Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Sixth Stage of Collapse

Joel Robison
[In italiano]

I admit it: in my last book, The Five Stages of Collapse, I viewed collapse through rose-colored glasses. But I feel that I should be forgiven for this; it is human nature to try to be optimistic no matter what. Also, as an engineer, I am always looking for solutions to problems. And so I almost subconsciously crafted a scenario where industrial civilization fades away quickly enough to save what's left of the natural realm, allowing some remnant of humanity to make a fresh start.
Ideally, it would start of with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.

Of course, there are problems even with this scenario. Take, for instance, the problem of Global Dimming. The phenomenon is well understood: sunlight reflected back into space by the atmospheric aerosols and particulates generated by burning fossil fuels reduces the average global temperature by well over a degree Celsius. (The cessation of all air traffic over the continental US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has allowed climate scientists to measure this effect.) If industrial activity were to suddenly cease, average global temperatures would be jolted upward toward the two degree Celsius mark which is widely considered to be very, very bad indeed. Secondly, even if all industrial activity were to cease tomorrow, global warming, 95% of which is attributed to human activity in the latest (rather conservative and cautious) IPCC report, would continue apace for the better part of the next millennium, eventually putting the Earth's climate in a mode unprecedented during all of human existence as a species.

On such a planet, where the equatorial ocean is hotter than a hot tub and alligators thrive in the high Arctic, our survival as a species is far from assured. Still, let's look at things optimistically. We are an adaptable lot. Yes, the seas will rise and inundate the coastal areas which over half of us currently inhabit. Yes, farmland further inland will become parched and blow away, or be washed away by the periodic torrential rains. Yes, the tropics, followed by the temperate latitudes, become so hot that everyone living there will succumb of heat stroke. But if this process takes a few centuries, then some of the surviving bands and tribes might find a way to migrate further north and learn to survive there by eking out some sort of existence in balance with what remains of the ecosystem.

We can catch glimpses of what such survival might look like by reading history. When Captain James Cook landed on the shore of Western Australia, he was the first white man to encounter aboriginal Australians, who had up to that point persisted in perfect isolation for something like 40.000 years. (They arrived in Australia at about the same time as the Cromagnons displaced the Neanderthals in Europe.) They spoke a myriad different languages and dialects, having no opportunity and no use for any sort of unity. They wore no clothes and used tiny makeshift huts for shelter. They had few tools beyond a digging stick for finding edible roots and a gig for catching fish. They had no hoards or stockpiles, and did not keep even the most basic supplies from one day to the next. They had little regard for material objects of any sort, were not interested in trade, and while they accepted clothes and other items they were given as presents, they threw them away as soon as Cook and his crew were out of sight.

They were, Cook noted in his journal, entirely inoffensive. But a few actions of Cook's men did enrage them. They were scandalized by the sight of birds being caught and placed in cages, and demanded their immediate release. Imprisoning anyone, animal or person, was to them taboo. They were even more incensed when they saw Cook's men catch not just one, but several turtles. Turtles are slow-breeding, and it is easy to wipe out their local population by indiscriminate poaching, which is why they only allowed the turtles to be taken one at a time, and only by a specially designated person who bore responsibility for the turtles' welfare.

Cook thought them primitive, but he was ignorant of their situation. Knowing what we know, they seem quite advanced. Living on a huge but arid and mostly barren island with few native agriculturally useful plants and no domesticable animals, they understood that their survival was strictly by the grace of the surrounding natural realm. To them, the birds and the turtles were more important than they were, because these animals could survive without them, but they could not survive without these animals.

Speaking of being primitive, here is an example of cultural primitivism writ large. At the Age of Limits conference earlier this year, at one point the discussion turned to the question of why the natural realm is worth preserving even at the cost of human life. (For instance, is it OK to go around shooting poachers in national parks even if it means that their families starve to death?) One fellow, who rather self-importantly reclined in a chaise lounge directly in front of the podium, stated his opinion roughly as follows: “It is worth sacrificing every single animal out there in order to save even a single human life!” It took my breath away. This thought is so primitive that my brain spontaneously shut down every time I tried to formulate a response to it. After struggling with it for a bit, here is what I came up with.

Is it worth destroying the whole car for the sake of saving the steering wheel? What use is a steering wheel without a car? Well, I suppose, if you are particularly daft or juvenile, you can use it to pretend that you still have a car, running around with it and making “vroom-vroom!” noises... Let's look at this question from an economic perspective, which is skewed by the fact that economists tend view the natural realm in terms of its economic value. This is similar to you looking at your own body in terms of its nutritional content, and whether it would make good eating. Even when viewed from this rather bizarre perspective that treats our one and only living planet as a storehouse of commodities to be plundered, it turns out that most of our economic “wealth” is made possible by “ecosystem services” which are provided free of charge.

These include water clean enough to drink, air clean enough to breathe, a temperature-controlled environment that is neither too cold nor too hot for human survival across much of the planet, forests that purify and humidify the air and moderate surface temperatures, ocean currents that moderate climate extremes making it possible to practice agriculture, oceans (formerly) full of fish, predators that keep pest populations from exploding and so on. If we were forced to provide these same services on a commercial basis, we'd be instantly bankrupt, and then, in short order, extinct. The big problem with us living on other planets is not that it's physically impossible—though it may be—it's that there is no way we could afford it. If we take natural wealth into account when looking at economic activity, it turns out that we consistently destroy much more wealth than we create: the economy is mostly a negative-sum game. Next, it turns out that we don't really understand how these “ecosystem services” are maintained, beyond realizing that it's all very complicated and highly interconnected in surprising and unexpected ways. Thus, the good fellow at the conference who was willing to sacrifice all other species for the sake of his own could never be quite sure that the species he is willing to sacrifice doesn't include his own.

In addition, it bears remembering that we are, in fact, sacrificing our species, and have been for centuries, for the sake of something we call “progress.” Aforementioned Captain Cook sailed around the Pacific “discovering” islands that the Polynesians had discovered many centuries earlier, his randy, drunken, greedy sailors spreading venereal disease, alcoholism and corruption, and leaving ruin in their wake wherever they went. After the plague of sailors came the plague of missionaries, who made topless Tahitian women wear “Mother Hubbards” and tried to outlaw fornication. The Tahitians, being a sexually advanced culture, had a few dozen different terms for fornication, relating to a variety of sex acts. Thus the missionaries had a problem: banning any one sex act wouldn't have made much of a dent, while a ban that enumerated them all would read like the Kama Sutra. Instead the missionaries chose to promote their own brand of sex: the “missionary position,” which is best analyzed as two positions—top and bottom. The bottom position can enhance the experience by taking a cold shower, applying blue lipstick and not breathing. I doubt that it caught on much on Tahiti.

The Tahitians seem to have persevered, but many other tribes and cultures simply perished, or continue to exist in greatly diminished numbers, so depressed by their circumstances that they are not interested in doing much beyond drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching television. And which group is doing the best? That's the one that's been causing the most damage. Thus, the rhetoric about “saving our species from extinction” seems rather misplaced: we have been doing everything we can to drive it to extinction as efficiently as possible for a few centuries now, and we aren't about to stop because that would be uncivilized.

