On this page…
- Who’s who in the zoo?
- Doomers fear collapse — but what are the risks?
- Overpopulation and Overshoot
- ‘Net energy’ — fossil fuels were unique
- Complex systems collapse — “The spanner in the works”
- Regional disasters
- Complete financial collapse
- Doomer memes are deadly
- Debunking the ‘romance’ of collapse!
Who’s who in the zoo?
I’m a ‘Peaknik’, an activist concerned about peak oil how we can adapt with both new technologies and beautiful new city designs. I’m an optimist.
Doomers on the other hand fear collapse is inevitable. Some of them have become Doomsday Preppers and decided to prepare. For them, agriculture’s dependence on oil suggests an inevitable Malthusian Catastrophe. Disaster lies ahead! You’ll see them on living outside city centres, getting ready for the ‘inevitable’ end of civilisation. This trailer gives a glimpse of where they think we’re heading.
This is where the whole doomer thing gets positively nasty. These guys don’t fear TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), they are excited by the idea. Hey, I enjoyed the Mad Max movie, but only as a cool action movie and trippy thought experiment about collapse. Actually believing the world was going that way and maliciously celebrating it is another thing entirely! These people gather around internet forums discussing apocalyptic stories like campers telling ghost stories around the campfire. Many don’t want to do anything about it but feel superior putting their own particular stamp on the collapse scenario. They feel like prophets, and actually seem to feel personally threatened or insulted if anyone presents solutions. The term “Apocalyptic Outsider” used to describe religious cults like the “Branch Davidians” of Waco, Texas, or the Jonestown massacre. But here it applies to an environmental version of doomsday. The 3 E’s of Energy, Environment, and Economic collapse become doctrines in their secular cult. They can’t wait for a sort of greenie Judgement Day where nature judges the ‘wicked’ and vindicates the lone prepper on his survivalist compound. Consider this Mad Max Fury Road trailer. It’s a stunning trailer, and the movie itself is part action thriller; part performance art; all environmental warning. I love the movie. But do I love the world? Imagine the kind of mindset that honestly not only predicts we are heading in this direction, but looks forward to it? (This is my favourite version of the Mad Max trailer. Turn it up, loud!)
Apocalyptic Outsider doomers have:-
- a tendency to gloat smugly over the coming destruction of civilization.
- a judgmental attitude to the uninitiated, calling their fellow citizens ‘consumers’ or ‘sheeple’ instead.
- a tendency to kick back and enjoy esoteric discussions over the end of civilization rather than actually doing anything about it.
- They’ll even scold Peaknik activists for daring to try and do something to prevent collapse
- They tend to be white guys with a mid-life crisis who want to hang out online and gripe about the world.
- Some of them seem to be into Anarcho-primitivism
PS: Instead of Peaknik, Doomer, and Apocalyptic Outsider Worldchanging uses the terms Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green and Grey.
Doomers fear anarchic collapse — what are the risks?
In addition to all the concerns I listed on my summary page, doomers also tend to emphasise the concepts below. Can I first of all state that the pessimistic position represents a significant body of academic work. For example, Jared Diamond won a Pulitzer Prize for his argument about how civilisations rise in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and then wrote “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed”.
Some Apocalyptic Outsiders might be in it for the hype, but there are some very accomplished and qualified Professors writing about these themes. See the papers at Dieoff.com. It’s enormous! Or try the Societal Collapse wiki that documents many of the themes below, but under slightly different names.
Risk 1: Overpopulation and overshoot
The human population has been growing exponentially. So as oil runs down will our Green Revolution of oil dependent farming also collapse? Will population growth push us up against all the other natural limits I’ve discussed until we break Liebig’s law of the minimum?
The first truly articulate expression of these concepts came from the now famous papers by Thomas Malthus in his 1798 paper. He was concerned with population pressures on agriculture and food supply. Then of course the Club of Rome was founded in 1968. A classic and often misquoted work The Limits to Growth ran a number of simulations on the best computers of the day. Things can fall apart very quickly. As the saying goes,
Every society is only 3 meals away from the next revolution.
Professor Albert Bartlett (who worked on the bomb!) has a now famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population and Energy. Bartlett proves beyond reasonable doubt that there we can have no sustainable civilization without a stable population base that controls its urge to grow exponentially. Every new resource availability — whether by expanding our nuclear energy base or making efficiency gains — will soon be consumed by the inexorable nature of exponential growth. A 20% efficiency gain across our entire civilization does us little good if we then grow our population by 30%!
