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The Big Picture: Collapse, Transcendence, or Muddling Through

I'll start this essay by leading with my conclusion: do we make it through this century? Yeah, but not all of us, and it's neither as spectacular nor as horrific as many people imagine.

Techno-utopianism is heady and seductive. Looking at the proliferation of powerful catalytic technologies, and the potential for truly transformative innovations just beyond our present grasp, makes scenarios of transcendence wiping away the terrible legacies of 20th century industrialism seem easy. If we're just patient, and don't shy away from the scale of the potential change, all that we fear today could be as relevant as 19th century tales of crowded city streets overwhelmed by horse droppings.

But if you don't trust the technological scenarios, it's not hard to see just how thoroughly we're doomed. There are myriad drivers: depleting resources, rapid environmental degradation, global warming, international political instability, just to name a few. Any of these forms of "collapse" would pose a considerable challenge; in combination, they're simply terrifying. Most importantly, we seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the significance of the challenge. We're evolutionarily set to look for nearby, near-term problems and ignore deeper, distributed threats.

But here's the twist: the impacts of these broader drivers for collapse and of technosocial innovation aren't and won't be evenly distributed globally. Some places will be able to last longer in the face of resource and environmental collapse than will others -- and (not coincidentally) such places may be at the forefront of technosocial development, as well. The combination of collapse and innovation will lead to profoundly divergent results around the world.

One disturbing aspect is that the slowly-developing/late-leapfrog world may not be hurt nearly as badly as the recent-leapfrog nations -- it may be worse to be China or Brazil than Indonesia or Nigeria, for example, because rapid industrialization based on carbon-age technologies still leaves you more dependent upon the collapsing resources than you had been, but not yet in a good position to leap past the collapse itself. The key example here would be China and India's growing dependence on coal (and, to a lesser extent, old-style massively-centralized nuclear power). In order to support their rapid economic development, they're stuck using energy technologies that are devastating both locally (through pollution) and globally (through carbon footprint). Add to this that China's economic and demographic situation is more unstable than many people think, and that India faces significant political threats -- including terrorism -- both internally and along its border.

So the dilemma here is how to construct a global policy that can take into account the sheer complexity of the onrushing collapse. If it was "just" resource depletion, it would be tricky but doable; but it's resource collapse plus global warming plus pandemic disease plus post-hegemonic disorder plus the myriad other issues we're grappling with. It's going to be difficult to see our way through this. Not impossible, but difficult.

The aspects that are on our side:

  • We do have the technology to deal with a lot of this stuff, but not the political will. But we know that we can change politics and society, arguably better than we know we can build some new technologies. A major disaster or three will change the politics quickly.
  • To a certain extent, the crises can cross-mitigate -- for example, skyrocketing petroleum prices has measurably reduced travel miles, and are pushing people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, thereby reducing overall carbon outputs. Economic slow-downs also reduce the pace of carbon output. These are not a solution, by any means, but a mitigating factor.
  • We have a lot of people thinking about this, working on fixes and solutions and ideas. Not top-down directed, but a massively-massively-multi-participant quest, across thousands of communities and hundreds of countries, bringing in literally millions of minds. The very description reeks of innovation potential.

    Here's my best guess, for now:

    Over the next forty years, we'll see a small but measurable dieback of human population, due to starvation, disease, and war (one local nuclear war in South Asia or Middle East, scaring the hell out of everyone about nukes for another couple of generations). Much of the death will be in the advanced developing nations, such as China and India. There will be pretty significant economic slowdowns globally, and US/EU/Japan will see significant unrest. Border closings between the developed and the developing nations will likely spike, probably along with brushfire skirmishes.

    The post-industrial world will see a burst of localization and "made by hand" production, but even at its worst it is more reminiscent of World War II-era restrictions than of a Mad Max-style apocalypse. In much of the developed world, limitations serve as a driver for innovation, both social and technological. It's not a comfortable period, by any means, but the Chinese experience and the aftermath of the Middle East/South Asian nuclear exchange sobers everybody up.

    Imperial overreach, economic crises, and the various global environmental and resource threats put an end to American dominance, but nobody else can step up as global hegemon. Europe is trying to deal with its own social and environmental problems, while China is struggling to avoid full-on collapse. The result isn't so much isolationism as distractionism -- the potential global players are all far too distracted by their own problems to do much overseas.

    Refugees and "displaced persons" are ubiquitous.

    I'm near-certain that we'll see a significant geoengineering effort by the middle of the next decade, the one major global cooperative project of the era. The global economic crises, near-collapse of China, and faster-than-expected shift to non-petroleum travel will slow the projected rate of warming, limiting the necessary climate hacking. Solar shading works reasonably well and reasonably cheaply, so the clear focus of global warming worries and new geoengineering efforts by the late 2020s is on ocean acidification.

