The Interdependence of Phantom Financial Wealth, Phantom Carrying Capacity and Phantom Democratic Power
By Karl North | May 13, 2013
Capitalism is a total social system in which most land and other capital assets can be privately owned. Over time this allows profit, wealth and power to concentrate in the hands of a minority. As a result, that minority makes or indirectly controls all the major decisions that shape US society and the rules that govern the way it works. In the latest stage of evolution of the capitalist system, its rules have gradually driven it to create a fantasy world that is tripartite:
Phantom financial wealth. Cheap oil is necessary for real wealth creation because it pays for the interest rates that private capital requires for investment to take place under the rules of capitalism. As oil has become more expensive it has destroyed the process of capital creation. Hence the capital is no longer there either to maintain the physical structures of industrial society or to finance the massive cost of conversion to a society whose physical structures are geared to lower energy consumption. Moreover, because the current structures cannot be maintained without cheap oil, they are gradually falling apart and the economy of real wealth production is at a standstill.
However, the rules allow virtually unlimited creation of money and credit to maintain for a time the profits of the financial class. As in the rest of the capitalist economy, survival in the financial economy requires competition to attain monopoly control. In the present zero-growth economy, unrestrained competition in the financial class now drives money and credit creation mainly for speculative purposes, and the resultant financial wealth greatly exceeds the production of real wealth and is thus phantom wealth.
Phantom Carrying Capacity. The rules of capitalist society allow and in fact drive resource use beyond the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Ecosystem scientists call this overshoot, a process which, continued long enough, leads to collapse. Access to a limited source of fossil energy has allowed capitalism to create a temporary phantom carrying capacity far above real carrying capacity, one that creates the illusion that the last 200 years of excess economic development will persist. In the current overshoot of earth’s carrying capacity, as unrestrained resource use continues to deplete or otherwise damage the resource base, it gradually becomes clear that the system is cannibalizing itself simply to prolong the present level of consumption for a short time.
Phantom Democratic Power. Economic behavior according to the rules of capitalism allows and in fact insures rising inequality. Real democratic power is impossible in societies where most of the wealth is in few hands. So to keep order, governing systems are created that project the appearance of democracy without the reality: phantom democracy.
The Interdependence. Economic activity at phantom carrying capacity depletes resources at a rate that causes rising resource costs and decreasing profit margins in the production of real wealth. The investor class therefore turns increasingly to the production of credit as a source of profits. Credit unsupported by the production of real wealth is stealing from the future: it is phantom wealth. It also creates inflation, which is stealing from the purchasing power of income in the present. Protected from the masses by the illusion of democracy, government facilitates the unlimited production of credit and the continued overshoot of real carrying capacity. This causes inflation and permanently rising costs of raw materials. To divert public attention from the resultant declining living standard of the laboring classes, government dispenses rigged statistics and fake news of continued growth to project the illusion of economic health. The whole interdependent phantom stage of the capitalist system has an extremely limited life before it collapses into chaos.
Why Trying to Save Industrial Civilization with Alternatives to Fossil Fuels Only Makes Things Worse
By Karl North | April 6, 2013
A recent Cornell report on how to convert New York state energy consumption to alternative fuels perpetuates the nonsense that in a declining economy we can convert NY or anywhere else to “clean” wind and solar energy, maybe dimming the lights a bit, and thus continue the party (industrial civilization and the US way of life) indefinitely. The report merits criticism as an example of many such plans that promote large scale conversion to alternative energy, because it epitomizes the narrow technological lens through which we are taught to see problems that need to be viewed in a much larger systemic context. Because of its unstated reductionist assumptions, the study fails on at least three counts:
- Resource Consumption and Associated Pollutions. Construction of such massive projects inevitably chews through an increasingly scarce and therefore ever more expensive global pool of fossil energy and other finite materials. At one time, there existed a window of opportunity to develop energy alternatives like wind and solar on a large scale, a window that is now closed. Thirty or forty years ago when energy, copper, neodymium, etc. were relatively cheap, such a project was feasible and might have bought our way of life a temporary reprieve. No doubt attempts at such projects will continue to be made, but will founder as an economy that is going into permanent decline (due to the same resource depletion) cannot afford the costs. The costs of the attempts will be born all the same, by our children and grandchildren if they survive the man-made ecological holocaust, in the form of a world ever more depleted of raw materials and ecological services that are essential to our quality of life. So the results of such attempts will be anything but “clean” for those who inherit them.
- Permanent Economic Decline. The industrial phase of human history of last two centuries has been possible only because of the cheap, high quality energy of fossil fuels. The end of cheap energy is sending the mature industrial economies (and eventually every energy-intensive economy) into permanent decline. The US economy is at least as hollow and debt ridden as the collapsing economies of Greece and Spain but has used its superpower status to maintain a pretense of stability and living standard a little longer than Mediterranean Europe. This cannot last; when it falls apart all bets are off on energy conversion plans of the scale analyzed in the report.
- Consumption of any kind of energy at this scale is toxic. There is a fundamental flaw in the thinking that the ecosphere can handle as much “clean” energy as the amount of “dirty” energy that we presently consume. In the last 250 years humanity has been using fossil energy at levels far above what the ecosystems of the earth evolved to handle over their several billion years of existence. The fossil fuel era has been a freak accident of natural history. Energy substitutes of any kind that could approach current fossil fuel production levels will be used to prop up the industrial way of life, whose ecological footprint already overshoots earth’s carrying capacity by half. Wind and solar energy at replacement scale will continue to chew up raw materials, creating landfill garbage, destructive sinks, and sheer dissipated heat that the planet cannot cope with. The current increasingly visible climate change is only one manifestation of the problem.
Hence the goal of maintaining current levels of energy production by other means will simply perpetuate resource consumption habits and associated ecological damage and depletions that are now destroying the resource base needed for survival of our species. Why have the engineers of plans like the Cornell report not thought of that?
What Is To Be Done? Human society existed for millions of years without greatly overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet, and can adapt to a more sustainable way of life. The looming failure of the debt-reliant economy offers such an opportunity. The economy controlled by private capital that currently grips most societies manufactures the desire for massive unsustainable consumption in order to maximize private profit. As that economy goes into decline and can no longer service debt, it will collapse. Therein lies the opportunity to adapt to a lower energy way of life, because eventually we will have no other choice.
Richard Heinberg was right, the party is over. In the long run attempts to prolong it by any means whatsoever just make the situation worse. But those who can kick the consumption addiction can potentially adapt to the new era.
By Karl North | February 9, 2013
The way we do science today suffers greatly from the dominance of the reductionist paradigm. A general pattern has emerged where technologies based on purely reductive science work for a while as expected, then start to produce unexpected and often unwanted results, outcomes that at least from a reductionist perspective are a surprise and are therefore labeled “counterintuitive”. There exists other ways of doing science that pose problems broadly enough to account for likely ripple effects and nonlinear change. So why do we keep doing applied science in ways that often create more problems than they solve?
One hypothesis, which I explored in Reductionist Science and the Rise of Capitalism pointed out how congenial technologies that work mainly in the short term are to an economic system that mainly rewards short term results. Moreover, a scientific method that contemplates the systemic context of the problems it poses can be too revealing of the way our dominant social system works, because often it traces the root causes of problems to the nature of the system itself. Such revelations are not pleasing to oligarchies interested in sustaining their plutocracies.
The other major reason I think people keep applying reductive research to problems despite its poor track record is the feeling of security the predictive power of the reductive method confers on its practitioners. However, this power is short-lived because it derives from reducing real world complexity to a small number of variables and keeping inquiry compartmentalized in disciplinary silos. Here I will explore some of the ways reductionism and systems thinking compete in the struggle to understand the causes of human behavior.
The needless conflict between the social and biological sciences over the causes of human behavior, and indeed the nature of human nature, typify the shortcomings of the reductionist paradigm. Evolutionary biologists often focus on adaptation to an environment as if the latter were fixed or independent of the organism in question even though they know it is bad biology. They do it because although it oversimplifies, the world is otherwise too complex for their reductive methods to handle.
As biologist R. C. Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix, environments are surroundings, and are devoid of meaning when not related to what they encircle. As systems ecology has shown, the evolution of organisms and environments is more realistically described as constantly constructing one another; thus the adaptation works both ways. However, this complicates explanations of genetic fitness immensely; it becomes a moving target as organisms constantly alter environments in ways that provide a better fit to the current genetic state of the organism. Because Lewontin is a dialectician (Marxist for systems thinker), he intuitively sees organism and environment as caught up in the causal feedback structure that best describes their evolving (dialectical) relationship in the real world. He says that “environments are constantly changing so that adaptation to yesterday’s environment does not improve the chance of survival tomorrow” (the Red Queen Hypothesis). Moreover as a Marxist he automatically defines the environment of the human species as including social and cultural features that are continually evolving and impacting its biological evolution and social behavior, which complicates understanding even more.
On the other hand, social scientists as well oversimplify reality to stay within the security of their discipline. They often operate under the unstated (or sometimes explicit) assumption that human nature is a blank slate on which culture is written. Of course this too is bad biology, as they usually admit these days when called on it. But consideration of the genetic results of biological evolution as causes of human behavior is not their bag, and complicates their work.
