Ecotechnic Dictatorship is Our Last Hope of Averting Collapse

As a follow-up to my article on the historical necessity of Green Communism, I would like to  1) refute some common myths and misconceptions about limits to growth-induced collapse, 2) clarify the concept of Green Communism, and 3) elucidate why the only realistic way to prevent collapse now is to force through a “sustainable retreat” by an “ecotechnic dictatorship”.

Let’s take as a starting point our current situation. From the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, calculations indicate that humanity exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. Fossil fuel resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate, producing an increase in what William Catton called the “phantom carrying capacity“, which now supports many of the Earth’s surplus billions. However, should the energy base becomes too weak to sustain this phantom carrying capacity, there will be a catastrophic fall of the human population as the Earth system snaps back into equilibrium, producing a massive Malthusian dieoff. The recent peaking of world oil production and accelerated Arctic methane release are but the early portents of hard limits to growth on our finite planet.

We are in a predicament, dependent on an industrial Machine whose insatiable appetite for ever higher levels of material throughput will eventually doom us all. A Machine and its brother, Mammon, with whom we have made a Faustian bargain. We have to somehow wriggle out of this physical and spiritual dependency on our industrial Mephistopheles to avert a collapse of industrial civilization by 2050, but continued dithering and denial makes the changes required ever more drastic year by year. Had the world begun the transition to sustainability in the 1970′s, a great deal of personal freedom and private affluence could have been preserved; as of today, it looks ever likelier than only a Leviathan invested with total power over society can haul us back from the brink of the Olduvai Gorge.

The Necessity of Green Communism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

The world’s industrial infrastructure and services run on cheap fossil fuels and electricity (much of which is derived from hydrocarbons). Past global energy transitions, such as the one from biomass to coal, took 50 years to accomplish. It is not unreasonable to expect a similar timescale for the hydrocarbons to renewables transition, especially since unlike in the past we will be shifting towards energy sources with lower EROEI’s and lower energy and power densities. At the same time, we will have to deal with the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which seems to exhibit more signs of veering out of control with every passing year.

In the face of these challenges to industrial civilization, the world system may continue on one of the following three paths: 1) business as usual, 2) limits to growth, and 3) sustainable retreat. The rough shape of humanity’s ecological footprint trajectories are summarized for each scenario in the graph below, where 100 is a rough estimate for the carrying capacity of the Earth in 1960.

My vision of three possible future overshoot scenarios.

Business as Usual, or “Fantasy”

The miraculous discovery of a new energy source, embodied in the element unobtainium, enabled an uninterrupted continuation of economic progress. Energy researchers all over the world slapped their balding heads in frustration in 2012 for not discovering this energy source earlier, an energy source that was non-polluting, present throughout the world’s oceans, and very easy to extract and exploit. Just a few years later world governments embarked on a geoengineering scheme to create a cloud of self-assembling nanobots, designed to cleanse up the surplus atmospheric CO2 back to its pre-industrial levels, and hopefully not turn the world’s biosphere into “grey goo” in the process.

By the time they got ready to get going with this in 2025, to their happiness they discovered it wasn’t even necessary. Just a few days before the nanobots were due to be unleashed, the theory of anthropogenic global warming was finally exposed as a massive hoax invented by Al Gore to further his megalomaniac plans for global totalitarian socialism. In an interview, the UN climate panel’s chairman admitted, “I am deeply ashamed for having perpetuated such a massive fraud on the governments of the world”. Al Gore himself couldn’t be found for comment, the conman having been raptured into the technological singularity hours before the scandal broke.

Limits to Growth, or “Reality”

Though business-as-usual cornucopia sounds like a good plot for a literary homage to Michael Crichton, few informed people can seriously believe that technology and markets by themselves will enable us to extend our Faustian bargain with the Machine long enough to cheat Gaia when she comes to collect. The likeliest outcome of business-as-usual hubris is a flattening plateau, following by a global, cliff-like collapse in human numbers, technology, and socio-political complexity. There are four major sources of evidence for holding this theoretical viewpoint.

1) Limits to Growth. According to the findings of the widely-publicized 1972 study by the Club of Rome, exponential growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, even when markets and technological growth are accounted for. The results of the “standard run” of their World3 model contained in the 2004 updated version of the study are reproduced below. Crushed between the Scylla of resource depletion and the Charybdis of pollution overload, collapse occurs within the first half of the 21st century.

The Limits to Growth standard run leads to collapse early in the 21st century.

A recent report by Graham Turner of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, showed that world system dynamics in the post-1972 era closely tracked the forecasts of the Limits to Growth standard run. Not good.

2) Resource Depletion. In support of the theory that the world will experience severe problems with energy are depletion studies of the three major fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal. Let’s summarize each one.

Peak oil was most likely reached in 2008, and from 2011 depletion will decisively overtake new fields coming offline – most of which will be located in remote locations like deep offshore or the Arctic, and will require huge investments for exploitation to begin. Natural gas will peak by 2030, but its decline profile will be much steeper than for oil; however, there are hopes of prolonging the gas age by exploiting shale gas and coal seam gas. Finally, although on paper coal reserves should last centuries, the bulk of the deposits are very low EROEI and may even require more energy to extract than they will ever produce through combustion. It should be noted that even though US coal extraction by volume has seen continued increasing uninterrupted in recent years, when measured by total energy it peaked in 1998, and has since been on a slow downslope. Finally, tar sands, oil shale, and other unconventional sources of oil require a phenomenal amount of fresh water and natural gas to extract, they are extremely polluting, and have a very low EROEI; it is completely unfeasible that they will make good the gap.

Paul Cherfurka’s projections of future global energy usage by source.

Could renewables save us? Solar PV is improving rapidly, but it starts from an extremely low base. Wind power is already well established, but there are serious questions over its real EROEI level – can industrial civilization be run on wind, or is its real inefficiency masked over by the prior cheap oil subsidies used in the making of wind turbines? Yet the crucial problem facing wind and solar are their low energy and power densities, which makes them unsuitable for providing the base load that a stable electricity supply demands. The only real hope is to massively expand next-generation nuclear reactor construction, in conjunction with other renewables. However, this will take a intense effort spread over decades, and it is not clear that this effort will be sustained as the system comes under assault from ever fiercer energy and climate shocks – and that’s assuming uranium extraction remains profitable in net energy terms.

In conclusion, the evidence indicates that from 2030, the net energy available to industrial civilization will begin to decline; furthermore, due to diminishing marginal returns, by that time there will be little scope for more efficiency improvements. This lends support to the Limits to Growth standard run model that industrialism will decline by the first half of the 21st century due to resource shortages.

3) Tainter on diminishing returns to complexity. In his celebrated work on The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter posits that societies increase their complexity in order to solve certain problems. For instance, one of the major reasons behind the formation of the Chinese state was its provision of a bureaucratic-administrative mechanism for implementing irrigation and flood control works, which increased the carrying capacity of the land. Unfortunately, the flip side is that societies need to expend ever more organizational and physical energy to maintain a certain level of complexity, a complexity which is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Eventually, this expenditure undermines the society’s economic base and opens up a large potential gap where said society could reap the same benefits but at a lower level of complexity (and cost). At that point, there arises the risk of collapse.

Tainter’s collapse model: at C3-B1, there appears a risk of collapse back down to C1-B1, at which point “hypertrophied states” tend to use coercive tools to try to prevent this from happening.

Civilization reaches its absolute peak of power, health, well-being, etc, at C2-B2. When it begins to run up against problems, the typical reaction is to continue increasing complexity, even though marginal costs now exceed marginal benefits. At C3-B1, there appears an appreciable risk of catastrophic collapse back down to C1-B1, because at that point people would retain the same benefits but at a much lower cost. Furthermore, by this point a civilization’s natural legitimization mechanism, economic growth, will have long since failed; more artificial forms of legitimization have to be found (e.g. the idea that the Empire is sanctioned by God), as well as ever higher levels of physical coercion (e.g. the security forces, authoritarianism) – for instance, the Western Roman Empire adopted Christianity and experienced its highest levels of militarization just a century or so before its final collapse in 476 AD.

In addition to society’s tendencies to try solving its predicaments with the failing tools of the past (ever more complexity), in systems characterized by competitive peer polities, such as our own anarchic international system, there is a further reason for maintaining complexity – anyone who doesn’t can’t support an army, and those who don’t have armies get conquered for their resources. In these systems, organizational complexity is maintained absolutely regardless of costs, and the extractions necessary to sustain it are legitimized by the fact that every other state within this system is doing the same thing. Only when every unit of the system reaches economic exhaustion does the resulting power vacuum finally allow for a rapid, global collapse. A collapse more reminiscent of the relatively rapid fall of Mayan civilization, than of the Roman Empire’s slow decline over the centuries.

