This blog is dedicated to the idea of presenting the big picture—the biggest possible—of what is going on in the world. The abiding areas of interest that make up the big picture have included the following:
1. The terminal decay and eventual collapse of industrial civilization as the fossil fuels that power it become more and more expensive to produce in the needed quantities, of lower and lower resource quality and net energy and, eventually, in ever-shorter supply.
The first guess by Hubbert that the all-time peak of oil production in the US would be back in the 1970s was accurate, but later prediction of a global peak, followed by a swift collapse, around the year 2000 was rather off, because here we are 15 years later and global oil production has never been higher. Oil prices, which were high for a time, have temporarily moderated. However, zooming in on the oil picture just a little bit, we see that conventional oil production peaked in 2005—just 5 years late—and has been declining ever since, and the shortfall has been made up by oil that is difficult and expensive to get at (deep offshore, fracking) and by things that aren't exactly oil (tar sands).
The current low prices are not high enough to sustain this new, expensive production for much longer, and the current glut is starting to look like a feast to be followed by famine. The direct cause of this famine will not be energy but debt, but it can still be traced back to energy: a successful, growing industrial economy requires cheap energy; expensive energy causes it to stop growing and to become mired in debt that can never be repaid. Once the debt bubble pops, there isn't enough capital to invest in another round of expensive energy production, and terminal decay sets in.
2. The very interesting process of the USA becoming its own nemesis: the USSR 2.0, or, as some are calling, the USSA.
The USA is best characterized as a decomposing corpse of a nation lorded over by a tiny clique of oligarchs who control the herd by wielding Orwellian methods of mind control. So far gone is the populace that most of them think that things are just peachy—there is an economic recovery, don't you know—but a few of them do realize that they all have lots of personal issues with things like violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and gluttony. But don't call them a nation of violent, drug-abusing gluttons, because that would be insulting. In any case, you can't call them anything, because they aren't listening, for they are too busy fiddling with their electronic life support units to which they have become addicted. Thanks to Facebook and the like they are now so far inside Plato's cave that even the shadows they see aren't real: they are computer simulations of shadows of other computer simulations.
The signs of this advanced state of decomposition are now unmistakable everywhere you look, be it education, medicine, culture or the general state of American society, where now fully half the working-age men is impaired in their ability to earn a decent living. But it is now particularly obvious in the endless compounding of errors that is the essence of American foreign policy. Some have started calling it “the empire of chaos,” neglecting to mention the fact that an empire of chaos is by definition ungovernable.
A particularly compelling example of failure is the Islamic Caliphate, which now rules large parts of Syria and Iraq. It was initially organized with American help to topple the Syrian government, but now threatens the stability of Saudi Arabia instead. This problem was made much worse by alienating Russia, which, with its long Central Asian border, is the one major nation that is interested in fighting Islamic extremism. The best the Americans have been able to do against the Caliphate is an expensive and ineffectual bombing campaign. Previous ineffectual and expensive bombing campaigns, such as the one in Cambodia, have produced unintended consequences such as the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, but why bother learning from mistakes when you can endlessly compound them?
Another example is the militarized mayhem and full-blown economic collapse that has engulfed the Ukraine in the wake of American-organized violent overthrow of its last-ever constitutional government a year ago. The destruction of the Ukraine was motivated by Zbigniew Brzezinski's simplistic calculus that turning the Ukraine into an anti-Russian NATO-occupied zone would effectively thwart Russian imperial ambitions. A major problem with this calculus is that Russia has no imperial ambitions: Russia has all the territory it could ever want, but to develop it it needs peace and free trade. Another slight problem with Zbiggy's “chessboard” is that Russia does have an overriding concern with protecting the interests of Russians wherever they may live and, for internal political reasons, will always act to protect them, even if such actions are illegal and carry the risk of a larger military conflict. Thus, the American destabilization of the Ukraine has accomplished nothing positive, but did increase the odds of nuclear self-annihilation. But if the USA manages to disappear from the world's political map without triggering a nuclear holocaust, we will still have a problem, which is that...
3. The climate of Earth, our home planet, is, to put it as politely as possible, completely fucked. Now, there are quite a few people who think that radically altering the planet's atmospheric and ocean chemistry and physics by burning just over half the fossilized hydrocarbons that could possibly be dug up using industrial methods means nothing, and that what we are observing is just natural climate variability. These people are morons. I will delete every single one of the comments they submit in response to this post, but in spite of my promise to do so, I assure you that they will still submit them... because they are morons. [Update: Yes indeed they have, QED.]