The implications of all the above for how scientists should study our species are huge at every scale of inquiry. Because environments are as much constructed as adapted to, species do not just invade niches, they partially construct them. As part of human environment, cultural evolution itself has a feedback structure whereby a set of beliefs and values encourages human behavior patterns that, in turn strengthen that cultural environment in a feedback spiral that reinforces the behavior until, if it spreads widely enough, a hegemonic culture is falsely claimed to be indicative of ‘human nature’. Such claims have become a common refrain in the culture of capitalism as it developed and spread widely in recent centuries. People trained mainly in the bio-physical sciences tend to be taken in by such claims because they spend little time contemplating the great variation in human cultures, especially those less affected (infected?) by the culture of capitalism.
Support groups rely on cultural feedback structures, reinforcing new behaviors by immersion in a social environment where everyone is a practitioner of those behaviors. This works at different scales. Thus it becomes easier to cooperate at every institutional level in a culture that supports cooperative beliefs and values. In the same way a competitive culture encourages competitive behavior patterns in a reinforcing feedback cycle. Fitness thus means different things in contrasting cultures. In fact, it is not clear that it even affects biological evolution of the species unless the culturally created environment is stable for hundreds of thousands of years.
Because the fate of complex systems can depend on initial conditions, sometimes the direction of cultural evolution over a long epoch depends on what kind of cultural seed is planted and nurtured. As Richard Levins (another dialectical biologist and colleague of Lewontin at Harvard) reports from many years of experience working with Cuban agricultural scientists, when policy making is not done under a constant cloud of corporate control and a culture that values private interest over common good, conflict over agricultural policy decisions takes place, but it tends to reflect genuine differences of scientific opinion, not who is bought by what powerful private interest or who is pursuing what personal agenda.
Cultural positive feedback loops that operate over enough time can have powerful, cumulative negative effects. An example is the culture of poverty. As described here, it does not imply a failure of will or genetic inferiority on the part of the poor, but rather a set of beliefs and values accumulated and reinforced over generations of poverty experienced by a minority who exist within an environment of relative prosperity. Constant lack of opportunity relative to the rest of society slowly kills self confidence and leads to lower expectations. Beliefs and values like these become stronger as they are passed from one generation to the next and are eventually widely shared within the community of the impoverished. Taken out of poverty, a community may take more than one generation to evolve a different culture. Such is the nature of cultural inertia.
Of relevance here, and adding further complication, are discoveries in epigenetics, which studies information which children inherit other than through DNA. For example,
Studies on rats have shown that babies who receive less care and affection from their mothers face a life of poorer health and higher stress. Not only that, but so do their children, their children’s children, down to at least the 5th generation, contradicting the classical Darwinian model of genes as the be all and end all.
A new scientific story of evolution may therefore have great implications for our social organization. Epigenetics doesn’t deny genetics, but accepts that the environment can feed back in a way which transcends genetic determinism. It explains why deciphering the human genome did not prove to be the Rosetta Stone which unlocks all the secrets of human health. It turns out that identical genes manifest themselves quite differently as a result of their context. Moreover, the idea that genes make up the entirety of inherited information which is passed down between successive generations turns out to be a wild oversimplification.
In sum, given the complexity of interaction between genes and environment that science, especially systems methods, has revealed in recent times, it appears that the debate over the relative influence of nature vs. nurture in the explanation of human behavior is far from over.
 Lewontin, R. C. 2002. The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment. Harvard University Press
 Levins, Richard. 2008. Talking About Trees: Science, Ecology and Agriculture in Cuba. LeftWord Books. New Delhi. Levins and Lewontin co-authored The Dialectical Biologist, a work that is relevant to the subject of this paper.
 In systems science ‘positive’ feedback does not necessarily mean ‘good’; it simply means ‘reinforcing’.
By Karl North | December 9, 2012
A number of students of the energy descent have concluded that the new era will include tipping points where key economic and political institutions suddenly go into crisis. Charles Hugh Smith, for example, describes “snapback” points when increasing divergence between “phantom wealth” and real wealth collapses. In The Case for a Disorderly Descent I described how rising energy prices in the current debt-stressed economies could cause chain reactions leading to a degree of disorder. This disorder would manifest as periods of crisis sufficient to cause governments to convert to emergency modes of operation far different from their normal roles in present-day society.
This response to prolonged crisis is common in history and appears under various labels: a state of emergency, martial law, a war economy, a “new deal” or a whole new political order such as fascism or a partial theocratic system as occurred in early Medieval Europe in response to repeated crises that replaced the social stability of the Roman Empire. It thus suggests a range of possibilities stretching from a forceful repression of the majority in the interest of sustaining the quality of life of privileged classes to an economy that redirects remaining energy and resources to serve the basic needs of all.
If our society is to prepare at the family and local levels for the crises ahead it will be useful to gain an understanding of plausible responses to these crises at different levels of government. This is an attempt to briefly explore some likely scenarios based on the historical record in the US. It will be important to consider which of the scenarios and local responses described here are likely or feasible at different times over the “long emergency” of the energy descent.
At the end of Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios, I suggested a policy scenario to facilitate the transition of urban areas in these crisis periods.
Governments could proclaim a “wartime economy” and create a program of economic policies that redirects remaining fossil fuels and other nonrenewables to uses that adapt urban areas to a low energy future. If governments were to make appropriate major changes in economic priorities, for a while they could maintain urban populations and supporting levels of urban activity and consumption that are higher than what I have described. Perhaps Departments of Descent would emerge and begin setting economic policy, at least locally.
Whatever the success of a period of legislated economic planning, its main positive function would be to delay the inevitable return to a solar energy economy long enough to help society prepare and adapt.
This scenario would tend to perpetuate the center-periphery social system in which the defining dynamic is a “wealth conveyor” by which a metropole builds and maintains itself on the back of its agrarian hinterland.
At the regional level in northeastern US this would play out by the Bos-Wash metropolitan complex taxing the hinterlands to death. The administration might take various forms: proconsuls the central power assigns to conduct the levies on rural food production, or a new feudal order of vassals that emerges from the agrarian communities themselves but who owe allegiance to the central powers.
Stoneleigh in her paper Entropy and Empire describes a historical period that has the potential to repeat itself in the parallel situation to Rome in which the Western industrial metropolis finds itself today:
Rome eventually hit a net energy limit and could no longer sustain its internal complexity. Efforts to strengthen the wealth conveyor through repression during the reign of Diocletian – an elaborate, highly intrusive and draconian regime of taxation in kind – amounted to feeding the center by consuming the productive farmland and peasantry of the empire itself. This period represented a brief reprieve for a political center declining in resilience, at the cost of catabolic collapse. Regions incorporated into the empire declined to a lower level of complexity than they had attained before being conquered.
Alternatively, resistance from the agrarian “barbarians”, damaging systemic feedback effects of perpetuation of the wealth conveyor, or simply the chaos from the loss of the industrial economic activity that supports the affluence of metropolitan life overwhelms the cities, as eventually it did in the Roman Empire. This is the Kunstlerian thesis. In James Kunstler’s post-oil novel World Made by Hand the protagonist finds the governor of New York sitting helpless in his empty Albany office, all the instruments of his power having disintegrated. He was unable to prevent even his capitol from falling into the hands of diverse mafias, and those desiring a semblance of order must make it themselves. In this case the rural proconsuls or vassals simply become an independent landed aristocracy, or are overthrown by locals who replace them in the new feudal order.
To explore these scenarios it will be useful to think about how governments will respond to the major crisis issues. Many analysts believe the following are major crisis issues likely to require a response from central government:
- Credit crisis – bank failures, consumers and producers lack cash to do business
- Monetary crisis – deflation and loss of purchasing power, or hyperinflation and loss of monetary value
- Supply chain failure – crises provoked, for example, by rising transport costs that weaken the distance economy enough to start poking holes in it
- Failure of the economy to allocate dwindling resources to assure basic necessities, including infrastructure elements like a reliable electrical grid (Duncan’s Olduvai Theory is an argument for grid failure as a major early crisis).
Although there may be various triggering events, the resource depletion problem is the underlying one that tends to bring on these interconnected crises. It has no solution and requires adaptation to what will ultimately be a much lower material standard of consumption. The government could mitigate the difficulties of adaptation by again taking control of key institutions and resources, instituting storm socialism as Christian Parenti calls it: big government to deal with big crises.
The credit and monetary problems could be avoided easily by truly nationalizing central banking institutions. Under full public control, banking could be restructured in ways that would keep credit flowing in the declining economy that will be the norm in an era of increasing energy scarcity. But a declining economy could not support the current system of payment of interest for credit without gradually cannibalizing itself, to the eventual detriment of the rentier class itself. Hence the practice of a rentier class that taxes credit by charging interest would disappear; as in other difficult times payment of rent would again be known as usury.
Governments also could mitigate supply chain problems by taking public control of economic distribution of certain products and services that are basic necessities. This could take a variety of forms depending on the state of power relations in society. The present concentration of wealth and power in a minority class suggests that under government control first priority in the distribution of strategic resources would be to maintain that stratified social order. So internal security and enough support of basic production and transportation infrastructure to provision and otherwise sustain the privileged minority would absorb an increasing share of the dwindling resources that have supported an industrial standard of consumption, with the rest rationed out to the majority.
