Category Archives: WEB LOG

Advocacy and newly discovered links of interest to people concerned about a sustainable future for “Spacehip Earth” and its living systems and species, including homo sapiens.

Soil into concrete

A fascinating Guardian article from its ‘Overstretched Cities Series’ on urbanisation, as population pressure on the planet continues in the least economically developed parts of the wo rld:

What happens to those cities over the next 30 years will determine the global environment and the quality of life of the world’s projected 11 billion people. It’s impossible to know how exactly how cities will grow, of course. But the stark fact, according to the United Nations, is that much of humanity is young, fertile and increasingly urban. The median age of Nigeria is just 18, and under 20 across all Africa’s 54 countries; the fertility rate of the continent’s 500 million women is 4.4 births. Elsewhere, half of India’s population is under age 25, and Latin America’s average age is as high as 29.

Global ice into ocean water

The flow of evidence and dire projections about human impact on the planet continues amid the distractions of the daily news dominated by US politics, Brexit negotiations, China’s emerging global ambitions, suspected Russian nerve agent poisoning, Facebook abuse of personal data and endless fascination with celebrities, to list but a few. Probably a small portion of the public engages with sources such as those featured on this website, despite the alarming trajectory that they reveal.

The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere (MAHB) from Stanford University is one of the sources providing crucial analysis of what is happening to our planet. In its latest on-line post from which the following conclusion is taken, maps and graphs of ice loss and sea level rise are provided. They show how rapidly ice is turning into water on our planet

“The average global sea level is already 82 mm above the 1993 average and is continuing to rise at the rate of around 3 mm/year. 

the temperature at Antarctic is rising more quickly than the global average, and it is losing about 118 gigatons of ice per year since 2002.

 Scientist at Potsdam Institute have found by modeling that for every five years climate forcing emissions are not reduced –as is happening at present– between 2020 and 2035, we could experience an additional 20 centimeters of sea level rise. 

… humans are using up the world’s resources and causing distress to animals and plants on this planet at a staggeringly faster rate. At the same time, we are destroying our own civilization. In the end it all comes to the fact that we are overpopulated at 7.6 billion, which is projected to rise to 9.8 billion by 2050. What human society is doing at present is unsustainable and as a consequence we are mindlessly using up resources leaving little for our future generations. It is time we wake up and reverse our course.”

Obsolete Economics

This lecture by Prof Nate Hagen is among the best I have recenty watched. It was presented in Saudi Arabia in early 2018, entitled “Energy, Money and Technology”. He brings together, in an hour, a wide range of ideas from many disciplines to show how our species is acting like a super-organism that is out of control and is bound to exceed the limits to the economic, money and debt-driven economic growth to which all nations are currently dedicated. He exposes the great error of the Cobb-Douglas conventional production function model of economics as seriously flawed. The model fails to factor in the true role of cheap fossil energy that has enabled exponential increases in human population and environmental impact on the planet. The conventional model also fails to incorporate the sources of economic activity and the sinks into which its wastes are discarded. Unusually, he deals with the evolved psychology of our species to explain why large-scale adaptation is not likely to avoid major socio-economic  breakdown as cheap carbon rises in price and as money and debt creation spiral out of control.

Hagen is a former Wall Street financier who took a ten-fold cut in income to teach and research at university once he saw the trajectory fired by cheap energy and cumulative debt upon which global systems are moving. As a taster, here are four “can’t haves” from one of his many slides:

  1. Economic growth and the end of climate disruption.
  2. Carbon-sourced energy replaced by  sufficient renewables.
  3. Achieve agreement to leave fossil fuels underground.
  4. Get governments to recognise and act to avoid the limits to growth before collapse of cheap energy-based modern life ensues.

The lecture condenses a whole course into a rapidly surveyed set of key concepts and is worthy of careful study.

Old Age and Societal Decline

By Richard Heinberg (Museletter No. 309 Feb 2018)

People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.

A metaphor is not an explanation.

First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.

The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.

Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.

There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.

Nevertheless, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of seeing it as an explanation, the comparison may still be useful. Explanation isn’t everything. We naturally want to know how to deal mentally and emotionally with both personal and societal mortality, and it’s in this pursuit that we may find usefulness in the metaphor.

Is the world getting old, or is it just me?

