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Cyclical vs. End-Time Thinking

2017 January 5
by Ian Welsh
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

Eras come and go.

Civilizations come and go too.

There have been ecological collapses in the past. For example, one took out the Mayans, and it was self-inflicted. The same is true, on a lesser scale, for Mesopotamia.

Human history is cyclical. It’s only “up trend” in a very long view of things.

In the normal course of events, I would expect that Western civilization would fall. It’s, well, inevitable. I don’t even think it’s that far away in historical time. Might be this cycle, might be a couple hundred years, but we’re clearly coming to the end of our rope.

A civilization ends when it can’t handle problems that are totally obvious, because its ideology won’t allow it to deal with them. In our case, the ideology is economics and capitalism, which insists that decisions must be made based on what maximizes profit. Our ideology doesn’t recognize that profit is a social construction, and doesn’t take into account all the upsides or downsides of doing anything. This, combined with our moral belief that money is “good,” and that the more money you have the better you are, is killing our civilization. (These categories, expanded slightly, cover state capitalist societies like the USSR well enough.)

These problems are acknowledged; just as most of the problems which led to the fall of the Roman Empire were acknowledged, but we refuse to fix them. Every once in a while, an FDR will roll around and patch up one part of the problem, but, eventually, we go back to doing the same thing.

Normally this would amount to reactions like, “Oh well, sucks to live in such times.” Nations, societies, and civilizations come and go and it’s very sad, but it’s just how the world works.

The question is, “Is this time different?’

The argument is scale. We’re a global society, and we’re causing an environmental disaster that is magnitudes larger than any humans have caused before.

One argument is that, “Hey, people predict the end of the world all the time and they’ve always been wrong.”

Which is true, and that argument will be usable until humanity does go extinct (which, inevitably, it will, the question is only when) because it is a one-time event. That it has not happened to humans in the past does not mean it cannot happen. We’re currently driving many species to extinction. Each species goes extinct only once; species extinction due to environmental problems is dead common, and often due to environmental problems the to which the animal in question contributed.

My best guess is that this time is not the human extinction event, but I make that a matter of probability, not probability based on, “It’s never happened before,” (because it has, just not to us), but simply because I expect the climate and ecology will stabilize at a new norm and that the norm will likely be livable for humans.

I regard the loss of all coastal cities and lands as inevitable. We are going to lose the Antarctic ice shelf, and it is going to flood coastal lands. Due to the self-reinforcing part of the cycle, especially with relation to methane gas, that’s just going to happen–and probably sooner than we think.

Before then, we’re going to see widespread disruption of weather, which, combined with our overuse and poisoning of aquifers, will mean widespread food shortages, starvation, and mass migration of hundreds of millions of people in one go. There is no question in my mind that we will see wars for water, and they will be major wars.

There are a myriad of knock-on events which will occur, most of them bad. It will be particularly amusing (in, yes, a sick and sad but appropriate way) if Europe is plunged into an Ice Age. This seems quite likely, as the warm water current which keeps Europe much hotter than it should be could be cut off.

But there are reasons to believe that we’ll stabilize, and those humans who remain will go on. This isn’t a 100 percent thing. I believe there is a non-trivial chance we will drive ourselves into extinction, but I judge it as less likely.

On the other hand, I’ve rolled a lot of dice in my life, and I can tell you that the one, ten, or 30 percent probability you discounted can bloody well come up.

More to the point, while catastrophe is now inevitable, the scale of that catastrophe is not fixed and we can still do quite a bit to mitigate and prepare.

Clearly, we aren’t going to be doing any mitigating or preparing for the next four to eight years. The current generation of leadership needs to be replaced, either by youngsters or the last of the post-war liberals with integrity (Sanders and Corbyn are the representatives of that cohort; Sanders lost, Corbyn is polling badly, though I haven’t written him off).

This is where we are. Our civilization is heading into one of the periodic crises that civilizations go through AND, not coincidentally, we have an ecological disaster of unprecedented scale barreling down on us.  The first has so far made it impossible to deal with the second, but it is also our best chance, because it promises the possibility of new leadership with new priorities on the other side.

But we must find a replacement for our current economic ideology, as it has served us very badly. We are also going to need to take a hard look at our political ideologies, whether “democratic” or authoritarian, because they have performed no better, being unable to even so much as slow the onrushing night.

Life, in general terms, is going to spend a long time getting worse for a lot of people. There’s a lot of triumphalism about how great our world is, and stats to back it up (stats I don’t trust, but that’s another post), but even if it’s 100 percent true, this “greatness” is time-limited. It has already reversed for many people in the core hegemonic power, where we have had an absolute decline in years lived, as well as huge shocks rolling through the birthplace of our civilization, Europe.

Expect this. Bake this into your plans. Things are going to get worse, and you should be prepared for that, not just physically, if you can, but psychologically. Periods which are shit for decades or even centuries are common in human history, and people keep on keeping on.

Trump isn’t the end of the world, if the end of the world is coming. He isn’t even the start of the end of the world. He and various other events which will occur soon, are at most, the beginning of the end of this period of history.

At the other side of this crisis point, we will either have a society which can deal with these problems well enough to save hundreds of millions to a billion or two lives, or we won’t.

And that’s a set of issues far larger than Trump.

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35 Responses leave one →
  1. Shh permalink
    January 5, 2017

    You’re starting to sound like me.

    This topic is frequently discussed on the Archdruid Report and he has many interesting points to make. One big notion echoes yours: doomsayers are just as wrong as the pollyannas.

