The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Four Scenarios for a Catastrophic Future: Part III (final)

This is the third and final part of Rutilius Namatianus' (RN) reassessment of some scenarios for the future originally proposed by David Holmgren. RN takes a position that goes against the standard interpretation that sees our problems originating mainly by climate change. Instead, RN believes that climate change didn't do much damage to humankind, so far, and so it will remain a minor component of humankind's trajectory, at least for the coming years, perhaps a couple of decades. What we are seeing, instead, is the crunch created by the gradually reduced availability of natural resources, coupled with increasing population and consumption levels. As a result, the services and the goods previously granted to nearly all social layers are becoming impossible to maintain and that is eroding the basic pact that keeps society together. Consistently, the Elites are developing a totalitarian grip on all sectors of society in such a way to funnel all the remaining resources for themselves and leave nothing to the commoners. And that's where we stand now. Of course, there is much that is debatable in RN's theses, but there is no doubt that he is identifying some real elements of what's happening nowadays. (UB)

 By Rutilius Namatianus

2021 - Future Scenarios Revisited

In Part 1 and Part 2, I re-examined Holmgren's Future Scenarios ten years after they had been proposed, and where we had moved since then in the scenario state space. I also considered a new state-space that could be more pertinent to a question that must be high on many peoples' priorities these days: we observe two trends, racing against each other: the trend of centralized power structures (however we call it, we never did get a single really good name for the great steamroller!) to conquer every last thing, consolidate power over every last place, the trend toward ever-increasing power, the logical continuation of the 'stupid' strategies we might say- to refer to a recent post- against the counter-trend of depletion, environmental degradation, exhaustion of resources, diminishing returns on complexity, and generally the whole picture we sum up with the word 'collapse'... 

We know that physics always wins in the end, yes! But it certainly makes a difference to those alive whether the leviathan eats us all before it collapses, or if it collapses before it manages to burn everything else to the ground. Large organized entities look like they're trying to carry out a 'reset' or a controlled demolition of large parts of the existing economy to preserve the parts that keep them large and organized and in power. Anything deemed superfluous to this goal is marked for deletion. 

This is a survival reaction from large power structures, but it is of course imperiled by the very complexity and interdependence of the economy: It is not easy to demolish whole sectors while leaving others untouched. Much more likely, such an effort will backfire and accelerate the collapse. Will they manage to pull off their 'reset' before everything falls apart? Or can the plans be safely put on the back burner with all priority placed on digging and planting gardens and squirreling away books to preserve for the future to rediscover? 

In 2019, I had sketched out what looked like relative trajectories of several major blocs in the world, through the concentration-of-power versus resource-depletion axes. I observed that most of the world was in Holmgren's 'brown tech' scenario, or even in more extreme conditions. The world was slipping towards a bifurcation where one path led up and right into the 'lifeboat' scenario and another led down and right towards global war and 'mad max'. 

It seems that, so far, the forces of consolidation of power have pulled ahead in the race: While in 2019 that momentum seemed to be faltering, with disorders in China and Hong Kong, the gilets-jaunes in France, the 5-star and Lega coalition in Italy, with wider gaps opening between northern Europe and the south, with the US preoccupied with internal fantasies and identity-politics, with the third world drifting further into collapse and dysfunction. At that time, it looked like the decline was breaking into a chaotic state. 

Thus, on the consolidation of power (vertical) axis, in 2018-2019 we saw a slowdown in the US, EU, and third world in the downward movement. China seems to have also already gone further faster with their social credit and facial recognition rollouts, but those were news in 2017, not 2019. On the energy front, both China and the US managed to slow down their internal declines through a combination of being able to better afford imports, and subsidizing unprofitable domestic production. In the US, the unprofitable domestic production was the shale oil 'boom' of roughly 2012-2019. In China, it was largely coal production. 

In Europe, meanwhile, the North Sea, Europe's primary source of production, continued its decline at ever faster rates. While Europe still has access to imported energy, the majority of Europeans simply can't afford as much as they used to. Thus, Europe slips further to the right in the graph with the net results of further energy decline. Huge misallocations of capital in Europe on politically motivated 'green' projects do not help this picture at all and degrade the quality of energy available for use further- also a component in the shift further into decline. The Third World has been the primary loser in the energy competition. Where does the extra energy that the US and China can afford to keep importing come from? It is the energy the Third World can't afford anymore. 

That was in 2019. Now, in 2021, we see that the past year saw the large power structures rapidly tightening their grip. The US energy decline which had been held back by high-cost oil and gas from shale formations picked up speed since those fields, never profitable, are declining already. Resource depletion elsewhere accelerated. Chinese coal has been in crisis and they even suffered rolling blackouts rather than pay the demanded price for Australian coal imports. Large portions of the population in the developed world have found themselves under heavy restrictions on movement and economic activity for much of the year, with absolutely enormous quantities of fresh debt added to the money supply in almost all the economies- total debt increased by something on the order of 20-25% in a single year! 

