It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.
The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance and one chance only.
— Fred Hoyle 1
We live at the decisive moment in all of human history — decisive not only for one culture or another, not only for the “developed world,” but for all of humanity.
In a vivid metaphoric sense, civilization is now in a condition analogous to that of the astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere on the morning of February 1, 2003. An eerie videotape of those last moments was found amid Columbia’s debris afterwards. Onboard Columbia, the lights are on, the air is circulating, and all seems well.2
The four astronauts, seen on the flight deck of shuttle, marvel together at the sight of the white-hot plasma flowing outside around them. They are unaware that this plasma is patiently eating away at the damaged left wing of their spaceship. There is only one hint of the slowly unfolding catastrophe: the ship’s guidance thruster begins firing ever more frequently and thunderously, as the computers that are actually flying the vehicle sense the asymmetric drag caused by the eroding left wing and vainly try to compensate for it.
The sights and sounds of these repeated thruster firings are clearly evident in the videotape. The laws of physics, those immutable and cold equations of nature, have decreed that in just moments all seven astronauts aboard the Columbia will die catastrophically. No sensor sounds the alarm because the sensors had already burned up. Although the disaster is unfolding in slow motion around them, the astronauts have no direct way to detect it. All still appears reasonably normal as the tape abruptly ends.
Civilization at this very moment is in nearly the same situation. The world-spanning industrial civilization now seems doomed to certain catastrophe.
With this book I hope to provide you, the readers, with an understanding of the problems and with strategies for the future, and a look toward the renewal of civilization itself.
The linked crises which are bearing down upon humanity are not caused by external disturbances. There are no cruel gods who have determined to torment us for their amusement. Rather, these crises are self-caused and originate within civilization. They have sprung from our deepest values, beliefs, and unquestioning assumptions about reality itself. As Cassius observes in the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar: “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.”3
Anatomically modern humans have existed upon the earth for perhaps 200,000 years. Civilization has only emerged in the past ten millennia; it is characterized by dense, settled populations centered in cities that do not produce their own food, and with people differentiated by occupation and social class.
Civilization used to depend upon human and animal muscle power. Only the industrialization of the past 200 years has substituted muscle power with
concentrated sources of energy, primarily hydrocarbon fuel, energy in the forms of coal, oil, and natural gas.
As industrialization based primarily upon these fossil fuels has spread across the planet, a globalized economy has emerged. We seem to be standing at the very summit of human achievement with power over nature, and with wealth and opportunity for all. A closer look reveals that we have arrived not only at the summit, but also at the edge of a precipice — a yawning chasm in human history. Civilization’s foundation is fatally insecure.
All of civilization is predicated upon one mostly unspoken assumption: that limitless supplies of cheap hydrocarbon energy will always be available.
Corollaries to this core assumption include the assumptions that, if hydrocarbon
energy ever does become scarce, markets will instigate the development of substitute sources of energy; and that science and technology will be able to rapidly develop these substitute sources of energy. A third assumption is that human actions have little or no effect upon the weather, and on Earth’s ability to maintain the conditions necessary for human life to flourish. Finally, it is presumed that the political leadership will respond quickly and adequately to problems which affect mankind’s very existence.
Unfortunately, ALL of the above are false. The global hydrocarbon reserves which we are so recklessly squandering took several hundred million years to accumulate. Once they’re gone, they are gone forever. The current high-energy industrial civilization can only occur once in the lifetime of the planet. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but the adjustment period, at least, is likely to be disastrous and if no adequate adjustment can be made, then the initial disaster must lead to a dismal end for mankind.
Hydrocarbon energy powers industries, automobiles, and aircraft. It heats homes. It makes possible industrial-scale agriculture. Indeed, fertilizers are made from natural gas, and pesticides from petroleum. So hydrocarbon-intensive is modern agriculture that for every one calorie of food produced, about ten calories of irreplaceable hydrocarbon energy is expended. We are eating hydrocarbon energy!
Simultaneously, the heat-trapping greenhouse gases are disrupting the planet’s thin and finite atmosphere, leading to the ever more rapid warming of the planet and destabilizing the weather patterns.
At this very moment, we are about to begin to run out of these irreplaceable hydrocarbon energy sources. Estimates indicate that we are just about reaching the midpoint of world petroleum production — the point at which one half of all the oil that can ever be produced will have been produced. In the near future there will be ever less oil, less gasoline, less kerosene, less jet fuel, etc., produced each year than was produced the previous year.
This peaking of oil production — commonly referred to as “peak oil” — is occurring at a time when demand for hydrocarbon energy is increasing at a rate of over two percent per year, compounded, as large and populous nations such as China and India rapidly industrialize. In fact, the rate of increase in demand is increasing rapidly. Obviously, this has dire political consequences for the peace and stability of the planet.