Organized revolts against this state of affairs could lead to attempts at local control as central power weakened. Historical examples abound, in the wake of the break-up of the Roman Empire for example, varying in scale from monastic communities and walled towns to secession of whole regions from central authority and their reorganization as mostly local economies in many instances of the decline of central power. While these new social entities historically came under a considerable degree of internal hierarchical control, they also usually improved the quality of life of the majority and thus often gained its support.
Local Control of Local Economies
Serious relocalization may need to wait out the current process of self-destruction inherent in the centralized power-over system; then as things fall apart sufficiently in the larger political economy and its unsustainable infrastructure, communities could seize the opportunity that the new political vacuum/chaos presents to reconfigure local policy and economy. Regions that contain significant strategic resources, like fossil fuels or even woody biomass, are likely to remain under central political control for the longest time.
As our society shrinks in complexity, simple loss of the infrastructure which supplies access to local resources may eventually put those resources beyond the control of central powers and thus provide opportunities for local communities to reclaim parts of the commons. The politics of this process could manifest as communities recapturing the commons for the common good, or as warring units of self-preservation evolving toward a new feudalism of local serfs and big shots, or some of both.
The legal means to begin the relocalization of political power are well within reach of state governments. The US Constitution provides for state legislatures to alter that document (to increase state autonomy, for example) in ways that bypass all three branches of the federal government. The Board of State Governors is already on record in their opposition to the nation’s continued military adventures as part of a long-simmering conflict over the use of federal tax funds. Given appropriate triggering events, the states could find the unity and popular support to amend the US Constitution in ways that increase state or regional independence and weaken federal power.
Many efforts toward local economic sovereignty, like municipal bans on factory farming or oil or gas mining, are presently failing because they are premature. But despite being currently crushed by state and federal power, they remain essential consciousness raising activities to build toward future success. In the following example, community members rallied around a dairy farmer who was selling raw milk to neighbors in defiance of state and federal regulations, and in the process strengthened a regional movement.
“Blue Hill is one of five towns that have adopted “local food and community self-governance ordinances” stating that farmers or food processors are exempt from licensing and inspection as long as they sell directly to consumers for home consumption. The four other towns are Sedgwick, Penobscot and Trenton — also located in Hancock County — and Hope in Knox County. The ordinances are couched in constitutional language asserting that people have the “fundamental and inalienable right to govern themselves” and warning against other government agencies attempting to pre-empt the local ordinance.” – Bangor Daily News, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012.
With enough foresight, local governments can take advantage of the massive
discretionary consumption and outright wastefulness in the present economy to convert it to uses that cushion the transition to a lower energy society. An example would be a policy to manage local biomass use in the best interest of the whole county.
One of the most important changes of the energy descent era that local communities should understand and anticipate as an opportunity is the long-term rising cost of transportation, which raises both the raw material input cost and the product distribution cost of the centralized production economy. At some point local production of many goods will again become competitive with centralized production and distant trade. Meanwhile, as distant trade shrinks, both ocean shipping and land trucking is already experiencing repeated cost-price squeezes that will contribute to eventual supply chain crashes and sudden shortfalls of essential goods in local economies. Local communities that are forewarned can mitigate the distress if they can get ahead of the curve with policies that favor relocalized control of the local economy and natural resources.
Many such policies require little public funding, but would require fundamental rethinking of present local development planning strategy. The simplistic notion of two choices, extreme private or public control, leftover from Cold War ideological battles, is an impediment to thinking here. Restoration of the commons as a mental model can include not just more public enterprises but any economic policy that favors the common good instead of business per se.
Instead of the current pattern of subsidies or tax breaks to both local and external businesses that are so costly in public money, municipalities and county governments can enact laws regarding what businesses can sell, where they can locate, how they can operate, etc. – policies that privilege local, more ecologically and economically sustainable production over distant production. In addition to well known cooperative efforts and land trusting are lesser known but historically proven forms like interest-free investment institutions and craft guilds, and citizen trusteeships and chartering that create a measure of democratic economic control over essential goods and services like energy, food and housing. An example of such local political control of an economic good is Kristianstad, a fossil-fuel-free district in Sweden and a working model of locally controlled energy policy.
Just as countries like the newly independent US in the early 19th century have enacted laws that favored US over foreign business, so can localities find ways to gradually achieve a measure of protection from the shocks of a declining distance economy. To escape current state and federally imposed strictures like interstate commerce laws, localities will need creative policy making. An example is the present attempt to use local zoning rights to block hydrofracked gas extraction.
Beyond legal constraints, most present attempts at local democratic economic decision making run up against the reigning ideology of extreme private control of property and economic activity that is unique to the US even compared to other Western capitalist nations. However, as the economic institutions based on this ideology gradually reveal themselves incapable of addressing the problems of the energy descent, it will be helpful to have different political forms waiting in the wings, and their mental models at least entered into public discourse. Then the obligatory cultural revolution will have a head start on events.
 Korowicz, David. Trade Off: Financial System Supply Chain Cross-Contagion – a study in global systemic collapse(June 2012)
 Lewis, Michael and Patrick Conaty. 2012. The Resilience Imperative:Cooperative Transitions to a Steady State Economy. New Society Publishers.
By Karl North | October 8, 2012
|This article was originally reviewed, edited and published by Tompkins County Relocalization, a group in upstate New York that is researching various aspects of energy descent.
“A city could be defined, almost, as a human ecosystem that grossly exceeds the carrying capacity of its local environment.” – William Catton
By Karl North | October 1, 2012
Spreading awareness that the human population is in overshoot of the carrying capacity of the planet has led to a number of attempts to calculate what the true carrying capacity might be. My objective here is not to provide another calculation, but to explore some issues that need to be faced to address the question properly.
To start thinking about the problem, I am choosing as a point of reference the global population of about 1 billion that existed in 1800 before the main thrust of the industrial revolution. I choose this number for several reasons. Since that time, humanity has depleted the most easily extracted fossil energy and other nonrenewable materials that made industrial civilization possible. Due to the diminishing resource base, the global industrial economy, while still growing in some places, overall has begun to contract. I see every indication that depletion of strategic materials will continue until they become too scarce for most purposes, and the carrying capacity, at least regarding available energy, is back to where it was in 1800.
As one can see from table 1, the highest technology level at that time included tools, machines and small firearms made of iron and other metals. They were technologies that could be created using available energy sources, and were designed to support human activities using those same energy sources: biomass burning, human and animal power, and wind and flowing water to directly operate machines. In other words, every type of energy came, directly or indirectly, from current sunlight.
Can we therefore expect a return to the population level of the pre-industrial civilization of 1800? Relying mostly on solar energy, human society at that time used only 1/7 the energy that the world uses today. Other factors being equal, available energy is a primary determinant of carrying capacity. So it is reasonable, as access to fossil fuel declines, to consider a likely decline in global population from about 7 billion today to 1/7, or 1 billion, which is about the population in 1800. Based on a requirement of 0.5 ha per capita for an adequate food supply, and significant use of renewable solar energy technologies, Pimentel et al (1994) calculated an optimal carrying capacity of 1-2 billion. However, the question is complicated by a number of issues; these are the subject of the rest of this essay.
Carrying capacity (CC) is an essential concept for thinking in scenarios about a future in which access to key resources is declining. Carrying capacity refers in the first instance not just to a population level; it is the maximum indefinitely supportable ecological load. It is important to view the ecological load in terms of material resource consumption and strain on essential ecosystem services that the existing or desired quality of life requires, often measured in combination as the per capita ecological footprint. So it is first the level of sustainable resource consumption/strain (SRC) that a particular landscape or resource base can support, which in turn determines the mix of population level and per capita resource consumption/strain or ecological footprint. Thus the equation for sustainable resource consumption is
SRC = population × resource consumption/strain per capita
which makes clear that sustainable carrying capacity in terms of the actual number of people it will support depends on the level of individual consumption:
CC (sustainable population) = SRC ÷ resource consumption/strain per capita
As an example, if some people burn more than their share of firewood, others may not survive the winter.
Because the population that a given resource base will support depends in the first instance on the level of material consumption and its distribution, let us suppose an equal distribution, which would support the maximum population for a given resource base. How does that affect our one billion reference point? By 1800 the ecological footprint, both within societies and globally, had been extremely unequal for millennia, and has become more unequal since. So it may seem unrealistic to assume equal distribution of resources. Still, it allows us to consider that under a different resource distribution policy there might have been a higher population than one billion in 1800, and might still be in the future, at least with a more equal distribution of resources.
If our reference point is the beginning of the 19th century, a second question is whether, on average, the global population was already in overshoot at that time. Wood and farmland were still primary strategic resources, and dense populations in Europe and Asia were experiencing repeated crises of famine and wood scarcity. In fact such scarcities had contributed heavily to the demise of numerous civilizations for millennia. This history has led some ecologists to put the beginning of population overshoot soon after the development of agriculture and the rise of civilization itself. An extended exploration of the question is beyond the scope of this essay, but must be an important element in the assessment of carrying capacity.
