Later and Later
In last week’s post — Too Late — we discussed the insights to do with climate change, resource depletion and biosphere destruction provided by M. King Hubbert, Donella Meadows and her colleagues, and James Hansen. Each of these people provided thorough, well-researched insights as to the predicaments that we face, and each of them was roundly ignored. They assumed that a clear presentation of the facts would lead to action by those in charge. They were wrong.
For example, I noted that Dr. Hubbert was fundamentally an optimist. He predicted that production of conventional oil in the lower 48 states would peak in the early 1970s. He was right — he nailed it. He also anticipated a smooth transition from fossil fuels to nuclear power as the primary source of energy. That prediction was a miss. Nuclear power did grow for a while, but it has never come close to replacing fossil fuels. (It now provides around 7% of the world’s energy supply, and that percentage is declining.)
A Gloomy Prognosis
One of the early bloggers to do with these issues was Dr. George Mobus. He eventually stopped posting — there seemed to be little point. In one of his last posts (in the year 2019) he said,
Despite the inevitability of collapse of our technological civilization, there are a number of things that society should be doing right now to moderate the rate and severity of the collapse, thus giving some better chances for survival of some. Bear in mind, I do not believe these actions will actually be taken because the extent of true sapience, and the wisdom it entails, in the population, especially the ruling class, is at an absolute minimum. If it were otherwise, these actions would already be undertaken. Or, perhaps, the predicaments we face wouldn't even exist in the first place.
Those are gloomy words — but not all that unusual. Many of the people who write on climate change and related issues convey a sense that their work is futile — no one is listening to what they say. Many of these early researchers and writers were somewhat naïve when it came to human nature. They thought that, on the whole, the facts would speak for themselves. We have learned that such is not the case.
Another prescient writer was William R. Catton Jr. His book Overshoot, last published in the year 1982, provided a basic understanding of the predicaments that we face. His work was foundational for many of the writers who followed him. The image at the head of this post is of the cover of his book is, in effect, abbreviated Table of Contents.
In his preface to the book Catton writes,
I have tried to show the real nature of humanity’s predicament, not because understanding its nature will enable us to escape it, but because if we do not understand it, we shall continue to act and react in ways that make it worse.
Here is what John Michael Greer says of Overshoot in his post As Night Closes In.
The core of Overshoot . . . is the recognition that the principles of ecology apply to industrial society just as much as they do to other communities of living things.
Catton divided the concept of overshoot into six sections. Based on his approach we are currently somewhere in the ‘drawdown’ and ‘cargoism’ phases.
The concept of drawdown — stealing resources from the future — is illustrated in the following chart. It shows the assets of the U.S. Federal Reserve. (These "assets" are actually a debt that will have to be paid by future generations. If it is not paid because we cannot grow the real economy then we face either default or a high rate of inflation).
The chart shows that the Fed’s assets have risen from below $1 trillion as recently as 2006 to $8.5 trillion now. We trust that future generations will be able to pay for our current way of living.
The word ‘cargoism’ was used by Catton to describe an assumption that someone, somewhere will gift us with a solution to our problems. There is no need for the people receiving the gifts to understand where the gifts come from or to wonder if the gift-giving process may ever end. Applied to our society, cargoism becomes a faith that technological progress will stave off the need for major institutional change.
Many people in today’s world recognize that we face seemingly intractable problems, but they have faith that technology will save us. They assume that innovations in areas such as carbon capture, nuclear fusion, solar/wind power or geoengineering will allow us to maintain current levels of energy use while also holding global temperatures to within an acceptable range.
The Net Zero programs that are the focus of this blog series fall into this way of thinking. Whether these programs are realistic remains to be seen.
Greer's post As Night Closes In describes a conversation that he had with William Catton.
When I spoke to him <Catton> in 2011, he was perfectly aware that his life’s work had done essentially nothing to turn industrial society aside from its rush toward the abyss. That’s got to be a bitter thing to contemplate in your final hours, and I hope his thoughts were on something else last month as the night closed in at last.
The Exile Discussion
Last week's post Exile to Babylon discussed the sense of exile that many of us feel as the our world changes and as we move into an unknown future. One theme of that post was that exile is involuntary. We wish that climate change was not happening, we are very uncertain as to what the future holds, and there is no promise of a return to the “Old Normal”.
This week we continue these thoughts with the post Choosing Exile. Some people choose exile — they leave society, often in the company of other like-minded people, and form monastic communities.