A Societal Phase Transition This Way Comes
The following contemplation shares my thoughts/response to The Honest Sorcerer’s latest article (another very worthwhile read) regarding the diminishing returns being increasingly encountered by non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (aka ‘renewables’) — and, yes, I am still plugging away at the Energy Series (Part 1; Part 2) I began as I organise a Food Gardening Guild within my local community, the response to which has been great!
The material and environmental ‘blindness’ to the situation you describe so well seems, at least for the masses, mostly due to attempts to reduce the stress of the cognitive dissonance created by the contradictory information we are exposed to — on the one hand we have increasing numbers of ecologists/biologists warning about the perils of our unchecked growth, finite resource use, and the increasingly negative consequences of these practices; while on the other hand, we have our politicians/industrialists/economists weaving stories about salvation and continued prosperity mostly via the shifting of energy sources and associated products (their motivations being self-serving and that I have written about repeatedly).
These denial-/bargaining-based narratives around a ‘green’ energy transition must be overcome to allow us to see/comprehend the fundamental predicament we have on our hands — ecological overshoot — before any ‘progress’ can be made towards mitigating some of the inevitable consequences we will increasingly encounter as various systems break down (both human-contrived and natural). Without seeing and understanding this predicament we will not, except perhaps in some few local and lucky ‘safe havens’, be able to mitigate at least some of the fallout of the coming storm.
The problem with predicaments of course is that they have no solutions, only consequences, and human complex societies tend to be problem-solving organisations (see archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies). And this problem-solving orientation of large, complex societies has served humanity well during its last 10,000 or so years, so it seems next to impossible to counter this ingrained/enculturated belief that we can ‘solve’ any issue thrown down in front of us — most recently by throwing gargantuan amounts of fiat currency and/or complex technology at it. Toss on top of this long-term belief system the tendency of our ruling caste to leverage crises to their personal advantage and our dilemma becomes increasingly ‘wicked’; in fact, it becomes next to impossible to see clearly for a variety of reasons (mostly psychological in nature; e.g., deference to ‘authority’, groupthink, cognitive dissonance reduction).
Perhaps one aspect of the issue is that we tend to interpret the world partially through our perceived position on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Or at least through a lens that impacts our perceived risk of needs. If we believe our more basic needs are at risk, we focus upon the risk factors located there (e.g., predicament of overshoot, resource scarcity, etc.) whereas those who are in denial of/blind to those risks are concentrating on the needs to be met further along the hierarchy (e.g., achievement, prestige, growth, play, etc.) and hold out that since their basic needs are being met satisfactorily (at least for now) they are not at risk and ‘higher’ needs should be one’s focus.
As well, It seems next to impossible to counter ruling caste propaganda regarding a renewable energy-based transition to ‘sustainability’ in balance with ecological systems (all while pursuing growth), especially if they serve to instill hope (falsely-based in my opinion) and promises of continuing prosperity/security/etc.. And while some accuse ‘doubters’ of this grand narrative of being fossil fuel-industry shills, ‘doomers’, and/or — God forbid — ‘conspiracy theorists’, the truth of the matter appears to be that we are living during the time of a significant ‘phase transition’. Such eras tend to be a time of competing narratives, confusion, grieving, and even despair for some.
Phase transitions are an interesting phenomenon, particularly in societal settings (an area I think I need to explore further for better understanding). There is growing research/academic study upon them, especially in the realm of transitioning to a ‘sustainable’ society. It seems all of what I read in my brief look into the subject was oriented towards understanding how to shift societal ‘thinking’ towards the acceptance of a ‘sustainable’ future. There is even an entire journal dedicated to this. Of course, the mainstream future being propagated by the ruling caste can be seen in much of this work: technological solutions and the concomitant uptake of new industrial products, and governing shifts that centralise power.
Regardless of the orientation of this research, the important thing to understand about phase transitions is how ‘quickly’ they can occur and how unpredictable they are. My introduction to the topic was during my research for my first novel when I came upon the topic of the Abelian sandpile model and self-organised criticality. Basically, the sandpile model shows why complex systems cannot be predicted and their ‘collapse’ can occur quickly, without warning.
Here are two passages from texts I read while researching for my ‘fictional’ writing that brought this to the forefront of my thinking:
First, from David G. Green’s 2014 book Of Ants and Men: The Unexpected Side Effects of Complexity in Society:
The history of human civilization is, in large measure, a story of the human quest for control. After thousands of years of civilization, we think that we control the environment in which we live. We begin to think that we control the natural world. We might even fool ourselves into thinking that we control human nature. Modern society is built on the assumption of control. Yet, as the terror of the New York blackout shows, chaos all too easily bursts forth, reminding us how flimsy the illusion of control really is.
The root cause of much of the chaos that besets us is complexity, sheer complexity. From complex webs of interactions, chaos emerges. It is complexity that leads to unexpected problems, that turns order into chaos. As much as anything, the New York blackout, like most accidents and breakdowns, was a result of complexity. The power system did have backups and safeguards built in. But no one had anticipated that the network could suffer a cascade of failures of the kind that occurred. Nor could anyone anticipate the mayhem that would ensue when power failed on such a large scale for such a long period. This does not mean that the planners were incompetent; there are just so many possible ways that the system could behave, it is not possible to anticipate and plan for all contingencies.
Second, from a 2003 Corey Lofdahl paper, On the Confounding of Overshoot and Collapse Predictions by Economic Dynamics:
The ability to predict when a system will ‘collapse’ is possible if it is understood when the underlying, foundational resources will exhaust themselves…The best that can be said…is that entropy decreases as the system moves towards its natural limit. The system becomes more likely to collapse, but it is impossible to say exactly when…the larger the resource base, the larger the overshoot and the more postponed the collapse…
[G]rowth can continue for far longer than seems possible to somebody who recognizes the systems’ eventual unsustainability and foresees limitation and collapse…The strongest statement that can be made is that as growth continues, the likelihood of system limitation and collapse increases. For the individual, the growth dynamic can prove so overwhelming that the possibility of collapse begins to seem unlikely and remote as naysayers are continually proven wrong…[However,] the actual likelihood of collapse grows ever larger, while for those under its thrall, the possibility of collapse grows ever more distant. When the system eventually collapses, it does so suddenly, dramatically, and unexpectedly.
The evidence is accumulating that a phase transition is fast approaching for the human species. When it occurs and how quickly it completes its shift is completely unpredictable, which is why it will be a Black Swan event for the vast majority of people. The best preparation for this transition that cannot be avoided will not be to put the remainder of our diminishing resources — especially energy — towards more technologies and complexities, but the exact opposite. We need to be pursuing a ‘Great Simplification’, decommissioning those complexities that pose great risk for future generations, abandoning our cherished dreams of infinite growth on a finite planet, and accepting that the future is not going to be one as laid out by our ‘leaders’ and such fictional narratives as Star Trek — not even close.
Attempting to relocalise all those truly important resources (potable water procurement, food production, shelter needs for the local climate) as much as is possible is where I will be putting my energy and resources…as well as getting my community to try and do the same.
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.