Peak Oil, Doom Porn and The End Of Civilization

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This is the first part of a documentary about how civilization is on its way to collapse because of global warming, peak oil, overpopulation, etc. Pretty much every hobgoblin of the “fear the future” movement is in here, so it’s worth watching the entire series as it makes for a good overview of that entire system of thinking. If you are the kind of person who likes to kill trees and spill ink on their dried remains, you can read the same arguments (stated less breathlessly) in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. The end-of-civilization media are generally and unflattering referred to as doom porn, but I think the term is appropriate. To it’s audience, it is exciting and titillating. But it has some serious problems.

One of the things that makes this worldview difficult to argue with is that it is based on assumptions that are largely true. Yes, oil exploitation is probably peaking. Yes, we have probably put so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it is negatively affecting the environment. Yes, human population is growing quite rapidly. But it isn’t enough to have the right assumptions. You also have to have a model that projects from those assumptions, and that’s where this breaks down.

Spoiler alert: the Mayans died.

Their argument boils down to this: there has been too much exploitation of resources and particularly energy resources too fast, with too rapid an increase in the human population that it is unsustainable. The problem with the argument is that at no point in human history has civilization been sustainable. That’s why civilizations progressed. Sustainability is not the target. And that is the problem with this line of thinking.

A common counterargument is that “science and technology will save us”–or save the world or civilization or whatever–from the effects of these problems. But doom porn anticipates this argument, and lumps it with some other similar arguments into the term “cargoism” that it dismisses. And this is correct. The idea that “science will save us” is a belief, not a scientific fact. It is sloppy thinking that does not address either the problem or enlighten the solution.

But this counter argument makes the same mistake as the argument it seeks to counter, namely that this state of affairs we call the present is worth saving. Now hear this: The present is not worth saving. The status quo never was the goal of any civilization, and maintaining it shouldn’t be the target for the future. We don’t want science to preserve the status quo any more than I want civilization to backslide.

What technology does is evolve. What we have the Mayans and the Easter Islanders didn’t is the scientific method. Our civilization has the ability to identify problems. (Diamond’s book is an example of this). Technology is scientific knowledge mated with engineering. Science gives us knowledge, engineering exploits that knowledge. In other words, science itself is a type of infinitely inexhaustible natural resource, and everything we learn is like the discovery of a new ore.

What we should be pushing for, on all fronts, is massive and accelerated progress on the exploitation of science. We need more GMO food, not less. We need to live in more extreme environments, not more temperate ones. The way to the future is lies in the not-yet-tried and even further in the not-yet-discovered. But not in the past. We need more progress, not less. More exploitation of nature through science, not less.

Instead, we react out of fear. We see the meltdown at the Fukushima reactor and conclude that reactors are inherently dangerous. People react this way because they don’t really understand nuclear power, how it works, or what it is, and isn’t. But the lesson of Fukushima should be how to build better reactors, and how to choose their locations more carefully.

Likewise the desire to return to organic farming and all natural food is perverse. Obtaining food in that fashion was grossly inefficient for the United States in the 1960′s, how could it possibly be a sensible use of resources for feeding a global population of 6 billion? If it is not possible to feed the world with the corn, rice, soy and grain we have, then we need to invent better versions of them.

We need more reactors, more GMO food, more synthetics, more computerization, more optimization, more virtualization, more high concept science and big thinking. Whatever has not been tried should now be tried.

“But these things are dangerous!” The jury is still out. But regardless, dangerous compared to what? The status quo, the one that is already unsustainable? If the alternative is collapse, or if collapse is inevitable, then why hedge your bets by standing in the way of scientific progress? If civilization is truly on the line–if the stakes really are that high–then let’s take everything science tells us and go all in.

The laws of physics and the laws of economics converge on this one point–there is no static equilibrium. No status quo. Civilization only ends if progress stops. So don’t stand in the way.

 

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16 Responses to Peak Oil, Doom Porn and The End Of Civilization

  1. max says:

    One test of a good idea is when I see it mirrored by seemingly disparate thinkers. Taleb et al reach this same conclusion when criticizing current US foreign policy (pdf).

    One thing the Doomers (and all believers in radical, catastrophic negative change) underestimate is the tendency for human beings to innovate and adapt. We’re a resilient bunch, and unless the tsunami washes you away, you’ll probably find a way to bounce back.

  2. Lopt says:

    Energy crises, climate change, food supply collapse are all lousy things to contemplate, but so long as the alternatives are “figure out some way to deal with it” or “die” humanity’s always going to opt for the former. However, there may be a point when technological progress and economic restructuring cannot placate the needs of all people everywhere, which is to say the carrying capacity of our planet exceeds the demands we put on it, which represents a hard cap on the amount of resources we can extract and the number of people we can sustain. If people want more they’ll have to take it from somebody else, so you get war as the continuation of economics by other means.