    But I like your framework based in probability and scale. Sadly, this framework serves, in general, to undermine meaningful conclusions because of the inherent limitations in subjective assessments of both variables.

    Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

  2. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 5, 2017

    I think it is a matter of probability though. I don’t think anyone understands the feedback cycles well enough to be 100% sure.

    I don’t think there’s any question about scale: we’re causing a great extinction, they’re rare, so this is a big scale situation. It’s a weird idea that we can cause a great extinction and be 100% sure we’ll live thru it, when we did it more or less by mistake; once we did know we were doing it refused to stop it, and don’t actually understand how the entire system works.

  3. marku52 permalink
    January 5, 2017

    This, exactly. I suspect that in 50 or 100 years, anyone caught practicing “capitalism” (that is, short term benefit based on shoving costs off on the ecosystem) will be put in the stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables, if not drawn and quartered.

    How this happens, whether under a strict religious order, a cultural belief system, or an authoritarian regime that understands that its own survival depends on not destroying the earth it lives on, I don’t know.

    But I’m pretty sure that is the shape of the future. Our grandkids are going to be pissed purple that we wrecked the earth for them.

  4. S Brennan permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I hope for a technological development that is so compelling that it undermines, to the point of absurdity, the neocolonialist [aka-neocon]/neoliberal ideology [and it’s acolytes] which/who are driving us off a cliff. I no longer believe a political solution, on it’s own, can stop the decline. Is such a thing possible? Dunno, but I can envision such an event occurring.

    That said, with some trepidation, I did take note that Trump wishes to chip away at THE central pillar of neocolonialist ideology. The last President to attempt this took a bullet to the right temple from a grassy knoll. Good hunting Mr. Trump, keep your private security. And remember President-elect Trump, though it sickens me to report this, times have changed, this time “liberals” will be cheering for the CIA’s efforts. Under Obama, the term “liberal” has become a satirical antonym.

    Donald Trump Plans Revamp of Top U.S. Spy Agency:

  5. Billikin permalink
    January 5, 2017

    The British and Soviet empires have ended rather gracefully, maybe the American empire will, as well. Not exactly with a whimper, but not with a bang, either.

    Let us be optimistic and assume that world civilization will reach ecological balance. There will be zero population growth and low economic growth. Does anybody not think that there will be large scale relative immiseration? Do we have any historical examples of long lived civilizations that lived within their ecological means that were not caste societies?

  6. Paul permalink
    January 5, 2017

    Not many species live through a global mass extinction event. Those that do are certainly not large, top predators.
    The probability that we, as such a species, will live through this must be low to zero.
    We depend on species that will go extinct and that’s not a problem we can solve.

  7. Willy permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I like places like this because there’s much one can choose from, much one can think about. But I tend to forget, we keyboard philosophizers are in the minority. There’s the mob out there. And America is the mob. And they’re not (as) hardwired for rationality or skepticism. More like following each other around in circles. Or stampeding. But I don’t think this is a constant. The degree of their general condition varies with the conditions.

    The polar bear may think it owns the beach with all the delicious baby walruses. Indeed, while it strolls about hundreds of the adults bouncy-bounce straight towards the safety of the sea. But then a couple of the adults, each twice it’s size, unintentionally corner it then gore its vitals with humongous tusks. And then the polar bear dies, alone. Okay, maybe I saw this on TV once, but what I found amusing was: Why didn’t they just corner it to begin with? Then I flipped the channel and saw the show about Easter Island.

    My point. I’m curious about when it is that this irrational ideological rot happens. What conditions cause it to ripen? I don’t believe that all societies are always at risk all the time. Otherwise nothing would have ever gotten built. Well, besides massive moai heads. My current theory is that the mob is strong (more rational) following personally experienced adversity (frequent polar bear attacks), but weakens when the bears are never there. And then 9-11 happens and there’s a crazy stampede. The kind of alphas in power (more heroic vs more sociopathic) may be influenced by these conditions.

    (disclaimer: I almost went with the handle “metaphorhack”.

  8. Shh permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I agree the scale is massive beyond comprehension. The Laws of Thermodynamics assure us that, because the gas ratio is altered, the thermal gradient is also altered, thus, inexorably, so to is water content and distribution. Where I meant to draw attention to scale I’d be better off casting as acceleration I think.

    i.e. how quickly systems destabilize will directly impact how quickly human societies react and with what level of violence.

  9. Tiago permalink
    January 5, 2017

    Humanity can’t keep ignoring marxism.

  10. bruce wilder permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I’ve long been attracted by cyclical thinking. I think I originally “found” Ian’s voice because I was following Sterling Newberry on U.S. political-economic cycles. And, yes, I do read the Archdruid — his idea that the psychological satisfactions of being Cassandra dominate clear and practical thinking is useful and echo the OP’s headline.

    I also have a long investment stretching back to the 1970s in critiques of Econ 101 economics. I was trained in neoclassical economics and worked for a time as a non-academic professional economist, so my views have always been a bit of an ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its tail. Still, I take the point made in the OP: our economic ideology is blinding us, making it impossible to organize effectively to pull out of our Wile E Coyote run off over edge of the Seneca Cliff into thin air and oblivion.

    Neoclassical economics — the theoretical core of Econ 101 and the foundation of neoliberal ideology — is a Big Lie, in the Goebbels sense. (“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.”) Of course, we live with so many lies, it may be hard to accept that one in particular deserves the honor of being designated for a place near the core; I don’t care to argue that — just to make a few observations.

