Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Pleasures of Extinction

One of the wry pleasures that’s repeatedly come my way since the beginning of this blog seven years ago is that of watching a good many of my predictions come true in short order. Now it’s true that I’ve also made a certain number of failed predictions over that time.  Back in 2007 and 2008, for instance, I insisted that the US government wouldn’t be dumb enough to try to cover its ballooning budget deficits by spinning the printing presses; some idiocies, I thought, were too extreme even for the inmates of the current American political class.  As th Fed proceeds merrily through yet another round of quantitative easing, that assumption has proved to be rather too naive.

Even so, my batting average so far has been pretty respectable. In the early days of this blog, for example, Daniel Yergin was insisting at the top of his lungs that the price of oil would settle down shortly to a long-term plateau of $38 a barrel, while fans of a dozen different alternative technologies were claiming just as stridently that if the price of oil ever got to the unthinkable level of $60 a barrel, the technology they favored would be profitable enough to sweep all before it. There were very few of us back then who predicted that oil would go quite a bit past $60 a barrel and stay there, and even fewer who pointed out that abundant cheap fossil fuel energy made alternatives look much more viable than they were. These days, with oil wobbling around $100 a barrel and most of the alternatives still wholly dependent on government subsidies, that turned out to be tolerably prescient.

Over the last few weeks, another of my predictions has turned out spot on the money. A little less than six months ago, as New Age bookstores around the world were quietly emptying entire bookshelves dedicated to December 21, 2012 and putting 50%-off stickers on the contents, I noted in a blog post here that it wouldn’t be long before people who were looking for an excuse to put off doing anything about the crisis of industrial society would have a replacement for 2012.

Well, it’s here. The latest apocalyptic fad is near-term human extinction, or NTE for short: the claim that humanity, along with most other life on Earth, will inevitably be extinct by 2030 at the latest.

It’s probably necessary to say up front that humanity will certainly go extinct eventually—no species lasts forever—and there’s always the chance that it could happen in short order; a stray asteroid with enough mass, or a few rearranged codons in some virus nobody’s heard about yet, could do the job quite readily. Still, there’s a great difference between claiming that human extinction is possible and insisting that it’s certainly going to happen in the next seventeen years, especially when the arguments used to defend that claim amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome.

There’s a tolerably long history to such claims. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were people on the far end of the environmental movement who insisted that humanity would certainly be extinct before the year 2000, and the same prediction has been repeated with different dates and justifications ever since. Those of my readers who remember the Solar Temple mass suicides of 1994 and 1995 may recall that the collective suicide note left behind by the members of that ill-fated order made exactly that claim:  Earth would be uninhabitable by the year 2000, Solar Temple founder Luc Jouret insisted, and so the initiates of the Solar Temple were getting out while the getting was good.

In the early days of the peak oil movement, similarly, the same insistence on imminent extinction popped up tolerably often. I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that this was largely a product of an odd and very American habit I’ve termed "apocalypse machismo."  One consequence of America’s pervasive anti-intellectualism, with its frankly weird equation of manhood with chest-thumping brainlessness, is that many male American intellectuals end up burdened by doubts about their own masculinity, and some of them respond by trying to talk as tough as possible; intellectual women in this male-dominated culture find they often have to copy that same habit, sometimes to even greater extremes, in order to get taken seriously at all.  This has been a major factor all through America’s recent history; the neoconservative movement, packed as it was with academic intellectuals whose obsession with proving their own virility on a global stage drove them into one foreign policy fiasco after another, makes as good a poster child as any.

In the same way, we had a lot of apocalypse machismo in the early peak oil movement.  In the first few years of this blog, for that matter, I could count on fielding (and deleting) a comment every month or two from somebody who wanted to talk about the new scenario for imminent human extinction he’d just worked up. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown fielded a bumper crop of the same thing; those of my readers who doubt this are invited to go digging back through the archives of any unmoderated peak oil forum, where they’ll find, in the days and weeks immediately following each of these disasters, colorful if implausible scenarios predicting the imminent demise of all life on earth presented as sober fact.

No doubt there’s at least some of that at work in the sudden surge of interest in near-term human extinction, but I question whether it’s the main driving force this time around. There are at least two other factors that are likely to be involved, and one of them unfolds directly from the points made in the last few posts in the current sequence.