In order to locate that usefulness it’s probably best to start by acknowledging our context. Our own civilization is circling the drain. I won’t bore readers already well versed in the literature by rehearsing evidence that modern industrial society is past its sell-by date. For those new to the discussion, perhaps the most concise text I can recommend is William Ophuls’s tiny book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations FailOphuls surveys the best previous writings on the subject and offers a summary of the stages through which every civilization seems to pass on its inexorable journey toward collapse. It’s up to the reader to decide at which stage our own civilization has arrived.

Those of us who have spent years or decades drinking from the well of ecological literature on climate change, resource depletion, species extinctions, and limits to growth need no reminder of the existential threats to our society. The global industrial civilization that currently supplies us with everything that is necessary for life is coming apart—politically, socially, economically, and ecologically. Our leaders are incapable of acknowledging, much less reversing, industrial society’s progress toward oblivion.

This realization can be as at least as devastating as that of our personal mortality, though only for those who actually pay attention to the warning signs and have a historical perspective regarding past instances of collapse. (We haven’t talked about a third level of death—the extinction of the human species. This is eventually inevitable, but it obviously hasn’t ensued from previous civilizational crises, and probably won’t do so this time around either. Very few people give this ultimate mortality any thought whatsoever.)

Personal mortality is harder to deny than societal or species mortality. It’s true that, when we’re young, we know theoretically that our lifespan will be limited, yet somehow that knowledge tends not to sink in. But then, as decades pass and as we see ourselves age, our parents die, and our friends disappear one by one, death gradually becomes a constant if unwelcome companion. If we’re practical, we make plans for old age and write a will. If not, we may persist in denial, living as though nothing will ever change. But even then, moments when denial is impossible become more frequent. And in those moments the awareness of mortality is an inescapable psychological burden. However happy, unhappy, fulfilled, unfulfilled, privileged, underprivileged, eventful, or boring our life is and has been, it is in any case fleeting. In a few years our personal window into the world will no longer exist.

If it is mostly older people who viscerally understand and grapple with mortality, it may also be the deeply mature who are more likely to contemplate societal decline. At environmental lectures it’s hard not to notice that the average age of audience members tends to be 50 and above. That’s not to say there are no young people who understand that our civilization is fragile and self-destructive. In fact, some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated environmental activists I know are in their twenties and thirties. Perhaps most in their age cohort are simply too busy just getting by to bother attending lectures.

Is there a natural tendency for old people to yearn for the good old days and to complain that the world is going to hell? Certainly it is possible to think of examples of the stereotype—from biblical prophets like Jeremiah to elderly contemporary environmental writers such as Paul Ehrlich. But the key authors of The Limits to Growth were in their twenties when the book was released, as was Bill McKibben when he penned his bombshell New Yorker articles about climate change, which became the bestselling book The End of Nature. And Paul Ehrlich was only 35 when The Population Bomb was published.

Further, in traditional societies the role of elders was not so much to foresee calamity as to offer guidance and encouragement to younger people, in return for which they earned respect. Perhaps it’s only in societies that are at risk of decline and collapse, and in which the traditional role of elders is largely unacknowledged and unfilled, that old codgers tend to turn prophetic.

It’s the end of the world but I feel . . . how?

Nevertheless, our relative personal age may tend to make us feel somewhat differently about the end of civilization.

Young people are naturally concerned with career, partnering, reproduction, and parenting. They are likely to regard information about dire environmental trends as a distraction from these genetically and socially driven interests. Their incentive for denial is strong. Optimism sells: it helps one get ahead in the job market and it’s attractive to potential mates. However, if denial is overcome for whatever reason, a young person is likely to feel that societal decline is something she or he will personally have to deal with. One response might be to engage in activism to counter trends leading toward collapse; another would be to spend time and effort developing skills that are likely to be useful in a society that is downsizing and simplifying.

Older people are naturally more concerned with personal maintenance (failing vision and hearing, failing joints, failing memory). They want to ensure that they have made some lasting contribution to community and extended family. Though there are plenty of elderly activists, on the whole the attitude of the aged toward societal decline tends to be more that of an observer: there is the belief that although the world is going to hell, I personally will be gone by the time that destination is reached. Nevertheless it’s my duty to tell everyone who will listen what I think is happening and why.