The Limits to Growth model has to be updated to reflect these political and geopolitical feedback loops. The likely result is that the increasingly authoritarian, “hypertrophied states” of future decades, locked in deadly competition over each for resources, will stretch out the smooth peaks shown in the Limits to Growth standard run into decades long plateaus, as shown in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”. However, when collapse does finally come, it will be far, far steeper than it would have in a world without politics. The artificial prolongation of industrial civilization will result in an explosive closing of the awning “potential gap” on the complexity graph, plunging the world into famine, anarchy, and dieoff.

4) Cliodynamics. Another valuable analytical tool is the recently-developed science of “cliodynamics“, which attempts to mathematize “big history” by modeling the systems dynamics of the rise and fall of civilizations. In particular, its insights can teach us a great deal about the nature of Malthusian stress and political-demographic collapse.

Here is the basic story. Over millennial timescales, technological growth produced a secular rise in the carrying capacity of the land, which allowed the human population to grow to its current seven billions. However, over shorter timescales the Malthusian tendency for populations to grow faster than technology or the increase in carrying capacity typically resulted in diminishing per capita surpluses and a plateauing of the population. The system became fragile, as surplus stocks accumulated during the “Golden Ages” of plenty were drawn down, and climatic, political, and geopolitical perturbations during the stagnation resulted in sharp dips into dearth. During these times of dearth, peasants began to turn to banditry, producing rising internal violence in the countryside, which forced other peasants into the cities and further decreases food production. Faced with their own shortages, elite predation also grew, further squeezing the peasantry.

Eventually, a “tipping point” was reached, in which elite predation, internal violence, and depreciation of carrying-capacity improvements (e.g. roads, canals, grain silos, redistribution mechanisms, irrigation works, etc) became self-sustaining and spiraled out of control. In the ensuing “cascading collapse”, the central state withered away into a patchwork quilt of warring fiefdoms, and the drastic reduction in the carrying capacity of the land resulted biblical-scale Malthusian dieoffs. However, as soon as the violence died down, the population was found to be far below the carrying capacity of the land, and there was a new “Golden Age” of growth until it once again bumped up against the plateau of carrying capacity. This explains the basic mechanism of pre-industrial Malthusian political-demographic cycles.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Now Korotayev et al (the cliodynamicians) believe that ever since the industrial revolution, technological growth has reached such great velocities that the increases in carrying capacity accruing from it now far surpass any Malthusian pressures. According to them, the era of cyclical collapses is now at an end. However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization. But their greatest omission is that much of the post-1900 increase in carrying capacity has come not from technological growth, but from the technologically-enabled exploitation of the high-EROEI hydrocarbon “resource windfall” – oil, coal, and natural gas. Once these resources become scarce again, the technology used to exploit them will become as chimerical as the fossil fuel-powered machines and phantom carrying capacity they once supported.

The end result will be similar to the same Malthusian-era collapses analyzed by the cliodynamicians. An era in which surplus per capita draws to the level necessary for mere subsistence, characterized by dearth and famine in the bad years, and limited recoveries in the good years; a plateau that increasingly slopes down, until a series of severe perturbations (climatic disasters, resource wars, etc) so disturbs the world system that negative feedback loops take over and the entire system collapses into a prolonged Dark Age.

In conclusion, drawing on the theoretical works of systems modelers (Limits to Growth), energy modelers, collapse theorists (Tainter), and modern cliodynamicians (Korotayev, Turchin, Nefedov, Khaltourina, etc), we can paint a general outline of the next 50 years. Ever more human effort will be mobilized or requisitioned by ever more coercive “hypertrophied states” to compensate for the effects of declining emergy availability (peak oil, exploitation of lower-EROEI energy sources, diminishing returns to energy efficiency, and the effects of credit collapse, resource nationalism, and geopolitics), falling agricultural productivity (fertilizer shortages, heatwaves, rivers and fossil aquifers running dry, rising sea levels inundating coastal farmlands, etc), and other costs accruing from exponentially rising climate chaos.

Those regions which collapse first, nowadays called “failed states”, will be taken over by neo-colonial industrial powers to contain the chaos and acquire resources to buy just a little more time for their industrial civilization. Physical output will plateau and stagnate, while real living standards begin to degrade at an accelerating rate. Eventually, a series of shocks – climate catastrophes like the conflagration of the Amazon or a “hydroxyl collapse”, poor harvests resulting in global famine and pestilence, perhaps even a final, total war of late global industrialism – will finally make the Machine give up the ghost. The collapse of fossil fuel availability will render usless most modern technology, everything from microchips to electric cars and photovoltaic panels. This will result in a political-demographic collapse of unparalleled severity that reduces the human population to below one billion souls within a few decades, ushering in a post-industrial “Rust Age” on a polluted, desertifying, and drowning planet.

The "Rust Age", or "age of salvage" (M. J. Greer).

The “Rust Age”, or “age of salvage” (M. J. Greer).

Sustainable Retreat, or “Green Communism”

As shown above, business-as-usual will be anything but usual, and will almost certainly lead to impoverishment, oppression, totalitarianism, wars, and eventual global dieoff. There is still however a path out, should we choose to take it – a global “sustainable retreat” to below the limits, which if accomplished within the next generation could still stave off collapse and allow us to continue with the development of a truly sustainable civilization, one based not on growth of physical output and consumerism, but on intellectual, cultural, and spiritual self-actualization. This ideal or utopia I shall call Green Communism, a scientific fantasy in which man reaches reconciliation with Gaia, socio-economic classes disappear, and the coercive state itself withers away into oblivion.

However, Green Communism cannot be attained while human psychology remains myopic, short-sighted, competitive, and individualistic; nor is any such transition possible while the world is in overshoot and increasingly hemmed in by limits to growth. As such, a transitory period is required – an “ecotechnic dictatorship” that would concentrate onto itself the political legitimacy and coercive tools to force the world back onto a sustainable path. But first, to forestall the inevitable criticisms and condemnations, I must point out why alternative roads to the sustainable transition are no longer viable, even if they ever were in the first place.

1) The Anarchist Delusion. Disillusioned with the “System” – states, corporations, etc – many “peakists”, “doomers”, survivalists, etc, advocate community-based retreat on a spectrum ranging from weed-smoking “hippies” teaching themselves organic permaculture to ”frugal patriots” holing up in their Idaho “doomsteads” with prodigious quantities of canned food and firearms. However, very few of them have truly broken off the ties that bind to industrial civilization; learning to survive on sustenance agriculture in true pre-industrial fashion is very, very hard work, and almost no-one has the will and perseverance to follow through.

Furthermore, they will receive a rude awakening in the coming era of limits to growth-induced authoritarianism and collapse. Governments don’t like anarchists, especially nasty ones. Period. One of my critics tried to prove an anarchic lifestyle works by posting a Wikipedia link to a “list of anarchist communities“. But on closer examination, practically all their modern manifestations collapsed within just a few years, either from internal causes or due to state suppression.

Perhaps the anarchists will “band together” to protect themselves, he went on to suggest? Will there be enough of them to keep the warlords away? That would certainly be a good idea as the government’s writ collapses and rural violence soars. However, one very important thing is that “bandits” are so-called  violence-specialists; it is what they do, their profession. For a settled anarchist community, it will be difficult in the extreme to muster the economic, administrative, and military capabilities to successfully accomplish all three of the following necessary tasks for surviving in an anarchic environment: 1) producing enough food and goods for community subsistence, 2) managing internal conflicts, and 3) defending themselves from the bandits, psychos, and warlords. Drawing resources from one task will undermine the likelihood of fulfilling another. In practice, what will almost certainly happen is that either the anarchist communities begin paying tribute / protection money to the warlords (thus creating a dependency through which they can later be brought to heel), or they find it more profitable to become warlords themselves. After all, the first kings and nobles were all essentially just the most successful racketeers!

Yet the most essential feature of the anarchist delusion isn’t even their belief that they can make it on their own, but that the state is dispensable, unnecessary, and even harmful to the human enterprise. From the same poster: “What problems has the state solved that weren’t caused by the existence of states?”

The fundamental predicament (not problem) of most biological life-forms is their tendency to overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. One of the most powerful theories for the rise of the state was its capacity to raise the carrying capacity of the land, which postponed overshoot and collapse, and in general made state-centered societies far more powerful than the hunter-gatherer tribes that they displaced.

