Friday, December 11, 2009

The Human Ecology of Collapse

Part One: Failure is the Only Option

The old legend of the Holy Grail has a plot twist that’s oddly relevant to the predicament of industrial civilization. A knight who went searching for the Grail, so the story has it, if he was brave and pure, would sooner or later reach an isolated castle in the midst of the desolate Waste Land. There the Grail could be found and the Waste Land made green again, but only if the knight asked the right question. Failing that, he would wake the next morning in a deserted castle, which would vanish behind him as soon as he left, and it might take years of searching to find the castle again.

As we approach the twilight of the age of cheap energy, we’re arguably in a similar situation. It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion that grips the peak oil scene, and even more of the blind commitment to catastrophically misguided policies that reigns outside peak-aware circles, comes from a failure to ask the right questions. A great many people aware of the limits to fossil fuels, for example, have assumed that the question that needs answering is how to sustain a modern industrial society on alternative energy.

Ask that, though, and you’re back in the Waste Land, because any answer you give to that question is wrong. The question that has to be asked is whether a modern industrial society can exist at all without vast and rising inputs of essentially free energy, of the sort only available on this planet from fossil fuels, and the answer is no. Once that’s grasped, other useful questions come to mind – for example, how much of the useful legacy of the last three centuries can be saved, and how – but until you get past the wrong question, you’re stuck chasing the mirage of a replacement for oil that didn’t take a hundred million years or so to come into being.

continue reading The Human Ecology of Collapse...


  1. If we do not get off of fossil fuels quick then the planet is doomed. I think now would be a great time to Nationalize all energy Corps. Not just here, but globally. This is a global problem not a National problem. The new tech to take us into the new era of energy is there. We need the political will to move on it.

  2. the point is that the human element of life on this planet has incorporated a more-or-less sophisticated technology into its adjustment and interaction with the planets cycles and its other life systems…but every cycle or system that came to require modification by human technology (and hence by energy not “naturally” occurring on the planet) became an energy sink in the thermodynamics of the planet’s life systems (ie., it continues to need artificially supplied or manipulated energy to maintain the same level of order) …many cycles and systems are being tampered with already in order to support more life and organization; hence the amount of artificially (ie., technologically driven and/or manipulated) energy input into the biosphere has been increasing… meanwhile, its basic life supporting organization had been decreasing (due to pollution, radiation, etc.)…this artificiality has allowed for quantum leaps in the planet’s organizational stasis and human population, but it has adversely impacted the natural balances & in so doing brought the entropic threshold closer…thus to maintain bio-stability now requires a continually input of energy…any attempt to return to a non-manipulative energy input (ie., just natural solar energy) would precipitate a backlash of cascading chaos & thus would result in a reduction of humanity’s numbers & organization (due to lowered living standards, medical services, transportation, agriculture production, etc.) and considering the unlikelihood of voluntary mass suicides, would probably precipitate wars with the remaining accumulated weapons, which could possibly turn nuclear when the going got tough – and as free radiation from atomic weaponry is known to be one of the most potent disorganizers of life, such would further lower the ecological potential of the planet…so our commitment to energy driven technology is now past the point of no return; that, given the present state of our planet, the can be no significant curtailing of energy & technology without plunging the planet & its population into a severe dark ages or finis…

  3. related: The Only Human Crisis - Various pundits have been putting forward candidates for the big human crisis confronting us. They all agree that something is, but can’t settle on one or another. Throw a dart. Is it human rights? Terrorism? How about “the economy?” Not many people talking about the fisheries, though you could make a good case for a collapse of the ocean biosphere. Or how about one that effects us all -- climate change? The crisis facing humanity is not any of those. The crisis is “waking up.”

  4. For better or worse, this planet and country will be very different in a 100 years. I don't think the current generation will be regarded as wise stewards of the earth, and her resources. We will probably be referred to as the Decadent Age in American History. I mean what's the difference between the Me Generation and the Decadent Generation?

    The only way we can preserve for the future is to make a sacrifice now. That means accepting that our standard of living is unsustainable, and adjusting even if it's just a little bit. We can't go on ignoring pollution and the consequences of it. We need to accept the fact that we will be paying more for energy whether we do nothing, or take action to develop alternatives to our current sources. The timing and severity of the energy bust is what we're talking about.

  5. re; "The timing and severity of the energy bust is what we're talking about." Ya, in more ways than one. Energy, or the [lack] of energy should be the main concern. While at the same time we keep burning fossil fuels, and wanting to go to more nuke plants. Energy, population, pollution, food, water. where do we start. We are not entitled to over consume beyond our means. Americans consume 5x the amount that the planet can replenish. STOP! ! !