    The study of climate change is a remarkable example of Western Civilization’s great strength — the power of Enlightenment science. The understanding of the expert community is growing rapidly, I think, building an ever more sophisticated intuition about what is happening as we dump carbon into the carbon cycle and how this will play out over decades and centuries. The IPCC, which tries to bring this genuine expertise together, is pretty impressive really and it lags significantly behind the business end of the research. But, the economics in the IPCC reports is remarkable for its deliberate obscurity and vacuousness. The IPCC footnotes speak of hundreds of “studies” done conforming to empty-headed conventions of economic growth theory that are as stupid as spit and producing “results” that make no intuitive sense (countering climate change will “cost” economic growth in this self-defeating formula — go read the IPCC mitigation summary to see fully what I am pointing at: the economic analysis is appalling in that there are no referents to anything tangible one could think thru on one’s own).

    People talk about the settled science of climate change coming to consensus on the main outlines of what is happening as if the science of climate change and atmospheric chemistry or oceanic chemistry or meteorology or ecology contain some clear set of policy imperatives. (Obviously, there’s a message in STOP!, but that’s not a policy path.) They contain a clear imperative that there should be a political imperative for a policy path, but not what that political imperative or policy path should be. Thinking thru the outlines of the politics would require an effort in political economy similar in scale and scope to the efforts to model the climate system, and that just isn’t happening. It is worth attending to why it isn’t happening, why people don’t see the blindingly obvious need to think it thru in concrete detail or the equally blindingly obvious point that we are not thinking it thru.

    When the Roman Empire was falling apart — and I do not think the foundational causes were always obvious to the Romans themselves or something that they could be effective in countering — apocalyptic thinking and superstition took over as dominating ideology. (Christianity and chivalry formed the key ideologies of the Western High Middle Ages and were the legacy of more volatile periods of chaos which remain mostly “dark” despite heroic historical and archeological efforts, but some of what must have been the flavor comes thru even centuries later.) The most highly educated, literate elite “experts” debated fine points of theology and promoted elaborate lies about miracles, while popular preachers exhorted as hatefully as demagogues always do. From our perspective, it is reasonable to doubt that the Romans could develop the skills of epidemiologists to counter plagues or agronomists to counter soil erosion and famine; we know very little of their economic institutions beyond knowing that they apparently had some system of banking and insurance and legal arbitration. In the High Middle Ages, imaginative scholars re-constructed the Code of Justinian as a basis for a rationalistic system of law that we’ve been elaborating ever since, but we don’t know if that Code ever went into effect in its own time, and if it did, how it worked — the administrative area of the Eastern Empire, where it might have been used lost the Latin in which the initial core was written even before all the elements had been published; within a couple of generations, everyone spoke and wrote only Greek and even literacy in that language was in serious decline, while vulgar vernaculars were taking over the West. The Eastern Empire survived iconoclasm and upheaval, but there are a good two centuries at least that are very nearly as “dark” as the Dark Ages of the West — something as basic as literacy reached a very low ebb even in areas where administration survived and that very thin literacy was imprisoned by religion, for better and worse. And, there were many elements of Christianity, including the political organization known as the Catholic Church, which were sometimes for the better; the Church struggled thru centuries against the insanity of feudalism’s secular elite dedicating themselves to perpetual war and looting. Yes, the core economic device of Imperial Rome — looting by conquest — survived the fall, survived export as the Crusades, survived the truce by stalemate of the Quattrocento, survived until Henry Tudor foreclosed on bastard feudalism after the bloodbath of the War of the Roses and Henry VIII followed up by foreclosing on a no longer needed Catholic monasticism. And, still the spirit of feudal aristocracy went abroad as several waves of European imperialism and global conquest.

    Neoclassical economics, the “theory” and rhetorical engine of neoliberalism, is our theology. Like historical Christianity, economics is a schizophrenic effort. Just as Christianity attempted to rationalize religion and to overcome pagan superstition, economics (and political science and sociology and anthropology — the Enlightenment social sciences, of which economics is the self-appointed Queen as theology was the Queen of medieval rhetoric, math and philosophy) attempts to rationalize our social and political arrangements and institutions. Christianity had some signal success, in overcoming customs of blood sacrifice for example and some limited success in making private resort to violence taboo. Economics had some success early on in loosening the bonds of authoritarianism and eroding the legitimacy of landed aristocracy. Rationalizing money, finance and central banking and economic regulation generally as technical activity — technocracy — has had mixed results, but that’s partly because economics has become deeply corrupt (as Christian theology succumbed to its own deep corruption in the late medieval period, apologizing for simony and secular power in the divine right of kings and so on). Just as Christianity kept alive an idealist ethic that defined but also nurtured its own corruption, economics has its own notions of its own corruption — ah, if only we could get those damn incentives aligned!

    Political economic cycles are fundamentally about uncertainty — they are products of our not knowing a great deal more than we do know or can learn and overestimating what we do know then getting kicked in the ass for our ignorance by the consequences of our own hubris. We do learn, but we also forget and so it goes — a random walk in historical motion, the appearance of cycles forming as waves out of regular phenomena, like the passing of generations and the bunching up in crises at the inflection points. As Ian points out in the OP, the sheer scale of the hubristic Industrial Revolution promises a hell of a fall.