Now let’s turn to today’s reality. If all states were to magically vanish right now, so would the administrative and coercive tools to sustain global industrialism. Soon afterwards, the underlying carrying capacity-enhancing infrastructure such as the global oil industry, fertilizer production, cybernetics, etc, would depreciate into irrelevance from lack of maintenance. Anarchy will reign and the global population will plummet back down to the few millions of people that primitive technology and band-like social organization could support. You may dismiss or despise the hand of the state that feeds you, but you will likely sing a different tune when it withers away into your anarchic paradise.

2) Why Individual and Community Retreats are no Real Solution. Another strand of the anarchist delusion is that since collapse is unavoidable, it is best to retreat from the System while you can, pay off your debts, cut the ties that bind, etc. But quite apart from the implicit resignation to the inevitability of the untimely deaths of billions of people, it cannot be stressed enough that any collapse today will be global (see Tainter above), and the chaotic fluxes it produces will be so violent than any community, no matter how prepared or resilient, could be casually swept away by the tidal waves it would generate.

I do not deny that it pays to get personally and psychologically prepared for collapse, but this must be part and parcel of a multi-pronged political effort to avert collapse if possible, and dampen its severity should avoidance prove impossible. The idea that you can hole up in a doomstead and survive against the imminent zombie hordes is particularly inane (read the War Nerd‘s entertaining essay Apocalypse Never to find out why). Finally, defeatist notions of the inevitability of collapse - such as those advanced by Dmitry Orlov, who is strongly opposed to all forms of political activism – are in many ways as counter-productive as the mindless business-as-usual mentality of modern society.

The traditional American focus on individualism and self-reliance only worked in the age of abundance which characterized their entire history (the US GDP has been higher at the end of every decade than at the beginning since its founding). This era is at end and will never return. This will be a major shock for Americans, more so than for most people whose memories of cyclical and Malthusian dynamics are more recent, but they will all have to get used to it.

3) The Gramscian Road to Green Communism will take too long. Say what you will about them, but at least the Green Party has a political plan for a sustainable future. This plan involves changing society’s core values to embrace concepts such as “ecological wisdom” and “community-based economics”, through means of grassroots political action and infiltration of key political and economic institutions. Hopefully this will displace the pro-growth bipartisan consensus and enable the democratic enactment of policies that will steer the world back towards sustainability.

As I argued in Roads to Green Communism, however, this “soft” approach to the sustainability transition is doomed to failure. Guilt-ridden liberals may be moved to make $10 donations to Greenpeace or boycott electricity consumption for a grand total of one hour per year (on the so-called “Earth Hour”), but this will not be enough to persuade them to make real sacrifices. It gives me no joy to say this, but the hard truth is that left to themselves, free from coercion either by their peers or by the Leviathan of the state, even enlightened individuals will not take anything more than symbolic steps to reduce their ecological footprint.

Why? All humans are prone to a psychological blindsight called “creeping normalcy”, or what Jared Diamond in his book Collapse calls “landscape amnesia”. This describes a process in which slow, detrimental changes to the environment go unnoticed by the general population because of their slowness and gradualism, but whose eventual accumulated impact becomes devastating. One tragic example would be the Easter Islanders who chopped down all their trees, accelerating the tempo in the last decades of their pre-collapse civilization in order to construct ever bigger moai (statues) to honor the gods that legitimized the tribal chieftains who ruled over them. Human psychology reacts well to immediate threats, but when they are far-off and abstract – such as the declining EROEI of energy sources of climate change – mobilization is much more difficult. As the biggest McMansions and tallest skyscrapers have been erected in the present era of peak oil, there is nothing to suggest that modern civilization is any wiser than the Easter Islanders.

As of now, changing this psychology quickly will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the Soviet Union, it took around two generations to transform the bulk of society from having a traditionalist-peasant worldview, to an urban-secular one – and this despite uninterrupted state propaganda and coercion. Today, even most educated people see the green movement as a bit weird and extremist, if not as evil socialists planning to enslave the world. And we certainly don’t have even a single generation to wait, let alone two. Gradualism is not a solution, it is suicide.

4) Our current System is blinded by Institutional Myopia. Could the current System bail us all out, like it did the politically connected Wall Street oligarchs? Almost certainly not.

Modern society is run by experts and technocrats, if indirectly (their recommendations have to be balanced against corporate interests and the popular will, which is what politicians are there for). However, those same experts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are meaningless buzzwords and Orwellian oxymorons like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, and “clean coal”; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking inconvenient questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm.

Incidentally, this very omnipresence of this System will doom the Gramscian and anarchist approaches. For when systems come under strain, they tend to rigidify, to revert to authoritarian conservatism, and free thinkers – the only people who have any chance of averting socio-political collapse by “scanning” an innovative solution to the problem – are scapegoated as a divisive enemy by the angry, confused masses, and repressed by the coercive “hypertrophied state”, which for all its authoritarianism is a fragile, populist creature that appeases society on the easiest matters (such as repressing the powerless). From Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

Even the intensified legitimization of the “hypertrophied state” vanishes, as do the coercive tools that kept it together well past the point when it should have naturally collapsed. Science and rationalism retreat, and its former agents – intellectuals, priests, tax collectors, etc – are liquidated, as the Sun dawns over a new Dark Age.

5)  Technological Singularity as a Road to Green Communism? As Good wrote in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Hence, as soon as humanity and its technologies become obsolete, the biosphere’s limits to growth will become equally irrelevant to the future of intelligent life on Earth. If we manage to hold on long enough to unleash this technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls - then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, and the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön. Fully freed from material constraints, humanity will be able to build the purest forms of Green Communism… should it wish to.

There is one problem, however – industrial civilization may not survive long enough to catapult itself out of overshoot. For the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and the Limits to Growth proponents tend to place their respective events – Singularity and civilizational collapse – in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

This may be the last answer industrial civilization will find out.

The Necessity of Ecotechnic Dictatorship to Force a Retreat from Collapse

In his excellent book “Our Ecotechnic Future“, Michael John Greer outlined his thoughts on the future of our civilization, which he saw as going through the following four stages: 1) “abundance industrialism” (1950-2010), 2) “scarcity industrialism” (2010-2050?), or the plateau on my “World Overshoot Scenarios” graph characterized by rising coercion, impoverishment, and resource wars, 3) the “age of salvage” (2050?-2250?), in which civilization scavenges the detritus of late industrialism to sustain a very low-level, primitive industrial system, and 4) the “ecotechnic future”, in which post-industrial technologies in spheres like renewable energy or biotechnology, scarcely-conceivable today, may reset the world on a path of truly sustainable development in harmony with Gaia. Such an ecotechnic age will be close to the Green Communist ideal.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na'vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to "network" itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na’vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to “network” itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

However, is it really necessary to endure a catastrophic human dieoff and a centuries-long wait for the sustainable transition to Green Communism that may not even come about? Or perhaps there is still a chance, however slight, of effecting such a transition through a sustainable retreat starting from today, as shown under “Green Communism” in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”?

I think that given the will, there’s a way – an ecotechnic dictatorship leading the people towards Green Communism.

This system will be based on three pillars – reinforcing resilience, educating the people, and preparing for collapse. These pillars will be supported by the full power of the modern state and technology.

A) Reinforcing Resilience. Technocratic central planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking to minimize waste while maximizing real living standards. The legitimacy of the state is not based on creating prosperity or opportunity, so it will be ideologically resilient in the face of the economic decline that is necessary to reduce physical throughput to levels consistent with a retreat to global sustainability. Resources will be funneled into 1) intensive, targeted research in computer science, cybernetics, sustainable energy generation and food production, geoengineering, systems dynamics, and cliodynamics, 2) the provision of social goods such as education, preventative healthcare services, high culture, and social support to the  indigent, and 3) internal security and military forces necessary to defend the fledgling ecotechnic republic from hostile forces within and without.

The ecotechnic dictatorship is a democratic society. The state will make strategic decisions by balancing their decisions between opinion polls and expert panels – much like modern China’s experiment with “deliberative dictatorship“. Since corruption and economic sabotage will be immensely harmful in a world suffering from resource shortages, it will have to be stamped out without mercy. One workable method is to institute a system of universal 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riders; since this mechanism is “horizontal”, in contrast to the “vertical” nature of traditional surveillance, it will reinforce ecotechnic democracy. The people will be able to observe trials and electronically vote on criminals’ punishments.