In a similar vein, Jared Diamond explores some of these themes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. One has to remember that Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize winning earlier work Guns, Germs, and Steel studied the benefits of the right geology on the development of early civilizations — including positive environmental, resources, local positive energy flows through good grains and foods, and political factors. In Collapse he presents what can happen when these factors work against us, and our resources become depleted and our lands degraded.
However, Professor Richard Heinberg reviews Diamond’s Collapse and concludes that while a great first attempt, the book fails in breadth of analysis. Richard wishes that a civilization theory masterpiece had been compiled, incorporating the works of Joseph Tainter with some of Heinberg’s own work. Basically, Collapse is urgent, but is it urgent enough??!
“Here are my three reasons for concluding that Diamond has in fact made an extremely timid case for the likelihood of global industrial collapse; there are certainly others.” See Meditations on Collapse
Risk 2: ‘Net energy’ — Fossil fuels were unique
The main question here is whether any renewable energy system can really have a high enough ERoEI to run modern life and agriculture. Duncan and colleagues see fossil fuels as a unique, one time only store of practically free energy that humanity gorged in an industrial frenzy. They see all alternative energy systems have a negative or insignificant ERoEI. A typical quote is that “Every wind turbine ever built was built because of cheap oil.”
The uniqueness of fossil fuels is a view called ‘net energy’. Anarchy lurks in a number of quarters such as the collapse of the electricity grid stopping the water coming out of our taps. If the grid switches off forever the water pumps shut down. When we lose mains pressure and the water stops flowing out of our taps, that’s game over.
Risk 3: Complex systems collapse — “The spanner in the works.”
This perspective tries to assess the risks in an enormously interdependent globalized economy that is fantastically dependent on cheap transport for its very existence.
Factories no longer store vast supplies of components in warehouses. Instead they save real estate costs by becoming dependent on just in time delivery of their needs. Items arrive from a global supply line. This is true of all goods, whether computer components or cars through to the food in our groceries stores.
This makes the whole industrial trading and manufacturing system incredibly fragile and utterly dependent on shipping, airlines, and trucking. Everything is international. Raw ingredients are shipped from a resource nation to a cheap labour manufacturing nation, and then shipped to a first world consumer nation. Primary resources become secondary industry fodder which becomes tertiary industry employment. Finally, the customer drives to the store to pick up the goods. The whole system is inter-related and completely oil dependent. Our global economy is the most complex and fragile “machine” ever built, and oil is the lifeblood of that economy. Without it, the system will die. It’s like throwing a spanner into the works of a gigantic machine monster of pumping pistons and interlocking gears. In other words, “the age of the 3000 mile Caesar salad is coming to an end.” (Phrase by Jim Kunstler on End of Suburbia.)
The former oil-industry executive Jan Lundberg thinks that the economic crisis will be sudden.
“Market-based panic will, within a few days, drive prices skyward,” he says. “And the market will become paralysed at prices too high for the wheels of commerce and daily living.” So forget the price at the pump: when oil becomes truly unaffordable, you will be more worried about the collapse of distribution networks, and the absence of food from local shops.”
The Sunday Times Magazine
Wolf at the door writes of the UK’s “2000 Fuel Protests”
The European fuel protests of 2000 were an excellent example of what will happen when we are deprived of our petrol and a salutary warning.
The price of oil had been low for some time and when OPEC decided to reduce their quotas, the costs of oil shot up. Fishermen in France began to protest about the rises and the bug spread across the Channel. Farmers (who use low-tax fuel so were more aware of the rises) and hauliers (who saw their Continental rivals using lower taxed diesel) started their own opposition. The government was in a pit as it had gradually raised fuel taxes when oil was cheaper and did not reduce them as the price per barrel rose. The result was blockades of refineries for about two and a half weeks.
The implications of just this minor shortage was tremendous. Naturally there were huge queues at petrol stations to refuel, but there was also panic buying at the shops. Some ran out of bread and milk. Postal collections were suspended on Sundays to conserve fuel. Farm animals were threatened with starvation because the feed was unable to be delivered. Schools closed down and hospitals cancelled all but emergency operations. And all this from two and a half weeks.
Michael Meacher, who was Britain’s environment minister for six years, is plainly terrified.