Natural gas production in North America is also about to peak. Globally, the natural gas peak is only about a decade away. In any event, even if there was gas to buy, it would take at least a decade to build the immense tankers, specialized ports and refineries required to import natural gas to North America.
The option of importing natural gas in order to stave off impending oil depletion is impractical.
It is true that coal exists in large quantities around the globe. Indeed, the United States possesses the planet’s largest reserves. However, coal cannot substitute for all uses of petroleum, and would itself be totally depleted by several decades of intensive usage. More significantly, it is by far the “dirtiest” of the hydrocarbon fuels. Its widespread use would kick global warming further into overdrive.
Also, the political system in the United States has been decisively captured by multinational corporations which profit immensely from keeping the global political economy based on hydrocarbon energy. The influence of these corporations upon the world’s governments cannot be overstated; and it is an influence that operates to maximize profits, not to maximize what is in the best interests of humanity. As a consequence, government itself has become a major part of the problem to addressing these mounting and imminent crises. It is not part of the solution.
And so here in the early 21st century we find ourselves standing at a turning point in human history. The choices we make will irrevocably determine the fates of all future humans living in all future ages. There is no second chance. The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocations of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the west back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.4
Crisis is coming. However, it is very important to understand that it is not something that is being done to us; rather it is something that we are doing to ourselves. We, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, are the culprit, and not some invisible, cruel gods.
To understand the causes and consequences of our actions, we must first understand ourselves. We must understand how we create our realities, and how this affects the ways that we respond to crisis. Additionally, we must understand systems theory because what we do affects everything around us.
This book is intended to give you, the reader, insight into how and why these crises are bearing down upon us, and what their effects will be. It is further intended to empower you to participate in the creation of a new approach that will support sustainable practices and provide a decent quality of life without destroying the world’s resources.
Early 21st century civilization is a human-created, human-centered, worldspanning,
complex adaptive system, containing within it nested political, social, and economic systems organized at multiple levels from the individual to the world system.
This civilization is itself nested within the earth’s four-billion years old biological system — the biosphere. This gradually-evolved and finely-tuned system has made the planet habitable for eons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we take it for granted and assume that it will always be there to provide for us.
The biosphere is in turn nested within the natural, non-living, physical systems of the earth itself. These natural systems include the planet’s plate tectonic and volcanic cycles and its hydrological cycles. These in turn — especially the earth’s hydrological cycle — are heavily dependent upon the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. Ultimately, the earth, sun, and solar system are nested within the subtle energy fields of the entire surrounding universe.
My focus is on the crises caused or exacerbated by humans, and that are bearing down upon civilization. For this book’s purposes, humans are at the very center of this concentric set of nested systems. This central position of humans means that understanding the manner in which our minds, or more precisely, our brains, process, store and organize information into ordered patterns is crucially important. This is because these structured patterns of information determine the very nature of large-scale human social and societal organization — our beliefs, dogmas and cultures — from the individual level all of the way up to the level of our global civilization itself.
These belief structures in turn determine what we do — and what we don’t do. Furthermore, the nature of these cognitive building blocks determines what types of belief structures can be built in the future. As we shall see, the methods by which we create our ordered patterns of understanding the world around us determine how we respond to fundamental crises, both as individuals and as civilizations.
This book is divided into three sections.
Part I, “Conceptual Foundations,” explains two vital topics: how our brains process and organize information, and systems theory. It is a bit more technical than the remaining several chapters of the book.
Part II, “The Crises,” investigates the linked crises which threaten the collapse
of civilization. Our high-energy, world-girdling civilization runs mainly on hydrocarbon energy sources: Coal, oil, and natural gas. These irreplaceable energy sources are being consumed at an accelerating rate. They are about to go into permanent and irreversible decline.
Part III, “Survival & Renewal,” addresses the possible impending catastrophe and ponders the essential qualities of a better civilization we might wish to build.
Humanity stands facing a historical chasm. A great discontinuity is about to separate the future from the past. Ahead lie decades and perhaps centuries of turmoil and tumult.
Those who control the global corporations, with their eyes only on the bottom line, bear the ultimate responsibility for the impending collapse of civilization.
Even now, citizens are increasingly reduced to politically-disempowered consumers. The now near-total control over the consolidated and corporatized media gives them control over the public’s understanding of reality, and ensures that most citizens are sleepwalking towards doom.
By understanding the crises that are by now perhaps unavoidable, and by preparing ourselves, we can hope to minimize the suffering of the adjustment when the irresponsible practices of the present become absolutely unsustainable and force us to change our ways, radically reducing consumption of resources we still treat as infinite even today.