How to maintain enthusiasm and prevent the ideological ossification of the regime’s elites? Through a dedication to meritocracy and the power of modern electronic technology to enforce transparency. Promotions will be based on technical competence and devotion to the cause as judged by one’s peers; greater power will gain one greater material perks and privileges.

One might object, how is this different from the current System that needs to be overthrown? Realistically, some level of hierarchy is necessary and inevitable. Once society acquires a certain level of size and technological development (like our own), it needs a corresponding level of socio-political complexity to sustain itself, and that in turn requires a hierarchy. You need people at the top to set certain the limits and restrictions by which the world is to be dragged back from overshoot. Unless we return to primitivism (impossible with the size of today’s populations) or manage to achieve a technological singularity (then we’ll talk about it), all hierarchy cannot be abolished without a large fall in carrying capacity. That said, under the ecotechnic dictatorship, there will be nothing on the scale of the awning inequality chasms of today. Furthermore, thanks to the power of modern networking technologies, power can be distributed horizontally to an unprecedented degree. The ecotechnic elites will be subject to greater scrutiny than those below them.

Though this all sounds restrictive of individual freedom, even dystopian, it is nonetheless a valid and probably morally superior alternative to anarchy, collapse, and dieoff. (Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that a reversion to authoritarianism – furthermore, a socially unjust authoritarianism - is in any case virtually guaranteed in the last throes of the business-as-usual scenario). For we can only achieve a rapid enough sustainable retreat back to within the limits if the transition is backed by a powerful, global, and universal coercive force, or in other words, Leviathan.

B) Informing the People. The second pillar of the ecotechnic dictatorship is its focus on reforming human psychology from its accumulative-materialist basis to progressive, transcendental values of ecotechnic sustainability. This is the fundamental and necessary legitimization behind the ecotechnic dictatorship and its march towards Green Communism. The end goal is to coax a real “gift economy” into being (as opposed to a centrally planned one), perhaps with the help of social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy.

As soon as these ecotechnic values percolate throughout society, the necessity for the powerful state will vanish, and the ecotechnic dictatorship can be allowed to wither away as a new spirit of universal kindness and spiritual oneness, a state of complete sobornost, bathes humanity in the ether of Green Communism.

C) Preparing for Collapse.  Though it would be great if the ecotechnic dictatorship managed “sustainable retreat” successfully, as a regime orientated towards the future it must always keep in mind the possibility of its own failure and demise, a demise that would inevitably lead to global collapse.

Hence, it will devote a black budget into making secret preparations to “buffer” human civilization against the possibility of collapse by creating Arctic “lifeboats” or repositories containing seed stocks, banks of knowledge, etc, whose locations will be entrusted to a society of dedicated Guardians. The goal of these Gaian priests and priestesses would be to function as the “bookleggers” and “memorizers” of Miller’s post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz, preserving knowledge and culture into the post-collapse Dark Ages.

What is to be Done?

1) Is collapse under the business-as-usual scenario truly inevitable? Or am I underestimating the capability of markets and technology to overcome the restrictions posed by finite resources and the laws of thermodynamics?

2) What are the chances of effecting a “sustainable retreat” before it is too late and energy shortages and climate chaos destroy industrial civilization? Can such a transition really be carried out from the grassroots level and gradual culture change, or is the capitalist-industrial System too entrenched for that to work?

3) If an “ecotechnic dictatorship” as described above or something similar is necessary to prevent collapse, how should we go about implementing it? Through Gramscian infiltration and subversion of the current System, or a decisive revolutionary break that, in Zizek’s words, “does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”?

4) How should the “ecotechnic dictatorship” legitimize itself, and how should it defend itself from its numerous enemies within and without – preferably without degenerating into all-out tyranny? Indeed, how much liberalism can we afford?

5) And how can we “globalize” the Revolution so as to prevent our ecotechnic enclave from being smothered in its cradle by outside capitalist-industrial Powers?


  1. georgesdelatour says:

    Hi Anatoly

    Wow. Loads of material to take in here.

    Just a quick point if we’re talking about “long term carrying capacity”. Even with no “collapse” or Malthusian die-offs, the evidence is that human population will hit negative growth this century. Russian birth rates will become the norm almost everywhere as we go through the “second demographic transition”.

    • It is true that the projections indicate that there will be a global demographic transition following those in the footsteps of those observed in Europe and Japan, yet despite that even the UN Low estimate only has population beginning to fall away from around 2040, and that at a relatively slow rate. Furthermore, the low projections assume that modern ideas of female education & economic emancipation, contraception & family planning, etc, continue percolating into the Third World at a fast rate.

      With world population projected to be higher in 2050 than in 2010 in all scenarios, it is folly to rely on the demographic transition to solve our limits to growth predicament, which is much more immediate in relative terms.

  2. If this is the choice, then I choose collapse.

    Your error, Mr. Karlin, is found in the assumption that your “ecotechnic dictatorship” will not denigrate upon implementation into abject tyranny. The justification you provide ensures this: any man who objects to your new sociopolitical order is complicit in not only the destruction of human race, but the entire biophysiological system that supports it. This is a claim that tolerates no dissent. It is an order that has place for no checks, no balances.

    No intricate ruminations that may proceed from your mind will save your system from this fate. It is time you face this truth, Mr. Karlin. Reality is not kind to theoreticians. As men as adverse as Marx and Kennan can both attest,to father a doctrine gives you no control over how others interpret and make use of it.

    If you believe that those who champion your new order will do so for reasons more complex or varied than naked gain and power, then you are a fool.

    History provides some rules, Mr. Karlin, that not even you can avoid.

    • I disagree on several points.

      1. Theoreticians are always misinterpreted one way or another, so following this to its logical conclusion there is no point to doing anything theoretical at all. Nonetheless, in many cases the overall contribution of theory can be judged to be positive. General relativity gave us not only nuclear weapons, but also, perhaps, a way out of our crisis in the form of nuclear power.

      2. You are certainly free to choose collapse for yourself, but I don’t think you (or anyone else) has the right to make the choice for all humanity. I for one would rather take my chances under an ecotechnic dictatorship than face a Malthusian collapse, which in our present circumstances is a horror so vast it is scarcely imaginable.

      3. I think I acknowledged the possibility that it will degenerate into “abject tyranny”. One of the main points in making this concept public is so that other thinkers can discuss and invent additional safeguards to prevent this from happening.

      Despite the name, the “ecotechnic dictatorship” will not be presided over by a dictator or Great Leader. The Idea of Green Communism will be at the apex, and the only embodiment it is ever going to get is as an all-encompassing cybernetic organism – Project Cybersyn Relaunched. Further down the chain, there will be distribution of powers between social groups – technocratic planners / the executives, the priesthood / judges, committed Green Communists whose lives are made to be transparent / legislature – which will hopefully stymie the appearance of a corrupt nomenklatura class or old-school despotism.

      4. In response to:

      …any man who objects to your new sociopolitical order is complicit in not only the destruction of human race, but the entire biophysiological system that supports it. This is a claim that tolerates no dissent. It is an order that has place for no checks, no balances.

      Not really. Even today there are plenty of other taboos and restrictions that exist without the political system being despotic. For instance, anyone advocating political Islamism is immediately shunned by Western society, and sometimes repressed (see the case of the “lyrical terrorist”. There are laws in many Western countries specifically banning “glorification” of terrorism. Yet from the perspective of a “lyrical terrorist”, Britain is indeed a place that tolerates no dissent, etc…

      And ultimately, willingly perpetuating overshoot is a far, far greater risk to humanity (by orders of magnitude) than terrorism ever was or will be.

      • Responding, point by point:

        “Theoreticians are always misinterpreted one way or another, so following this to its logical conclusion there is no point to doing anything theoretical at all. Nonetheless, in many cases the overall contribution of theory can be judged to be positive.

        You have mistaken the point I am trying to make. Theorizing is a sum positive, yes. However, unless the theorist has control of the means by which to make reality reflect his or her ideas, then the vision of the theorist will inevitably corrupted as outside actors attempt to utilize it.

        To put this into simpler terms – any “safeguards” you may develop belong to a Platonic world of ideals (“theory”) that is extremely unlikely to reflect the actual programs and policies that will be implemented men and women from the real world begin to implement them.

        “You are certainly free to choose collapse for yourself, but I don’t think you (or anyone else) has the right to make the choice for all humanity. I for one would rather take my chances under an ecotechnic dictatorship than face a Malthusian collapse, which in our present circumstances is a horror so vast it is scarcely imaginable.