    What prompted these thoughts was that I find myself demurring at Ian’s identification of money and profit as at the core of ideological fault. I actually agree with Ian, that the failure of profit to account properly for social cost is a problem, but I think that his rhetorical formulation — in the technical language of neoclassical economics, “externality” — leaves us in the neoliberal quicksand. And, worse, it lends itself too easily to the mindless moral posturing of denouncing “greed is good” pseudo-philosophies like Randism that neoclassical economics seems to throw off as a by-product of its mainline disabling of critical thinking.

    Denouncing “greed is good” doesn’t really get us where we need to be, it seems to me. We need to be able to disagree, to have varying points of view, even the usual human modicum of self-interest and mixed motives and still manage to cooperate sensibly, to constrain ourselves collectively and individually know why.

    The main gig in neoclassical economics is to get the unsuspecting student to invest in a great chain of little lies that then form that great chain of being, the one Big Lie. The student of economics can generate an endless rhetorical stream of analysis of the (free) market economy, feeling very smart and even powerful, flooding every discussion of policy with ready formulations. “externality”! Like Adam naming the plants and animals, as if a label confers power.

    The “market economy” of neoclassical economics is a system in equilibrium (or stabilized by its powerful attraction to the near possibility of an equilibrium). The system is self-regulating. Do you see the problem? The contrast with the OP’s headline?

    The alternative modes of thought are end-times (classical Marxism, arguably) and some unbranded cyclical thinking that might admit uncertainty and risk and the impossibility of utopianism. (Maybe, we could talk “resilience” or something like that as a guide.)

    The neoclassical equilibrium can manage risk (knowing-what-we-don’t-know and being able to manage), but not uncertainty, not not-knowing-what-we-don’t-know.

    In a world of uncertainty, we can learn if we are prepared to do so, and we can hedge our bets to make use of what we do know, but the system is not self-regulating or automatic in any meaningful sense and cannot be. We can not rely on the market god to choose the best course for us. The market god is the deity of neoclassical economics and neoliberalism as a theology and serves to argue for disabling democratic politics and intention.

    What distinguished FDR and the New Deal from the neoliberalism of Reagan and Clinton is that the New Dealers, without any overarching theoretical conviction, acted in the knowledge that the political economy as a (then rather obviously failed) system needed deliberate detailed management in the common public interest. They didn’t imagine, or even pretend, that they could deregulate and the magic of the market would make it all work out for the best. FDR took the U.S. and the world off the gold standard, a supposedly automatic mechanism worshipped by many despite the manifest dysfunction it imposed in the 1920s and in the great deflationary spiral 1929-33 that created the Great Depression. The New Deal created a carefully structured and repressed financial system. The New Deal created a carefully managed agricultural sector, where farm incomes and investment were protected. The Tennessee Valley Authority did not wait on private initiative. (On the other hand, a common tale is that FDR followed his conservative instincts and relaxed deficit spending and direct employment too soon in 1936 and soon found out the market god would not deliver, though not everyone at the time took the lesson as a failure of the market god; many insisted it showed the failings of the New Deal to institute sustainable change — people do not always “learn” what we think they should from manifest failure; in fact people may disagree!)

    That’s where we are now: we have to accept our responsibility to manage the global political economy, the global climate, the global ecology. There are those who would object (rightly in my view) to an authoritarian monolith, just as post-WWII neoliberalism took up the cause of arguing against the alleged monolith of statist socialist planning. It was bullshit, of course, and tailored to suit the self-interest of immensely powerful interests seeking to contravene public authority and hijack the common wealth for private purposes. The pretense in neoliberalism of being anti-authoritarian was not entirely wrong, just not really interested in being right either.

    The success of the New Deal and the mixed-economy social democracies of post-WWII western Europe created systems that a later generation could profit by dismantling. Out of such dim and contingent understanding are cycles created.

    I am pretty sure the neoliberal market god is in the way. I do not know if there is any real prospect of overthrowing the ideology of neoclassical economics. The criticism has reached a remarkable crescendo in my lifetime without, so far, budging the academic establishment or the cliches of the market economy. Identity politics isn’t going to do much more than sell more Prius’s. If Uber and the bizarre vision of self-driving cars can subvert the creation of sensible infrastructure (rail, canals), and I think it can, we are going down a path of building a global economy for a privileged 500 million, and I hate to imagine what’s in store for the rest.

    A real economics has to think about things that actually matter. Like the limits to the assimilative capacity of the earth’s environment and the implications for energy use cum entropy (waste, pollution) — any energy use. Or, how economic systems are organized by hierarchy. We do not live in a market economy in any real sense; the actual economy is organized primarily around administrative hierarchies; we need an economics that can talk realistically about that. And, I think we actually do need a large-scale modeling effort for the economics of climate change, one that takes into account tightening resource limits and assimilative capacity, the importance of scale to technology and alternative means to realize technical scale. And, the very real probability that we will shortly lose all possibility of controlling the dynamic momentum of the climate and ecology by means of our own faltering self-restraint alone.

    Our economics thinking is very deeply impoverished by adherence to the cliches of neoclassical orthodoxy and neoliberal ideology and the slogans of “sustainability” and the like are not well thought thru. Engineering the climate is a crazy idea that will shortly be forced upon us by our abject failure to constrain profligate use of fossil fuels. And, even the progressives still fall back on conservative instincts and the market god of carbon taxes / permits who never seems to arrive.

    The Archdruid seems to think the rise and fall of civilizations is built into the hubris of intelligent species and the possibilities they inevitably discover on their isolated planetary islands in advance of their own possibilities for intelligent self-governance. It seems likely to me. The fall of civilization beginning now (or circa 1973) seems plausible enough. If so, it will take a good 300 years or so to play out, even if Seneca’s cliff proves a very steep incline indeed.