Because, you see, that's who we are: we are educated, literate, civilized persons. The readers of this blog especially are economically and environmentally enlightened types, their progressivism resting on the three pillars of pointing out financial Ponzi schemes, averting environmental devastation and eating delicious, organic, locally grown food. We do wish to survive collapse, provided the survival strategy includes such items as gender equality, multiculturalism, LGBT-friendiness and nonviolence. We do not wish to take off all of our clothes and wander the outback with a digging stick looking for edible tubers. We'd rather sit around discussing green technology over a glass of craft-brewed beer (local, of course) perhaps digressing once in a while to consider the obscure yet erudite opinions of one Pederasmus of Ülm on the endless, glorious ebb and flow of human history.

We don't want to change who we are in order to live in harmony with nature; we want nature to live in harmony with us while we remain who we are. In the meantime, we are continuing to wage war on the sorry remnants of the tribes that had once lived in balance with nature, offering them “education,” “economic development” and a chance to play a minor role in our ruinous, negative-sum economic games. Given such options, their oft-observed propensity to do nothing and stay drunk seems like a perfectly rational choice. It minimizes the damage. But the damage may already have been done. I will present just two examples of it, but if you don't like them, there are plenty of others.

For the first, you can do your own research. Buy yourself an airline ticket to a tropical paradise of your choice and check into an oceanside resort. Wake up early in the morning and go look at the beach. You will see lots of dark-skinned people with wheelbarrows, buckets, shovels and rakes scraping up the debris that the surf deposited during the night, to make the beach look clean, safe and presentable for the tourists. Now walk along the beach and beyond the cluster of resorts and hotels, where it isn't being continuously raked clean. You will find that it is so smothered with debris as to make it nearly impassable. There will be some material of natural origin—driftwood and seaweed—but the majority of the debris will be composed of plastic. If you try to sort through it, you will find that a lot of it is composed of polypropylene and nylon mesh and rope and styrofoam floats from the fishing industry. Another large category will consist of single-use containers: suntan lotion and shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, water bottles, fast food containers and so on. Typhoons and hurricanes have an interesting organizing effect on plastic debris, and you will find piles of motor oil jugs next to piles of plastic utensils next to piles of water bottles, as if someone actually bothered to sort them. On a beach near Tulum in México I once found an entire collection of plastic baby sandals, all of different colors, styles and vintages.

Left on the beach, the plastic trash photo-degrades over time, becoming discolored and brittle, and breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The final result of this process is a microscopic plastic scum, which can persist in the environment for centuries. It plays havoc with the ecosystem, because a wide variety of animals mistake the plastic particles for food and swallow them. They then clog their digestive tracts, causing them to starve. This devastation will persist for many centuries, but it has started already: the ocean is dying. Over large areas of it, plastic particles outnumber plankton, which forms the basis of the oceanic food chain.

The ravages of the plastics plague also affect land. Scraped together by sanitation crews, plastic debris is usually burned, because recycling it would be far too expensive. Plastic can be incinerated relatively safely and cleanly, but this requires extremely high temperatures, and can only be done at specialized facilities. Power plants can burn plastic as fuel, but plastic trash is a diffuse energy source, takes up a lot of space and the energy and labor costs of transporting it to power plants may render it energy-negative. And so a lot of plastic trash is burned in open pits, at low temperatures, releasing into the atmosphere a wide assortment of toxic chemicals, including ones that affect the hormonal systems of animals. Effects include genital abnormalities, sterility and obesity. Obesity has now reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the world, affecting not just the humans but other species as well. Here, then, is our future: chemical plants continue to churn out synthetic materials, most of these find their way into the environment and slowly break down, releasing their payload of toxins. As this happens, people and animals alike turn into obese, sexless blobs. First they find that they are unable to give birth to fertile male offspring. This is already happening: human sperm counts are dropping throughout the developed world. Next, they will be unable to give birth to normal male babies—ones without genital abnormalities. Next, they will be unable to produce male offspring at all, as has already happened to a number of marine species. Then they go extinct.

Note that no disaster or accident is required in order for this scenario to unfold, just more business as usual. Every time you buy a bottle of shampoo or a bottle of water, or a sandwich that comes wrapped in plastic or sealed in a vinyl box, you help it unfold a little bit further. All it takes is for the petrochemical industry (which provides the feedstocks—oil and natural gas, mostly) and the chemical plants that process them into plastics, to continue functioning normally. We don't know whether the amount of plastics, and associated toxins, now present in the environment, is already sufficient to bring about our eventual extinction.

But we certainly don't want to give up on synthetic chemistry and go back to a pre-1950s materials science, because that, you see, would be bad for business. Now, you probably don't want to go extinct, but if you decided that you will anyway, you would probably want to remain comfortable and civilized down to the very end. And life without modern synthetics would be uncomfortable. We want those plastic-lined diapers, for the young and the old!

This leaves those of us who are survival-minded, on an abstract, impersonal level, wishing for the global financial, commercial and political collapse to occur sooner rather than later. Our best case scenario would go something like this: a massive loss of confidence and panic in the financial markets grips the planet over the course of a single day, pancaking all the debt pyramids and halting credit creation. Commerce stops abruptly because cargos cannot be financed. In a matter of weeks, global supply chains break down. In a matter of months, commercial activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, rendering governments everywhere irrelevant. In a matter of years, the remaining few survivors become as Captain Cook saw the aboriginal Australians: almost entirely inoffensive.

One of the first victims of collapse would be the energy companies, which are among some of the most capital-intensive enterprises. Next in line are the chemical companies that manufacture plastics and other synthetic organic chemicals and materials: as their petrochemical feedstocks become unavailable, they are forced to halt production. If we are lucky, the amount of plastic that is in the environment already turns out to be insufficient to drive us all to extinction. Human population can dwindle to as few as a dozen breeding females (the number that survived one of the ice ages, as suggested by the analysis of mitochondrial DNA) but in a dozen or so millennia the climate will probably stabilize, the Earth's ecology recover, and with it will the human population. We may never again achieve a complex technological civilization, but at least we'll be able to sing and dance, have children and, if we are lucky, even grow old in peace.

So far so good, but our next example makes the desirability of a swift and thorough collapse questionable. Prime exhibit is the melted-down nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Contrary to what the Japanese government would want everyone to believe, the situation there is not under any kind of control. Nobody knows what happened to the nuclear fuel from the reactors that melted down. Did they go to China, à la China Syndrome? Then there is the spent nuclear fuel pool, which is full, and leaking. If the water in that pool boils away, the fuel rods burst into flames and melt down and/or explode and then, according to some nuclear experts, it would be time to evacuate the entire northern hemisphere. The site at Fukushima is so radioactive that workers cannot go anywhere near it for any length of time, making it rather fanciful to think that they'll be able to get the situation there under control, now or ever. But we can be sure that eventually the already badly damaged building housing the spent nuclear fuel will topple, spilling its load and initiating phase two of the disaster. After that there will be no point in anyone going to Fukushima, except to die of radiation sickness.

You might think that Fukushima is an especially bad case, but plants just like Fukushima dot the landscape throughout much of the developed world. Typically, they are built near a source of water, which they use as coolant and to run the steam turbines. Many of the ones built on rivers run the risk of the rivers drying up. Many of the ones built on the ocean are at risk of inundation from rising ocean levels, storm surges and tsunamis. Typically, they have spent fuel pools that are full of hot nuclear waste, because nobody has figured out a way to dispose of it. All of them have to be supplied with energy for many decades, or they all melt just like Fukushima. If enough of them melt and blow up, then it's curtains for animals such as ourselves, because most of us will die of cancer before reaching sexual maturity, and the ones that do will be unable to produce healthy offspring.