It is essential to understand that because of delayed effects, populations can persist for a time at levels above CC before experiencing decline. Catton’s notion of phantom CC is useful here. Incorporated in the accompanying graph, it shows how reliance on temporarily available materials like fossil energy, or unsustainably harvested renewables like wood or fish can allow populations to temporarily exceed the sustainable ecological load. The graph shows how this “drawdown” of the resource base steals from the future because it erodes real CC and finally causes population collapse. The temporary success creates the illusion of permanence, whence the term “phantom CC”. An example of temporary success is the estimated tripling of global population since the invention of synthetic fertilizers, due almost entirely to gains in agricultural productivity from those energy-intensive fertilizers. This population increase represents phantom CC because the fertilizer production relies on fossil energy, a temporary resource.
There is another reason that 1800, its population level and material standard of life is a useful reference point. A number of energy scientists have made compelling arguments that the potential of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels is low, a 20% replacement in the most optimistic estimates. They say that the progress to date in producing such renewables as wind and solar electricity is misleading about their potential because it necessitates the continued existence of an industrial base built with yesterday’s cheap energy, but now in inexorable decline. Hence the rising cost of raw materials that would be required to build and maintain alternative energy systems has foreclosed any window of opportunity to create them on a scale necessary to continue the current level of industrial civilization. If we cannot even maintain essential infrastructure like roads and bridges, they claim, how can an economy in permanent contraction afford a new solar-electric transportation system to replace one that is totally dependent on oil? If these arguments are accurate, the energy available to support human society will decline eventually to levels available circa 1800. In that case much of industrialization and the population it supports will disappear.
If the energy available in the future is potentially comparable to energy consumption in 1800, what features of the natural resource base today and in the future are not comparable with the state of the planet and its CC at that time, and may lead to a different assessment of future population? Pre-industrial society already relied on a number of minerals like copper, now more scarce, that will reduce CC compared to 1800. Also, industrial economies have destroyed much of the biological wealth that supported world population two centuries ago. Loss of fisheries, land species populations and biodiversity, and water supplies has been well documented along with the increase in polluted waters and land acreage. It has become clear to scientists that a significant part of that loss is permanent because it has reshaped ecosystems and climatic systems in hard-to-alter ways. All this suggests that once humanity no longer enjoys cheap energy and the crutch of a panoply of energy-intensive technologies that supports phantom CC, a global population of even 1 billion may be unsustainable on the planet’s depleted natural resource base.
The age of industrial exuberance (Catton’s term) has created a vast built environment, much of which will not be usable for its original ends in a lower energy society. Will the leftovers to salvage from that built environment allow a higher CC? Presumably materials like metals, cut stone and glass, not needing mining and processing, would permit higher populations in some locations. The gain from salvage could slow the population decline. It would be temporary however, for according to the law of entropy, nothing is infinitely recyclable.
The accumulation of knowledge in the last two centuries is another part of the industrial heritage to salvage. How might that knowledge positively influence CC? Medical knowledge that requires little energy and other resource-intensive technology, in its application to sanitation for example, has reduced the threat of many diseases that used to limit populations. The Cuban health care system demonstrates that the level of health care, which rivals the US, has more to do with the social structure of that care (doctors living in neighborhoods, making house calls) than with expensive technologies and pharmaceuticals.
Knowledge of ecological systems has made possible the design of extremely low input but highly productive and regenerative agroecosystems, which could raise global CC per acre if they became widespread. Ironically, some of the best examples of these systems have existed for many centuries, before the advent of ecological science. The Aztec chinampas, wet rice-based mixed agriculture in the Pacific rim lands, peri-urban French intensive gardening, and wet meadow-based agriculture in the English lowlands and in riparian communities of colonial New England are some examples.
Where renewable energy can be produced at small scale with simple materials, and where it does not compete with land for food or create significant pollution, knowledge of these systems can add to the total energy supply and potentially boost CC. Small scale biogas production, for example, fits these requirements when it processes manure as part of an integrated small farming system.
In summary, the end of the oil age and industrial civilization as we know it suggests a return to the pre-industrial global population of about one billion. Whether that number represents the world’s carrying capacity in humans, on either the resource base of today or that of 1800, depends on a number of other considerations. Had technological development and resource depletion put humanity into overshoot already in 1800? Since then, how much has continued ecological damage reduced CC? How long will the salvage of leftovers from the built environment of the industrial age maintain population levels? Have we learned enough ecology to potentially manage ecosystems for higher CC than did many pre-industrial civilizations? Does our species have the ability for the long-term, big-picture thinking that management of such complex systems demands? Can we create a political economy capable of managing natural resources for the common good?
As stated at the outset, my goal was not to fully answer the question, “How many people can the world really hold?” I hope instead that I have raised awareness of some of the issues to think about in the quest for answers about true carrying capacity. Some that I have not even mentioned, like climate change and nuclear radiation (from war or from inability to control meltdown of waste from nuclear weapons or utility plants) could easily reduce the world’s human carrying capacity to zero. On the bright side, if our species has burnt through enough of the world’s nonrenewable resources to eliminate the possibility of another industrial “age of extravagance” with its population bubble and subsequent die-off and its threat of human extinction, that could give the species another shot at building a society that stays more or less within carrying capacity.
 Catton, William R. Jr. 1982. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.
 Pimentel, D. et al. (1994) Natural resources and an optimum human population. Population and the Environment 15(5): 347-369.
 Catton. Op cit
Reductionist Science and the Rise of Capitalism: Implications for a New Educational Program of Agricultural Science
By Karl North | January 4, 2012
The thesis of this essay is that there is a way of doing science that is characteristic of scientific inquiry under capitalism because its methods provide the kind of “irresponsible knowledge” that a profit-at-whatever-cost social system like capitalism requires. As my title implies, I will argue that as capitalism evolved to become an ever more dominant shaper of societies, a parallel scientific paradigm developed that conformed to the needs of capitalism in the same way that the rise Protestantism provided a set of religious beliefs and values that conformed to capitalist values better than did those of the Catholic Church. Then I will outline an alternative program of agricultural science that avoids the distortions and lacunae that are typical of current agricultural science under capitalism, and exemplifies a fundamentally different way of doing education and research.
Capitalism as used here refers not to a mere system of production and marketing, but to a whole social system whose major institutions have a distinctive character that is shaped by rules that facilitate the concentration of wealth and ultimate power in a minority investor class. Under capitalism institutions of government become power brokers to serve the interests of the wealthy minority; at the same time they function as theater to maintain the illusion of serving the majority. Market institutions, according to whose economist priesthood naturally serve the best interests of the consumer public, in fact operate largely under monopoly control of a handful of huge corporations in each market sector. These industrial giants extend market control through a sophisticated industry devoted to the manufacture and manipulation of consumer demand. The same capitalist class owns the mainstream media and exerts further control by funding its operation exclusively by advertizing. Under these conditions of effective media control of the collective consciousness, freedom of the press offers only the illusion of democratic power over information.
In such a society, it would be surprising if the institutions of the production of knowledge remained somehow autonomous. In fact, behind the illusion of academic freedom, it is well known that big business has infiltrated academia and bent the pursuit of knowledge into the service of its interests. But capitalist influence does not stop there; the very way that science is done serves those same interests, which brings us to the subject of this essay.
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions transformed the history of science when it was published in the 1960s because it demolished the belief of many scientists that the acquisition of knowledge is a stable, cumulative process of stone upon stone. Kuhn demonstrated a history of successional paradigms, each new one conquering and replacing, or at least subordinating the previous one as anomalies accumulated that cannot be explained under the existing paradigm. A reigning paradigm is a kind of overarching meta-theory or worldview that defines the status of knowledge and determines research design and its methods. Because it is historical, Kuhn’s conceptual framework is a useful one for the purpose of this analysis of the evolution of what constitutes legitimate scientific activity.
There was a time when the holistic nature of the world was taken for granted. In the European Middle Ages for example, church theology dictated how all things fit together in the universe. Even as late as the 19th century great scientists like Darwin, Liebig, and Marx assumed that their quest for understanding the way the world works required the mastery of numerous disciplines. Starting in the Enlightenment however, scientific inquiry developed its methods partly in reaction to the faith-based knowledge paradigm of the church, and sought knowledge in ways that could be “proven” by replicable experiment. Predictability became the standard of scientific validity. But prediction required a focus on very few variables, a reductive method that, for experimental purposes, excludes the rest of the universe. A new Kuhnian paradigm of acquiring knowledge was taking shape.
This approach contrasted sharply with not only the previous religious paradigm which viewed the universe as a coherent whole, but also with common observation of the connectedness of reality. Perhaps for these reasons, and because fields of inquiry only gradually became well-defined, well into the 19th century normal habits of study of the better scientists were what today we call multi-disciplinary. For example, students of society and its power laws understood that power is both economic and political, and naturally called themselves political economists. However, as it began to take shape the scientific paradigm that started in the Enlightenment characteristically broke the pursuit of knowledge apart into distinct disciplines, just as it narrowed the method of inquiry into a focus on increasingly smaller pieces of reality.