        This is a discussion for another day. It was a mistake to include that quip in a post otherwise devoted to the realities of your plan. It will be broached upon in a different forum or post, I think. (Although a quick note off hand — just as I have not the authority to choose collapse for any but myself, you have not the authority to prevent others from choosing it. This game works both ways.)

        Despite the name, the “ecotechnic dictatorship” will not be presided over by a dictator or Great Leader. The Idea of Green Communism will be at the apex, and the only embodiment it is ever going to get is as an all-encompassing cybernetic organism – Project Cybersyn Relaunched. Further down the chain, there will be distribution of powers between social groups – technocratic planners / the executives, the priesthood / judges, committed Green Communists whose lives are made to be transparent / legislature – which will hopefully stymie the appearance of a corrupt nomenklatura class or old-school despotism.

        You have painted a wonderful picture Mr, Karlin. I wonder though, how many blue fairies will be needed to make your dream world come to be?

        Once again I must ask you to step out of the world of ideals and into the world as it is. Consider three statements, onerous but true:

        *The system you imagine allows for a concentration of power humanity has not seen in its existence.

        *By its nature, this power can only be held by a small clique (small being a relative term of course – we are talking of the governance of 9 billion people) of men capable, through intelligence and training, to administrate the machine.

        *The system you imagine will come to pass only with an incredible amount of violence. (You acknowledge such with your last two questions).

        *The system you imagine is constructed upon a powerful narrative of revolutionary redemption.

        Please, remember these when you talk things to come. The incentive to secure and abuse positions of power in this system are incredible. As with all Utopian projects, the means to hijack the system will come in times of terror that will inevitably accompany this transition of regimes. And of course, the justification for the atrocities and betrayals that will mark the system’s decline into tyranny will be found in the wonderfully unquestionable Mandate of Gaia that will fuel the revolution.

        Not really. Even today there are plenty of other taboos and restrictions that exist without the political system being despotic.

        This is logically inconsistent. Allow me to restate the arguments made:

        TG: Your system has no institutional checks, and will not allow dissent.

        AK: Not really. There are places that do that today anyway.

        Your two claims are in contradiction to each other. You befall another fallacy in the attempt as well: that one man’s crimes are not lessened because another man committed sins similar in form.

  3. georgesdelatour says:

    The PNAS authors only think of humans as a load to be borne. But humans are also a resource. They are resourceful. Having more and better educated human brainpower available to invent and discover things is an increase in resources.

    • That is half-true. Having more humans does tend to increase the rate of technological progress, provided they are equipped to contribute to it (e.g. are literate, are freed from the necessity of constant manual labor, etc). On the other hand, when there are too many humans, per capita surpluses become too low to support the same fast rates of technological progress, and should the system collapse because of overpopulation and the mechanisms discussed in this post, the technological level regresses. As is usually the case, it is a matter of balance, of optimization.

      • georgesdelatour says:

        So, given that the world population everywhere has grown across the last 100 years, can you give one example of a place where this growth has led to technological regression?

        • Please read what I wrote more carefully. Technology regresses when there is collapse.

          Its rate of growth may slow down when per capita surpluses become low, as happens when a society reaches the level of the carrying capacity of the land, because there are fewer resources to sustain a technology-producing or technology-assimilating class (e.g. see the technological stagnation of 19th century China).

          Granted, at other times Malthusian stresses may stimulate a society to make a successful invention that solves the crisis for a time, such as the start of intensive coal burning in late medieval England forced by deforestation, or the burst in agricultural productivity seen in the mid-Song period of Chinese history. Nonetheless, historically collapses were a more frequent response to prolonged Malthusian stress than innovative spurts that alleviated the carrying capacity crisis.

          • georgesdelatour says:

            Have you read Greg Clark’s “A Farewell To Alms”? As Wikipedia says, the book…

            “discusses the divide between rich and poor nations that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution in terms of the evolution of particular behaviours originating in Britain. Prior to 1790, Clark asserts, man faced a Malthusian trap: new technology enabled greater productivity and more food, but was quickly gobbled up by higher populations. In Britain, however, as disease continually killed off poorer members of society, their positions in society were taken over by the sons of the wealthy, who were less violent, more literate, and more productive. This process of “downward social mobility” eventually enabled Britain to attain a rate of productivity that allowed it to break out of the Malthusian trap.”

            For Clark there’s a massive divide between the pre- 19th century world and later. Only since c.1790 have humans anywhere effectively escaped the Malthusian trap. And the resource which made possible the escape was, basically, greater generalised human intelligence throughout the population. I notice that the examples you give are really from before that Malthusian breakout point.

            The examples of collapse since then are really political rather than “carrying capacity” based – the Russian famines under Stalin and the “Great Leap Forward” under Mao, for instance. The best explanation for these is from Amartya Sen. I think that, more than anyone, Sen is your nemesis, the man you must refute if you are to convince us. Sen shows that there has never been a famine anywhere where the potential famine victims have democratic ability to replace those in power and there is a relatively free press able to highlight their plight. India had famines right up to the moment of independence but hasn’t had a single one since, while China had the worst one in its history under Mao. India’s democracy and China’s lack of it is the key to understanding this.

            • 1. There is a strong historical correlation between education / literacy and growth. In fact I wrote about it here. Literacy increases generalized intelligence. (I do not buy Clark’s explanation for its spread throughout society, however).

              It is true that in most cases Malthusian dynamics largely dissipate soon after a society begins to enter modernity. However, if the more pessimistic energy and climate projections materialize soon enough, they will return. No matter how literate and capital-rich a society is, it is going to starve if there is no liquid fuels to run the machines servicing their food system or if their arable land turns to desert.

              2. Yet today half of India’s children are malnourished, while the figure is much smaller in China and indeed the socialist-like Indian state of Kerala.

              OK, so let’s talk specifically about famines. I do not dispute that when society begins to tinker with traditional market mechanisms or restrict access to food to privileged groups, the risk of famine increases. Liberal democracies tend to prevent either from happening.

              But the future does not always resemble the past. Should food availability go down, will democracy even survive so that we could test Sen’s hypothesis? Furthermore, was it really democracy that prevented post-independence famine in India – or did the Green Revolution have more to do with it?

  4. Interesting.
    I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks and can only say keep up the good work.
    I have just today finished Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

    While it was good, a glaring omission was the lack of references to Russia and the Soviet Union’s collapse and the millions of premature deaths associated with the 90s Yeltsin period. While obviously it was inevitable that the USSR would break up, the way it happened and the millions of casualties since 1991 due to the break up of the state institututions was not covered.
    Interestingly there was also quite a lot on Haiti, written obviously before the earthquake. Then, he was negative about Haiti’s long term futre due to a number of factor’s.

    There’s quite a lot to take in in this article.
    Regarding dictatorship.
    I live in an area of Scotland that has quite a few ‘rednecks’ (the original rednecks in fact, the American ones mostly descended from British and European settlers).

    I would say that the biggest destructive factor to the environment has been evangelical Christianity, particularly the American versions. Where I live in Scotland though, is the last outpost of Calvinism in Britain, and really in Europe, so in essence the culture is quite similar to American rednecks. That is why I have the redneck analogy to describe the populace I live with.Think of all the cultural baggage attached to the stereotype. They are the typical ‘tough guys’, many barely able to string 2 brain cells together. They play around with ‘boys toys’ and have large families. The reason why Calvinism/Evangelicalism is so destructive IMHO is because the idea of being ‘born again’ gives the person license to behave recklessly. Their sins have been absolved and they are ‘saved’, therefore they can behave recklessly, have 8 kids, drive an SUV etc
    In fact the evangelical Christians are actively encouraging overbreeding in America. They see it as a competition so that in 18 years time the offspring will be good Republican voters.

    I unfortunately admit that it is Democracy that gives them the freedom to have 5 kids and drive a gas guzzler. (I believe we are entering a dangerous era as the less intelligent procreate the most– see the film Idiocracry)

    So, back to Dictatorship. If it will stop people from having five kids and driving gas guzzlers and living a wasteful lifestyle, then maybe it is a necessity. These ‘rednecks’ only get these luxuries because they ‘just happened’ to be born into a developed first world country. If they ‘just happened’ to be born into a poorer society, they would be shown for waht they are–uneducated self centred Philistines. (just that we in developed countries assume money is linked to intellect)

    • georgesdelatour says:

      Are you saying democracies have significantly higher birthrates than dictatorships? Could you give evidence for that? South Korea, for instance, has a much lower fertility rate than North Korea. Looking round the world right now, I’d hardly say the western liberal democracies are the countries characterised by incontinent breeding.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      From the data I’ve seen, I’d say Islam, rather than Calvinism, is a better predictor of a high birthrate. Poverty and low female literacy are the best predictors.