    OK that was a way long rant, but I like it and will hit submit; please forgive me those few who read this far.

    My bottom line on economics, is that we need an economics that can explain why we need to collectively constrain ourselves — collectively constrain all energetic economic activity that produces waste and uses the assimilative capacity of the environment, for example — and individually understand why. Because an economy is a system of distributed decision-making, in which we all pursue our private lives and interests.

    I don’t know that that is where we are headed. It seems to me we are thinking collectively (in a Jungian sense almost) about discarding a large part of the human population. That’s just so horrifying to me I cannot enjoy the ephemeral memes of self-driving cars and hot policy ideas like a basic income guarantee. I see those ideas as shadows of this mesmerizing notion that human population is mostly surplus. I think I know where declaring billions of people as surplus will end up.

  11. bruce wilder permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I posted a ridiculously long comment (even by my standards) and I just wanted to say that I will take no offense if it is discarded in moderation.

  12. Some Guy permalink
    January 5, 2017

    “The question is “is this time different?’

    The argument is scale.”

    Scale is important, but you also need to consider technology.

    Previous civilizations didn’t have nuclear weapons or even nuclear reactors to leave untended. They also weren’t capable of creating biological weapons the way we now can. etc.

    Technology might also throw up something that might lead to an ever-increasing AI singularity or some control technology that would allow the leadership to in some sense freeze things the way they are now, or things beyond the current imagination, although it seems like the time window on these possibilities is starting to close bit by bit.

    Whatever happens, humans are everywhere, and we’re pretty crafty, it would take a lot to wipe us out entirely. But, to ‘Shh’s point above, our current civilization is extremely complex and interconnected compared to those that came before and therefore seems quite vulnerable to systemic collapse at some point.

    I remember reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, and it was clear that, like Brave New World or 1984, it was a dystopic novel meant to describe a possible future in the hopes of helping avoid it. But reading ‘Oryx and Crake’ (again by Atwood but written many years later), I was struck by the fact that, whereas in ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ she focussed on the ‘after’ state, in ‘Oryx and Crake’ she focussed more on the ‘before’ state. It seemed that where Atwood once saw a decent civilization followed by dystopia she now foresaw a dsytopia (the ‘before’ state in Oryx and Crake) followed by the near extinction of humans, and she seemed to be on the fence about whether that extinction would be good or bad. At least that is how I read it.

  13. brian permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I like the scale, I like the not making absolutes, and I like the ideological focus. A lot of people are blind to the core ideology that binds them. It’s just something that always exists so they see around it. The next successful ideology is probably truly un-imaginable at this point in the same way scientific reason, infinity and Copernicus was unimaginable to the ideology prior to it.

    Environmentalism without human selfishness factored in is a non starter. Green lobby thinking taken to it’s extreme envisions a planet with no people or just people that are observers. A real solution is a humanity that takes responsibility for the entire world – terraforms it, genetically modifies it and hopes it has the institutions and processes to not destroy it by mistake.

  14. Hugh permalink
    January 5, 2017

    “A civilization ends when it can’t handle problems that are totally obvious, because its ideology won’t allow it to deal with them.”

    I like that a lot. World population was 2.5 billion in 1950. By 2020, it will be 7.5 billion, three times that, and sometime around 2037, it will be 9 billion. I guess two of my core admonitions are “Do the math,” and “Never bet against the math.” The subject of overpopulation is taboo. Think how often climate change comes up and how rarely overpopulation does. Yet it is this explosion in population that is driving and accelerating changes to the climate and destroying species and ecosystems around the globe.

    Almost everyone knows something is WRONG. But it is virtually impossible to get them to realize that they are being had and get them to point the finger at those doing it to them. Instead they reject one kleptocrat, Clinton, and vote for another, Trump, when it is kleptocracy and the class war that maintains it that is killing them. This is a crisis they face, or rather refuse to face, in the here and now. So think how much harder it is to get them to focus, and act, on the existential crises of overpopulation and climate.

  15. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 5, 2017

    @bruce wilder,

    The study of climate change is a remarkable example of Western Civilization’s great strength — the power of Enlightenment science … The IPCC, which tries to bring this genuine expertise together, is pretty impressive really …

    But on the other hand:

    .. the economics in the IPCC reports is remarkable for its deliberate obscurity and vacuousness.

    I’ll wait patiently while the other shoe drops. Are not the “global warming” “scientists” the very same technocrats who have been not-even-wrong about everything for the past 100 years? Is it possible that the authors of the IPCC reports are not “of a piece” (to use Ian’s phrase), so that they are at once paragons of Western science and vacuous charlatans? Isn’t it more likely that they are just vacuous charlatans all the way through?

    go read the IPCC mitigation summary

    Would you be so kind as to provide a link? I’d love to take a look.

    One more thing to juxtapose. Would-be policy-makers genuflect to “economics”:

    countering climate change will “cost” economic growth in this self-defeating formula

    But here is the point where “economics” overthrew politics:

    Economics had some success early on in loosening the bonds of authoritarianism and eroding the legitimacy of landed aristocracy.

    Since the “landed aristocracy” was overthrown, the state that could fix a policy and put it into practice, ceased to exist. The French Revolution’s “rule of the people” never existed and never could exist, but instead it ushered in the age of the rule of money, by means of propaganda. Rule by aristocracy was replaced with rule of the paid-off mountebank, and stewardship of property was replaced with sophistry to sway the masses.