Often, when denial of societal decline is no longer tenable, young and old alike jump straight to cynicism. Here I am not referring the teachings of the ancient Cynic philosophers such as Diogenes, which had many good points, but to the modern meaning of the term—which refers to concern only with one’s own interests, and the belief that society is inherently corrupt and irredeemable. Cynicism offers some minimal psychological self-immunization to utter despair, but this comes at the expense of connection with others—which is an essential ongoing source of emotional vitality.

Those who get beyond denial and cynicism often arrive at an attitude of compassionate engagement. We may not be able to prevent collapse, but we can still make life better for ourselves and other potential survivors as events unfold. We can make our community more resilient, protect vulnerable people and other creatures, and devote ourselves to creating places and moments of beauty.

May we have a good death; civilization too.

We each wish to die painlessly and well, with dignity, with our faculties intact, and with loved ones close by. It often doesn’t work out that way. But there are things we can do to improve our odds, such as to eat carefully, exercise, and treat others with respect and generosity.

What would a good civilizational death look like? It would be relatively slow rather than sudden; the distance of the fall would be manageable (people would be able to adjust to the reduction in societal complexity); and the casualties would be few. In the best instance, the death of a civilization is merely the “release” phase of the adaptive cycle, clearing the way for new growth of more diverse, simpler human cultures.

Achieving a “good” civilizational death would entail minimizing damage to ecosystems and exhaustion of natural resources, so that human survivors would have the biophysical basis for recovery. It would also require minimizing human births prior to collapse so as both to conserve resources and reduce the sum total of human suffering during the decline and fall, since collapse always entails a reduction in carrying capacity.

Sadly, a good individual death is easier to achieve than a good civilizational death: personally, we have a wide range of behavioral choices, whereas great civilizations are denial machines that, at least in their latter stages of development, always reward excess and penalize modest sufficiency. Civilizations grow as big as they possibly can, given their energy sources, their technologies, and the available ecological bounty. And ours has grown the biggest of all as a result of having fossil fuels as energy supplies.

Nevertheless, our personal choices make a difference for ourselves and for those in widening circles around us, potentially expanding our survival and recovery options within a civilization whose overall trajectory toward dissolution is already set. By pursuing sufficiency in the face of excess, conservation of the natural world, and connection with others, we can have as good and meaningful a life as possible within a civilization that is both itself dying, and dealing death to creatures great and small.

These are not entirely new thoughts. Joanna Macy has for years sounded many of the themes explored above in her “Work that Reconnects.”

Carolyn Baker does the same in her book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times. And The Dark Mountain Project pursues “uncivilization” as a collective creative project, having acknowledged that “It is . . . our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality.” The effort to seek and provide hospice care for the inhabitants of a dying civilization is never likely to go viral on social media or spark a movement. But it makes as much sense as any other activity I can think of.

According to tradition, the Buddha’s awakening began with his realization that sickness, old age, and death are inevitable. Perhaps our own realization that civilization’s demise is just as certain can lead to still another level of awakening.

Here the metaphor may show its highest usefulness. Old age teaches us the preciousness of everything—friends, nature, and ordinary moments in ordinary days. Truly ancient people, aged 85 and above, often attain a level of happiness that belies their physical frailty.

Maybe a society that’s on the verge of collapse provides the perfect incubator for an experience of reassessment, reconnection, and renewal. Whatever time we have left is valuable beyond measure. Let’s make the most of it.

Pleasure and to hell with the future?

MY QUESTION: Given the inevitability of social collapse, maybe we should live out our declining years as disciples of the pleasure principle and to hell with the future?

MY WISE FRIEND’S RESPONSE:  Do I detect some post-Methodist disdain for pleasure?

I wonder what a world run according to pleasure might be like? It’s so hard to imagine, conditioned as we are to believe life is about struggle, self-sacrifice and deferral? The mainstream religions are strongly opposed to any notion that life could or should be about pleasure, and when did any politician refer to it? One of the phrases I most disliked from the last Labour government was “hard-working families”, which seemed to encapsulate an appallingly narrow view of life, as well as contradictory ideas of both undesirable and necessary toil. Why should life be about working hard? That idea has been propagated by Christianity, capitalism and communism, which must indicate that something is seriously wrong!