What we are looking at is a human-triggered extinction episode that will certainly be beyond anything in human experience, and which may rival the great Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago. There is even the possibility of Earth becoming completely sterilized, with an atmosphere as overheated and toxic as that of Venus. That these changes are happening does not require prediction, just observation. The only parameters that remain to be determined are these:
1. How far will this process run?
Will there still be a habitat where humans can survive? Humans cannot survive without plenty of fresh water and sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all of which require functioning ecosystems. Humans can survive on almost any kind of diet—even tree bark and insects—but if all vegetation is dead, then so are we. Also, we cannot survive in an environment where the wet bulb temperature (which takes into account our ability to cool ourselves by sweating) exceeds our body temperature: whenever that happens, we die of heat stroke. Lastly, we need air that we can actually breathe: if the atmosphere becomes too low in oxygen (because the vegetation has died out) and too high in carbon dioxide and methane (because the dead vegetation has burned off, the permafrost has melted, and the methane currently trapped in oceanic clathrates has been released) then we all die.
We already know that the increase in average global temperature has exceeded 1C since pre-industrial times, and, based on the altered atmospheric chemistry, is predicted to eventually exceed 2C. We also know that industrial activity, thanks to the aerosols it puts into the atmosphere, produces an effect known as global dimming. Once it's gone, the average temperature will jump by at least another 1.1C. This would put us within striking range of 3.5C, and no humans have ever been alive with Earth more than 3.5C above baseline. But, you know, there is a first time for everything. Maybe we can invent some gizmo... Maybe if we all put on air-conditioned sombreros or something... (Design contest, anyone?)
2. How fast will this process happen?
The thermal mass of the planet is such that there is a 40-year lag between when atmospheric chemistry is changed and its effects on average temperature are felt. So far we have been shielded from some of the effects by two things: the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice and permafrost, and the ocean's ability to absorb heat. Your iced drink remains pleasant until the last ice cube is gone, but then it becomes tepid and distasteful rather quickly. Some scientists say that, on the outside, it will take 5000 years for us to run out of ice cubes, causing the party to end, but then the dynamics of the huge glaciers that supply the ice cubes are not understood all that well, and there have been constant surprises in terms of how quickly they can slough off icebergs, which then drift into warmer waters and melt quickly.
But the biggest surprise of the last few years has been the rate of arctic methane release. Perhaps you haven't, but I've found it impossible to ignore all the scientists who have been ringing alarm bells on Arctic methane release. What they are calling the clathrate gun—which can release some 50 gigatons of methane in as little as a couple of decades—appears to have been fired in 2007 and now, just a few years later, the trend line in Arctic methane concentrations has become alarming. But we will need to wait for at least another two years to get an authoritative answer. Overall, the methane held in the clathrates is enough to exceed the global warming potential of all fossil fuels burned to date by a factor of between 4 and 40. The upper end of that range does seem to put us quite far towards a Venus-type atmosphere, and the surviving species may be limited to exotic thermophilic bacteria, if that, and certainly will not include any of the species we like to eat, nor any of us.
Looking at such numbers has caused quite a few researchers to propose the possibility of near-term human extinction. Estimates vary, but, in general, if the clathrate gun has indeed gone off, then most of us shouldn't be planning to be around beyond mid-century. But the funny thing is (humor is never in poor taste, no matter how dire the situation) that most of us shouldn't be planning on sticking around beyond mid-century in any case. The current oversized human population is a product of fossil fuel-burning, and once that's over, human population will crash. This is called a die-off, and it's something that happens all the time: a population (say, of yeast in a vat of sugary liquid) consumes its food, and then dies off. A few hardy individuals linger on, and if you throw in a lump of sugar, they spring to life, start reproducing and the process takes off again.
Another funny aspect of near-term human extinction is that it can never be observable, because no scientist will ever be around to observe it, and therefore it is a non-scientific concept. Since it cannot be used to do science, the scientists who throw it around must be aiming for an emotional effect. This is quite uncharacteristic of scientists, who generally pride themselves on being cool-headed and prefer to deal in the observable and the measurable. So, why would scientists go for emotional effect? Clearly, it is because they feel that something must be done. And to feel that something must be done, they must also feel that something can be done. But, if so, what is it?