    A mix of nuclear, wind, solar, and a few others (OTEC, hydrokinetic) overtakes fossil fuels in the West by 2020s, but China & India retain coal-fired power plants longer than anyone else; this may end up being a driver for significant global tension.

    Technological innovation continues, though, with molecular nanotechnology fabrication emerging by 2030 -- not as a deux ex machina but as a significant boost to productive capacities. The West (including Japan) stabilizes around the same time, and finally starts to focus on helping the rest of the world recover.

    Then the Singularity happens in 2048 and we're all uploaded by force.

    (I'm kidding about that last one. I think.)

  • Comments

    Another advantage we have today is that we are networked to a greater degree than ever before. Even if we can't fly around the world to meet, we can get together online and televise our ideas fairly easily. An open source community brainstorm may be in the offing.

    For instance, just today I came across a blog post at correntewire talking about how to prepare for winter now. That's right up my alley. I posted there some of my ideas and references and hope that others will do the same. Perhaps that will reach a critical mass and individuals around the USA will actually start doing the things they need to do to prepare for winter and begin helping their neighbors to do the same. After awhile it may even get into the corporate media (not "mainstream media" but corporate media as that is the more precise term). I can imagine PBS doing a special "This Old House" on the issue come Fall.

    Another example is what is being attempted at globalswadeshi.net. There a small group of people are trying to build together ways to help people raise their standards of living ecologically all around the world. Again, a critical mass applied to this idea could break out in ways that we do not comprehend as of yet.

    On the other hand, personally I feel we are all pretty much screwed but that doesn't stop me from trying to do what I do.


    I think the cheap solar is in the bag. The rest flows from there.

    You might also enjoy: http://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topic/show?id=2097821%3ATopic%3A1941

    which is a chunk of stuff on open technology and extreme poverty.

    Why are we worrying about this stuff when Barack Obama let his kids be interviewed on television!?!?!?!

    Sorry, I just heard Bush imply that off-shore drilling would reduce gasoline prices, and I'm feeling awfully cynical.

    What really burns me is that it really seems that change has to be disaster driven. The hippies, environmentalists, and SF authors could see this shit coming down the pike decades ago, and had pretty damn sensible solutions which if implemented back then would . . .

    . . . ah, fuck it. Some misery, disillusion, and a deprivation will clear the decks of memes, habits, and attitudes whose death is long overdue.

    Sadly enough, Stefan, we may need to face the fact that the Market Economy's reach may extend to judging the cost of human lives.

    The Market will correct all when resources become more than currency...Even when it becomes the flesh of our loved ones.

    Maybe this is helpful:


    The same thinker, Russell Ackoff, observed that there are 4 approaches to the future.

    First is Inactive: let's do nothing, appoint a committee, stall, etc.

    Second is Reactive: all change is bad, let's resist it, let's entrench the status quo, etc.

    Third is Proactive: here's comes the future, the smart will be ready, the stupid will be obsolete, it's inevitable, etc.

    Fourth is Interactive: what kind of future do we want, and how can we best create it?

    My bias is that 1 thru 3 are mind traps, and Interactive is the best and only worthwhile approach. Thus I'm disappointed that Jamais is expressing a #3 point of view. Get ahold of yourself, my friend: nobody ever said this was going to be easy.

    From experience and a study of history, I know that half the horrible things people worry about both globally and in their personal lives never happen.

    Note however, that the impulse to totalitarian socialism remains. It is an opportunistic disease like gangrene; Where there is injury, socialism will appear with destructive "solutions."

    David, I don't think that I was arguing that the smart will be ready, the stupid will be obsolete, or even that any of this is "inevitable." If anything, I was laying out how ridiculously complex all of this is. I would hope that my years of writing about the adamant need for agency-driven futurism, the recognition that the future is something that we create, not just something that happens to us, means that I don't have to make the same point every time I write about big picture drivers.

    Max, I went ahead and approved your comment so that everyone can point and laugh.

    Jamais, I apologize - I should have given my previous screed more thought before hitting the "post" button. You don't need to restate your fine body of thought each time you post. But you seem more despair-ridden lately than usual, although nothing fundamental has changed recently, or been much of a surprise. The rough outlines of our dilemmas and opportunities were foreseen decades ago, and made unavoidable by the Reagan and Thatcher shenanigans of the 1980's. The Titanic will hit the iceberg - our only choice now is whether it's full-on or just a glancing blow. Basically, that depends on quick action, starting right now. So Russell Ackoff's advice seems very germane: focus on every difference between what the present is like, and what you want it to be, and act on that, every day, with hard work and cheerful spirit. The long-term drivers and future-gazing are interesting, but not nearly as important as we sometimes think - at least not in this present time, when history has accelerated and the future has become compressed into a handful of years. It's more important to focus on the bottleneck through which we must pass, or perish. Less wringing of hands please, and more rolling up of sleeves.