    Who or what is sovereign of our states? No one and nothing: we live in a state of political anarchy. So we wait for the coming Caesarism that will restore the idea of political sovereignty.

  16. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 5, 2017

    Spengler from “Hour of Decision”, published in 1936:

    We live in momentous times. The stupendous dynamism of the historical epoch that has now dawned makes it the grandest, not only in the Faustian civilization of Western Europe, but – for that very reason – in all world-history, greater and by far more terrible than the ages of Caesar and Napoleon. Yet how blind are the human beings over whom this mighty destiny is surging, whirling them in confusion, exalting them, destroying them! Who among them sees and
    comprehends what is being done to them and around them? Some wise old Chinaman or Indian, perhaps, who gazes around him in silence with the stored-up thought of a thousand years in his soul. But how superficial, how narrow, how small-minded are the judgments and measures of Western Europe and America! What do the inhabitants of the Middle West of the United States know of what goes on beyond New York and San Francisco? What conception has a middle class Englishman, not to speak of a French provincial, of the trend of affairs on the Continent? What, indeed, does any one of them know of the direction in which his very own destiny is facing? All we have is a number of absurd catchwords such as “overcoming the economic crisis, “understanding of peoples,” “national security and self-sufficingness,” with which to “overcome”
    catastrophes within the space of a generation or two by means of “prosperity” and disarmament.

    One of Spengler’s themes is that the great cultures are mutually impenetrable to each other. This implies that the Chinese, while they may have adopted some of our outward forms, are inwardly still themselves. While the Classical culture was wiped off the face of history, the Indian and Chinese (both older than the Classical by far — the Chinese were already in their Age of Rationalism 1500 years before Charlemagne) have endured, century after century of plagues, wars, revolutions, invasions, world wars, to the the present day. If the Western culture flames out (I’m not totally sure it hasn’t already — who is the true master of the USA today?), then these ancient cultures will inherit world-supremacy.

  17. nihil obstet permalink
    January 5, 2017

    We lack the structures to develop the theories and the paradigms we need to address our problems. Bright, interested people don’t have the time to think.

    We once regarded universities as the means by which we transmitted culture and developed new ways of thinking. Now, to have a university career a scholar has to publish — this means staying within the framework that journal editors will accept. She must bring in grant money — this means not only limiting herself to small problems that a grant-funded study may illuminate, but also spending significant chunks of time applying for grants (and once successful, spending time on grant-awarding boards). The whole academic career is about incrementalism of knowledge within existing theory, the modern equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. You know there are angels. You know their defining characteristics. Now you are advancing knowledge by applying careful logic to a specific problem. The method has had very effective results in wide areas of science, but it seems to have ended up as a trap preventing needed change or advancement in many areas. That is, it prevents us from thinking that maybe angels are irrelevant.

    The overarching angel-examination question of our times is incentives. For over 100 years, we’ve pretty well known that external incentives are counterproductive for most complex tasks. (When the British government instituted bonuses for higher production of shells in World War I, it indeed got more shells. Quality cratered, so a lot of these extra shells just kind of dribbled out of the artillery guns. They would have been better off without the dud shells.) How many studies and experiments are going on now to figure out what external incentives work? We’ve destroyed the value of our manufacturing base as CEOs downsize, offshore, merge, hoard cash, and engage innovative auditing firms to bump stock prices so they can cash in on the external incentives. We’re wrecking the professions by instituting more and more merit pay schemes so that professionals will pursue the various paths to winning the schemes rather than the morality of their calling.

    We think that corporate good behavior will come if we make pollution a property the corporation can sell, give tax credits for activities that corporations were originally created to do, and when it doesn’t work, we just look to give more incentives.

    I go back to the idea that we need time and freedom for people to think through the issues, to experiment, to advocate without the necessity to cut their jibs to the prevailing winds. It offers the best hope of developing the alternatives we need to our present downward glide.

    And just because I couldn’t get this out of my head as I plugged along on this:
    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

  18. markfromireland permalink
    January 5, 2017

    @ Tiago January 5, 2017

    We’re not ignoring it. We’re just letting the Marxists babble amongst each other in their safe spaces which is far less effort and better ethics than eliminating them.

  19. Hugh permalink
    January 5, 2017

    IPCC stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as its name suggests it is both made up of representatives from various governments around the world but susceptible to pressure from them. It does not do its own research but assesses the state of the published literature on climate change. These assessments in retrospect (and because of the political pressures, for example, from countries heavily invested in fossil fuels) have tended to be on the low side of climate changes.

    You can read the section on mitigation in the November 2014 Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fifth Assessment:

    The section on mitigation starts on page 16 of the 32 page report.

    You can also look at the full synthesis report:

  20. anonone permalink
    January 5, 2017

    The melting of the polar ice caps will do more than just raise the water levels along the coast: it will also massively change the weight distribution on the planet, and because the continents are simple solid rock floating on liquid magma, they will be re-adjusting.

    Therefore, we can expect many more earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis that will make Fuchishima look like a wave in the bathtub. Tsunamis as tall as skyscrapers were not unusual in pre-historic earth.

    Then, the meltdowns of the nuclear reactors that we have scattered around the planet are the poison pills that ensure our extinction.

    Sleep well.

  21. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 5, 2017

    Much obliged, thank you.