Like the religious revolt against an authoritarian church, the way scientific inquiry developed from the 18th century onward was affected by economic forces as well. Private capital holders and entrepreneurs were gradually throwing off the strictures of church and state and were taking increasing control over investment and production decisions. In the expanding economic system of free enterprise, capitalists eagerly exploited the new predictive knowledge of science because it allowed them to develop powerful and profitable technologies. Because these technologies relied on a mode of inquiry that the reductive method limited to the interaction of few variables, little was known about the possible consequences of their application over time. But that did not matter because in the capitalist economy, where competitive success depends to the maximization of short-term profit, long-term consequences are not a serious concern.
Hence the reductive method of scientific research fit hand-in-glove with the goals of business under capitalism, and gradually became the dominant paradigm of science. That is, in keeping with the Kuhnian concept of paradigm, the reductive method hardened into a reductionist ideology according to which only knowledge acquired by the reductive method had the status of scientific knowledge.
As mentioned earlier, the holistic paradigm did not die an easy death. Because research that was acceptable in the reductionist paradigm was incapable of accounting for the interconnected, systemic nature of the universe, Kuhnian anomalies accumulated: technologies built exclusively on the products of reductionist science succeeded as predicted in the short run, but with more distance in time and space destructive consequences appeared and multiplied, exhibiting nonlinear behavior over time that the reductive method was not designed to capture or explain. Thus the vaunted predictive power of purely reductionist science increasingly stood revealed as a short run affair, almost inevitably altered through time as the impacts of a single technological intervention ripple through the interconnected universe. A striking example is the unrestrained application of fertilizers born of the Haber–Bosch technology for the synthetic fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. Once celebrated for its narrowly conceived ability to vastly improve agricultural productivity, it is now revealed to have a constellation of negative ripple effects on agricultural systems: soil compaction, deadly destruction of soil food webs, adverse effects on plant health, diminished nutritional qualities of food, and massive pollution of waterways. Today it seems incredible that generations of agricultural scientists have promoted the practice, but the dominant reductionist paradigm conferred legitimacy on such narrowly researched technologies.
The accumulation of destructive technologies stimulated the growth of a school of holistic science that created modern tools of multivariate analysis to model the feedback structures that generate these all too common nonlinear phenomena. It was becoming clear that if the planet and the human species is to survive the ever more powerful but ultimately ever more destructive technologies born of reductionism, a new Kuhnian scientific revolution must occur.
What might a new paradigm look like? It is more than ever apparent that if applied science is to have positive results that are sustainable, it must acknowledge as primary the importance of a research focus on how things change over time. This will require methodological tools that discover and model the dynamics of the ‘system of interest’ that governs the nonlinear behaviors that a problem under investigation often exhibits when tracked over sufficient time horizons. It is now widely accepted that such complex systems are not susceptible to accurate prediction. But the objective of science in the new paradigm is not to claim predictive power, but to use the tools of systems analysis to gain insights and discover probabilities in the form of probable outcomes over time of specific policies of intervention, and thereby reduce the chance of counterintuitive results.
In the new paradigm, reductive research will play an important but subordinate role by contributing knowledge of specific causal relations in the systemic modeling of research problems. In applied science, modeling of the system of interest in regard to a particular problem would thereby reveal the important relationships and thereby set the agenda of reductive research. In short, a macroscopic primary focus would regain dominance over the microscopic in the way we acquire knowledge, in keeping with the systemic nature of the universe.
How the emerging holistic way of doing science looks on the ground is already evident in those areas of inquiry where adoption is strongest. A systems approach to science has long been the hallmark of engineering with its focus on control theory (positive feedbacks and homeostatic mechanisms), from which historically it has often spread to other fields. In medicine where intervention often has life or death consequences, and especially in public health where the consequences involve whole human populations, the best health practitioners assume a systems approach to understanding health problems that ignores the disciplinary boundaries that reflect the goals of the reductionist paradigm. Similarly, many scientists in field of ecology view the study of the dynamics of whole ecosystems as necessary to the understanding of the behavior of specific organisms. Even in the business world, managers of complex corporation-wide processes have seen the need for modeling the system dynamics of problems whose system of interest includes design, production, marketing and management.
How does scientific training have to change to conform to the new paradigm? To show the contrast with present training programs, a look at agricultural science, a field where reductionist research and training are still the norm might be instructive.
An Academic Program for Agricultural Science
What I will attempt here is not a complete curriculum but an outline that contains enough suggestions to demonstrate the general character and aims of academic training under the new paradigm and how different it would be from the current program of study in most US agricultural schools.
In conventional programs shaped in the reductionist paradigm, there is immediate pressure to plunge into the details of subject areas and to treat them separately on the whole. In the holistic paradigm the focus is not on detail complexity but dynamic, operational complexity of the subject matter, which of necessity is a concern with wholes and how they work. Moreover, agricultural science becomes a historical science, a science of systems of interdependency and how they behave over time. Most importantly it becomes a program of agricultural science as sustainable agroecosystem design and management, based on these assumptions:
- Design for sustainability requires a systems perspective:
i. A farm, like a pond, or a coastal estuary, or a forest, is an ecosystem.
ii. Ecosystems support many different kinds of life which, to sustain themselves must interact in a manner that tends to produce the greatest good for all.
iii. Design for sustainability thus shifts the primary frame of reference of scientific training from a short term snapshot approach to what will succeed in the long term, and from individual practices to the health of the agroecosystem as a whole.
iv. Sustained agroecosystem health depends on adaptive management of evolving relations of a diversity of wild and domestic species.
Hence a holistic educational program for agricultural scientists, farmers or farm service providers needs to start with a study of the universal properties of systems and with the study of systems ecology. Thus I propose two core courses, running concurrently because they are complementary.
Core course I, Introduction to Systems Science, organized to achieve these goals:
- Intellectual and historical awareness of the habits of short-term, reductionist thinking that have permeated not only academic culture, but also the general culture of our society, a prerequisite to their unlearning and replacement.
- Understanding of the universal properties of complex systems.
- An introduction to thinking dynamically/historically and modeling those dynamics:
a. big picture thinking
b. dynamic/historical thinking
c. circular causality vs. unidirectional: the feedback perspective
d. System as cause thinking: causal structures generate patterns of behavior
e. Operational thinking – modeling how systems work
i. Focus on context-oriented problem solving – modeling the ‘system of interest’
ii. Visual tools including mapping and causal loop diagrams
iii. Combination of qualitative and quantitative properties
Core course II, Systems Ecology covers:
1. Levels of organization: organisms, populations, communities and their emergent properties.
2. Concepts of Ecosystem Dynamics: ecological load, carrying capacity, food webs, positive and negative feedbacks and their role in dynamic equilibrium.
3. Laws of Energy and Materials
a. Thermodynamic laws and other power laws of nature as they apply to all species including humans.
b. Liebig’s Law
c. Concepts of Emergy and Transformity
4. Ecosystem processes: cycles and flows
b. Mineral and water cycles
5. Evolution: succession, coevolution, adaptation
a. Oscillation – growth cycles of overshoot and collapse at different scales
6. Managed ecosystems, agroecosystems
a. Notions of “efficiency”: energetic-, labor-, the Jevons effect
The core courses in general systems theory and natural ecosystemics lay the foundation for courses in:
- Agroecology: agroecosystem components, community dynamics, interdependencies and services in sustainable design:
a. Soil, plant and animal biology
b. Design and Management Strategies for health at the system level
i. Building soil and net primary productivity
ii. Input self-sufficiency: endogenous ecological inputs and services
iii. Thresholds: sources and sinks
iv. Species interactions: mutually adaptive solutions, predator/prey relationships
v. Landscape layout and interactions at different scales – rotations, habitats, conservation agriculture, aquatic system services
vi. Resilience: storage, redundancy and other strategies
c. The Social Context of Agriculture
i. Energy, Real Wealth Economy and the Market Economy
2. System Dynamics Modeling Methods – a theory and lab course
a. Elementary nonlinear behaviors and associated feedback structures
b. Problem articulation: behavior over time, boundary definition, endogenous perspective, key variable selection, delays
c. Stock and Flow model building, simulation and testing
3. Historical Perspective
a. History and Sociology of Science
b. History of Agricultural Science.
c. History of Agriculture
d. Historical Models of Sustainable Agroecosystems,
4. Reductive Research Methods applied to determine specific causal relations that agroecosystem modeling bring to light and reveal as important to the understanding of agroecosystem dynamics.
5. Related Courses: the Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Political Economy of Agriculture.
A short, suggestive list of references.
Odum, H. T. 1994. Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology
__________ and Elizabeth C. 2008. A Prosperous Way Down.
Ford, Andrew. 2009. Modeling the Environment, 2nd Edition.
Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.
Catton, William R. 1982. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.
Lewontin, R. C. and Richard Levins. 2007. Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture and Health.
Altieri, Miguel A. 1995. Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture. 2nd Edition.
Gliessman, Stephen R. 2006. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems. 2nd Edition.
Gurr, Geoff M., Steve D. Wratten, Miguel A. Altieri and David Pimentel. 2004. Ecological Engineering for Pest Management: Advances in Habitat Manipulation for Arthropods.
Mazoyer, Marcel and Laurence Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture: From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis.