Balanced against this, there was some success in the controlled demolition - so far. World GDP might have contracted by about 10%. World energy consumption dropped somewhere around 7% for 2020 compared to 2019. With oil decline probably somewhere between 5 and 10 % now, a 7% reduction in consumption might buy about a year of time against the resource collapse.. But in early 2021 there are increasing concerns about increasing supply-chain problems, which are a sign of rising stress in an interdependent network, creeping closer toward dysfunction and failure.

Here we can add the 2020 experiences. Energy decline slowed down across the globe- a 7% contraction in energy consumption - although the true size of the decline will only really show up later in 2021 as the failure of the subsidized unprofitable extraction in China and the US is felt in production statistics. The real action has been in the 'developed' world, with the elites taking hold of the trend of consolidation of power and jamming a major consolidation into the picture. All three of the developed blocs show a major turn downward in 2020 as every manner of control and restriction was imposed and centralization of control and coordination of all sorts of mass-media reached almost unimaginable new extents. 

In early 2021, though, this is starting to indicate that they might have shot themselves in the foot. Resistance in many areas is growing and has gotten a better picture of what it is they are resisting against. The demolition of whole sectors of the economy through 2020 is only beginning to show up in disruptions in supply chains and lengthening delivery times for all sorts of specialty items. The recent slowdown in dozens of industries due to pressure on simple microcontroller chips almost monopolized by a handful of Taiwanese manufacturers is only one (very visible) example. They seem to still be following a 'shock doctrine' playbook for simply blowing up some part of the economy to goad the rest into moving in a direction they want. In one sense this is like watching people play some game like the once-popular Sim City, where everything is simple and one-dimensional and there's always a cheat code to get more free money, which always buys more stuff. 2021 will show a lot more of this.

It's still not clear which way the trend will break this year, but we have at least seen a major move that is accelerating the timeline. When we see many of the rulers of the major power structures proclaim repeatedly (often with enthusiastic relish) how they see a narrow "window of opportunity" to carry out their crash program of consolidation, they aren't joking. They might have bought a year or so, or they might have pushed it further down the Seneca cliff. 

While the plot is a freehand sketch just to give the general feel of the shape of the trajectories, it does seem that we are learning in the past year some important hints about how much energy and complexity are necessary to keep a modern technological empire intact- just how much can be cut before it begins to imperil the rest of the structure. There had been a lot of speculation in the past few years about this matter. Would the economy remain functional through a 5% decline? 10? 20? how far down the slope would it hold together? It seems that single-digit percentage shocks of only a few months duration are already almost fatal (and might yet be). 

To paraphrase Tainter's definition of collapse: a rapid and involuntary reduction in complexity. It could be that, in their attempt to push all the resource decline onto the weaker population, the powerful players have also even more rapidly accelerated the collapse of the only system that allows them to convert those resources into ongoing power. 


  1. China, importing 17.5+ million barrel of oil a day - is actually not a Super Power but rather a power in a miserable situation no less than that of war-torn Iraq

    India? Europe? Korea? Japan?

    Our Western Civilisation needed to stop seeing itself and acting as an Energy-Nany Civilisation - since Stanley Jevons in 1860.

    Instead, it should have treated its citizens as Energy grown-ups.

    The problem with Energy is that in the process of controlling Energy resources to a Nany-Social Engineering plan, the resources will always deplete executing the plan before the end of the plan.

    In 1905, when coal in Britain started peaking, our Western Civilisation needed to explain how "Energy, like time, flows from past to future" - not burning oceans and mountains of fossil fuels explaining how E=mc^2, Fusion, wind, solar, EVs, Hydrogen - work or not.

    In 1905 the world population has been 1/4 of today's, or less.

    Our Western Civilisation failed to understand the essence of Energy-and-Control, and behaved in exercising Control much worse than how Control understood in the middle ages - burning and destroying all fossil fuels reserves in the process - for good.


  2. Can't disagree with your assessment. We are in a deadly struggle between an economy that functions at all and an environment that will be able to function in the near future. There is no easy solution to Overshoot,only the horror, the horror.

  3. Paraphrased:

    In their attempt to push resource decline onto the weaker population. Powerful players have rapidly accelerated the collapse of the only system that allows them to maintain power.

    We are living a 'Let them eat cake' moment. In America the Biden police state shows its colors and consolidates power.

    The endgame accelerates. Biden did not drop a MOAB like Trump did at the stat of his term to show that his shlong still works. That is an improvement. But:

    A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
    scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The
    frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion
    says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

    The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream,
    the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of
    paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown,
    but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

    Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

    Politicians always want more. Of everything. For themselves.