  22. Arthur permalink
    January 5, 2017

    I have enjoyed this blog for quite some time but this is my first comment. I just want to say how much I agree with Mr. Welsh’s view. What I like is that he does not put a time frame on the situation because to do so is foolish. We are clearly in decline. Indeed, the Greco-Roman world that has had a long run (in human terms) is in the endgame. How long it will take to ‘fall’ is the question. I read other blogs–Berman, Kunstler, McPherson. I do not disagree with their views. However, they all are too damn quick to put a time frame on things. To read Kunstler every Monday one would think the world is about to end on Thursday.

    Like the Archdruid and Mr. Welsh I believe we are in for a slow motion fall that could take decades or longer. How much of humanity will survive? I don’t know. I have no doubt there will be a huge die off. On the other end there may be warlords and struggle or finally common sense and willingness by all to live within the borders of nature. Who can say for sure.

  23. January 6, 2017

    One of Spengler’s themes is that the great cultures are mutually impenetrable to each other. This implies that the Chinese, while they may have adopted some of our outward forms, are inwardly still themselves.

    No. I have worked with more than one generation of Chinese people from China. Each generation is more “American” than the last in demeanour, attitude, and philosophy, and there’s no turning back.

    While the Classical culture was wiped off the face of history, the Indian and Chinese (both older than the Classical by far — the Chinese were already in their Age of Rationalism 1500 years before Charlemagne) have endured, century after century of plagues, wars, revolutions, invasions, world wars, to the the present day. If the Western culture flames out (I’m not totally sure it hasn’t already — who is the true master of the USA today?),

    Uh, who is, given that you’re not sure whether “Western culture” has “flamed out”? (Leaving aside the rather pregnant concept of a culture “flaming out”, as though it were a sort of rocket.)

    then these ancient cultures will inherit world-supremacy.

    They won’t, in the sense that cultures are not and have never been discrete units of continuity, such that they can in themselves “inherit” anything. Some hegemonic paradigm other than our current one may come to be, through a continuous transition, and it may be driven by factors primarily based in non-Western countries, but it won’t be “an ancient culture”, as though those were distinct organisms with continuity other than notional and in the emotions of those invested in notions of organic, continuous culture.

  24. Tom permalink
    January 6, 2017

    Well unless sufficiently advanced aliens are able to keep us in a thermodynamic society by force as in the Gor Novels, we basically have to find a way to beat into the heads of people that killing the goose that lays the golden egg is fucking stupid.

    But more worrisome is who comes through the die off?

    As things stand feminist botched the whole birth control debate by missing the entire point of children and thus smart assertive women are being bred out of the human race since they aren’t having children. In their place smart dominant men are marrying submissive women and producing dominant sons who vote and submissive daughters who either don’t vote or vote their husband’s interests.

    I trust it doesn’t take a genius to realize the long term problem of that.

  25. anonone permalink
    January 6, 2017

    DNA will be unable to replicate reliably in a planet that is throughly contaminated by nuclear materials. Creatures with damaged DNA will not be able to reproduce viable offspring. The gene pool will eventually become so contaminated that reproduction will not be possible.

    Unless some life forms evolve in such a way to protect their cells from radiation, all surface terrestrial life is doomed. All of it. And DNA-based life will not be possible on the planet’s surface again for millions of years.

    So talking about scenarios in which a few humans survive a mass die-off is pointless because that isn’t going to happen because of the nuclear problem. Nuclear power plants and water storage facilities require active human involvement, technical expertise, and a working infrastructure to keep from melting down or otherwise leaking into the environment.

    There is no “a few will survive” scenario.

  26. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 6, 2017

    Hi Mandos,

    No. I have worked with more than one generation of Chinese people from China. Each generation is more “American” than the last in demeanour, attitude, and philosophy, and there’s no turning back.

    Adopting demeanor, attitudes, and philosophies of the West was a conscious survival strategy, was it not? I can’t say much because my knowledge of China is pitiful. Let me just say at least, I won’t be convinced that Chinese have become Americans while their immigration levels are lower than even Japan.

    Uh, who is, given that you’re not sure whether “Western culture” has “flamed out”? (Leaving aside the rather pregnant concept of a culture “flaming out”, as though it were a sort of rocket.)

    The rocket metaphor isn’t bad, although “seasons” are more apt, and the West is in its winter now. The current “transhumanist” dream of genetic engineering is a sad parody of the old Faustian dream of colonizing the stars. But yes, who or what guides the USA’s foreign policy (which is the only policy that matters in world history)? Bush’s foreign policy was run by Zionists. Obama is an anti-colonialist and crypto-Muslim. Maybe Trump will be a reprieve, but as far as I can tell the USA has been run by Asiatics for the past 16 years.

    Some hegemonic paradigm other than our current one may come to be, through a continuous transition, and it may be driven by factors primarily based in non-Western countries, but it won’t be “an ancient culture”, as though those were distinct organisms with continuity other than notional and in the emotions of those invested in notions of organic, continuous culture.

    Good statement of your philosophical materialism. Whatever impelled a Confucius to think and act as he did, if that is still alive or can be rekindled in the Chinese people, then the China of ancient memory is still kicking.

  27. Shh permalink
    January 6, 2017

    @bruce wilder. I thoroughly enjoyed your ruminations. Some interesting ideas are starting to bubble up in the oddest places. One thing for sure, the election just past has resulted in a marked change in dialectics.

    The fact that ideology drives behaviors, the fact that the mechanisms of administration are, by and large, controlled by a de facto cabal of entrenched interests (aka ideologues) and the uncomfortable corollary that they who make the rules don’t pay the prices, are all being explored in ways I haven’t really seen before.