Russell, Howard S. 1976. A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England. Abridged and with a foreword by Mark Lapping. 1982.
Weber, Max and Stephen Kalberg. 2010. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Oxford Revised Edition.
Tawney, R. H. 1926. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Transaction Publishers, 1998.
By Karl North | December 12, 2011
The universe ultimately runs on an energy economy, not a market economy as the dominant economic ideology claims. Ecological damage is tied to energy use of any kind in our peculiar type of economy where the operating rules of the system require maximization of profits at any cost. Unrestrained profit maximization in turn impels the conversion of energy and raw materials into garbage as fast as possible.
Moreover, increasing material progress requires technological solutions of increasing complexity, and the more complex the solutions, the more energy they consume. The global economy is an example of a complex solution. Also, more complex solutions need a society to maintain a more costly infrastructure. Hence infrastructure maintenance alone draws increasing energy and raw materials. Finally, increasing friction in the form of various “pollutions” draws off more resources. Ultimately therefore, societies devoted to material progress are faced with diminishing marginal returns.
Persistence of these trends violates laws of nature, causes increasing social instability, and leads inevitably to collapse.
These notes therefore assume the inevitability of a lower energy civilization. How low will it go? What will civilization look like? While accurate prediction is impossible, there are ways to look at the question that provide insights, and can even dispel some visions of ‘gloom and doom’. We know a lot about the way the world looked before the advent of fossil fuels, so we can look at how societies used the available energy late in that period, say 1800 in European civilization and its extensions as a point of departure, and ask, how will the post-petroleum age differ?
First, we can ask: at that level of available energy, how much development of alternative energy is possible? That’s a different question from the way many look at the alternative energy potential today, when relatively rapid development of alternatives like wind and solar still benefit from cheap fossil energy in many ways, including essential industrial, commercial, and communications infrastructures built with cheap oil.
Then we can ask: how much of the new knowledge acquired in the last century or more will make possible a better quality of life than was achieved at the beginning of that period? Access to knowledge will not necessarily mean access to today’s technologies developed from that knowledge. Like energy itself, every technology has life-cycle energy costs, an energy tail if you like, that may no longer be affordable, and includes essential infrastructures that may no longer be possible either. It will be as if every product had an embedded energy content label that will decide its survival potential in the energy descent.
However, this perspective on the energy future augurs a whole new potential growth industry of invention that uses today’s knowledge within the energy constraints of earlier times. Research and development will be about how to use the knowledge behind everything from medicines to metallurgy, but in ways that conform to the new energy and other resource constraints.
One of the immediate benefits of awareness of the energy future is that the aware can use the amazing lingering tools of industrial civilization to prepare for that future. We can use the internet and other tools of the information age, and we can use the concentrated energy of fossil fuels while they are still affordable. And we can use organized power of the industrial economy while it lasts.
In view of the magnitude of the challenge – facing the end of industrial civilization as we know it as well as the difficulties of transition to a post-petroleum future – this essay attempts an inventory of the compensatory benefits of that future, notions that woven into a narrative might make that future more acceptable, and help people accept it and get on with it.
Before the fossil fuel era, the ecological load that human populations imposed, as measured in raw materials depletion and rates of damage to essential ecosystem functions, were much lower than they are today. Where the environmental movement has achieved little, diminishing access to cheap energy will inevitably begin to offer better solutions to present overshoot of carrying capacity in many problem areas, simply by shrinking the industrial economy, which slows the rate of damage. Effects on some main problem areas are:
- Slower depletion of both nonrenewables and things that are renewable only slowly or at high cost. Recycling will become a necessity, a ‘growth industry’.
- Less chemical pollution of soil, air and water, including greenhouse gas production.
- Serious reduction in human invasion of other species’ niches and the resultant mass extinction of species, as human resource use drops from abnormal levels of the last 200 years, and returns to a carrying capacity that ecosystems developed over millions of years of natural history.
- Diminishing capacity for modern warfare, with its impersonal, long-distance carnage, and for the long-distance institutional violence of modern economic empires.
A. For most of us, the wealth and income that we earn in this economy offer little real security because receiving them confers little direct power over them and their source. As the dominant organization of economic life becomes more brittle and unreliable, its ability to provide economic security declines, and a subsistence perspective will become more attractive to individuals and communities because it offers economic security through more resilient structures. A subsistence perspective is not necessarily a return to a particular historic model of a subsistence economy but something deeper: a view that seeks to regain the economic security and other benefits – mutualism, reciprocity and production for use value not market value – that characterized historic subsistence economies.
B.Besides offering economic security, a subsistence perspective is a view of empowerment that gives priority to the ability to produce or obtain the necessities of life through control over the necessary resource base (land, plant and animal seed stock and their genetic heritage, income from household work, etc.). Hence the adoption of a subsistence perspective has empowerment value. Economic relocalization has the potential to increase economic security by achieving food sovereignty, for example. In the present global economy, growing mangoes empowers few in Nicaragua if the control over the mango plantations and markets lies in the hands of transnational corporations in New York. In fact, Nicaragua suffers distinct disadvantages: the industrial agricultural practices of the TNC destroy soil fertility and pollute the environment, the mangoes do not enter the local food economy because they bring a better price in New York, and the mango plantations displace local food production, weakening food security for Nicaraguans. This is a global pattern in the present system. Hence the advantage to local communities of producing milk in the favorable conditions of New York State’s dairy country is largely lost because milk markets are under corporate monopoly control.
C. When it becomes clear that long-term inflation or its equivalent has been baked into the US financial cake, and that time spent making money that has shrinking value is a treadmill, people will discover the relative advantages of time spent producing the inflation-free goods of subsistence.
2. Social Relations.
A. Societies will need to replace technological solutions with ones based more on human relations. This will stimulate the rebuilding of local community, including the revival of the collectively managed commons.
B. As economies return to more local production, gender relations may improve. Compared to modern society, peasant societies often demonstrate more balanced gender relations, since women are often in control of markets despite distinct gender roles in the division of labor.[7
C. In human-scale economies, communities are more aware that economic health increases with equality and its broadened purchasing power. Evidence of this from peasant communities is that merchants vary prices according to a buyer’s ability to pay. The increasing strength of the informal economy at a human scale, including to a degree the gift economy, carries its own potential benefits to community social health.
A. Much that is harmful in the present economy will become too costly to prolong, at least at present levels – the constant advertizing blitzkrieg; the “happy” motoring transportation economy with its traffic, road rage, commuting, and massive inefficiencies; the distance, “colonial” economy that enables centers of wealth and power based on exploitation of hinterlands.
B. As happened in the collapse of the Soviet system, an informal food economy (theoretically illegal in the former USSR) can put a floor under economic collapse. In much of the world it already does; three quarters of the world’s economic activity is informal economy labor. The informal economy expanded rapidly in the US during the Great Depression.
A. As the cost of governing at state and national levels becomes unaffordable, social control capacity at those levels may weaken, creating a power vacuum and opening political space for more decentralized power structures, which in turn may allow people more participation in the decisions that affect their lives.
B. As in all periods of instability, the coming one presents an opportunity to break with a long historical period characterized by hierarchical structures of dominance, and experiment with more horizontal structures of decision making. European colonization of the New World offered such a break, and was the site of much social experimentation.
5. Culture and Lifestyles.
A. The more labor intensive agriculture that industrial societies will be forced to adopt will put people into a healthier relation to the rest of nature, and give them a physically and mentally healthier lifestyle, geared to more natural rhythms than the hyperactive ones typical of urban life.
B. The rising relative cost of discretionary consumption may force society toward more satisfying behaviors. Cross-cultural studies provide evidence that happiness and material prosperity are in an inverse relationship. As the market price of frenzied consumerism rises, so that the manufacture of desire is no longer enough to maintain the addiction, other values will have a chance to surface and prevail. And when the energy available can support today’s commercialized spectator culture no longer, people will return to more satisfying, participant forms of cultural activity.
C. Local diversity of all sorts – physical, biological, economic, cultural,etc. – will return to replace the boring monotony that global capitalism has imposed, as localities again become free to display their distinctive characters. This diversity represents appropriate adaptations to local physical realities, and is healthier than the tendency of the current system to fit everything on the planet into the same marketable industrial mold.
Benefits of the energy descent are not instantaneous; they appear gradually as we learn to use the opportunities of localization. A view from the Transition Movement:
“All the research I’ve seen, all the thinking I’ve done, and all the people I’ve talked to suggests to me that localisation will do a better job of meeting people’s needs – people will be happier and will live in a more socially cohesive way and more sustainably. Or at least it will encourage all those things… If my intuition about what a resilient community is correct, then what you would hopefully find is that as time goes on, people will be experiencing more and more satisfaction of their needs. They’ll find that their community is providing them with more opportunities to enact those needs and those intrinsic values. They’ll find that they’re experiencing fewer barriers to enacting the intrinsic values and satisfying their needs.”