    In past ages this wouldn’t have been such a scary thing, but now things are different. The last two world wars hobbled just about every power which participated in them; it’s even worse today because we have nuclear weapons. If we ever reach a point where wars over resources between nuclear powers becomes a real possibility, then there’s also a significant probability that everyone not immune to ionizing radiation and living on some agriculturally blessed remote island will end up dead.

    So while you’re right that we’re in a position where GMOs, nuclear power, and just about every sketchy unproven technology is worth trying and testing out, doubling down on those sorts of things can only buy so much more time. A bad few years agriculturally or in terms of technological progress will have serious consequences. Equilibrium below (and ideally far below) the maximum resource utilization currently possible is the only really safe bet.

  3. robotslave says:

    Jared Diamond’s point, in the sequel to his seed catalog, is that for a society facing a resource contraction, cultural conservatism is a bigger problem than technological conservatism. The problem of where to put a nuclear reactor is cultural, not technological.

    So by all means, yes, let’s have some Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry. And while we’re at it, let’s apply some of that infinitely available science to cultural engineering. Let’s have more and better Psychiatry, OK?

    Also. The Mayans didn’t die, they just moved out of Detroit. There were still heaps of rebranded Mayans running around when the Spanish showed up.

    Also too: the purpose of all porn is to facilitate masturbation. If you’re aroused by the thought of civilization collapsing (I sure am, don’t know about you) then you consume doom porn until release, then cast it aside. And if you want to preserve your sanity for some masochistic reason, you’ll also reflect a bit on why the fantasy aroused you, and on how to distinguish the fantasy from the underlying reality in front of the camera– those fake tits are every bit as real as a retreating glacier, after all.

  4. Dan Dravot says:

    Go technology, yeah! Right on.

    But on a few details…

    The concern that Fukushima has raised in my mind is not whether safely designed and sited nuclear reactors are technically feasible given the current state of the art; I’m confident that they are. But — and this is critical — the designers and planners involved in producing the Fukushima disaster thought they were doing that already. They were a great deal better-informed and more responsible than I am. Oops.

    But for perspective, how does Fukushima stack up against the historical record of floods and earthquakes, which tend to be mitigated by technology? Six-figure death tolls are not unheard of with those things.

    You’re right about status quo being nothing magical (P.S. somebody tell the UAW please). It never was. People in 1911 thought they were living in the future, but the poor bastards were actually stranded 100 years in the past. Same with us.

    Any reasonably civilized status quo seems OK if you can’t remember one that’s worse.

    Bottom line, though: It’s not up to us whether we collapse or not. Collapse isn’t technological, it’s cultural. Doom porn, progress porn, central planning porn, and conspiracy theories are all variations on the same hubristic belief that we’re in charge around here. In fact, we’re just along for the ride.

  5. Supastaru says:

    I agree with you. but george bernard shaw said it best: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man”

  6. Jerboa says:

    The line from that little clip that most stood out for me was:

    It’s hard to take someone’s predictions for the future seriously when their understanding of the past is so comically wrong.

    • Jerboa says:

      Okay, let’s try that again without the shitty html tags Pastabagel has provided.

      The line from that little clip that most stood out for me was:
      “My generation may be one of the first generations that a lot of us die, not not of old age…”

      It’s hard to take someone’s predictions for the future seriously when their understanding of the past is so comically wrong.

      Also, this website could use some of that goddamn science you keep talking about.

  7. JMiller says:

    The conflation of “progress” to “allowing for expansion of the species” here is kind of appalling. It isn’t accounting for the fact that population is growing and will continue to grow for a bit even after it hits any temporary maximum, that the maximum population is maintained not by a static population but by a static quantity facilitated by accelerating suffering and death, or that the net effect of the “progress” is really thus to let more people suffer when the new cap gets hit. Humans don’t have to go extinct to have lives that none of us would want: see also the folks who persevered through the Black Death.

    This is before we run into unintended consequences of the reductionist methodologies of science, and doesn’t even look at the sociological trend which says that *even if* more scientific progress will keep civilization going, it’s the people opposed to science (see also: Quiverfull) who are actually doing the “expansion of the species” part, with the sick irony being that — at least in American Christian circles — they co-mingle with the people who are hoping that the world ends soon.

    But I suppose that, in a way, the reductionist twist of “progress” to “be fruitful and multiply” makes perfect sense for a Do Science! push — given a metric, like “number of people alive,” the goal, the definition of progress, becomes gaming that one metric because it’s the priority. It just seems exceptionally likely that the collective ignorance of the species is going to be creating a lot of suffering for a while before civilization figures out what to do with all of the people in it.