I once flew through the airport in Minsk, where I crossed paths with a large group of “Chernobyl children” who were on their way to Germany for medical treatment. I took a good look at them, and that picture has stayed with me forever. What shocked me was the sheer variety of developmental abnormalities that were on display.

It seems like letting global industrial civilization collapse and all the nuclear power plants cook off is not such a good option, because it will seal our fate. But the alternative is to “extend and pretend” and “kick the can down the road” while resorting to a variety of environmentally destructive, increasingly desperate means to keep industry running: hydraulic fracturing, mining tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and so on. And this isn't such a good option either because it will seal our fate in other ways.

And so it seems that there may not be a happy end to my story of The Five Stages of Collapse, the first three of which (financial, commercial, political) are inevitable, while the last two (social, cultural) are entirely optional but have, alas, already run their course in many parts of the world. Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention—environmental collapse—at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.

This tragic outcome may not be unavoidable. And if it is not unavoidable, then that's about the only problem left that's worth solving. The solution can be almost arbitrarily expensive in both life and treasure. I would humbly suggest that it's worth all the money in the world, plus a few billion lives, because if a solution isn't found, then that treasure and those lives are forfeit anyway.

A solution for avoiding the sixth stage must be found, but I don't know what that solution would look like. I do find it unsafe to blithely assume that collapse will simply take care of the problem for us. Some people may find this subject matter so depressing that it makes them want to lie down (in a comfortable position, on something warm and soft) and die. But there may be others, who still have some fight left in them, and who do wish to leave a survivable planet to their children and grandchildren. Let's not expect them to use conventional, orthodox methods, to work and play well with others, or to be polite and reasonable in dealing with the rest of us. Let's just hope that they have a plan, and that they get on with it.


Without Wax said...

Great article, as usual. The trouble I see with your last sentence is that if there is a small group of people who understand the problem, have a solution, and are using unorthodox and secret methods to carry it out (which I believe) then their eventual gene pool, once we are gone, will be full of people with their DNA and characteristics: ruthlessness, selfishness, greed, superiority complex, etc. So that doesn't bode well for their survival.

How to get some good guys to survive - that is the question.

Dr. Doom said...

Hey, I'm a good guy (I think) and I have a solution to the nuke power plants going Fukushima everywhere. Let's be sensible, like the Germans, and declare an end to nuclear power. At least to the old-fashioned nuclear fission variety. We must directly challenge the assumption, widely held by many in charge, that modern society will always be in tact enough to handle any nuclear emergency. (Preaching to the choir here at the "club".)

It's a tall order, but the Germans managed it. Of course, the French (and Russians) are their next-door neighbors, and they have nuclear power plants scattered all over their country. Clearly, this has to be an international effort.

We could try to introduce some logic. Why do some folks take out life insurance? Because they know their life will end eventually, and they want to make sure their descendants are taken care of as much as possible. The PTB and their politicians need to confront this issue, in a timely and least defeatist manner. Perhaps they need to put some spin on it, like "it's time to make way for waste-free nuclear fusion" or, more pragmatic: "since we cannot come up with a sensible disposal plan that all global actors can agree upon, we have decided to stop producing fission products". Or, heaven forbid, we could hold a referendum, like they do for silly sexual preferences, but this time for something important, like our near-term survival.

Politics and sales/advertising spin are not my strong points, but I believe I make an excellent behind-the-scenes instigator. Will work part time, on weekends, to help save humanity.

sjoh said...

It's a real shame that the tribes/cultures who had a pleasant relationship with the natural environment were all overrun by colonial nation states, their written laws, and view of nature as resource.

Like the Australian Aborigines, in New Zealand the Maori have not fared well, many tribal chiefs having signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. They should have spoken to Kropotkin first! Though an oral culture, they put little squiggles and marks on the treaty document. Little did they realize they were opening the floodgates to centrally enforced written legislation which would sweep their cultural systems for “maintaining balance” away.

Though inconceivable to most people in NZ today, if current arrangements radically change, longer-term the Tikanga Maori system could well make a comeback.

(At least the colonialists themselves had the sense not to build any nuclear power plants down here!)

k-dog said...

Sing, dance, have children, grow old in peace, and then while dying have comfort knowing children and grandchildren can also have the same life. What could be more natural than that. Aboriginal Australians would have understood. Pacific islanders would have understood. It is after all the true natural order of things.

What we have is perverted, twisted and unnatural but being born into it we see it as normal.

If we could throw away modern technology perhaps we should but that is only a dream. An unrealistic dream. There are now far to many of us to survive without modern technology and with it's collapse we die.

The answer is to throw away the twisted an perverted. Return to natural values with modern technology used as it should be and not as it is now. Eliminate all advertising. Tax industry hard when they don't address externalities and reward them with tax breaks when they reduce their environmental footprints. Impeach dishonest leaders and reward those who look to the present and the future and not those who live for their own immediate gain and that of their personal party or tribe. Live in honesty and demand it from others. Diversify mass-media. Take it away from the big players. End the media monopoly. It has become a shameless propaganda machine. Seriously address overpopulation.

There are thousands of ways we can save the world but few seem very concerned. We are like the broken natives drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching television. We are in a funk but this can change. We must change it.

Are there those who still have some fight left in them?

Yes and we are legion. Powerful forces have long kept us marginalized but now a tipping point of general frustration is near. We must seize the moment.

It seems overwhelming but it is not. Begin to think of what it will take for a thousand generations to sing, dance, have children, and grow old in peace. Start there and answers will come. Start with a sane frame of mind and answers will come like a sweet falling rain.

One important answer I've addressed on my blog this week.

Without Wax said...

The other thought I had was that - yes, the Governments will all fail through lack of revenue, but they are not the entities that run the world at the moment - it is the drug-laundering big banks, so will 'hot money' be able to run the global economy, even after a collapse scenario?

Jim Willie seems to think so, where he talks about Panama moving from the dollar to the new global currency. Also Catherine Austin Fitts seems to think so, where she says the 'breakaway civilisation' will leave the unfunded liabilities and spend money on parts of the economy that they want to build up. Maybe this is THE plan? To not fund the ecologically-damaging economic practices and to fund the ecological-sustainable-durable practices?

Problem is, humans do not fit into that second category.

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

Solar Fresnel lenses can produce higher than 1000deg centigrade temperatures. These may be used to burn plastics. Any other concentrated solar power concepts may also be tried.
Massive application of whiteroofs may help to reverse globalwarming problems.

Unknown said...

Why resist it? Fighting the inevitable will only leave us exhausted, defeated, and ultimately looking for that soft comfortable place to lay down and die.

I propose we celebrate! A splendid feast of factory farmed food with plenty of music and beer, topped by a giant bonfire of plastic garbage.

World extinction day, dance and sign your way to oblivion!

KeltCindy said...

All I can think of is Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

I have three children and a fourth due any day now.

I don't know that I would have the strength to "just survive."

God, the horror of our existence. Just can't stop the tears flying off my cheeks right now.


Robo said...

Yes, the nukes in the Northern hemisphere are the spoiler. Quite a predicament. There are only four nuclear power installations south of the equator, so the Aborigines and Maori may indeed have the last laugh.

KevPilot said...

To run with the Nuclear Power riff going on here: I've read that there are something like 450 nuclear power plants currently up and running world wide. I am deeply concerned that, in the case of systemic technical collapse, most of these, let alone all, would be able to shut down the reactors permanently. Essentially, euthanizing them, so as to render these reactors cold and safe forever.

