Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It's called Catabolic Collapse

In a recent discussion at zero hedge over a post titled Is The Collapse In FX Reserves Even More Dangerous Than The Plunge In Money Supply?, I saw someone saying he expected our society to fall in a staircase fashion. That led to the following post.

The term you are seeking is "catabolic collapse" (Warning: PDF!). John Michael Greer proposed this theory in 2005 building on the work of Professor Joseph Tainter, whose initial theory attempted to frame all societal collapses in terms of diminishing marginal returns against increasing complexity. Tainter's theory was arguably a first solid understanding of how societies collapse but it did not quite mesh with temporal observations. Greer's work is an effort to take Tainter's theory and further adapt it to the observed behavior of past civilizations that collapsed, in order to yield a theory with some predictive powers (basic science - observe, hypothesize, test with an objective of falsifying your own theory).

There have been many attempts to explain the increase in debt and money supply over the last 40 years, but the one that comes closest to addressing this was first mentioned (to my knowledge) by Nate Hagens, and proposes that the increases in debt and money supply are an effort, using fiat money, to continue the rates of growth that occurred when human population was lower and resources were far more abundant than now.

We have not yet quite reached the point of real resource constraints biting us but we are beginning to see this as it takes more and more real energy to draw on increasingly lower quality ores, petroleum, natural gas, etc. As we approach the point where energy cost of extracting resources like oil to be used as energy sources becomes 1:1, the cost implications for everything else in society rise in response. Now the last I checked, we were somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1 in terms of energy returned versus energy cost (EROEI - Energy Returned On Energy Invested) for coal, oil, and natural gas extracted. That doesn't sound too bad except when you realize that just 70 years ago the ratio was nearly 100:1. And the change is due directly to having to drill/dig deeper into harsher environments (Deep Horizon anyone?) which themselves have higher operational costs and significantly higher dangers.

Eventually, any energy "source" which falls to 1:1 or below no longer is worth extracting for energy. That's basic physics and economics can blow its non-scientific ass all it wants but physics will win that argument every time. The longer term problem facing our civilization is a need to transition off fossil fuels (not right this second) and to replace those energy sources with energy sources that have EROEIs that are higher, if possible. Down that road is going to lie a mix of nuclear fission, nuclear fusion (maybe), solar, wind, tidal, etc. And those energy sources require higher levels of technical complexity than fossil fuels required.

So the transition has to be upwards to a higher level of social and technical complexity or we get the alternative - collapse. And right now, the vampire squid and entities like it seem more interested in ensuring we do collapse than really addressing the problems and contributing to longer term solutions. Of course the fact that we give corporations "personhood" before the law, yet corporations are legally mandated to act in ways that would mark a living breathing human being as a sociopath probably contributes to our entire social schizophrenia.

This goes back to a position I've taken for years on the internet about our future. I firmly still believe that every technical problem we currently see in front of us can be solved. The real problem is whether we will have the political and individual willpower to force change before collapse occurs. Because if we wait until after collapse occurs, we may just fall far enough down the technology tree that we can't get back to where we want to go. Sir Frederic Hoyle once remarked that technological civilization is a one-shot affair. If we blow the initial endowment of easily accessible ores and fossil fuels, those won't be replenished for millions of years. We either get this right or our entire civilization takes a step down. And right now, in every government around the world, we are twiddling our thumbs trying to preserve the status quo. Right now, more than ever in my opinion, we need less government meddling in markets precisely so the markets can send honest price signals about everything. Subsidizing anything needs to stop, including subsidizing fossil fuels. If the market price of fossil fuels were fully realized, we'd all begin to change our lifestyles pretty quick and begin to look at alternatives at the same time. But as long as we try to preserve the status quo, the market is prevented from sending the real price signals that something is amiss and needs to change.

1 comment:

xraymike79 said...

I recently saw this documentary:

And this documentary showed me that a society could successfully extract itself from fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture. If I remember correctly, their oil usage was reduced by something like 80-90% practically overnight. They were able to adapt within a few years and reclaim/repair the land and restructure their transportation system.
I don't know if this was just possible because they are a small island country or that their government is a better mobilizer of their people or that the Cuban society is more socially cohesive; but if they could do it, then their success must stand as an example for the rest of the world to take action now rather than wait as things progressively fall apart.