If Greer is right about his eco-successional theory of collapse, there will be breathing room for the transition to take place. In a first era of “scarcity industrialism”, as the limits to growth kick in, the industrial system will work, but less and less reliably, and will provide both time and incentives to evolve adaptive habits and structures of cooperation, localization, self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. He argues that the accumulated wealth and power of a century of superpower status will give the US the clout to provide temporary fixes as things fall apart. Even in his subsequent age of “salvage societies”, the immense accumulated built environment of the age of abundance in heavily industrialized nations will serve as a store of useful raw materials, a bonanza unknown to earlier low energy civilizations.
 Bardi, Ugo, “Peak Civilization”: The Fall of the Roman Empire.
 Ostrom, Elinor, ed., Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action
 Mies, Maria, ibid.
 Graeber, David, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Dreams.
 Berry, Wendell, The Unsettling of America.
 Goldberg, Carey, “Materialism is bad for you, studies say”, www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/health/08iht-snmat.html
By Karl North | November 27, 2011
By way of introduction to what I have to say, let me explain the evolution of my thinking. As a farmer for 30 years, I have been an active participant in the movement to develop alternatives to Industrial Agriculture. As you may know, much of the motivation for that movement was a growing awareness of the damage that Industrial Agriculture was doing to the land and to the quality of food. Because the damage was a slow moving disaster, and the productivity of Industrial Ag was high, there has been a sense that there were choices; Industrial Ag did well at cranking out the food, but we were developing healthier methods.
Now, with the advent of peak global production of oil and soon coal and gas, we are faced not so much with choices as with imperatives. They are imperatives because they are not simply a matter of economic or technological debate, but are the result of human use of planetary resources coming up against permanent hard, physical limits. Let me stress that: in my view and in the view of many in the sciences who have a strong grasp of the laws of nature, ultimately there are no economic or technological solutions, although there are ways those efforts can slow things down, kicking the can down the road as it were.
Here are the basic elements of the story: Access to fossil energy has accelerated its depletion and the depletion of most other nonrenewable resources that are essential to modern industrial society; now declining access to fossil energy limits access to most other resources even more because it takes energy to extract and process them. Hence the depletion of fossil fuels imposes the descent of modern society to a much lower energy civilization, and will impose specific, fundamental changes in the way we produce food, changes that most of the alternative agriculture movement has not considered fully. It will finally cause us to take much more seriously the question of what is a sustainable agriculture.
I would like to take a few minutes to summarize the case for these claims, because these issues are so strangely absent from public discourse, and because, more than any other questions, I believe they will affect how we envision a new agriculture.
I said that these issues are “strangely absent from public discourse”; the reason that is strange is that the highest levels of government are completely aware of the situation I will describe. As resource scarcity deepens and translates into food scarcity, military white papers that are available to the public are describing plans for dealing with the resulting increasing social conflict, both within and between nations. A German military document recently released for publication describes the expected social upheaval and ensuing chaos and general insecurity with unusual candor.
What the high command in Western nations is reacting to is a situation where human society, benefiting from a uniquely high quality energy source in fossil fuels, has used them and other nonrenewables with no restraint to the point where their production is beginning to decline while global demand still increases. Oil in particular has allowed a temporary extravaganza in human history that we call industrial civilization. Cheap oil has led to the rapid depletion of all nonrenewables that are critical to this civilization. Because we took the easy oil and other resources first, the decline in production of all these resources will be necessarily steeper than the ascent. The early warning therefore in all cases is longterm rising costs of all production that uses fossil energy or other essential nonrenewables. The price of phosphorus for example, an essential mineral in food production, has risen steeply in recent years, and the world is nearing peak phosphorus production.
In sum, the energy sources that underpin industrial civilization will become permanently scarcer over the next decades, and the material consumption we have become used to over the last two centuries will decline accordingly as a degree of deindustrialization occurs. Industrial Agriculture, which derives over 80% of its energy from oil, will perforce deindustrialize as well, so our task is not so much to bring it down, but to prepare a timely replacement.
For some, none of this is news. Those of you who are familiar with the Limits to Growth project know that forty years ago the authors modeled the likely future scenarios with impressive accuracy. In 1980 William Catton was one of the first to combine the perspectives of social and ecological science in his book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, in which he said that the advent of fossil fuels had led to an unsustainable “phantom carrying capacity” in natural resource use. He called it phantom carrying capacity because it permitted temporary human population levels and, in the West, per capita resource consumption that both took the planetary ecological load far above real carrying capacity, which would become clear once fossil fuels became scarce. Systems ecologists Eugene and Howard Odum, who were instrumental in the emergence of ecology as a scientific discipline in the US, have been writing in the same vein for decades.
All of these early warnings were ignored or angrily rejected by the high priests of business as usual. However, there is now a copious literature that describes our overshoot of planetary carrying capacity and its most likely consequences. This literature can be found both in print and on the alternative knowledge medium provided by the internet, even as the general public remains largely in ignorance or denial. This issue is so important in terms of both personal and global consequences that I strongly encourage everyone to look at the evidence.
What are the consequences of all this for designing a new agriculture? The future we must design for in agriculture will, in the analysis of many of these writers, of necessity have access to little more energy than the farms of 150 years ago, and lack other key resources that we commonly use today. These changes may impose themselves gradually, but sudden temporary complete losses are likely as well, as fragile supply chains dependent on cheap oil break down. In fact the most immediate vulnerability for agriculture is the supply chain of both farm inputs and food outputs that keeps food in grocery stores, which consists of a complex and fragile mix of processing, transportation, financial transactions, and above all communications. Food retailers keep on average only three days of inventory. A single hiccup in the fuel supply chain could cause food to disappear from grocery shelves.
What other adaptations will the new agriculture need to cope with the arrival of humanity at this unique historical tipping point? Most generally, we will need to design farming systems that, like natural ecosystems, are highly input self-sufficient, that utilize the full potential of species diversity on the farm and in the larger ecosystem to provide ecological services to replace external inputs, and are sized and designed in other ways to serve a mainly local human community and food economy. These systems will be knowledge-intensive because they will be highly complex integrated systems. In sum, we must design agroecosystems if we are to continue sufficient food production in the era of energy descent that we are now entering. We talk a sometimes about these goals but could make little progress toward them in the present economy. That will gradually change. In the energy descent economy, much more sustainable farming systems that are not yet competitive will gradually dominate the agricultural economy.
Agroecosystems as I understand the term will differ markedly not only from industrial agriculture but from much of organic agriculture as well. But it is not as if we have to design from whole cloth. Although these systems will inevitably differ from historical models, there are many excellent historical models to learn from that go far toward achieving these design goals. Indeeed, the old integrated general farm with its heavy participation in the local economy was common in the US from colonial times to well into the 20th century in places. At its best it had a number of the necessary internal cycles and species and market relationships.
To design whole agroecosystems, that is, farms that achieve the same level of sustainability as many natural ecosystems, we will need to learn from systems ecology. You won’t find that taught much in agricultural schools. That is why independent research farms, like Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York with its resident scientists and promotion of communication among local farmers, are so important.
I want to end with an example of what we need to learn from systems ecology: it is the importance of what ecologists call Net Primary Production (NPP). NPP is the living organic matter created by photosynthesis and is the entry point in an ecosystem of the solar energy that fuels all other growth in the system. As it is the base of the food chain, the productivity potential of the whole system rests on the quantity and quality of NPP. The same will be true of farms designed as agroecosystems, so from a systems ecology perspective our first design focus should be on the health and productivity of NPP.
By Karl North | October 13, 2011
This essay takes as its premise the energy descent future described in an earlier essay, Invisible Ships and Boiling Frogs: The End of Industrial Affluence. As the endgame of this future deepens and the mass media and government remain stubbornly opposed to enlightening the general public, the internet blogosphere has become an excellent alternative knowledge stream. Here, from my perspective, are some of the most effective insights from this literature, recently. For the sake of emphasis, I will categorize them as mental, material, and social questions, although of course they are all interacting.
Mental Issues: The causes and role of denial
Charles Hugh Smith on subtle, unquantifiable, powerful forces at work.
- The reliance on propaganda, for instance, has become so pervasive that the notions of truth and honesty have been hollowed out. Nobody expects the President or Ben Bernanke to speak honestly, as the truth would shatter an increasingly fragile status quo. But this reliance on artifice, half-truths and propaganda has a cost; people are losing faith in government, in all levels of authority, and in the Mainstream Media—and for good reason.
- The marketing obsession with instant gratification and self-glorification has led to a culture of what I call permanent adolescence. Politicians who promise a pain-free continuation of the status quo are rewarded by re-election, and those who speak of sacrifice are punished. An unhealthy dependence on the State to organize and fund everything manifests in a peculiar split-personality disorder: people want their entitlement check and their corporate welfare, yet they rail against the State’s increasing power.
These influences seem to combine to shock the public into a state of willful ignorance in the face of the two huge and interlocking crises that represent a tipping point in modern civilization: a) the depletion and gradual end of cheap, nonrenewable resources, bringing the permanent end of the growth economy, and b) the collapse of the capitalist debt economy. Capitalism cannot abide and will not survive the shrinking economy that characterizes the endgame; it requires growth to pay the interest/rent on debt.