I hope that this concern simply demonstrates my ignorance in this field. My real fear is that beyond the specter of the un-managed cooling ponds for spent rods as a passive threat of contamination, hundreds of runaway reactors will actively produce endless quantities of radioactive contamination for ages to come. Again, I sincerely hope that this concern is merely an example of my imagination running away with me and has no basis in science or engineering. If this is not a false fear, if this is a possibility, dozens or hundreds of these critical reactors could extinguish all life in vast areas of the globe. Not just us, but everything.

Deskpoet said...

The primary driver toward humanity's inevitable end is its "civilized" narcissism. When you are at a conference talking about unpleasant realities, and a person of seemingly like mind (or otherwise they wouldn't be there, right?), states unequivocally that human life should be preserved at all cost, there really isn't anywhere else to go. There will be "humanitarian" needs to pull the last fish out of the ocean, fall the last tree in the Amazon, etc. etc. This is happening every minute of every day because humans simply can't see themselves for what we really are.

It's easy to despair over this because, regardless of any externally forced changes that occur, Humanity will still value itself over everything else. Thank the Dieties there are writers like you and Carolyn Baker running around, providing triage, to make those dark moments of the day a bit brighter.

New Englander said...

Great stuff. Let me see, when did I become able to read this without succumbing to depression or anxiety? When I embraced non-attachment. Thank you, pop Buddhism!

I wonder where robots fit in.

Des Carne said...

Sounds like you are letting Guy McPherson's message wash over you Dmitry.

On planet petri dish we may well be just part of the organic scum that will be washed, cooked or burnt away as the result of so muliplying and messing with our agar substrate as to render our place in the sun incompatible with our survival. Such a prospect is the logical endpoint of all the malignities of which our species has shown itself capable.

By other (cultural) strategies, like those of our distant ancestors, we could have strung it out almost indefinitely, on any time scale relevant to us - instead we face ground rush because of decisions taken mainly by idiots seized by hubris in very recent generations.

I prefer your truculent determination to survive the idiocies of collapse now and into the future until whatever climax of social, political, economic and environmental convulsion marks its end or transition to some sort of human adaptation and recovery - which from both historical precedent and the physics of climate and environmental change, will not be in my lifetime, although perhaps, if only severly pronounced rather than final, in my children's.

Meantime, as an admirer of Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, I feel most productive promoting the idea of 'useless' metaphysical rather than 'useful' physical/economic/techological cultural projects as the purpose of our individual and collective existence - the kind that enabled our ancestors to live in relative harmony with most of the earth for many millennia.

mm said...

What an incredibly touching lament.

I must say that the first thought that came to me after reading that last paragraph was that Agenda 21 doesn't seem all that conspiratorial anymore. The solution from the point of view of the Masters of the Universe is a great culling of the useless feeders.

Patrick said...

The last time I talked to my wife like this, she asked me, "so, how do you get up in the morning?" It wasn't an entirely rhetorical question.

John D. Wheeler said...

"But there may be others, who still have some fight left in them, and who do wish to leave a survivable planet to their children and grandchildren. Let's not expect them to use conventional, orthodox methods, to work and play well with others, or to be polite and reasonable in dealing with the rest of us. Let's just hope that they have a plan, and that they get on with it."

We do. It's called Permaculture.

Robin Datta said...

Thank you for sharing the depth of your insight. Yes, environmental & ecological collapse, the direst of consequences for Homo callidus paucisapiens is in the cards, or as a few are convinced, already baked in the cake.

Kevin said...

Nicole Foss has pointed out that the knowledge needed to decommission nuclear power plants might not be available in a generation or so. Seems like we better get busy fast. Might be the best thing we could do for posterity, if any.

peakaustria said...

@Dr Doom sorry to debunk your hopeism. in german sometimes some critical article about the "AKW Rückbau" are readable on the internet. the official estimates for only the first nuclear plant are about 700 Million EUR! But this is only the first part. In 30 years you can deconstruct the second part. But then you have the problem with the cooling ponds. So the real estimations are at least 2-4 Billion EUR for one block! That is only the deconstruction of one. If you deconstruct all 28 in Germany you have to pay at least 40 Billion only deconstruction! But how long can and have you cool the nuclear waste? Until yet in Europe you have the situation that the nuclear waste is transported from one country to the other. I believe the only reason is to hide the real problem, that you need more energy to cool nuclear waste than you have ever produced, so you have a negative net energy! On the other side we have to use less energy, because of sinking net energy. It is a real dilemma! Maybe we need Billion's of Dollars for each of our 400+ reactors to stop them and cool them down. Nevertheless we should keep human and try our best and disassemble industrial civilization as careful as we can. One of the Deep Green Resistance movement idea is that we have to break up industrial civilization carefully and not harm our environment with radioactivity...for the CO2 it is far too late and hopefully we will find a destiny for the industrial complex, that it can help us to keep at least the nuclear waste under control! Hah...does anyone believes that when people will realize that it is getting damn hot on earth they will give a shit about the nuclear ponds and waste? No they will use there last money for their interests, because they are all very well trained egoists. Here my german statement from a funeral of a super rich real relative: http://tiny.cc/qrqe5w

Shodo said...

Well, I don't care about the survival of humanity. I do, however, care about the quality of life of my grandchildren - and all the other children in the world, some of whom are already being disappointed.
I agree on permaculture, and recommend Alan Savory's work in holistic management to turn the Great Plains (and other deserts) into carbon sinks and water treasures. But it's not enough.
Once I noted that alcoholism is a great cultural weapon against indigenous peoples, because you tie up all the strong people taking care of the FAS children. Perhaps similarly, tar sands, fracking, and MTR are great weapons against human survival, because you tie up the people who care in fighting to stop the atrocities and they don't have time or money to do the permaculture.
So yeah, I'll be growing food and stopping the pipeline. Changing consciousness is still the bottom line.

Unknown said...

Great article! Perhaps the desire for a world population of 500,000 chiseled on the Georgia Guidestones is looking better and better as an viable option.

AlaBikeDr said...

Well I see why you hate being asked for investment suggestions...

I live 30 miles from Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant(TVA)which has 1,774 metric tonnes of raioactive waste cooling in ponds. They can put 68 fuel assemblies in a cask costing $800,000 to $1.5 million per 100lbs. That would be 23 casks per ton x 1,774 tons and require 40,802 casks. We could then ship them to Yucca Mountain when Harry Reid dies. It would cost "only" $40 billion, right? We have the lowest power bills in the nation but we haven't been touched up for waste disposal yet. Still, I think I would rather have it on the shelf in dry storage (after the mandatory 5-7 years cooling off period) than "waiting" for the US government final solution.

James said...

Should we equip every nuclear plant with an array of solar panels and wind generators to keep the pumps running during a shut down? If they can't control Fukushima when we're at peace and can still print endless fiat, then what happens if we have a war and dozen or so of these plants go feral? If we can't handle one during the best of times, how many can we handle during the worst of times? If someone decides to take the population problem into their own hands and release a really nasty bio-engineered flu virus, how many nuke operators are going to show up at work? And the Pentagon is more interested in droning cave men with AK-47s in Pakistan. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Yep. That about sums it up.