      • It’s not even Islam, as you point out, but female literacy / economic development, as well as traditionalist worldviews, access to contraception, and female economic emancipation that are important in determining fertility rates.

        Many Muslim nations are actually already close to or even below the replacement-level TFR of 2.1 – off the top of my head, Tunisia, Iran, and Algeria are all at around 1.7-1.9 now, and many others, even poor ones like Indonesia, Egypt, and Bangladesh, are slowly approaching 2.1.

        Major higher-than-expected TFR values from what could be expected from their GDP per capita can be seen in Saudi Arabia (a socially backward society blessed, or cursed, with an oil windfall) and Israel (the influence of the ultra-conservative Jews). Major lower-than-expected TFR values are seen throughout the post-socialist bloc (1.2-1.6 in the Christian nations), Cuba (1.6), and North Korea (1.9).

        • georgesdelatour says:

          I think we’re in agreement here. I’m not suggesting Islam – per se – leads to high birth rates, merely that you could make a better case for it than for Calvinism. As you note, Iran has already passed the second demographic transition, for instance. Female literacy is the best predictor of birthrates. The higher TFRs in both Israel and the Occupied Territories seem to be a form of ideological “conflict fertility”.

          • Re Calvinism, check this. Though as it looks now much of the West will collapse demographically before the Evangelical/Calvinist demographic revolution arrives to the rescue. Some Western countries seem to be teetering on the brink.

    • napoleonkaramazov,

      If you haven’t already, you may be interested in reading the classic demographic essay The Return of Patriarchy by Phillip Longman – it basically argues that liberal reproductive choices will weed them out in favor of patriarchal conservatives. Though, there’s a lot of criticism of the work, and I can’t say I buy his arguments.

  5. “Are you saying democracies have significantly higher birthrates than dictatorships?”

    No. Only in special cliques in the population, such as evangelical Christians in America who are almost not present in Europe (except for where I live and in inner city areas amongst recent immigrants, usually west Africans)

    The reason I am placing emphasis on these cliques is that as they are the fastest reproducing population in America, more American children will grow up to be rightwing ‘Christian’ (in their view) republicans*, and we all know how they are with the environment. Meanwhile the intellectuals content themselves with one or two children. Frankly I am not sure how America will turn out in the next few decades, it is meant to be a secular republic for people of all regions or lack of them. People like Jews, non Christians, and more liberal Christians like Episcopalians and Lutherans want to preserve the secular state. These people will become outnumbered by the Republican ‘vangies who have 5 or more kids. Or the fact that state organs like the US armed forces are often under the influence of Christianity (witness the Jesus Rifles saga or the chaplains in Afghanistan talking like it’s a holy war, or some US soldiers in Afghanistan handing out Bibles in Pashtun.)
    *(Obviously I am wrong to say EVERY child of rightwing evangelical Christians will become a rigthwing evangelical Christian, but most probably will)

    “From the data I’ve seen, I’d say Islam, rather than Calvinism, is a better predictor of a high birthrate. Poverty and low female literacy are the best predictors.”

    True, but most Islamic people are born in poor countries, so hypothetically ten Indonesian newborns will contribute in their lifetime the same pollution as one or two Western children.

    Of course the countries will probably develop over time and thus they will pollute more when they are older and have more time. But then hopefully birthrates will fall.

    What about poverty in Calvinism…. Poverty of independant thought. Literate perhaps, but still refusing to use contraceptives. Or the ones who claim to be ‘born again’, therfeore thinking they are infalliable and unnacountable in environmental aspects as they are personally saved.

    Finally can I just squeeze in the ones who believe in the rapture, who have no care for the environment because they will floated up to heaven in a few years anyway, once they get the Israelis to build the third temple and a middle eastern nuclear war kicks off or whatever they believe.

    Sorry if I sound anti American. I’m not. There are many Americans who think believers in the above are nutters.

    • I made a comment on this very topic over on The Oil Drum just yesterday… too lazy to reproduce it here… please read it there.

      As far as I can gather from what Kaufmann says, the problem is most acute among ultra-orthodox jews, but spans all the Abrahamic faiths, and is most acute among the “theologically conservative” flavors.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      I don’t have figures to hand, but last time I checked it was Hispanic Americans who had the highest birthrates, and they’re mostly Catholic. The proportion of Americans who claim no religion is actually rising.

      The whole issue of religion in America is interesting, because constitutionally they’re far more aggressively secular than all European countries except France. The consequence is greater religiosity. In England religion has been run like a Nationalised industry (the C of E), and this has led to a decline.

    • ‘Finally can I just squeeze in the ones who believe in the rapture, who have no care for the environment because they will floated up to heaven in a few years anyway, once they get the Israelis to build the third temple and a middle eastern nuclear war kicks off or whatever they believe’

      I don’t know if they really believe any of this. I’m hoping to write a blog post on this topic myself, but I reckon that logic and rationality have created a tortoise/ hare scenario whereby the progressives think because they have data on their side they deserve to win. Maybe, maybe not, but I think that victory goes to those with the most interesting stories rather than those with the best factual research.

  6. Hi Anatoly,

    where to begin… I’ve been mulling these questions myself for some time, and have had many similar thoughts. (I hope long comments are OK?)

    First, I agree totally on the BAU scenario. It is imperative that we stop attempting to grow further, but… that being said… now for something completely different:

    On the matter of carrying capacity; it’s not constant. I think of it as consisting of two components, ‘natural’ cc and ‘technological’ cc. Natural cc is probably declining — for instance, according to Callum Roberts in “The UNNATURAL HISTORY of the SEA”, fish catches peaked in 1988, despite the trend toward ever greater “fishing power” (not just more and bigger vessels, but better fish locating tech etc). Hopefully fish stocks would bounce back in the abscence of today’s grotesque fishing pressure, but that’s no certainty.

    However, technological cc has been and still is increasing, and this has, so far, more than made up for the decline in ncc. But this trend too is reaching limits, most notably the water limit. Genetech can create a drought-tolerant wheat strain, but it cannot create a wheat strain that, when grown in a desert, produces as much grain as wheat grown in well-irrigated fields.

    Also, technological cc is expensive to maintain, in terms of energy, and in terms of Tainterian complexity.

    But given current technological cc, I don’t think humanity today exceeds total carrying capacity.

    Question is, can we maintain cc at the current level?

    The main limiter in the medium/long term is energy.

    And fossil fuels will leave us; oil is at or near a peak, and gas and coal peaks are a handful of decades in the future at best. Roughly 85% of world primary energy comes from FF. Can they be replaced?

    The answer to that is not known… but it is likely yes, with some caveats.

    First, we would not need to replace it all. There is a lot of fat that can be cut before we start to lose essential functions. Of course, if The Market is allowed to do the cutting – by “efficiently balancing supply and demand”, as it were – that might mean die-off right there, for the world’s poor at any rate.

    Secondly, there’s wind power, which likely has an EROEI that beats Canadian tar sands by a comfortable margin, and is very close to being price-competitive with FFs. The potential is huge; not huge enough to replace all (or most) today’s FF use, but enough, I believe, to keep technological civilization going. The main problem here is time; the wind industry is growing rapidly, but even so, for wind to contribute a double-digit percentage of world primary energy will take decades.

    Thirdly, there’s fourth-generation nuclear. There are several promising design types, at least one of which has been tried in what amounts to large-scale laboratory testing – they work. Commercial viability (a lithmus test for a technology’s ability to make a positive contribution) has not been demonstrated, but the estimated EROEIs are very good, and so is the fuel supply. Problem, again, is time. Commercial deployment likely can’t begin before 2030. And then we need time for buildout… but the winds of public sentiment seems to be turning; nuclear is not a taboo topic anymore, and Greenpeace is rethinking its no-nuclear stance. So there is hope.

    I’m rather sceptical of solar, wave, geothermal, bio etc. etc. Hydro in good locations has very good EROEI, but remaining good locations are not plentiful.

    But I do think that if we can stave off collapse for, say, fifty years, then we can stave it off indefinitely. Or at least, then we have the resources to stave off a Cattonian collapse. A Tainterian collapse might still be in the works, though I’m not sold on the inevitability of that.

    So I think quite a lot hinges on just how fast oil declines post-peak. If oil production suddenly plummets (a real possibility — perhaps a likelihood), we might see a fast collapse.

