The Bad News and the Really Bad News
In “Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization” , rule number six states:
“Try not to run out of energy.” When energy expenditure outweighs energy return, collapse ensues:
…In July I mused, Are You Witness to the Beginning of the End. The beginning of the end is an inflection point. Naturally, given the economic news of the past few days I can’t help wondering if I’m prescient.
Of course I am not. For over four years now I have been saying that the economic conditions around the globe are going to get worse. They have. But I don’t really see into the future. The other day a colleague approached me. In the not too distant past he thought I was a crackpot because when the ‘economists’ were seeing “green shoots”, and this included some of our esteemed professors at the University of Washington (one of whom chastised me in a public forum!), I kept claiming things would continue to get worse. I had been vociferous that the economy would still go further in decline. He has, he sheepishly admitted, finally acquiesced to my prior predications and asked me what I was using for a crystal ball. I told him I didn’t have a crystal ball. I had physics and systems science. Physics deals with the nature of net energy flow through the economy. Systems science deals with how to consider the the physics in the context of economic activity. Aggregating the entire economy as a work engine that converts natural resources into desired human usable goods (and services) the prediction is simple. Reduce the energy input to the economy and the result is downturn in economic activity of all kinds and monetary price inflation. Systemic physics rules all of human economic endeavors!
Energy is in decline thanks to the twin phenomena of peak oil and declining energy return on energy invested (EROI), which has a direct impact on the prices of energy, especially barrels of oil. As stupidly simple as this sounds it is all you really need to know. The global trend in weighted average oil prices along with oil production numbers really tells much of the sordid story. Even if you don’t know the actual net energy, say in BTUs, delivered to the economic engine (we don’t keep records of that) you can infer from the price of oil what the effect on the economy will be. Every day that the weighted average price of oil is over, say, $85 there is more drag applied to the global economy. Drag on the economy translates into non-growth. And here is the kicker. The global capitalist economy based, as it is, on debt financing and consumer spending simply cannot handle this drag. It absolutely needs growth in spending to sustain it. Unfortunately, the weighted average global price of oil has been over $100 for many months (the West Texas Intermediate, WTI, crude price on the NYMEX is much less, but is also not really representative of global oil prices).
The reason the economy has been so sluggish is that energy has been costing so much that all supply chains have been suffering cost increases. Right now we are seeing those costs start to percolate up the supply chain line and affect all products and services. Food and gasoline prices continue to rise in spite of short-term reductions in oil prices (at least in the WTI crude market). The Fed’s responses, essentially printing money that ISN’T backed by real wealth production simply contributes to the inflationary pressures. Prices will continue to rise, at least relative to most peoples’ abilties to pay, and wages, already stagnant, will diminish further leading to many more people sinking into the ranks of the poor. It will get much worse. And, I am sorry to say, based on the systems physics, it will not be getting better. Please believe me when I say it gives me no joy to be the bearer of bad news. Do with it what you will.
Are We Seeing the Economic Inflection Point?
And the Really Bad news:
A Post-Human World
Without any doubt in my mind, humans as we know ourselves will go extinct. Indeed I’ve argued vociferously that we are in the throes of doing so as we speak. That brings me to an important question. What comes next?
But perhaps a bit of expansion of the idea of human extinction is in order first.
Fundamentally a species goes to extinction when its reproductive rate falls below its death rate. This follows from any number of different conditions but is summarized as a failure of the fitness of the species relative to its total environment. But even within this general model there are some subtle possibilities. A species may simply cease to exist without giving rise to any subsequent species. Or it may provide the internal node in a branch to multiple new species, as when the common ancestor of chimps and humans branched and then ceased existing. Or one species can, within a single population, morph (so to speak) into another version that is better fit. The newer version then displaces the old. It takes over from the former, which goes to extinction.
One mechanism that might force the second kind of speciation and extinction of the original species is what is called an evolutionary (or population) bottleneck. There is substantial evidence that early humans have already experienced this phenomenon, brought on by considerable climate shifts during various ice ages. A bottleneck occurs when the extant species’ population size can no longer be carried by the environment. We humans are guilty of population overshoot as a result of discovering substantial extrasomatic energy sources in fossil fuels. Thus, unless some miracle energy source is found sometime very soon, when fossil fuels become physically costly to extract, there will be too many humans on the planet relative to the carrying capacity for humans. Many of us are convinced that we are on the verge of another bottleneck event. This one caused by our own lack of foresight. The Siamese twinned phenomena of human caused climate change (due to burning fossil fuels) and the diminishing of those fossil fuels because they are a finite resource may provide significant stresses that will make it impossible to sustain a large population of humans. Our fitness has been developed in light of an environment of stable mild climate and ample fossil fuels. Take those away and we have to find a new kind of fitness.
Thus I conclude that humans will either give rise to a new species subsequent to a bottleneck event or simply go extinct. As disturbing as this may seem to almost everyone it is just part of the universal evolution process. So you can see why the “What comes next?” is particularly important.
If there is to indeed be a bottleneck event what specimens of humanity would best make it through the event and provide a seed genome for the subsequent evolutionary process that will surely follow? It comes down to what direction the human brain can possibly take in future evolution. If it were true that the brain need not evolve further then I would bet that the bottleneck will be pinched off and the current species will go extinct period. And that means the end of sentient life on this planet (until possibly some other stock can evolve a similar kind of sentience)….