I think this denial of pleasure also largely explains modern society’s strange attitudes toward sex. It’s one thing that’s rarely discussed openly and honestly, though of course we are assailed on all sides by sexualised images. I’m endlessly perplexed why people should disapprove of homosexuality, and I can only conclude that they have found no genuine pleasure in sex. Contented people have no desire to repress others.

My own life has been significantly conditioned by my parents’ inability to discern and seek any real pleasure in life. For them everything was a means to an end, and those ends never seemed attainable in this life. But our lives are so short, so why should we not want what we might attain right here, right now (provided that it doesn’t cause suffering to others)?

Of course you will say that the modern world’s behaviour is indeed causing suffering for others: for the poor and future generations. But my point is that we are busy trashing the planet for no good reason. There is now much evidence that economic wellbeing ceases to add to happiness after a certain point, and we might reasonably conclude that our society’s excessive consumption is unconscious compensation for our pleasure-free, stress-filled, overworked lives. Money itself is largely a surrogate for all those things we can’t directly experience for ourselves.

Politicians cannot talk about pleasure because really it’s about what we can do for ourselves. Our “political selves” are weirdly two-dimensional, but we are multi-dimensional beings. I’m becoming less and less interested in what any politician or religious person has to say; I’d rather lie in the sun, listen to music or go for a run! This is probably how I shall live out my “declining years”, though I shall be holding off the “decline” as long as possible!

Personal freedom & social collapse


For some time we’ve been discussing two interrelated issues: how humans relate to the planet, and how humans relate to each other.

The ecological crisis requires that humanity significantly reduces its impact on the planet, which can only come about through:

  1. top-down control/coercion,
  2. voluntary action,
  3. a combination of economic and population collapse.

The first is highly undesirable and almost certainly unworkable (given the record of previous attempts, e.g. communist regimes). The second is preferable but unrealistic, as governments are most unlikely ever to agree on behalf of their people to the necessary sacrifices (e.g. Rio +20), and groups of citizens working together will never have more than a negligible effect on the overall problem. The third is not a policy option but a plausible and alarming consequence of inaction.

In contrast, the core issue for modern human society is the development of personal freedom. Most of the political argument over the last century or so has been about this, though many of the options have presented this is in language that now seems strange to us. I’m not arguing for historical inevitability, though in the globalised era it does seem to be the case that when people have tasted some measure of freedom or observed it elsewhere, they demand more of it for themselves. Part of the psychological appeal of capitalism and consumerism is that they give some experience of personal choice. The hundreds of millions of the new middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere will certainly feel that their lives have got better. Greater economic freedom probably leads to an expectation of freedom in other areas of life because it expands the idea of personal sovereignty. We no longer see ourselves as part of the collective in the same way and become less willing to submit to controls and coercion. The “social contract” has been rewritten, and on the whole this is a very good thing.

These two trends are clearly antagonistic. This is the dilemma of contemporary humanity, and I see no means of resolution unless people become radically different from the way they are and are ever likely to be. This is where we’ve got to in the “human beings on planet earth experiment”, and the outcome doesn’t look very hopeful. However, we don’t know how this will play out and over what timescale, so I don’t think we should become overly pessimistic. We are still individually experiencing the miracle of life, and there are endless things we can do to make our lives rewarding and meaningful, including acting on behalf of others and the planet. The point is not to be deluded about this, or fanatical, or coercive.

I have no blueprint to offer. I know I cannot preach to others actions I’m not prepared to take myself. My life is not “sustainable” in planetary terms, and neither is yours. Also, I’m not willing to accept others’ rules about how I should live my life. I am very wary of the collective. I am clearly part of the problem rather than the solution!

Can evidence transform worldviews?

My on-line friend Slav Heller has created a useful map of existential beliefs (MEB) or ideologies which can be used to compare basic worldviews. The scientific-rational worldview is termed by Heller the Ideology of Superior Mind, implying a certain hubris for those who see the world through the lens of reason and science and are not confident in using supernatural beliefs to make sense of the world. His map uses the label Ideology of Power and Domination as underpinning the almost universal driver of ‘progress’ as unending wealth accumulation. Opposed to this is the still minority worldview whcih he labels the Ideology of Nature’s Wisdom.