    I’m all in favor of scientific progress, I’m also fine with trading old and awful problems in for new and different problems, I just think the definition/measure of “progress” implicit here is woefully myopic: if collapse is inevitable, then it by definition Science! can’t contribute to it — but it will make it hurt more when it happens.

  8. Napsterbater says:

    We do not need more food to feed the world. There’s already enough food. People are starving for reasons that are much harder to solve than economics would have you believe. The human element will always overrule the technical.

    As the old saw goes, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. I like the idea that civilization continuously evolves and that the present will always die. But technology isn’t the future, not anymore. Technology is the past. Sociology is the future. Look at all of the problems facing humanity and they’re all problems of distributing knowledge and expertise.

    Good teachers are rare, this is a problem because we need good teachers to be common. We need to learn about learning, and learn it in a way that avoids the conventional stupidity that typically frames these debates.

    Large markets are fragile, easy to disrupt with nefariousness. We still have not come up with a good currency that can’t be corrupted by governments. We can’t adequately balance the interests of the economically weak with the strong and keep that balance. More technology cannot solve that problem, and any purported solution will just become a tool used by the strong against the weak.

    Governing itself is a hard problem, even in the most advanced form of it, the constitutional republic, we cannot ensure fidelity of the mechanisms. Nothing will change until we can do this. For example, slightly more than a quarter of Americans voted for Obama in 2008. With a voter turnout of around 50%, politics will inevitably be corrupted.

    I used to watch technology developments with an eye towards truly helping the world. The XO laptop was supposed to revolutionize education. What happened? People f-ed it up. Now I watch everything else. It’s great that the Khan academy exists, but good luck getting it where it really needs to be, in the African bush where the Internet runs on cell phones. We’re attempting to paper over human issues with technology, and its failing us tremendously. It’s nice that we have water bottles that have built in filters that last forever. Whose going to manufacture those in the numbers humanity needs them in?

    But it’s not all bad. Charter cities have me pretty excited about the future. Not a huge step, but one in the right direction. And that’s what humanity really needs, not more gizmos.

  9. Comus says:

    This renaissance of nihilism is interesting. I think what is central here, as opposed to say the Cold War, is the lack of “The Good Guys”, whichever for you it was. We face similar threats as the nuclear holocaust that we had looming over us in the past, but this time the situation is umphteen times more despairing. I project to things responsible for this change

    Firstly, we no longer have a Great Other that works to protect our interest, that protects us, that helps us to develop towards our futuristic technolocical utopias. There’s no great cause to explain this away. No Communism to destroy in order to create Pax Americana, that is already done by itself to itself.
    But, actually there is. Our current culture, that spreads out to almost all societies, is a capitalist consumerist civilization. And just like in the end of the Cold War, this polarity is also collapsing into it’s own impossibility like a flan in a cupboard. And the thing we are most afraid here, what is the inutterable truth is the collapse of this system. And easier than to think of the collapse of this system, or even to tweak it more, is to think of the destruction of civilization. Because it paralyzes, whereas changing the system upholding the problem would demand an action out of learnt hedonism [where you enjoy things for Other people, because you're supposed to]. Paralysis is easier, because it is a responsibility-diminishing reaction.

    Secondly, we are terrified because now the responsibility is on us. Not the system, not the ideology, not the enemy, but us. “The world will end, unless you change your ways!” And you, the layman, have to then choose from a plethora of different options. Scientific or religious, political or ideological etc. You have to make decisions you are not capable of making. Enter anxiety. Nihilism. You can dive into pessimism and say we are already doomed, or cushion to helplesness on the supposition that some Other will do all this.

    The world is not going to end. Our (pan)western civilization has to readjust to the surroundings, to economic and material realities. That is why we have strived so far, because we have been able to adapt. Western civilization is not capitalist consumerism. That is only it’s symptom, not the essence. We have only ascented it to such status.

    What we need is Enlightenment 2.0. Not techno-fetishism aiming to prolong the catastrophe over time. The disaster is social, so in order to prevent it we need a social change. Maybe it is the abolishment of nation states, maybe solidarity. Maybe it’s annihilation of “others” in competition. I’m not generating an anti-technological stance here. In my view technology as it is used today is aimed according to an ideology that has generated this problem to begin with. Surely there are limitless possibilities to, say, create a sustainable piece of land with all this technology to Siberia or where-ever to accomodate the Dutch after Amsterdam has gotten hit by the possible flood.

    The question there is not that they would die, it is that an integral part of their identity would be lost. World is not ending, your identity is.

  10. Zo says:

    “So don’t stand in the way …”

    Your old road is
    Rapidly agin’
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can’t lend your hand …

  11. operator says:

    Civilization only ends if progress stops.

    As JMiller stated, civilization and progress (particularly if you do not define either) are disparate ideas with no direct bearing upon one another.