Ran Prieur on willful ignorance:
It’s like the famous Twilight Zone episode where there’s a box with a button, and if you push it, you get a million dollars and someone you don’t know dies. We have countless “boxes” that do basically the same thing. Some of them are physical, like cruise missiles or ocean-killing fertilizers, or even junk food where your mouth gets a million dollars and your heart dies. Others are social, like subsidies that make junk food affordable, or the corporation, which by definition does any harm it can get away with that will bring profit to the shareholders. I’m guessing it all started when our mental and physical tools combined to enable positive feedback in personal wealth. Anyway, as soon as you have something that does more harm than good, but that appears to the decision makers to do more good than harm, the decision makers will decide to do more and more of it, and before long you have a whole society built around obvious benefits that do hidden harm.
The kicker is, once we gain from extending our power beyond our seeing and feeling, we have an incentive to repress our seeing and feeling. If child slaves are making your clothing, and you want to keep getting clothing, you either have to not know about them, or know about them and feel good about it. You have to make yourself ignorant or evil.
The first step toward surviving the endgame is to gain an understanding of what is happening, so it is essential to find ways to explain what is happening that overcome willful ignorance or other forms of denial. Two understandings that are paramount now are how the system works and the limits of energy alternatives.
How the system works, over time. In addition to the end-of-growth crisis of capitalism, its core economies (US, Europe, Japan) are experiencing the endgame of a long process of the system’s internal contradictions playing out.
Here is a short and of necessity simplified explanation. The license this system provides to concentrate the economy’s wealth in few hands creates increasing inequality, which reduces the purchasing power of the majority, and regularly sends the economy into recession or even depression. The most powerful capitalist nations can temporarily prevent or soften these cycles through imperial extraction of wealth from other countries and trickle down to the masses through higher wages and cheaper goods. But this process eventually hits limits – for example when the market for big ticket once-in-a-lifetime items like washing machines becomes saturated, or the capitalist class refuses to share more profits with the working class – and the economy stagnates. Then capitalists find they can make more profit by exporting industrial production to the imperial periphery where labor and many raw materials are still cheap. The resulting de-industrialization of the core economies removes the income-producing employment and consumer purchasing power that keeps the core economies running. Again capitalists find a temporary solution by converting their domestic economies from real wealth production to the production and sale of credit. Cheap credit not only revives the consumer economy for a time but also becomes a source of increasing profit to the financial class, which balloons in wealth and power. But a society can absorb only so much debt. Peak credit occurs when the core economies become credit saturated and increasingly hollowed out by consumer, corporate and government debt. At this point, capitalism runs out of solutions to its contradictions, and a terminal crisis of the system occurs. This is where we are today: the endgame of that long historical process.
The limits of energy alternatives. A form of denial that infects much of the environmental movement is a refusal to accept the limited prospects for replacing fossil fuels with anything else, on a societal scale. The fact that individuals can invest in alternatives has led many to falsely assume that alternatives can simply scale up. As John Michael Greer and other students of the question have pointed out, these limited prospects are not a matter of technological debate, but rather a function of hard physical limits, some of which even well educated people have yet to consider. To give one example, the construction and maintenance of wind and solar electricity at a significant scale requires an industrial economic infrastructure of a level that soon the world will no longer have the energy production to maintain. The only reason we have been able to easily erect and run a few massive arrays of wind-electric generators today is that we did it using some of the last cheap oil and the leftover but slowly crumbling industrial base built in the age of cheap oil.
The other problem with significant replacement of fossil fuels is that the alternatives provide the energy to prolong the massive depletion of nonrenewables and use them to maintain the industrial production that is trashing the planet. The Jevons effect says that energy efficiency gains, in a typical capitalist political economy of few policy constraints, are used in ways that lead to higher energy use at the macro level. Something similar is at work if “clean” energy alternatives replace fossil fuels to a significant degree. The use of alternatives (again in our dominant form of political economy) will be used to chew up the same resources as fossil fuels do. Many of these resources are nonrenewable, many of them destructive of global carrying capacity in their production and use. As just one example, fossil fuels have permitted an industrialized form of agriculture that is an ecological slow-moving disaster but has temporarily doubled world population, which in turn is causing its own problems. A systems analyst can appreciate the positive feedbacks involved. So in general, significant production of alternative fuels would continue the disastrous process that is producing ‘peak everything’ both in terms of resource depletion and nest fouling.
A material force that is moving modern economies toward decline and collapse at a faster rate than they built up is the increasing system frictions caused by overshoot of carrying capacity. As systems analyst Ugo Bardi puts it, it’s “the idea that when things start going bad, they tend to go bad fast”. One source of increasing friction is the operating cost of various pollutions, including corruption, wastefulness and depletions on a system driven primarily by private profit that seems geared to turn resources into garbage at an increasing rate. Here is one commentator’s short list of the increasing frictions that will hasten collapse:
1. Wall Street: a vast skimming operation on the productive elements of the economy.
2. Interest: a hidden tax on productive work (as noted yesterday, on the Federal level, interest on the national debt can be seen as a criminal skimming enterprise). Historically known as usury or debt peonage, the right to charge rent on capital has permitted the growth of a vast criminal syndicate dedicated to no socially useful purpose, which the rules of capitalism allow to operate legally and even sanctify.
3. The 40% of our healthcare/sickcare costs that are paper-shuffling, fraud, etc.
4. The vast profits, lawsuits, needless medications and procedures incentivized by our sickcare system
5. The National Security State/global Empire–huge buildings go up in D.C. by the dozens, all filled with unaccountable bureaucrats and contractors
6. Fiefdoms which have captured the machinery of governance: Junk fees and taxes skimmed to support unproductive layers of bureaucracy
7. The military/industrial complex that feeds imperial expansion and control.
8. The prison industry to control the population made useless by increasing inequality
9. Exurbia: the cost of driving out to the big box stores
10. Massive overconsumption, the result of the highly successful manufacture of desire for unnecessary goods and services.
Tainter’s ‘diminishing returns to empire with increasing size and complexity’ appears to capture much the same concept. Civilization has to work harder and harder to get the same results, and like an engine wearing out with increasing friction of moving parts, eventually freezes up. Add energy and other resource depletion, and the result is that the friction dominating the endgame results in a very steep descent.
Waste. Industrial societies have used the two hundred years of fossil energy joyride to generate enormous waste, some of which functions as “frictions” like those listed above. The US is an extreme case, for example with its trillion-dollar-a-year cost of imperial adventures advertised as ‘defense’. From a purely technical standpoint, while some cheap fossil fuels remain we could turn that energy and other resources consumed in this extravagance toward a conversion of the way we produce life’s necessities (food, shelter) and even some of the better things in life (information, transportation, culture) to modes that might help us better survive the energy descent. But the political will is lacking, and it is not a simple matter of regime change, because the general public, by now victim to generations of indoctrination to false notions of how our political economy works, can no longer make useful political decisions.
Conservatives have been persuaded that the problem is government per se, not seeing that this government fails to serve them because, like all governments, it serves the interests of whoever has the most power, and because this government operates in a society where all the wealth and power has been concentrated in few hands. This is a consequence of the very sort and scope of freedom that libertarians worship and most of us have been taught to embrace. Ran Prieur on freedom as no holds barred:
Americans think freedom means no restraint. So I’m free to start a big company and rule ten thousand wage laborers, and if they don’t like it they’re free to go on strike, and I’m free to hire thugs to crack their heads, and they’re free to quit, and I’m free to buy politicians to cut off support for the unemployed, so now they’re free to either starve and die, or accept the job on my terms and use their freedom of speech to impotently complain.
Liberals on the other hand have been persuaded that the system is fundamentally OK, if only we could do some essential repairs, when in reality the very rules of the system have been set to concentrate wealth and power in an oligarchy, to which any form of government, no matter how reworked, will on the whole become subservient. So any sustainable alternative must operate by fundamentally different rules.
The state of political collective consciousness described above does not seem amenable to rapid change.
“System change, not climate change” – activist slogan at Copenhagen Climate Conference.
“Climate change is only a symptom of a profit-maximizing market system gone wild. We need to change the root cause, the system itself.” – Naomi Klein
Quality of Life. The idea that the transition to a lower energy society, the one we inevitably face, must be a sudden, unmitigated disaster is false. Much of our society lived well at the energy consumption level of a century ago, before oil became central to our present material standard of living. US society uses 4-6 times more energy than the rest of the world, without any gain in quality of life. Europeans use half the energy we do; my experience living a number of years in Europe is that their quality of life is generally better than ours. Brazilians use one eighth of the energy we use, and their quality of life, based on the Human Development Index (life expectancy, educational level, relative income) is nearly the same as ours. As Nicole Foss stresses, happiness is related to level of expectations, so we simply need to lower ours.
Given the ecological damage that the planet has sustained in the last century, even a late 19th century standard of living is not likely to prove sustainable in the long run. But in the short to medium run the proper use of presently wasted resources could provide the slack needed to adapt to lower expectations, making of the transition period a slow-moving disaster rather than a sudden one. However, such a systematic, nation-wide change in economic priorities would require the conversion to the equivalent of a war-time command economy, a major paradigm shift in a nation indoctrinated to free-market ideology.
Thomas Kuhn famously observed that paradigm shifts happen not when the investors in the old paradigm change their minds, but when they die. – Ran Prieur