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you, Dmitri, for tackling this very difficult subject matter and sharing your analysis with us. The news on the climate front and on the environmental front more generally has indeed been growing exponentially worse. It is always curious to me when those in the collapse communities seem oblivious or dismissive of these developments. I have one small quibble with your argument. I think you are absolutely right that many of us are arrogantly assuming we can still, in the midst of catastrophic collapse, change the world to suit our tastes. That said, I don't think a preference for craft beer and erudite conversation is conflatable with the preference for human rights, and the respectful politics they imply. I also think that smaller groups of humans, who know one another, while inclined to treat strangers with both suspicion and violence, are inclined to treat one another with understanding and respect. Patriarchy and racism rose with civilization, as far as we know. Why shouldn't we expect these plagues to fall with civilization, as well?

Lee Grove said...

I, as well as numerous others I'm sure, would love to hear you and James Kunstler toss these ideas around--and on a regular basis would be nice. What say you to volunteering yourself for the Kunstlercast?

Lee (San Diego)

Andy Brown said...

I'm not much given to conspiracy theories. I've never seen anything to convince me that the people in charge are particularly sharp. Quite to the contrary when it comes to thinking outside the status quo. If there were intelligent and ruthless people in charge, and if their considerable cybernetic powers of modeling and analysis convinced them that your kind of analysis were true, then I'd fully expect a convenient plague to reduce the population by a few orders of magnitude as a way of taking some pressure off the ailing old Earth. We have the technology already, and if what you say is true, we also have motive. I don't expect a plague, but then I don't expect much from our leaders at all, except perhaps to bring out the worst in us.

Unknown said...

It is a grim essay but it seems to describe it well. Nuclear waste requires continuous maintenance and the maintenance requires industrial civilisation which we have no means to keep long enough. And after that all bets are off.

I reached the same conclusion during first year after I "woke up". It troubled me for months but eventually I found decent consolation in a believe that while our fate as a species might be sealed there is no chance in hell that we would be taking everything with us. I sincerely believe, that even in such extreme and unlikely case of all continents being rendered sterile in the wake of our demise, there will always be something alive left down on the ocean floor. And with simpler life forms being what they are, it will endure and keep living despite all the radioactive nastiness leached and washed down on it thus eventualy the wonderful colourful dance and buzz will be recreated in a new wonderful way.

After all, life seems to be an emergent property of matter and matter seems to love to live whenever given oportunity. (Despite the popular believe :o) And since inteligence and self-consciousnes seems to be an emergent property of evolved life .. eventually there might even be somebody to look at it again and enjoy the same way I do.

If that is the way it goes somewhere deep inside I am OK with it. Its our karma after all and this „being OK with it“ sets me free. (Free enough to leave corporate job, move to old shack in god-forsaken middle-european village and do just beekeeping, gardening and occasional internet surfing to check up on endlessly mesmerized old friends, download porn, blogs, lectures, tutorials and anime since it is still somehow available to me and since I am still the same “distraction junkie” I had always been. :)

(PS: thank you for your honest writing Dmitry. I keep your thoughts fed and in a good company. :)

S.Treimel said...

Seems as though Dmitry has been reading Derrick Jensen's "Endgame". Too bad. This blog was my ray of sunshine.
I appreciate Dmitry's vision of hope for the future of the planet. Not all is lost. Various commenters have suggested permaculture as a solution, and i would agree. The ability to grow food is basic to the survival of any group. Voluntary simplicity seems appropriate as well.
Where can we learn about how to decommission a nuclear power plant? Can't those fuel rods be encased in concrete or glass? I know that encasement is not a permanent solution, and there is always the problem of a geologically stable depository. Perhaps I am mistaken in this thinking.
I myself do not have children, having recognized the insane course of this society when I was younger. I do mourn for the children and grandchildren, as they will bear the brunt of our collective folly. However, if reincarnation is a fact, then we ourselves will be reborn to inheirit our own mistakes, which seems just. Perhaps we can learn from our mistakes.

laminar_flow said...

Being indigenous from the Pacific Islands, I lament about the issues Orlov did outline about being one with nature.

I am also pleased to learn that many Pacific island cultures including the Maori are re-embracing and re-learning the lost knowledge of celestial navigation and manufacturing, outfitting and sailing large ocean going canoes.

Pacific Voyagers represents the group, who recently traversed the great Pacific ocean using those canoes.

Our Blue Canoe,is a film of that captures that remarkable journey.

jbrusnak said...

This is a great article, however there are longer term issues at stake as well. If humans manage to survive a collapse and return to a "balanced with nature" primitive existence, we are dead as a species anyway.

The next super volcano or large asteroid impact is on the way in our future. Most life on earth will be extinguished if we don't have technology to deal with it.

The only way for humans to survive as a species is to live in more than one place. Not just Earth, but the Moon, Mars, and hopefully someday beyond.

Therefore, I believe the only way out is "through." We need to leverage the very narrow window of time that fossil fuels provide to accelerate development of clean energy and sciences to allow an advanced society to continue. There IS hope that advancements in material science and computing can allow things like nanotechnology to be developed to address many things.

Unwinding a broken financial system, corrupt and polluting industries, and living in balance with nature buys the species some extra time...But if it doesn't leave us with the capability of surviving the next cataclysm I am not sure it is much of a victory.

This is the only time in our existence we will have so much "free" energy. It may have come at a terrible cost to the environment, but now that the genie is out of the bottle we need to secure the future while we still have time.

Anonymous said...

Given the various scenarios that might possibly occur as our globalised systems breakdown, I have to wonder if Richard Duncan's Olduvai Theory might not come to pass. As he has stated, "once the power goes out, you're back in the Dark Ages."
Since the vast majority of developed country's populations cannot feed themselves, any loss of the power grid will very quickly lead to a massive die-off.
I don't know if this would be the tipping point towards a global reset but such a loss would be devastating for a population that has lost the ability/knowledge to feed itself.
I find myself resigned to the fact that the-powers-that-be will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo and the destructive path we're on. Their greed and malfeasance serving to speed the train up as we approach the brick wall of 'limits to growth.' Things are likely to get much, much worse before they get better.
Unless we change the political and economic systems that currently dominate our world (and the sociocultural 'values' that accompany these systems) we're destined for a significant collapse of some kind.

Edward Ulysses Cate said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us on these very subjects. I've followed your work since the days of Mike Ruppert's FromTheWilderness. Never disappointed. It's no fun being a Cassandra.

Nestorian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nestorian said...

I just noticed a rather important error in the way I rendered my quote from Guy MacPherson's talk. If possible, for accuracy's and clarity's sake, please delete the bracketed instance of "human" from the quotation in my original post:

“I disagree with the idea that other [human] species matter as much as human beings do. I think that a single human being is more valuable than all other members of all other species combined. It’s incommensurable.”

Dmitry Orlov said...

I deleted Nestorian's comment due to its extreme length and preachiness.

Guy McPherson said...

Nestorian is quoting somebody who asked me a question. He IS NOT QUOTING ME!

Unknown said...

Wow. A lot to think about here, Dmitri.

You mention the “Chernobyl children”. I watched a documentary about them a few years ago. It made my wife cry, and I was aghast. I guess Hanx Blix is a liar, and the IAEA full of crap. They claim that only a few people died in the incident, and that only a few thousand cancers might be caused by Chernobyl. Unbelievable propaganda. How doe these kinds of scientists live with themselves?

A lot of people seem to be giving Guy Mcpherson the credit for your recent transformation to the dark side.