    David, thank you.

    And you're right; I have been more despair-ridden lately. Part of it comes from seeing how little is getting done even as significant problems seem to be accelerating. Part of it comes from seeing sites and colleagues that once personified pragmatic optimism become bastions of magical thinking. Part of it comes from just being a bitter bastard.

    I tend to think, btw, that "long-term drivers and future-gazing" are even more important in a time when history has accelerated -- they give us context and perspective, and (try to) push us out of the paradigm of short-term reactions dominating our decision-making.

    ...and possibly, in part, the numbing grind of the last eight years?

    If so then, from at least two experiences, it's an ache that will pass. People ain't stupid!

    While I don't pretend that whatever comes after will be the cure for all ills, at least a few gears in the body politic may be free to move again!

    Where have you written about and presented a case for current collapse in China ? Are you referring to a case made for this assertion by someone else ?

    I would guess you might be talking about some kind of environmental collapse which would then lead to an economic one ?

    In 2007, China’s capacity of power generation improved rapidly. The installed capacity of
    power generation units increased by 100.09 million kw, including 13,065,000 kw of
    hydropower, 81,583,500 kw of thermal power, and 2,961,700 kw of wind power. The
    increased production capacity of thermal power took up 81.5% in the total increased
    production capacity. In December 2007, with 5 million kw power generation units put into
    production under the Three Gorges Project, Three Gorges Power Plant became the world’s
    largest power plant by installed capacity; its total installed capacity hit 14.8 million kw.

    China at the end of 2006 had 47GW of small hydro installed


    CapGemini projected that China would have 1230GW of electrical power by 2020. Up from about 600GW in 2006.

    china renewables plan

    China future energy development targets

    By 2010, China’s installed capacity of hydropower will reach 190 GW. By 2020, the
    nation’s installed hydropower capacity will reach 300 GW.

    China would have about 35% power from non-fossil fuel sources in 2020. 300GW Hydro, 60GW nuclear, 123GW from renewables if targets are reached. Almost 40% from hydro, renewables and nuclear, and 45% of power would be from non-coal sources if natural gas usage is increased as projected.

    China is discussing ordering 100 AP1000 [1.25GW to 1.7GW] nuclear reactors instead of 40 by 2020. The 100 would be built or in the process of being built by 2020. If that deal and target are met then nuclear power could be 200+GW in china by 2025.

    China is also starting to build a high temperature nuclear reactor, which they plan to factory mass produce. 200MW. Meltdown proof. More efficient thermally and with nuclear fuel.

    Sorry, Brian, I don't think I've written extensively about it in public projects. It is something I've been following, though. The logic is a combination of environmental, demographic, and potentially political instabilities (the last mostly in the west, and rural regions). The economic aspect follows from these, plus resource access and loss of export markets.

    It's an admittedly pessimistic view.

    Some counter-predictions:

    No significant dieback due to starvation, disease, or war. Most vulnerable region, Africa not Asia. No nuclear war at all, anywhere. When things go bad for a region, what happens is that lots of people end up back in poverty. But the powers of the modern state are mobilized to at least avoid the worst outcomes in most crises.

    Developing world joins emissions reduction scheme, after having pushed responsibility on developed world for as long as possible, when it becomes clear that (1) they are feeling the effects (2) they are now the majority of emissions. When self-interest wins out, in other words.

    I don't see how ocean acidification could be a major worry within 20 years, when the forecast is for a 0.3-0.5 drop in pH by 2100 - 70 years further out - and that would still leave the ocean on the alkaline side of neutrality, around pH 7.5.

    Nanotechnology and artificial intelligence arrive shortly after the world finally appears to have a consensual macro strategy for sustainability, maybe ten years from now, and constitute an extinction risk. How that turns out will depend on contingencies we cannot presently foresee.

    I think the threat of nuclear war remains great. Even moreso, as the technology becomes acessible by more states such as Iran. We must never forget the inherent tendency towards violence in human beings, which is of course related to the need for power. Also, the insanity of politics represented in the numerous dictators of the 20th century. The threat of war remains as great today as ever before. Class conflicts will intensify in the future.

    The element of community formation and mobilization (just living on the same turf is not sufficient) is going to be another factor in who muddles through this multi-layered collapse. Groups that are able to think in terms of "we" instead of "I" will benefit from sharing resources, collaborating on solutions, mutual support and economies of (small) scale.

    Not all communal and cooperative living experiments were total failures. Much was learned by those who kept their heads screwed on and paid attention. Some of us will be applying lessons learned, at least for the benefit of our heirs and current communities.

    No, this ain't the dreaded "socialism" straw man. Maybe we'll call it "localism" or "neighborism."


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