroy our civilization in the first place. In its business as usual scenario, the IPCC envisions global CO2 emissions tripling by 2100. How exactly is this supposed to happen? Am I supposed to ignore that the Netherlands has exhausted more than half of its natural gas reserves? Am I supposed to ignore that those same climate models suggest the Middle East will be too hot to survive in within a few decades? Am I supposed to pretend that India will dig up coal located underneath cities or in the middle of the desert and keep its turbines cool with water it won’t have due to the droughts caused by global warming? If you blindly extrapolate one or two variables without considering how they interact with the rest of a complex model, you’re going to get absurd results.
Trump and other incompetent leaders are willing to sacrifice the rest of the world to sustain their own outdated model of society for a few more decades, but they fail to comprehend that they’re merely setting their nations up to become the world’s laughing stock. The kind of selfishness Trump endorses is a form of selfishness that eventually blows up in your own face. If you don’t want to transition your own society to using electric vehicles, you’re going to be buying your electric vehicles from Chinese companies. If you want to open the coal mines again, you’re going to find yourself faced with a polluted nightmarish landscape, children born with birth defects and a resource crisis when it becomes too expensive to dig up the coal. It’s in people’s own direct interest to transition to a renewable way of sustaining their economies, because they will eventually be forced to transition out of necessity.
My expectation is that we’re going to dramatically overshoot two degrees of global warming, but in contrast to what people assume, it’s not going to cause a global catastrophe, because the models used to predict catastrophe tend to assume that civilization is a placid actor utterly dependent on the stable conditions of the Holocene rather than an anticipating self-augmenting agent that adjusts to changing global conditions. If we notice the coral reefs around us are at risk of dying during an oncoming heatwave, we respond by spraying atmospheric sulfur into the atmosphere. If we notice shellfish are struggling to grow due to ocean acidification, we grow seaweed next to them to reduce the effect of ocean acidification.
What matters more than anything else is avoiding technological, cultural and political stagnation. We need to avoid the mentality that makes people deny new insights that happen to contradict their own ideology. When new observations contradict your limited model of the world around you, it’s your model that is flawed, not the observations. Those who choose to embrace stagnation, end up embracing their own death. If Brazil under its new president chooses to embrace the cattle industry and sacrifices the Amazon rainforest, what happens to Brazil’s economy when lab grown meat is introduced to every supermarket? We’ve seen in the Soviet Union what happens to societies that cling onto an outdated economic model that doesn’t function. The denial of Darwinian evolution which was seen as politically incorrect lead to Lysenkoism, as people began to believe that rye can spontaneously transform into wheat and weeds can transform into actual crops. This lead to food shortages, the Soviet Union became dependent on American food exports.
Today libertarians and conservatives see global warming as a politically incorrect fact. They cling onto obscure scientists who predict a coming ice age, or any other nutcase who allows them to deny the existence of negative externalities. Guess what’s going to happen to them when reality turns out to disagree with them, when it turns out that you can’t cling onto an inherited mentality forever and the world is not spontaneously transformed into a paradise by embracing your own selfishness a la Ayn Rand? If Brazil wishes to sacrifice its rainforest it will face consequences just as catastrophic as anyone else who chooses to deny the abundance of evidence that implores him to divert from business as usual.
Catastrophe is not inevitable, it’s merely what happens when you close your eyes and press down the gas pedal with a brick wall ahead. There are people who feel like doing that, who just want to watch the whole world burn. They get exactly what they’re hoping for, but you tend to regret it when it actually happens. Consider for example, the Iraqi Baathists who helped ISIS conquer Mosul. These were relatively secular Sunni Arab Muslims, filled with anger and resentment against a society now dominated by Shiites. They ended up paying for it in the form of a society blown to smithereens and now governed by Kurdish people. My expectation is that most Americans who voted for Trump will similarly come to regret it.
Moving on from the apocalypse
My suggestion would be to leave your apocalyptic fantasies behind you. There’s nothing wrong with preparedness, but focus on preparing yourself for problems that can actually happen, rather than preparing yourself for a sci-fi catastrophe that seems nice in your head. As an example, you might wake up one day with fifteen minutes left to flee before your whole village is incinerated in a forest fire. However, you won’t spend two years in an underground bunker eating stored food waiting for radioactive dust to sink into the soil.