Always first on the list is the effort to lobby governments to limit carbon emissions. This has not been a success; as to one of the many reasons why, consider point 2 above: the USA is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to carbon emissions, but the rotting corpse of America's political system is incapable of any constructive action. It is too busy destroying countries: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine...
Second on the list is something called geoengineering. If you don't know what it is, don't worry; it's largely a synonym for mental masturbation. The idea is that you fix things you don't understand by using technologies that don't exist. But given many humans' irrational belief that every problem must have a technological solution, there is always some fool willing to throw money at it. Previous efforts along these lines involved the idea of seeding the oceans with iron to promote plankton growth, or putting bits of tin foil in orbit to reflect some of the sunlight, or painting the Sahara white. These are all fun projects to think about. How about using nuclear weapons to put dust into the atmosphere, to block out some of the sunlight? Or how about nuking a few big volcanos, for the same effect? If that's politically difficult, how about something politically easy: a limited nuclear exchange? That will darken the skies, bringing on a mini nuclar winter, and also reduce the population, which will cut down on industrial activity. There are enough nuclear weapons to keep the planet cool for as long as it takes us all to die of radiation poisoning. This geoengineering solution, along with all the others, is in line with the popular dictum “If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it.”
And so it seems to me that all the talk about near-term human extinction is just so much emotional hand-flapping designed to motivate people to try things that won't work. Still, I believe the topic is worth pondering, for a simple reason: what if you don't want to go extinct? We've already established that human extinction (whenever it might be said to occur) will never be observable, because no human will be around to observe it. We also know that population die-offs happen all the time, but they don't always result in extinction. So, who will be most likely to die, and who might actually make it?
First on the list are the invisible victims of war. By now lots of people have seen photographs of piles of dead Ukrainian soldiers left to rot after another failed attack, or videos of residents of Donetsk expiring on the sidewalk after being hit by a government-lobbed artillery shell or mortar. But we don't know how many children and women are dying in childbirth because the government has bombed maternity clinics and hospitals: such casualties of war are invisible. Nor will we be shown footage of all of the Ukrainian retirees expiring prematurely because they can no longer afford food, medicine or heat, but we can be sure that many of them won't be around a year hence. When it comes to war, there are just two viable survival strategies: refuse to take part; and flee. Indeed, the million or so Ukrainians that are now in Russia, or the million or so Syrians who are no longer in Syria, are the smart ones. The Ukrainians who are volunteering to fight are the idiots; the ones who are fleeing to Russia to sit out the war are the smart ones. (However, the Russians, who are volunteering to protect their land and their families from what amounts to an American invasion, are clearly not idiots. They are also winning.) In this sense, war is a Darwinian process, delivering extinction to the foolish.
Next on the list of extinction episodes to avoid happens in major cities during a heat wave. It's happened across Europe in 2003, and resulted in 70,000 casualties. In 2010, a heat wave in the Moscow region (which is quite far north) resulted in over 14,000 deaths in Moscow alone. The urban heat island effect, which is caused by sunlight soaked up by pavement and buildings, produces much higher local temperatures, driving them over the threshold for heat stroke. While the fossil fuel economy continues to operate, cities remain survivable because of the availability of air conditioning; once it shuts down, urban heat wave extinction episodes will become widespread. Since 50% of the population lives in cities, half of the human population is at risk of extinction from heat stroke. Therefore, if you don't want to go extinct, don't spend your summers in a city.
The list of places you don't want to be if you wish to avoid extinction gets rather long. You wouldn't want to live in California, for example, or in the arid southwestern states, because there won't be any water there. You wouldn't want to live along the coasts, because they are likely to be flooded by the rising oceans (they will eventually rise over 100 meters, putting all coastal cities underwater). You wouldn't want to live in the eastern half of North America, because, paradoxically, a dramatically warmer Arctic region causes the jet stream to meander, producing increasingly fierce winters, which, minus fossil fuels, will cause widespread deaths from exposure. Even now, a bit of extra snow, which is likely to become the new normal, has caused the entire transportation infrastructure of New England (where, luckily, I am not) to roll over and play dead. Nor would you want to live in any of the places where the water source comes from glacial melt, because the glaciers will soon be gone. This includes much of Pakistan, large parts of India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam and so on. The list of places where you wouldn't want to be if you don't want to go extinct for this or that reason gets to be rather long.
But the entire northern half of Eurasia looks quite nice for the foreseeable future, so if you don't want to go extinct, you better start teaching your kids Russian.