“The implications are mind-blowing… Civilization faces the sharpest and perhaps most violent dislocation in recent history.”
The Sunday Times
By the time our governments realize that we really are at peak oil it may be too late to prevent enormous economic pain. I believe this is the case already. However, there is a vast difference between a Great Depression and the total destruction of society. On the other hand, a Great Depression is bad enough. To go descend further allows the potential for normal societal patterns of growing food, getting to work, shopping, and confidence in “the system” to break down. So what comes to the rescue after the airlines are bankrupt, the economy has tanked, once profitable jobs become irrelevant and the unemployment skyrockets. What happens the other side of massive unemployment queues, soup kitchens, people on the streets, corporations going bankrupt, government’s losing tax revenue as the economy sinks further?
The “Complex systems collapse” Doomer then looks at how other multiple factors collide. As Wolf in the Door illustrates so well, if a terrorist event or simple industrial action and protests get out of hand (which is very likely) then oil is not just more expensive, there may not even be any for official government purposes! There will be simultaneous challenges that are economic, industrial, social, technical, agricultural, psychological, psycho-social, political, cultural, and international. Other things all crash and reverberate off each other. One event makes the next worse in a cascade of ever descending anarchy.
Risk 4: War
The Carter Doctrine says:
“Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
For more detail, please go to Wolf at the Door and click on Future then Oil wars. This is probably the single most important reason to campaign for awareness. If people know peak oil is a geological event, they are less likely to support further oil wars. See also:
Three types of doomers and fantasy collapse | Energy Bulletin
Risk 5: Regional Disasters
Back in 2004 my then 5 year old boy nearly died from Leukemia. I know what it is like to have a child waste away before your eyes. I know what it is like to be a parent in pain, willing to do anything, desperate to save a child’s life. I have first hand experience of that desperation, and it has changed me.
So I see the potential for previously civil and polite parents to start screaming and rioting if supermarkets run low on supplies. There is nothing that can induce a sense of helpless panic and rage and manic energy as fear for your child.
What do you care if your nation eventually makes it, but your region or city collapses into chaos and your kids are killed in looting? You don’t have to believe in the inevitable end of Western Civilization to care about peak oil — you just have to remember Hurricane Katrina. That was a very predictable risk management exercise and the government bungled it completely. It sure felt like the end of civilization to them!
Risk 6: Complete financial collapse
The ABC recently hosted “The Ascent of Money” by Niall Ferguson. To present the case for economic collapse, I will hand you over to the ABC’s ‘Big Ideas’ podcast which recently played the 2010 John Bonython Lecture by Niall Ferguson.
Is the rise and fall of empires cyclical or arrhythmic? How does economic profligacy – whether the result of arrogance or naivety – contribute to the downfall of civilisations?
Today Professor Ferguson will argue that great powers or empires are in the strict sense of the word, complex systems. Made up of very large numbers of interacting components that are quite asymmetrically organised. In other words, he continues, their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Moreover imperial falls are nearly always associated with fiscal crises, when there are dramatic imbalances between revenues and expenditures.
Thus alarm bells should be ringing in Washington DC but what does that for mean for Australia?
Doomer memes are deadly
Tragically fatalistic doomer memes can be devastating to young people and force them to give up hope in the future, as one poor Australian family I now of discovered. I have met the father to discuss what on earth happened on the forums, and the consequences for him and his family are too sad to tell. Thinking about it is unbearable, but motivates me to write against the kind of older white male having a mid-life crisis tree-change and rejoicing in his peculiar doomer theories. I’m so over the self-congratulatory nature of these older people destroying the hopes of the young, causing panic attacks, depression and suicide.
Debunking the ‘romance’ of collapse
George Monbiot of the UK’s Guardian writes: I share their despair, but I’m not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain, where he argues that:
Like all cultures, industrial civilisation will collapse at some point. Resource depletion and climate change are likely causes. But I don’t believe it will happen soon: not in this century, perhaps not even in the next. If it continues to rely on economic growth, if it doesn’t reduce its reliance on primary resources, our civilisation will tank the biosphere before it goes down. To sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation’s imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.
Nor do I accept their undiscriminating attack on industrial technologies. There is a world of difference between the impact of windfarms and the impact of mining tar sands or drilling for oil: the turbines might spoil the view but, as the latest disaster shows, the effects of oil seep into the planet’s every pore. And unless environmentalists also seek to sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation – health, education, sanitation, nutrition – the field will be left to those who rightly wish to preserve them, but don’t give a stuff about the impacts.