    @anonone “DNA will be unable to replicate reliably in a planet that is throughly contaminated by nuclear materials.” [sic] Not sure I fully agree with this. It’s not a question of type, rather degree.

    The light emitted by the sun is nuclear radiation and is assumed to be a primary factor in creating the conditions whereby complex molecules flocculated out of the mists of time. Too, the sun emits far more than photons, there are staggering quantities of x-ray, gamma, beta and other EMF radiations one must consider as “nuclear materials” ejected constantly from the solar corona. That is, radiation is the mother and father of all life.

    The problem isn’t that radiation per se is bad. It’s only bad in a very narrow band of time if you’re the one trying to deal with it proximately.

    the “There is no “a few will survive” scenario.” is as likely as not to be a projection of your fear as it is to be a “truth” in the sense it becomes manifest. The future is fucking hard to predict.

  28. Ché Pasa permalink
    January 6, 2017


    Discussion of overpopulation is no more taboo than discussion of climate change.

    What’s taboo is the massive genocide implicit in any “solution” (final or otherwise) proposed for overpopulation.

    Just so, if most of the burdens of addressing climate change must fall on “those people” — whoever the designated burden-bearers must be — climate change will not be addressed in any comprehensive way.

    Come up with ways to address overpopulation without genocide, and ways to address climate change without overburdening those least able to carry more weight, and the supposed taboos evaporate.

    But we’re still very far from that point, aren’t we?

  29. brian permalink
    January 6, 2017

    Whenever people talk about future and where it is headed there seems to be a heavy layer of machine viewpoint of the world. All these pieces acting like gears slowly grinding us to a prognosticated future. Then someone like Trump comes along as a force of nature and upsets all of the analysis. It’s not just Trump though, it’s the human element that is missing. It’s like there is a denial of human agency. It’s not outside influence that creates the future but it is human being, feelings, fears, desires and work. Whatever the future is it will be because humans want it that way, or made it that way by accident, but not because there is some linear algorithm inexorably drawing us forward, or because of gears that keep moving. Futurism is only as good as how well you predict people’s actions.

  30. brian permalink
    January 6, 2017

    In continuing my previous comment –

    The previous fundamental worldview is debated to be rooted in the industrial age still. The mechanistic view. The world is gears turning. That there is a solid form to the world, black and white morals. My theory is that human’s world view and basis is an internalized structure of what they see around them. Not too controversial that the recent generations view themselves and the world around them as types of machines interacting in an archetypal kind of way. The next generations will internalize the archetype of the internet. There is not a good word like ‘mechanistic’ analogy to the internet era, except for the word ‘viral’. The future will view the relations of the world as more viral. I can guess where this will lead humanities ideologies.

    – There will be less structure to the worldviews. No solid right or wrongs. Maybe not even solid truths. More like viral culture ideas competing with each other for dominance.
    – Interaction and attention will be much more valued. Getting attention, keeping attention. Things will be useless unless people interact with it.
    – The worldview will be more reflecting of networks. Connections, group forming.

    These are just some ideas I have no idea. Mechanistic ideologies should still be there but probably be subsumed by viral network ideologies.

    Get to work kids!

  31. January 6, 2017

    It is not just capitalism but our conflation of monetary economics with Economics. We are suffering from moneytheism. Economics is nothing less than the metabolism of the planet and we need to recognize that and develop the tools to manage it. Or we risk some version of terminal disaster outlined by the doomsayers. Technology alone cannot fix it. The kind of shift we need is a wholesale, viral adoption of a non-fungible value index. It will redefine value and reset all relationships, if we’re lucky, in time to save the day.

  32. Hugh permalink
    January 6, 2017

    Ché Pasa, in a country like the US, overpopulation can be managed through sharply reducing immigration, both legal and illegal, and in stressing smaller families. Replacement levels in advanced countries like the US is around 2.1 children per woman. It should not be that hard or onerous to get fertility levels below this.

    Thing is if we can’t even talk about it here, then consider how much harder it is in the developing world where populations are growing much faster and cultural and political taboos are much stronger.

  33. different clue permalink
    January 6, 2017

    @Larry Chang,

    Moneytheism is such a good word I wish I had coined it. I will use it from time to time where appropriate. If enough other people feel the same way and do the same thing, we may be able to inject it into the language.

  34. White Buffalo Calf Woman permalink
    January 7, 2017

    Oh no. There’s definitely an end to this madness.

  35. DMC permalink
    January 7, 2017

    There’s good social science behind the contention that fertility rates drop proportionately with rising social security(ie retirement) spending. If people don’t feel the need for a large number of children to care for them in their dotage, they don’t tend to have them in the first place.

    Solar power became cheaper than coal in Chile this month and the Saudis and others are offering electricity futures at $0.03 a kilowatt(about half what it costs most places for coal fired electricity). The post carbon energy future is rapidly upon us and it won’t be tax deals or subsidies that bring it on but simple economics and steady technological advance. Trump may not like windmills but I doubt there is much he can do about them besides withdrawing tax breaks. He can’t make people want to pay more to burn coal. When electric cars are as cheap as regular cars and have similar range, who’s going to want so spend $50 on a tank of gas when you could drive the same number of miles in an electric for 30 cents? There will be a residual market for petrochemicals, plastics and such, just as there’s a market for coal derived chemicals, so their value as commodities won’t be zero, just proportionate to the much lower demand.

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