Have you read Mr. Ted Kaczynski? I was reading a bit of his prose recently, and he said something I had also concluded recently:

Two outcomes are likely:

1. Industrial civilization collapses, and a significant portion of the biosphere survives
2. Industrial civ keeps on trucking, using human ingenuity to get every last bit of usable carbon out of the ground, and the biosphere collapses, causing industrial civ to collapse, and humanity to go extinct.

You seem to be veering towards #2, while hoping for a way to make #1 happen "gracefully."

I don't see it happening.

Final comment: the CEO of my company is going to take me out to lunch, and we will be driving his Tesla, so he can show me how great the future will be. He seems to think that we are almost to the point where energy is going to be free. He thinks that free energy will be the big danger: that we might not know what to do with all the energy and free time (robots etc.).

He's a software/computer genius like you. He seems to think we are on the verge of the singularity or something. How do smart people reach such different conclusions?

How much of my real view is it prudent to share with one's CEO? He seems to really like me. It wouldn't be prudent to spoil that, would it.

Finally, there's been a sailboat of the oceangoing variety anchored on the Mississippi here in Minneapolis for months now. The boat is a tantalizing reminder of my youthful sailing/living dreams. My only chance would be to pretend to be a real gung-ho software guy, get lucky, cash out, and buy a boat. I guess that's my plan.

Nastarana said...

Placing state of the art plastic incinerators on ocean islands ought to be doable, a matter of connecting manufacturers, who would be glad of the extra orders, and likely have their own set up staff and arrangements in place for transport, with the various governments, once funding were secured. No huge staff or outrageous salaries would be needed, especially since so many highly educated persons are currently unemployed.

I am neither "progressive" nor rich, I have about as much chance of travelling to the Moon as to Tahiti, but I eat delicious fresh organic locally produced food. What I do not grow myself I buy from local farmers. There are sound practical reasons for "buying local" such as that local businesses also tend to hire local. Which means putting money in the pockets of people who otherwise might be stealing the car out of one's driveway or the tools out of one's garage. I am afraid that does mean fewer jobs, not to mention "important positions", a luxury local economies increasingly can no longer afford, for recent arrivals. A farmer or local proprietor making a living but not a fortune, who is one lawsuit or one INS raid away from having to close down, will be obsessively checking identity documents.

The secret behind once fashionable "multicuralism" always was that it depended on the mass of American nobodies being firmly plugged into the mass consumption economy. Now, those who have not yet seen through the fraud can no longer afford the indulgence of Walmart's our products make you look like respectable middle class and six months from now just toss and come back and buy another business model.

Vivace said...

I wouldn't say this scenario scared me because it actually sums up and repeats what has become common knowledge.

But I definitely like this statement: "But there may be others, who still have some fight left in them, and who do wish to leave a survivable planet to their children and grandchildren. Let's not expect them to use conventional, orthodox methods,"
Yes, there are others, and I know some of them.
I am a great fan of the Russian businessman-turned-writer-turned environmentalist who about 20 years ago published a book which unfolded into a series ("The Ringing Cedars of Russia") and won millions of supporters. The book itself (translated into over a dozen languages) is entertaining and damn simple but it exposes our vices as vividly as Mr Orlov does yet it also offers a hope and a way out of the current suicidal human "progress." I was so impressed and prrsuaded that in the course of the past seven years moved from a downtown Moscow office and bought a plot of land in central Russia. I've only got an acre, not a hectare which according to the book may sustain a whole family with children practically independently from the economy and the state (this is one of the reason the author and the book faced a fierce smearing campaign, accusationd of paganism, cultism etc. as it definitely threatens the present-day economy and its rulers). Well, the results are obvious in Russia - there appear kin's domains made up basically of upper middle-class with university degrees who are going back to the bascis that were known to Australian adorigines as much as to old Russians and Brits.
Thus there is no need to feel down. Life goes on, and the recollection and re-uniting with Mother-Land have began. May be this is why Edgar Cacey called Russia "The Hope of the World." Hurry up. The waggon (bookstore) is just around the corner

subgenius said...


The expertise to decommission a nuke station has never been developed - a repository capable of containing waste is a vapourware daydream, but a necessity...

subgenius said...


state of the art plastic incinerators

you can stop there....not going to happen...

MCA said...

(At least the colonialists themselves had the sense not to build any nuclear power plants down here!)[NZ]

Not without great effort to prevent them. But enough of us said no and it was no just one part of society either. It crossed class, race and religous groupings.

Timothy Dicks said...

Excellent addition to your book which I bought and read not too long ago. Keep up the great work!

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Lots of food for thought here. I knew our nuclear plants were a bad idea but the size of the waste disposal problem is truly mind-boggling. The attitude toward the waste reminds me of pointing out a long term supply problem to my boss at my manufacturing job. His response was that by the time it became a problem, he would be retired. I suspect that managers of nuclear plants have a similar attitude, that when their storage facilities go up in flames, they will be safely retired.
Re the back to the farm movement as a response to collapse of industrialism, I wonder why so many people want to stop there. Why not go back a step further past the one acre plot with a simple cottage with solar panels on the roof? Come to think of it, Dmitri's preferred response, retreat to the oceans is one of the few plans outside of the more prevalent back to the farm movement. I suspect that progress has been preached so hard and subsistence living so often maligned as primitive that nobody can imagine just scavenging for food or fishing or hunting.
As an aside on raising your own food as a response to collapse, my wife and I attended a wedding in Ukraine. We moved around Europe by train and had much occasion to look out the window and watch small villages go by. We noticed that in both Ukraine and Hungary houses out in the country all had garden plots of pretty uniform size, apparently big enough to raise vegetables for the occupants of the house. Even Soviet era apartment blocks in one of the small villages had garden plots around them. And canning jars were on sale everywhere. So it appears that in that part of the world, people already are prepared to raise their own food and collapse of the industrial economy will not overly affect them except that the flow of manufactured goods will slow down and the next generation of iWare will fail to appear.
It helps to see some things first hand. It is one thing to read about the collapse gap between the US and Russia. It is another to see the gap in person.

michigan native said...

"The only way for humans to survive as a species is to live in more than one place. Not just Earth, but the Moon, Mars, and hopefully someday beyond"

Never going to happen. Nor should it. You have to get along in space. If you do not, you die.

Let's face it. We are not very nice to each other right here on this planet, nor do we treat our natural surroundings with much respect. In sum, humans tend to destroy every damned thing that get their hands on, so it is my hope that we stew in our own juices right here on earth. The cancer should be confined to earth and not spread out to the cosmos

Human nature aside, they couldn't make O rings that can flex and contract at low temperatures, but NASA, frustrated by delays, chose to send 7 people to their death in 1986. Budget constraints prevented them from finding ways for the astronauts to eject, and later, to repair damaged heat shields in space. They should have shut down NASA after the Challenger fiasco. In sum, in addition to human arrogance, the technology to colonize other planets that have no atmosphere, very little if any water, and are constantly being bombarded by micro meteors (like speeding bullets)make this scenario highly improbable, thank goodness.

Niffiwan said...

Do you know, shortly before I read your article Dmitri, I read this:

And I am now somewhat horrified because I see a clear parallel between the story of people who in their dying days get hooked up to expensive machines which succeed only in prolonging their agony, and result in them dying away from their loved ones (the article mentions how doctors themselves tend to be adamant in refusing such treatments when they themselves are near death), and the state of our entire species.