We can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can embrace engineering while rejecting many of the uses to which it is put. We can defend healthcare while attacking useless consumption. This approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less ugly than the alternatives.
For all that, the debate this project has begun is worth having, which is why I’ll be going to the Dark Mountain festival this month. There are no easy answers to the fix we’re in. But there are no easy non-answers either.
Or, as Alex Steffen from Worldchanging writes:
But real apocalypses are sordid, banal, insane. If things do come unraveled, they present not a golden opportunity for lone wolves and well-armed geeks, but a reality of babies with diarrhea, of bugs and weird weather and dust everywhere, of never enough to eat, of famine and starving, hollow-eyed people, of drunken soldiers full of boredom and self-hate, of random murder and rape and wars which accomplish nothing, of many fine things lost for no reason and nothing of any value gained. And survivalists, if they actually manage to avoid becoming the prey of larger groups, sitting bitter and cold and hungry and paranoid, watching their supplies run low and wishing they had a clean bed and some friends. Of all the lies we tell ourselves, this is the biggest: that there is any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society.
Worldchanging October 2004
And at another point:
“But this sort of Worldending thinking is poisonous. Like so many other ego-apocalyptic fantasies, it plays off two toxic memes: the idea that collapse is a positive force, and the idea that people have no ecologically acceptable place on this planet. Better writers than me have explored why both of these ideas are insane. What isn’t explored often enough, though, is the effect these ideas and their like have on our culture: they sap our will to do better.Collapse and extinction scenarios stoke our resignation, and let us off the hook for taking the tough, hard steps we’ll be called to take over the next century if we are to build a sustainable civilization. We can’t build what we can’t imagine, but there’s a corollary as well: what we imagine has a way of deeply influencing us (or, as Montaigne put it, “A firm imagination often brings on the event.”).
A culture full of engaged, creative optimists with visions of a bright green future will produce a very different world than a culture of jaded misanthropes waiting for the Planetary Melt-Down. Optimism is a political act, challenging as it does the primary defense of the status quo — that change is impossible. It is also a creative one. Yet our culture is full of portrayals of the end, and almost completely empty of images and stories and plans that show today to be the beginning of a new era. That’s dysfunctional.
We know that we can do profoundly better than we are, that indeed, there’s no technical reason why we can’t build a society whose impacts on the natural world are positive.
So, yes, it’s interesting to read a story about how long it would take for our skyscrapers to fall into ruins — but it’d be thrilling to read a story about what it would take for humanity to thrive on Earth forever.”
Worldchanging, October 2006
George Monbiot sums up his thoughts on Apocalyptic Outsiders brilliantly in this conversation. The whole conversation is well worth reading, and I laughed when I read the comments and saw the same tired old cliche’s being pushed. Doomers can be so predictable, and so evasive, and so inconsistent! This paragraph, near the end of this exchange, made me laugh out loud.
Yes, the words I use are fierce, but yours are strangely neutral. I note that you have failed to answer my question about how many people the world could support without modern forms of energy and the systems they sustain, but 2 billion is surely the optimistic extreme. You describe this mass cull as “a long descent” or a “retreat to a saner world”. Have you ever considered a job in the Ministry of Defence press office?
This email by George Monbiot sums up what I think about Apocalyptic Outsiders.
If I have understood you correctly, you are proposing to do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation. You believe that instead of trying to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources, we should let the system slide. You go on to say that we should not fear this outcome.
How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy? How many would survive without modern industrial civilisation? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.
I find it hard to understand how you could be unaffected by this prospect. I accused you of denial before; this looks more like disavowal. I hear a perverse echo in your writing of the philosophies that most offend you: your macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth. Both positions betray a refusal to engage with physical reality.
Your disavowal is informed by a misunderstanding. You maintain that modern industrial civilisation “is a weapon of planetary mass destruction”. Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.
You would purge the planet of industrial civilisation, at the cost of billions of lives, only to discover that you have not invoked “a saner world” but just another phase of destruction.
Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them, and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them. Faced with your alternative – sit back and watch billions die – Liberal Democracy 2.0 looks like a pretty good option.
We could still nuke ourselves back to the stone age, but do you want to live your life in a cave waiting for that to happen? I think the odds of it are low. I plan to live a full life with my family, while occasionally campaigning for environmental awareness on the side.