    Also, a factor you did not mention in your essay, we have a de-facto world bureaucracy: The enabler of globalisation, the international finance system. (It could be said that the US dollar’s status as global reserve currency post WW2, and the dominant international state of the US banking system (along with their UK allies), coupled with the free-market ideology, has functioned as the administration of the American Empire. But that would be tin-foil-hattery ;-)

    The global financial system has grown quite a lot in the past decades, in what I consider a classical Tainterian complexity-expansion… and it’s currently on life support. Curbing the too-big-to-fails would indeed be the rational thing to do; but there is more at stake: The small matters of financial hegemony and influence.

    A breakdown in the financial system could be very disruptive (though worst for the US and UK, I think), even to the point of precipitating collapse.

    On a completely different note, I do think the Singularity is still a real possibility, though I do not relish it. As Vinge says in his 1993 essay, it is the End of Humanity.

    Personally, I think of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” as an analogy on the coming of the Singularity.

    And I find that rather unsettling.

    • @KODE,

      Thanks for this excellent post, which I think is excellent because it almost completely correlates with my own beliefs.

      1. I completely agree with your assessments of “natural” and “technological” cc, and I agree too that humanity is far below the “gross cc”. As you point out however the technological component is unstable because it requires continues investments of energy and complexity to function.

      As you are doubtless aware, Catton basically treats technological cc as “phantom carrying capacity”, and the farmlands that produce food only with the help of technological things like fossil-fuel burning machines and pesticides – “ghost acreage”.

      Our goal is to shift phantom cc onto a sustainable basis (i.e. make it into real cc), while preserving as much as possible of what remains of natural cc.

      2. Yes, the main issue will be whether the energy transition can be fast enough to displace declining oil production and plateauing gas & coal production (and a drop from c.2030). The state has to force this transition through if we are to make it on time, which is one of the main ideas behind the “reinforcing resilience” pillar of ecotechnic dictatorship.

      Re-wind. There are different estimates for its EROEI – some as high as 30:1, but others as low as 2:1 (not enough to sustain industrial civilization). I believe that the real hope lies in modern nuclear technology.

      But I do think that if we can stave off collapse for, say, fifty years, then we can stave it off indefinitely.

      Certainly agree with that.

      Re-collapse of the global financial system. I’ve written about the impending collapse of Pax Americana in Shifting Winds, and I have a follow-up article in the works called “Decade Forecast: The Geopolitics of Scarcity Industrialism”.

      My view is that thought this event will certainly trigger big shockwaves, there is no reason for global industrialism – the locus of which is in any case already moving to East Asia – to collapse. The most significant effect will be that the center of global political and economic power will shift from international Western-dominated institutions like the IMF, WTO, and World Bank, to the “walled world” characterized by the statist economic philosophies, Realpolitik foreign policies and bilateral trade arrangements typical of the BRIC’s.

  7. Bro Karamazov says:

    Why do not we choose the freedom – drop the fear of collaple and enjoy the plunge, short and beautiful one like a divine lightning – sublime that is?

  8. A few more criticisms copied over from the thread and my responses.

    Carrying capacity is not fixed but the graph shows that it is. It shows a constant line with a zero slope at 100. The equation is Y = 0X + 100. Carrying capacity is a function of utilized technology and is not fixed or static.

    Estimating carrying capacity is very difficult, especially today when the “utilized technology” is largely embodied in fossil fuel-dependent machines. The flat line is a simplification, and I said as much in the post. I am not alone in doing this, see the PNAS study.

    But we know that carrying capacity – the carrying capacity embodied in fossil fuel-dependent techniques – is a short-term illusion. More useful I think is to look at carrying capacity if we removed the fossil fuels (the actual carrying capacity of the land itself) now, and what it might be with remediation to climax natural ecosystem and/or with horticultural technology. Of course without fossil fuels carrying capacity tends to be more localized, and in my opinion should mostly be studied on the very local level – that is, determining the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem and how many humans that ecosystem can support indefinitely (what we might call “sustainable carrying capacity”).

    You make some very good points, and I believe a global survey of localized carrying capacity should be funded ASAP. Of course, there is also other trends affecting the carrying capacity apart from the “ghost acreage” provided by fossil fuels and the possible application of permaculture technologies to it; e.g., the future effects of climate change. If the worst effects come to pass, we are looking at 1) the collapse of the world’s fisheries due to ocean acidification and 2) the desertification of most of the world’s mid-latitude breadbaskets, leaving only the thin, acidic soils of the polar regions for agriculture.

    So… basically I think the point stands. Real carrying capacity, i.e. that which is truly sustainable, is very hard to quantify on the global level. But I think it is safe to say that we’ve exceeded it quite a while ago. And it follows that one way or another, we have to force ourselves back down.

  9. georgesdelatour says:

    Stewart Brand makes some very interesting points here:

  10. Just to be contrarian: lots of people would define dictatorship as an element of collapse…

    • What’s contrarian about it? Prior to collapse, there will be increasing levels of coercion everywhere, except in anarchic regions that have already collapsed (though even there the major difference will be that coercion will be practiced at a lower level of socio-political complexity). That is due to the simple fact that all political systems, when under increasing stress, tend to rigidify.

      The major element of ecotechnic dictatorship is that its coercion, in so far as absolutely necessary, will be leveraged specifically to prevent and mitigate against collapse. This is in contrast to the kind of coercion seen in pre-collapse traditional authoritarianisms, which will instead focus their coercive apparatus on the protection of the short-term interests of privileged corporate groups.

  11. georgesdelatour says:

    1. I’m intrigued to know why you “don’t buy Clark’s explanation for its spread throughout society”. I’ve just finished reading the book, and the mountain of evidence he brings to bear on that point actually makes it quite a tedious, boring read. I don’t feel qualified to say if he’s right or wrong there, so I’d love you to expand on your criticism.

    2. Kerala is DEMOCRATIC socialist – there has been no Great Leap Forward there, thankfully. Neither the Russian nor the Chinese famines could have happened if the starving had possessed the power to kick out Stalin or Mao through the ballot box. Those leaders’ invulnerability to electoral removal was the necessary (and maybe sufficient?) explanation for both famines.

    3. “I do not dispute that when society begins to tinker with traditional market mechanisms or restrict access to food to PRIVILEGED groups, the risk of famine increases.” Could you expand on this? Are you suggesting the Great Leap Forward was all about starving PRIVILEGED people, like senior Politburo members?

    • 1. According to you, Clark argues that downward genetic drift of traits that made people “less violent, more literate, and more productive”, resulting from differentiated mortality rates across social classes, raised the level of general intelligence in Britain sufficiently so as to kick off the Industrial Revolution.

      OK, a basic objection. Why did this happen in Britain, which had a continuous class-based society for about 1000 years, instead of in much older civilizations which had class-based systems for thousands of years?

      I think I’d prefer to continue believing in more conventional explanations for the origins of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

      2. My main emphasis is not on the “dictatorship” but on its socialist and “ecotechnic” aspects. Preferably it would be democratic socialist, but in practice is will likely have to resort to coercion to maintain itself in power as it carries out the managed decline in material throughput.

      3. Awkward wording. “or restrict access to food to PRIVILEGED groups” = “or grant good access to food only to members of privileged social groups”. I was not arguing with you there.

      Actually when I wrote that I had in mind the tinpot African dictators who use control of the food supply as a tool of political power, granting access to it for privileged groups and denying it to their political enemies. Mao’s and Stalin’s famines were more disasters of planning and conception than intentionally democidal.

      And I repeat the question – was it really democracy that saved India from famine, or the Green Revolution?

  12. Please keep up your excellent and well formed posts. I look forward to many more. You have an excellent informed and academic manner of writing.

  13. You’re overdoing it. The 14th century Malthusian catastrophy in Europe was important for starting the renaissance, but it didn’t do away with the states nor with the social order. And it made lots of happy heirs, plus low yield technologies were abandoned.
    Currently, at least two strong economic powers are steering directly for what looks like a crash. Well, I think they can wheather the storm because we have the technology to expand and use nuclear breeders, sunlight collectors (not solar cells), solar heaters and, last but not least, we have not yet really started to turn the oceans into agricultural fields for growing genetically engineered plants for food and fuel. However, there sure will be a catastrophy concerning the living conditions of many people leading to a cooperate-or-die situation in which the mightyand affluent can help to survive, but at exorbitant costs for the dependant. Steering right into this storm is the best a superpower bent on world domination can do. Sure, a lot of nations will look like Nauru, but there will also be big winners and because they have the power they’re not interested in steering a different course, so your whole plan is an utopia.

