Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXXVI

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
6 min readDec 28, 2022
Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

Energy Future, Part 2: Competing Polities and Geopolitical Stress

Part 2 of my multi-part contemplation on our energy future.

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
-various attributions (e.g., Niels Bohr, Samuel Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Mark Twain, Nostradamus)

As I argued in Part 1, energy underpins everything including human societal complexities. And the more energy humans have at their disposal, the greater the complexities and their concomitant ‘quality of life’ (not for all, but for those with greatest access/exposure)[1]. Being a ‘finite’ resource, the difficulty (impossibility?) in sustaining this ‘prosperity’ is self-evident — or at least it should be[2].

As walking, talking apes that communicate via stories we have weaved many tales of how we will sustain our complex living arrangements and the energy ‘slaves’ that make this possible[3]. In our quest to reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts we have, for the most part, ignored/denied the implications of dwindling resources — especially energy — and the implications of this for our future[4].

The more dominant and mainstream narratives argue we can or will transition to low-/zero-carbon technologies with nary a hiccup[5]. Our ingenuity guarantees this — or at least the snake oil salesmen marketing their wares and standing to profit handsomely from these tales do[6].

While I believe we will indeed attempt this (primarily because the ruling caste that guides/influences the narratives that we tend to believe in and allocates our society’s resources towards actions/efforts that helps to meet their overarching goal — the control/expansion of the wealth-/extraction-generating systems that provide their revenue streams and thus positions of power/prestige — will make it so), all it will likely accomplish (besides creating some comforting stories to share and huge profits for our already insanely wealthy few) will be the exacerbation of our fundamental predicament: ecological overshoot[7].

This means the speeding up of the drawdown of our resources (both ‘non-renewable’ and ‘renewable’) and the magnification of the concomitant ecological systems destruction[8] — more on this in a future post.

Speeding up the drawdown of resources (especially some that are only or primarily found in far-off locations from the sociopolitical centres that ‘require’ them to support their complexities, and ‘controlled’ by others) feeds into another unfortunate propensity of human complex societies: competition between polities.

In their detailed computer analyses of how a species that pursues growth on a finite planet might fair in a future of biogeochemical limitations, Meadows et al. highlight that two of the symptoms of overshooting the natural environmental carrying capacity are increasing conflicts over resources/sinks and declining respect for government as it uses its ‘power’ to maintain/increase the share of declining ‘wealth’ for the ruling elite — primarily by disproportionately allocating resources towards its military and industry, and away from the majority of its citizens[9].

And while his focus is upon pre/historical sociopolitical collapse, as opposed to ecological systems collapse (although ecological breakdown certainly has contributed to past societal collapses), archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues in his text The Collapse of Complex Societies that past collapses have occurred in two different political situations: a dominant state in isolation or as part of a cluster of peer polities[10]. With global travel and communication, the isolated dominant state has disappeared and only competitive peer polities now exist.

Such polities tend to get caught up in spiralling competitive investments as they seek to outmaneuver each other in their quest for control/influence and evolve greater complexity together. The polities caught up in this competition increasingly experience declining marginal returns on their investments in this strategy and must divert ever-increasing amounts of energy/resources leading to increasing economic weakness — especially for those outside of the ruling caste.

Withdrawing from this spiral or collapsing is not an option without risking being subsumed by a competitor. It is this trap of competition that will continue to drive the pursuit of complexity regardless of human/environmental costs and the impact upon dwindling resources. Incentives and economic reserves can support this situation for a lengthy period, as witnessed by the Roman and Mayan experiences where centuries of diminishing returns were endured, but not forever.

Ever-increasing costs and ever-decreasing marginal returns typify peer polities in competition. This ends in either domination by one state and a new energy subsidy, or collapse of all. As Tainter concludes:

“Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.” (p. 214)

It would seem one of the consequences of our diminished energy future will be increased tension between competing polities. And this competition will be primarily about energy/resource reserves. In fact, a number of analysts have predicted that the globe is heading for (or is already engaged in) significant geopolitical stressors, if not resource wars[11].

William Catton Jr. also discusses this trajectory towards increasing geopolitical tension in Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change[12]. He argues that we are fated to continue our self-destructive proclivities as long as we fail to understand them. While we have learned to be civil over the centuries, particularly since the leveraging of fossil fuels began and net surplus energy has led to an explosion of growth and ‘wealth’, the concomitant population irruption and the pressure compounded by technology have led to a degradation of these relationships and have become increasingly competitive.

Humans have reacted in pressure-increasing ways that has created a further diminishing of carrying capacity making our overshoot situation even worse. War-like rhetoric has increased as population pressures have. Wars are a useful leverage point for the ruling caste to target the ‘other’ as redundant, as opposed to ourselves who ‘deserve’ our energy-intensive way of life and the resources required to maintain it.

“In a habitat that was not growing any larger, the continuing increase in either our numbers, our activities, or our equipment would ultimately induce more and more antagonism. Our routine pursuit of legitimate aspirations as individual human beings, as breathing, eating, drinking, traveling, working, playing and reproducing organisms, would increasingly entail mutual interference.” (p. 224)

Here we have competition over finite resources that is leading to a quickening of the drawdown of these resources. These diminishing resources are being allocated to this spiralling pursuit of competition while the consequences — both economic deterioration for the majority of humans and ecological destruction of the planet — are ignored/denied and/or rationalised away by way of narratives that argue the very instruments of our demise (increasingly complex and resource-dependent technologies) must be pursued with all the expediency we can muster.

Our conundrum is becoming ever-more wicked in its complexity.

In Part 3 I will explore some of the issues for human societies of this increasing geopolitical competition.

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

[1] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[2] Fossil fuels are finite in the sense that the flow from the existing stocks in the form of extraction far, far exceeds their replenishment rate which is estimated at millions of years. See this.

[3] See this, this, and/or this.

[4] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[5] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[6] See this, this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[7] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[8] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[9] See this and/or this.

[10] See this and/or this.

[11] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[12] See this and/or this.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...