This applies to all the people who imagine their own apocalyptic model to be more realistic too. You won’t be sitting by yourself with a couple of friends on your permaculture farm as all of us in the city die of hunger because we were too dumb to grow our own food. If something would genuinely happen that destroyed the society you live in, armed thugs with guns would visit you and seize your harvest. More likely than not, what happens instead is that you spend the next few years struggling to break even, before moving on with your life and applying for an office job. That’s how it works out, because that’s how I’ve seen it work out numerous times.
The biggest problem with the back to the land fantasy is that it tends to mean isolating yourself from society, which is always a bad idea equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot. It might be seductive to become a hermit and renounce the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart or virtuous. One day you’ll realize that for every ten guys willing to spend forty hours a week with their hands in the dirt for the privilege of living in a cold black mold-infested shack, there are three girls willing to do the same.
I enjoy gardening, but I don’t enjoy it so much that I want to devote my whole life to it. I cultivate San Pedro cactuses, Salvia Divinorum and a few other plants, but the rest of my day is spent doing other things that I enjoy. If you want to devote your whole life to your permaculture farm, you’ll find yourself no longer enjoying gardening, not earning money and isolating yourself from society. There is also an intrinsic problem of privilege inherent to the “sustainable” back to the land movement. We city-dwellers don’t “choose” to live in the city because we’re mindless consumer drones brainwashed by material wealth. We live here because we can’t afford to own giant plots of land where we inefficiently produce food in a labor-intensive method dependent upon people willing to volunteer for us out of ideological considerations. Most people would enjoy living without having neighbors, but that means wasting resources.
Yes, you, the PDC guru in his sustainable bio-dynamic permaculture farm dependent on WWOOFers willing to work for free for the “experience” are in fact privileged. You might be deeply aware of the tragedies inflicted on Native tribes who lived in harmony with their environment, but you seem to turn a blind eye to all those “mindless consumer drones” who live in “unsustainable” cities not because they’re greedy and wicked, but because they have limited budgets that don’t allow them to live in accordance to your green delusions. The world is better off with a thousand office workers on bicycles than a single anarcho-primitivist traveling in his diesel pickup truck to his permaculture farm. In fact, the majority of studies show that Western people in cities have a smaller environmental impact than rural people. We can walk to the supermarket, we can take our bicycle to work and we can keep our radiator low because we share a wall with our neighbors. We live in communities, whereas you live in neofeudal palaces.
Put this idea of catastrophe out of your head. In the real world, it’s not fun when society fails, it’s miserable. It doesn’t mean hunting deer on abandoned highways. It means ISIS in Syria running child sex-trafficking rings. Do you really want to make the world better? Sell your farmland, take the money and donate it to charities that deliver birth control to women in Congo. You don’t do that because it takes away your own sense of agency, whereas growing your own sweet chestnuts or shiitake mushrooms that you couldn’t sell for a profit if your life depended on it makes your life part of a grand narrative in which you are like Noah building his arc, as the rest of the world has slipped away into decadence and will soon be destroyed as a punishment for its wickedness.
In the fake world, the world of our imagination, collapse can mean whatever we want it to mean. Put your creative effort there, there where it can genuinely have an impact. There are thousands of people around the world, who have made simulations of the collapse of civilization that are a thousand times more fun than the real thing. Rather than preparing for the world to become worse, spend your time building things that make the world better. You will meet other people who value the same things as you.
Why would you endlessly browse news headlines and spend money on stored food, if you can play the Flame in the Flood? Why would you watch another boring documentary about Peak Oil, if you can watch A Boy and his Dog? There is an open-source procedural roguelike called Cataclysm Dark Days Ahead, where you can hunt and gather food in a forest and drive over zombies with stolen vehicles in the destroyed remnants of the city. If you want everything to go to shit, it’s already here for you and you’re welcome to help make it better.
In my mind I can build an apocalypse where negligibly senescent resurrected neanderthal women harvest oysters from underwater concrete skycrapers and radioactive blind albino rats inhabit dark abandoned metro tunnels where they nibble on green-glowing genetically manipulated mushrooms. In the real world apocalypse, gangs of militants in South Sudan and Syria mutilate and abuse children. If you’re really that utterly convinced that everything is soon going to hell in a handbasket that nothing I can say can convince you otherwise, don’t spend your days stocking up on stored food. Buy a pack of cyanide pills and go on with your life.