  14. It’s one thing to toy with these ideas on the Internet (where the people reading your article are already in the same mindset as you), but put these ideas the the general public and you will simply get laughed off stage. I mean seriously imagine trying to peddle these theories to the general population – what do you imagine the response would be?

    If you want to know what will happen as the world plunges towards the abyss, you have to look at power structures in place now, and try to see the direction they will go over the next years. The evidence does indeed point to increasing state control (because it’s already happening), but that’s coming from very well established institutions, not new kids on the block.

    Popular leadership in the collapse period won’t be offering ecological solutions. They will be the leaders offering protection and security in an increasingly violent and malfunctioning world. For the foreseeable future that’s the current elites. Watch for western society becoming increasingly conservative and fearful. Watch for the rest of the world becoming increasingly hungry and angry. That’s not a recipe for average people in western society wanting to try out new ideas of leadership.

    We will go into lock-down alright, but it won’t be with a happy green aura. It will be our governments strengthening the fence, and doing increasingly nasty things to people outside the fence, all with our tax dollars and our implicit consent. Precisely what we have been seeing more and more of lately.

    • I agree on most points, but think that rising oil prices will lead to a tipping point where technology for consumption of plants as fuel gets much more significance, with additional energy produced by other means. If these are not only fuel, but also basic ingredients for plastic production, we have a viable option to combine economic growth and reduction of global warming. A very important choice would be replacing iron in construction with hydrocarbon or carbon fibers.

      • Do we have enough good land to support growing all this extra fuel and building material? Especially as we are already having difficulties with our food supply (granted it’s supposedly more of a distribution problem right now.. but then we also have to fix that too). Exactly how much would we have to grow to replace what oil we use now (let alone satisfy demand increase)?

        The more I read about this stuff, and the more solutions that people put forth, the more it seems that this is a really complicated global civilization, and the unwinding of it is going to also be very complicated. It’s in that complication that I find some hope actually. Ideas put forth about the reasons why things are collapsing might just be too simple to describe what’s really going to happen.

        In any case, I think what you are referring to _is_ the collapse. If we get to the tipping point where fuel becomes that expensive, we are already in for some chaos. The last time oil did this we had a serious economic crisis that we have not recovered from. The housing bubble burst that’s true, but what was the needle that made it go pop? I do not think its a coincidence that it popped after a hockey stick ramp up in oil prices.

        Interestingly we did see an increased focus on bio fuel before the bubble burst, but that actually had a negative effect on the global situation because it contributed to an increase in the price of food, due to farmers slashing their usual crops in order to grow the stuff.

        But a real worrying thing for me is that the conversation that’s being had about this is only going on in corners of the Internet, and not in public. It’s easy to get caught up in the power of the Internet, but I have never known an important politician to discuss and take action on an issue that had not yet hit the mainstream media. It still has to hit TV news before it’s discussed. The spike in oil prices and the recession has never been discussed as being connected in the mainstream media to my knowledge, yet its discussed all over the place on the Internet. Likewise, Peak Oil has been mentioned only in passing in the mainstream media, and yet I see an increasing number of people referring to Peak Oil in the past tense – it’s already peaked.

        That’s why I find the Ecotechnic Dictatorship concept so strange, because we are so far away from having that discussion, or any like it, in public. We are so far away from pulling out the ballot boxes, or staging a protest about it. We can’t even get our system to use the ballot boxes for simple things, like asking us if we mind having our personal freedoms removed, or if we should send our troops to inconspicuously-oil-related country X.

        • Photosynthesis of plants on land is among the cheapest but least efficient processes for winning energy from sunlight. Algae are by a magnitude more efficient and in the range of solar panels. They don’t need land, so they do hardly compete with food. Salt water covers 70% of the earth or waste processing can be used for fuel production (otherwise organic waste gets ideally fermented, dried and burned with some electricity being derived).
          One problem with biofuel is the use of only very little of these plants biomass. The other problem is that it’s not converted into a component identical or very similar to gas or diesel. Mixing these components to traditional fuels can cause engine failure in unprepared cars. A big biofuel admixture initiative was retracted in Germany because this risk caused a public outcry recently.
          My idea is growing plants as carbon storage devices and then processing them in an energy efficient process (solar powered) into more hydrated carbohydrates (using something like the coal liquefaction processes). That solves the big problem of storing energy where and when available and releasing energy where and when needed. Maybe it’s not the most efficient process, but it’s rather flexible and allows with slight adaption to keep running our current system.
          The big advantage of biofuel is that you create an energy cycle that by economic growth increases its carbon storage. Even better are current experiments at turning plants into plastic and thus getting carbon out of the atmosphere.
          At least I’m very sure that we have ample opportunities to run a greener economy, but so far economic pressure wasn’t hard and long enough for a change.
          Fuel vs food is a debate because this world is constructed to keep small farmers in Africa dependent on food supply in a marginal economy where they have to grow cash crops. The last shock changed things little by little and in a few decades they’ll be rather independent.

  15. John Smith says:

    Sustainable retreat is not the only option. Incase anyone reading this is not educated in environmental studies, these projections are not accurate. The standard projection accepted by the environmental community is Jaccards 2005 assessment. If you want to read about another possible solution check out Mark Jaccard’s book Sustainable Fossil Fuels.

  16. Let me remind you of the Haber-Bosch process (invented about 1915) which uses natural gas (CH4+) to create nitrogen fertilizer, which dramatically increased agriculture yields, and dramatically increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth.

    Within a year, a new clean, very very cheap, and super abundant energy technology is going to emerge onto the market, dramatically increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth.

    Check out this third-party verification of a LENR reactor that will soon hit the market:
    “Given the deliberately conservative choices made in performing the measurement, we can reasonably state that the E-Cat HT is a non-conventional source of energy which lies between conventional chemical sources of energy and nuclear ones.” (i.e. about five orders of magnitude more energy dense than gasoline, and a COP of almost 6).

    This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers:

    “LENR has the demonstrated ability to produce excess amounts of energy, cleanly, without hazardous ionizing radiation, without producing nasty waste.” – Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA Langley Research Center

    “Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry.” –Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

    By the way, here is a survey of some of the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization:

    For those who still aren’t convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence:

    One of the largest semi-conductor manufacturers in the world ST Microelectronics with an annual turnover of $8 Billion has just filed a patent for a LENR reactor, joining the list of companies in the LENR business:

    Brad Arnold
    3033 Monterey Av
    St Louis Park, MN 55416
    [email protected]

  17. Your long-winded and erudite post summarizes the future that we can expect if nothing is done about Climate Change and Global Warming. CO2 is already at 400 PPM and will climb rapidly when China and India come on line. For over 33 years I have proposed a :Free Lunch solution to Global Warming which also proposes how to pay for it without increasing current US taxes or increasing the National Debt. My proposal is presented below, and all my points can be justified in my 37 slide Power Point presentation, which I have sent to US and international “Movers and Shakers” without obtaining a single cogent response or rebuttal.


    Many articles have been circulated summarizing the case that we must do something about climate change. Unfortunately nothing will be done because of fossil fuel providers’ lobbying and the fact that any serious efforts at reducing climate change cost large amounts of money (i.e. taxes). Presented below is my proposal for a “free lunch” solution to climate change,:

    We can use the Saudi Arabian Model, where its citizens and workers are subsidized generously by the profitable energy receipts of the Saudi government.

    The US can achieve this model without increasing taxes or increasing the National Debt, by implementing a proposal I have made to US Movers and Shakers and the Media for over 33 years, without receiving any cogent response or rebuttal.

    My proposal, defined in detail in a 37 slide Power Point presentation, which is available on request, would build a solar power station on the moon in ten years in which concentrated solar thermal energy obtained from parabolic concentrators fabricated from lunar materials is converted to electricity by Stirling Cycle generators invented and developed in the 19th century and operating in current solar systems in California. This project would be paid for by diverting a portion of the funds from the bloated, already-funded, US Defense Procurement Budget to the same companies and workers receiving them now. As calculated in the Power Point presentation, this power station would beam 21 trillion kilowatt hours/year of totally clean electric energy to the earth 24/7, using the proven technology of microwave power beaming, which passes through cloud cover. This energy would represent only 10% of the yearly world energy use in 2020. At the current average electricity rate of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, the US Treasury would receive $2.5 trillion per year forever, which would eliminate budget deficits, while funding an infrastructure program on steroids.

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