Is humanity as a whole now being metaphorically hooked up to a dialysis machine and injected with drug cocktails in a futile effort to keep it from dying for a little longer? Are we on the verge of this?

The answer seems obvious, in retrospect.

I yet harbor a hope that life on at least a few other planets will NOT prove too expensive for someone to make it out.

Phil Espin said...

I accept that the potential future of failed nuclear power plants will leave massive poisonous dead zones across much of the developed world. I also accept that runaway climate change could result in equatorial dead zones and alligators in the arctic.

What I don't accept is that all humanities children will get cancer and die before they reach maturity or produce unviable young if they do reach maturity. Sure that could be the fate of many, but ever single one? across all inhabitable zones? many of which at the poles are nowhere near a nuclear plant? Where is the scientific evidence for such a depressing conjecture? I don't buy it. Even though its a gloomy outlook for humanity in any event, my feeling is that Homo sapiens is adaptable enough to survive the horrors you suggest albeit at a much deduced population density. There are other horrors that would be less survivable of course, but very few species last for millions of years.

Jason said...

I came across this some years ago and bookmarked it with the intention of making a submission to the site, though I am one who prefers my poison sweet and my coffee black...

For the artists and creatives who follow Dimitry's blog, this may be of interest to you:


Fernglade Farm said...

Hi Dmitry,

I thought you were a bit rough on the Aboriginals in your essay.

They used to operate a quarry not far from where I live at Mt William Stone Axe Quarry. The tools were quite highly prized and traded over huge distances of the country.

In addition to this they were amazing gardeners, it is just that us lot from European backgrounds were too stupid to realise what was going on and consequently let the sheep eat most of the plant diversity and destroy the soils in the process (sheep happily compact soil and eat the roots of plants).

The Aboriginals used to plant native yams for example wherever they went. Cabbage palms were brought south as were the lilly pilly trees which have edible berries which incidentally the early settlers used in jam making as they are high in pectin. Macadamia's were highly prized too. I have a couple of them here myself (which is well outside their normal territory).

To the south west of me they had intricate fish traps and even permanent dwellings.

It is just that 90% of the Aboriginal population died within a few years after contact with the convicts and early settlers. That lot weren't the most observant or educated bunch either, so records are a bit sketchy to say the least. I doubt very much whether the crown sent their best and brightest minds to start the colony off here at the end of the Earth!

The Aboriginals actually went through their own self-induced climate collapse too. Upon their arrival on the continent, they ate the mega fauna (Diprotodons etc.) which caused an imbalance in the largely forested eco-systems (build up of forest fuels). Add in the human capacity for fire as a tool and you have the environment pretty much as it stood at the time of white settlement. The Aboriginals survived after a massive initial set back. The problem was that they had to then manually manage the landscape, which is why they had the reverence for nature having learned it the hard way. I'm finding that, I'm now having to perform the same function at the farm here!

The recent Ice Age had little impact Down Under too due to the topography which is quite worn out so glaciers weren't much of a feature here. In fact, if anything, it may have even been drier than it is today.

Mind you, there is only a single reactor in Australia (Lucas Heights in Sydney) so this fear is not on my radar being a long way further south than that place.

I posted a comment here because I noted references to your blog over at the Arch Druid Report.

Has it occurred to you that perhaps like the early Aboriginals, collapse is simply a phase we have to work through before we acknowledge the role that we have to undertake with nature? This also involves us as a species having a greater reverence for nature and our place within that sphere.

What the Aboriginals were correctly - but rather unsuccessfully - pointing out to Captain Cook and his sailors/scientists is that there are unforseen impacts to their actions.

There is a spiritual dimension to these problems that is often ignored. People tend to focus on the technical / resource issues as they can easily comprehend them.

As a bit of background, I live on an off the grid, organic farm and have no children, so I'm starting to get a bit of a handle on what is actually required for the future.

How are you going?



Higa said...

Thank you Dmitry for eloquently hammering all this down.

I just want to reflect on a few things. First, it's not just the nuclear fuel that threatens us. It's also the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. Second, the two hemispheres are not isolated. Any radioactive isotopes in the air will tend to "rain" directly into the ocean, or indirectly, flowing into it from the continents. These radioactive isotopes will circulate very quickly the entire globe. Besides, the atmosphere of both hemispheres is one and the same: wind patterns, etc. tend to isolate the hemispheres but this regards "macroscopic" things, weather phenomena, not "microscopic" things, like local diffusion and convection across the Equator. So, even if the ocean dynamics were not there, then atmospheric dynamics would set equal radioactive levels in a matter of what? A few decades at most? Therefore, as your article implied, massive, complete nuclear disaster would mean doom everywhere, maybe within a generation. Thirdly, trying to think what can be done about radioactive materials, I can only imagine a couple of ways to deal with them. The first way, relatively unsafe in the short term and financially ruinous, would be to move all these materials to the Moon, or at least to outer space, where they cannot come back from in millions of years. It is relatively unsafe because we are assured of botched launches, with a low % of materials falling back to the Earth. That would be bad, but would probably not result in our extinction. Since this method would be absolutely ruinous, I don't know whether it is politically feasible. Probably not. And then, politics may even be something of the past. The second possible method would be safer in the short term, but terrible in the long term. I refer to encapsulating as best we can the radioactive materials and dispose of them in deep underground, suitable locations, from which the radioisotopes would eventually leak and reach the surface in a matter of centuries or millenia. Alternatively, the containers could be dumped somewhere like the Vostok lake in Antartica. The ice sheet above it about 3 km thick and the botom of the lake is about 1 km below sea level. Presumably, it would take a very long time for the radioisotopes to leak and reach the ocean. Inevitably though, wherever we store these materials, the radioisotopes will find their way to the surface and to the ocean and will finally kill most living beings all over the world.

Conclusion: maybe we should start taking collapse for granted and urge governments and society at large to invest massively in radioactive materials disposal BEFORE collapse happens, which would make it impossible to avert nuclear doom.

Tururut Tartana

michigan native said...

Those of you who think or cannot accept extinction as the final stage ought to take heed.

Most lay persons are stuck in a tar pit of denial. Fracking will bring back cheap oil and energy independence for the US, housing values will return to their artificial peak, we can go on living the way we have until the end of time, etc ad naseum

Those few of us who have read up on resource depletion/the end of growth/the end of Petroleum Man and the relatively brief anomaly of industrialization in recent human history are already viewed as paranoid, "negative", etc and yet with every budget crisis, every bankruptcy, every boarded up strip mall and the once crowded mega malls becoming ghost malls is starting to slowly take hold by some who notice those elements of government or "law and order" seem to be on steroids in their recent mission to fine, fee, penalize, or otherwise steal money from people.

There is another world of research, although some may call it "soft science", or even speculation or people just trying to sell books on the subject of UFO abductions.

These works include men like the late Pulitzer prize winning Harvard psychiatrist Dr John E Mack, Dr David Jacobs, the late Budd Hopkins, and the one I that influenced me the most, Ray Fowler

In his book the Watchers, he states that abductees he followed were told that the human race is on the brink of extinction.....due to STERILITY, starvation, warfare and conflicts over diminished resources, and the increase in plagues and pandemics

His book was published well before anything about fossil fuel depletion, the end of the "green revolution" and the subjects of peak oil and resource depletion/the end of growth were published.