    Civilization as we know it (agriculture, city-states, rule of law) took millenia to catch up to hunter-gatherer tribes on the metric of average life expectancy (particularly after accounting for high infant mortality) precisely because technology is not the panacea of social ills.

    Progress (which might be defined as humanity’s capability to survive, provide for all its members, and understand the universe) does not necessitate a populate of six billion or more (many of which will never learn written language).

    The term “civilization” might very well encompass populations which are governed so poorly as to ensure that members are not well-informed (or motivated) enough to contribute to humanity’s body of knowledge – the population of North Korea or the US public education system, for example.

    If civilization is truly on the line–if the stakes really are that high–then let’s take everything science tells us and go all in.

    If a population of one million genetically diverse and well-educated individuals (0.01% of present population) would likely prove sufficient to further humanity’s scientific understandings and maintain a sustainable population for the foreseeable future on this planet, should we “go all in” by selecting the chosen ones and culling all the dead weight to preserve civilization?

    • Dirk Anger says:

      should we “go all in” by selecting the chosen ones and culling all the dead weight to preserve civilization?

      It could be argued that every civilization has being doing that forever, defining dead weight as “everyone else”.

      Dedicating ten times more money to the military than to research is exactly that: “screw the rest, when it goes down, we’ll make sure we’re on top”, instead of “let’s put a lot of money together and try to figure out how not to sink the ship”

      • operator says:

        It could be argued that every civilization has being doing that forever, defining dead weight as “everyone else”.

        Assuming you mean “civilization” to refer to a country, that statement may appear in rhetoric but the persistent reliance on trade and cheap/free labor necessitates the existence of “everyone else” or at least someone else.

        Dedicating ten times more money to the military than to research is exactly that…

        The general US population isn’t going to fare well if military force is exerted against a nuclear power which chooses to retaliate in kind, right? (Again, great argument for planned population reduction versus nature taking its course)

        If there’s any “screw the rest” statement there, it’s from those with reserved spots in fallout shelters to their countrymen.

        Military spending really speaks more to the camaraderie of politicians and the war industry – there’s no way that spare part was worth $1679.

  12. Guy Fox says:

    The extolling of positivist science is surprising, given that most of your posts are clearly post-positivist/post-modern in orientation. Where and how do you draw the line between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ phenomena? Although Foucault, Baudrillard et al probably wouldn’t have much to say about the physics of fast-breeder reactors, they probably would cringe at the thought of consigning one’s fate to the hands of the experts.

    As for the thesis that science will save us, that’s a remarkably whiggish idea. It’s plausible that we need more science for the sake of technology, more technology for the sake of productivity, more productivity for the sake of economic growth without population growth, more economic growth for the sake of combatting poverty, and less poverty for the sake of something like justice/making the world suck less for fewer people. But how much is enough? What’s a reasonable level beyond which nobody can really complain about his lot? Or do we have to keep pursuing growth until our breakfast cereal is frosted with diamond dust and everyone has a smartphone/tricorder contract from cradle to grave? And why would we stop then? What would be the point of ever higher, faster, stronger?

    As for nuclear energy in particular, we still have no idea how to deal with the horrendously toxic waste in the long term. We’re still just kicking the can down the road. We also have little idea how to manage it institutionally. Just like with GMO and agrabusiness, there doesn’t seem to be proven method of keeping the influence of nuclear energy firms proportional to their actual status in a democratic society. It’s a collective action problem, and there is no magic wand to fix it. After all, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.

    Let’s not forget that we’re still just monkeys with pants. It’s more accurate to say that the amoeba made us in its own image than to say that we’re the Chosen Ones of Creation, and some benevolent, omniscient being has Great Things in store for us. In civilization, as in life, muddling through without fuc|<ing up too badly can generally be considered a victory.

    • Dirk Anger says:

      Or do we have to keep pursuing growth until our breakfast cereal is frosted with diamond dust and everyone has a smartphone/tricorder contract from cradle to grave? And why would we stop then? What would be the point of ever higher, faster, stronger?

      The only point of champagne with gold and that kind of crap is to show off to yourself (or everyone else, because you see you through them). If everyone’s breakfast cereal could be frosted with diamond dust, nobody would do it, in the same way today nobody drinks champagne with iron dust, or eats cereal with steel dust. I also have my doubts about how advanced cellphones would be if few people weren’t willing to pay obscene amounts to be seen as “the guy who has the latest”.

      Still, I wouldn’t have problem with people putting diamonds in their teeth if people didn’t die of hunger, cold and easily treatable diseases in the same cities. I don’t think it’d really make a difference, but still, I don’t like people who could make something positive (not even altruist, it could be for themselves) spending fortunes in the kind of crap whose only value is that it shows you’re able to spend a fortune in something useless.

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