With prudent planning and action, by acting methodically and with purpose in coordination with many others, we can plant the seeds of a future that will offer a much greater quality of life for our descendents than that offered by today’s soulless, materialistic, global corporate oligarchy.
Viewed from this context, the opportunity to correct the errors of the present age and of our social and political order, and to bequeath this new order to future ages, is an exciting challenge. It is time we got things right and designed a more mature civilization.
To begin to develop a picture of how and why these interrelated crises have been allowed to develop, and to understand what we can do, we next need to take a careful look at three related concepts as they apply to human beings: cognition, crisis and systems theory. All deal intimately with the very nature of reality as it operates for humans organized into large scale entities such as nations, economies, and ultimately, globalized civilization taken as a whole.
Then we shall investigate the crises bearing down upon us, and what we can do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. Finally we will investigate
how our actions can bring about a better tomorrow for our descendents.
Beyond our personal survival and the survival of those closest to us, we can begin to plan for the rebirth of civilization — of a better, far more humane and fulfilling civilization than the tragically flawed one around us which is now racing towards its utter doom in the years just ahead. This topic shall form the final portion of the book. We can act to create the seeds, the nodes, of a democratic and humane civilization, based upon a stable foundation of renewable energy sources, sustainable agriculture, smaller, closer, more caring communities, which is predicated upon a social foundation of individual and human rights.
Ultimately, by changing the way that we think about our external reality, we can change how we interact with one another and with nature. Such a change may yet give a more humane human civilization a new lease on life and eventually still lead us to the stars in ages to come. Surely such a world is not to be feared but rather, it is to be embraced.
The alternatives are nightmarish! We must make the effort!
1. Hoyle, Fred, Of Men and Galaxies. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA, 1964, pp. 73. Infinity’s Rainbow.
2. Washington Post.com, Feb. 28, 2003, Recovered Video Fragment Shows Crew During
Reentry, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/mmedia/nation/022803-4v.htm ,
NASA has the video online at: http://realserver1.jpl.nasa.gov:8080/ramgen/sts107.rm
and also at:
and finally at: http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/rrg2.pl?video/shuttle/missions/sts-107/sts107a.rm
Note: The actual video can be watched online. A reconstruction of Columbia’s final seven minutes which synchronizes ground video with Mission Control dialogue is available at:
3. Enotes.com, Julius Caesar, http://www.allshakespeare.com/jc/270
4. Ward-Perkins, Brian, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, pp. 182
[Conclusion to Chapter 11 (the book’s last chapter)]
This work began with the assertion that we live at the decisive moment in all of human history — decisive not only for one culture or another, not only for the “developed world” but for all of humanity. This may have appeared to be an
extravagant claim, but the information in this book shows it to be a factual one.
Humanity is faced with immense challenges. However, the chance to create a long-term ecologically sustainable and humane future also represents a correspondingly immense opportunity.
In the coming years we must all act and think flexibly and creatively if these challenges are to be surmounted. If we can rise to this occasion we will bequeath an open-ended future to civilization and to the biosphere. This book has focused upon analysis and description of the inter-linked crises facing our civilization. In a subsequent work, I will focus upon prescription — specifically upon strategies for dealing effectively with these crises and thereby creating a positive future.
The promise of this hopeful future is what, consistent with the ancient legend of a
new world following a global deluge, I refer to as “Infinity's Rainbow.” I’d like to end this work where I began it, with this quote:
It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing
intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary
physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone,
high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If
we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance and
one chance only.335
This is our one and only chance. Let’s not blow it!
335. Ibid., Of Men and Galaxies, Prologue, #1.
Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
— Omar Khayyam336
Two apparently unrelated changes (each one improbable enough on its own) set the trajectory of human civilization in its present disastrous direction: we discovered how to exploit the energy locked up in hydrocarbon deposits; and the legal enfranchisement of corporate personhood led to ordinary humans losing control over their political economy.
These corporate entities represent a type of complex adaptive system, which organizes the individual abilities of numerous humans towards a collective goal. Since these entities exist only to produce short-term profits for their investors, that goal has been the creation of wealth as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. This means that externalities such as the effects of wealth extraction upon the earth’s biosphere are disregarded to the maximum extent legally possible.
Since governmental regulation is the only check upon what is legal for these corporate entities, it follows that corporate profit maximization requires the subordination of this other human system — government. Human laws that stood in the way of corporate profit maximization have been subverted, as corporations gained power over governments.
In pursuit of corporate goals, it looks as though we have far exceeded the planet’s natural carrying capacity. Only hydrocarbon energy allows, for the moment, for humanity’s billions to continue multiplying. And if the supply of hydrocarbon energy is about to enter into permanent decline, the ramifications are beyond prediction.
336. Rubiayat of Omar Kayyam, Fitzgerald translation, http://www.okonlife.com/poems/