He did point notice one subject, increased infertility which around that time was gaining attention....the estrogen effect-assault on the male http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkxIJJI37bQ

Watch this in its entirety, and you will see there is a cocktail of pollutants that are not conducive to a healthy, reproductive animal kingdom, of which we are not immune to

This is why I have seen the 6th stage of collapse as a given, based on what would many call speculation, even paranoia, but I always thought denial and the estrogen effect proves it beyond any shadow of a doubt

Jack Acme's World of the Future said...

There's an interesting theory out there about the "Little Ice Age." Land use patterns in Europe changed overnight when the Black Death killed off a third of the populace and in its wake many serfs and peasants walked away from the farm. They ended up in nascent industries like textiles and forests regrew over all of Europe, sucking up carbon and -- maybe -- cooling the climate.

An end of industrial agriculture and reforestation might play a similar role post-collapse.

Peter said...

Excellent article as usual. Our predicament reminds me of the problem fishermen have. They build bigger and bigger boats to harvest fish, get told repeatedly that they are exhausting the stocks. They will say, "we can't stop fishing, how will I pay for my new boat or feed my family if I have to cut back?" Then the day comes when the stocks collapse, not for a year or two years but for a generation or more. Global civlisation is doing the same dance, how can we cut back it would cause X problems? But cutting back is the solution. Mind you I think we have gone past the point of 'reasonable solutions'. Now it can only be about pain: how much pain do we want to experience? Severe pain, or fatal pain? It is a pity reality is so depressing.

People don't want to go back to the way things were. Take a look at an old movie from the '40s or 50s, do they look miserable. They were indulging in a lot of waste but nothing compared to the per capita excess we revel in. Bah.

The real world will eventually smack us down. But I think people will just refuse to see what is happening. Resource shortage, financial collapse ... there will be pundits saying it will be over by next year, next decade, real soon now.

I was planning to say something intelligent about a way out of this mess but I just cannot see it. I can tell my children to be frugal, don't waste anything, tread lightly on the Earth, but meanwhile so many others are trashing the place. Like the fishing fleets we wont stop until we can't continue.

Unknown said...


Thanks for the wonderful post, and welcome to the club. 'Tis a truly shitty place, to find ourselves riding the wave between Scylla and Charybdis. It is the sixth stage of collapse that seems to be fairly consistently overlooked by most in the peak oil/collapse corner of the blogosphere. So either take down industrial civ/let it collapse of its own weight, we drown in ionizing radiation, or prop it up till the self-reinforcing feedback loops take hold and we bake in runaway greenhouse. Is there anyway to thread the needle. I have been asking myself this question for some time, and I got nothin.

Anonymous said...

Orlov, I love how you pepper your serious articles with material more funny than most stand-up comedians could dream up. Because sometimes this shitshow we call industrial civilization seems like a comedy.

Mithro said...

In regards to the post's ending note: Yes, the tech billionaires do have a response; when they're not busy making money, they are making backup plans: seed clouds in the upper atmosphere, mine the asteroids, build space mirrors, live on Mars and the moon. I'm not going to tell folks what to think about it, I think it's just important that it be part of this kind of conversation.

There's also the plans to mine the seabed for metals and methane clathrates, pump steam into the Alberta and Green River tar sands to extract every last profitable drop of hydrocarbons, not to mention the vast reservoirs of coal that may yet be burned. And let's not forget we're saddled with an economic engine (i.e. imposed social order) wherein the most powerful nations and corporations depend on petroleum-fueled highways, seaways and consumerism for their revenue streams and power relationships. It will be an interesting future for this planet for sure.

Maybe it all sounds like science fiction but here it is straight from the horses' mouths:
Asteroids: http://www.planetaryresources.com/team/
(notice the billionaire investors and advisors: Google and Microsoft founders, Ross Perot, Richard Branson. Riley Bechtel was also announced as an investor but presumably is not PR-friendly enough to list on this page. They haven't pulled the press release yet: http://www.planetaryresources.com/2013/04/bechtel-partners-with-planetary-resources-for-space-initiative/)
Mars colony: http://www.space.com/18596-mars-colony-spacex-elon-musk.html
Space entrepreneur and real-life Iron Man aims to live on Mars
Upper atmosphere cloud seeding: http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/05/stratoshield-simple-and-low-cost.html An idea that has been getting less press the last couple years but is still on their minds
Seabed mining: http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/news/press-releases/2013/march/0314uk-polymetallic-nodules.html
Lockheed Martin - practice for mining the asteroids? Navigating law of the sea as a dry run (well, wet run) for navigating the Outer Space Treaty? They did, after all, design this mission: http://www.space.com/20606-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-images.html
Sun power: http://zeenews.india.com/news/space/abdul-kalam-calls-for-space-solar-power-research_850852.html
India's former president advocates beaming power from space-based mirrors and photovoltaic cells down to earth as an alternative to nuclear and fossil fuels. This plus electric cars and an agreement to universally use natural and biodegradable materials might actually start to fix things.

Breedlove said...

Thanks. Ecological collapse is my primary concern. I think Guy's perspective was a little under appreciated at AoL2. Slow collapse seems less likely given the magnitude at which we've destroyed planetary life support. I termed the failure to address root causes of our predicament as B-MISL. Just as a ballistic missile carries a payload of destruction, the Bougeosie for the Maintanence of an Imperial Standard of Living ensures we will never put our limited/declining resources to use for degrowth and ecological restoration. Narratives are stubborn masters and there is a technofix where the grand conspiracy of Agenda 21 ends. I have a plan and many like me: collapse now and avoid the rush.

chapter24 said...

Extending the analysis to ecology makes your collapse discursion much more believable and complete, and your survey of the situation is pithy and well written as usual. However, I have 2 issues:

1. In almost any conceivable scenario humans will appropriate almost the entire living planetary resource. Exceptions being far-out stuff like a biological weapon plague, asteroid strike (which would kill most of us quickly) or 'the singularity' dystopia (where rational minds would take over planetary management). We will scour the earth in an attempt to feed, shelter and amuse our huge and (currently) swelling numbers, whether that be using complex powered machines or flints. A 'fast collapse' scenario will thus probably make little difference to the biosphere, although it might prevent a disastrous extension of greenhouse gas pollution.

2. On what do you base your risk analysis of radioactivity? As a fellow engineer trained in physics, to me it seems grossly overstated. Sterilising all large animal species (and hence humans) would require truly enormous contamination. I doubt that there is enough fissile waste in the world to poison an area like Britain to that level, let alone the whole world. As a test, do a thought experiment where all current fission power stations simultaneously melt down in the most catastrophic way, like Chernobyl. Birth defects and cancers seen in the worst affected areas would be multiplied by several hundred, albeit dispersed over a wide area. Assuming the UN's Chernobyl report is reasonably true, the impact would be horrible, with large-scale reproductive disruption, shortering of lifespans, etc, but it would not even reach the effect of the 1919 flu epidemic let alone medieval bubonic plague. Of course, all reactors will not melt down in that way (some are better designed), others would have their fuel rods removed in time and cooled normally. There will, or course, be many long-lived pools of radioactive poison which will seep into groundwater and cause long-term contamination, but the effects will usually be local where concentrations are high. No matter how much radioactive material is released into the environment, life will go on, including humans. That's not to say that high concentrations are desirable, just to put in perspective with naturally occurring radioactivity and cosmic radiation, which life has evolved to expect as an intrinsic part of its environment.

I don't deny that nuclear power stations will be a problem in any fast collapse scenario. It just seems unnecessary to stray into hyperbole where the most probable scenarios are quite bad enough.