This article which summarises an academic papaer, makes an assertion and asks the question: Global politics is based on an outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. Can science change a dire situation? It argues that the political notion of progress as modernisation and GDP growth needs to be re-examined against a scinetific analysis of its costs not only its benefits.  Costs include, especially, the growing impacts of modern ways of life on the natural environment and on human wellbeing (which are, of course inextricably linked). That many of the world’s most populous nations, including China, India and Brazil, are, in important respects, following this path of progress greatly increases the global threat.

Unfortunately for those wishing to redefine ‘progress’: Changing the political and cultural status quo runs up against formidable obstacles. One is the inertia in the system, with currents ways of doing things locked into place by entrenched and self-perpetuating organisational values and attitudes, and the multitude of existing mechanisms by which the world is run. Another obstacle is the money and effort that vested political and corporate interests put into maintaining their advantage….

the task is to enlarge political debate to question the worldviews that underpin politics. This would open the way for far-reaching policy choices that the current status quo precludes. Politics and the media define arbitrarily what warrants coverage and discussion, and much that is important is left out. … There is no valid reason why the worldview of leaders could not be a central theme of political debate. This would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional framework of progress.

The article concludes: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are useful, but remain embedded in the orthodox model of development. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides one model for how to move forward if it can be applied to the much larger task of genuine sustainable development.

Governments and leaders will not implement solutions to the threats facing humanity if they are not convinced of their extent and magnitude, which they are not at present. Perceived scientific legitimacy is a central justification for these political perceptions. Changing these perceptions is arguably science’s greatest challenge today.

On a website that is concerned for the sustainablilty of sentient life on Spaceship Earth the definition of ‘progress and development’, as represented by prevailing worldviews, is fundamental. For years it has been my clear mission to challenge the ‘no brainer’ delusion that unending economic, population and technological exponential growth (human impact on the finite planet) is a fatal trajectory and the resources on this site offer ample evidence of the consequences, but sadly, few indicators of evidence that the worldviews that drive this trajectory can or are being significantly changed.

Catastrophic Metaphors

Monbiot in this review claims that Jeremy Lent’s “The Patterning Instinct”  is the most important book he has ever read. This is a remarkable claim from such a prolific writer, scholar and activist who has dedicated his life to the protection of nature from the ravages of human civilisation. Lent’s work falls within a new discipline called cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge….

Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.

Prophets and Wizards

This article from the Atlantic is an extract from a new book by Charles Mann. It provides an excellent overview of two divergent streams of  thought and action in relation to a sustainable future, particularly with reference to feeding 10 billion people anticipate three decades from now. The extract from the book labels the work following from that of William Vogt as ‘Prophets’ and that from Norman Borlaug as ‘Wizards’. Essentially Vogt advocated curbing human impact on the planet whereas Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, and his successors see the possiblity of technological solutions to the predicament of exponentially growing  population and affluence. The article reports ‘moon shot’ scale R & D  on the genetic modification of plants following on the original works of Borlaug but does not shy away from a complex and cautionary systems view of the complexity of the challenges facing food production in the years ahead.

Much of the material on this website falls into the ‘Prophet’ stream of thought as does David C Korten’s “Change the Story; Change the Future” tha my son recently bought me. He also at the same time bought me by way of balance, Oliver Morton’s”The Planet Remade” which is firmly located in the ‘Wizard’ stream with its advocacy of geoengineering to change the planet.

Polar vortex & jet stream effects

Not the most compelling title for a blog entry, but the recent extreme weather events that brought snow to both Florida and the Sahara desert are clearly explained in this 5 minute video.  Produced by Yale Climate Connections, it denies the notion that when cold weather reaches further south than expected, this must be evidence that there is no global warming. The heating of the Arctic region and the reduction of sea ice disrupts the polar vortex of high pressure and alters the paths of the jet stream that results in cold air being dragged further south and warm air being dragged further north. Thus, while Florida freezes, Alaska has experienced abnormally high temperatures. Would that climate deniers in power who are rolling back attempts at amelioration of global warming could grasp the points made in this excellent and authoritative video! If they did, then perhaps a sustainable future might seem more desireable than the accumulation and concentration of wealth as a guiding principle of public and private leadership.