The shape of time sketched out by Augustine of Hippo in the pages of The City of God, and adopted thereafter by most of the western world until the rise of the later mythology of perpetual progress, allows a range of variations. Even within the mainstream of western Christianity, the options extend over a much broader landscape than most of my readers may realize, and the versions of the Augustinian mythos found outside the Christian mainstream are even more diverse.  In his useful 1998 book Millennium Rage, sociologist Philip Lamy argued that most beliefs about the future in today’s America are "fractured apocalypses," in which the events foretold in the Book of Revelation are pulled out of context and rearranged in response to contemporary social trends.

His insight can be applied a good deal more generally: the whole Augustinian story has been subjected to similar treatment. Eden, the Fall, the vale of tears, the righteous remnant, the redeeming revelation, the rising struggle between good and evil, the final catastrophe and the return to paradise thereafter—you’ll find these, or most of these, in a great many current belief systems, but the order and relative importance of each element may vary, and it’s far from uncommon for one or two of the classic themes of the story to be stretched nearly out of recognition, or deleted entirely.

One detail that often comes in for serious reworking in modern social movements is the final step, the one in which the elect are welcomed back into paradise while everyone else is herded into the lake of fire to be punished for all eternity.  The habit of morphological thinking discussed earlier in this sequence of posts is of crucial importance here: take a close look at the development over time of social movements that embrace the Augustinian narrative, and the historical shifts in that last part of the story have a fascinating message to communicate.

The wave of Christian fundamentalism that’s currently breaking and flowing back out to sea makes a good case in point. Back in the days of the Jesus People and the Good News Bible, when that wave first began building, its rhetoric was triumphant: the whole nation was turning to Christ, the rest of the world would surely follow, and the imminent Second Coming would see everyone but a few stubborn sinners rushing forward joyfully to embrace God’s infinite love. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the proportion between the saved and the damned shifted significantly closer to the sort of thing you’d hear in an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone sermon, but the saved were still utterly convinced of their own salvation:  those were the days when "In Case Of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unoccupied" bumper stickers sprouted on the rear ends of cars all over America.

You won’t see too many of those bumper stickers these days. Just as the optimistic faith that a new generation could win the world for Christ gave way gradually to the far more pessimistic vision of a world mired in wickedness from which the elect would shortly be teleported to safety—beamed up by St. Scotty, as the joke had it, to the bridge of the USS Enterchrist—so the serene confidence on the part of believers that they would be numbered among the elect has been replaced, in these latter days of the movement, by an increasingly pervasive sense of sin and unworthiness. Too many dates for the Rapture have come and gone, too many once-respected preachers have been caught with their pants around their ankles in one sense or another, and the well-founded suspicion that the Republican party is using the evangelical churches every bit as cynically and shamelessly as the Democratic party is using the environmental movement has got to weigh on a lot of once-hopeful minds. 

Christian theology places hard limits on just how far the exclusion from future blessedness can extend, as there has to be "a great multitude, which no man could number" (Revelations 7:9) of the saved gathered around the throne of God when the boom comes down. Outside Christianity, the same process routinely goes much further. A good example is the New Age movement, which emerged out of a variety of older fringe spiritualities right around the same time that the current round of Christian fundamentalism got going in America. The early days of the New Age movement were pervaded by the same optimistic sense that a new and more enlightened epoch was about to dawn, and everyone—even, or especially, those who made fun of the movement’s pretensions—would soon fall in line.

As the movement matured and the New Age stubbornly refused to arrive, in turn, the same mood shift that affected fundamentalism had a comparable impact; New Age teachers began to talk more about the ascension of enlightened individuals into higher planes of being, the activities of evil powers who were maintaining the illusion of a world of limits, and the imminence of a world-cleansing cataclysm that would finally get around to ushering in the New Age. By the time the hoopla began building over 2012, finally, the prophecies trotted out in advance of that much-ballyhooed nonevent ranged all over the map; there were still optimists of the old school, who insisted that a great shift in consciousness would make everyone get around to agreeing with them; there were many more who expected mass death to leave the world purified for the usual minority of the elect; and there were no small number who were retailing scenarios in which the entire human race would be exterminated.

This is a familiar rhythm in the history of American popular spirituality.  At regular intervals, some movement that’s existed out on the fringes for decades suddenly gets a mass following, turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and has thirty to forty years of popularity before it returns to the fringes. Some traditions repeat the process; Christian fundamentalism has had two periods of pop stardom—once between the Roaring Nineties and the Great Depression, and then again from the late 1970s to the present—and a strong case could be made that the New Age movement is a rehash of the vogue for occultism that was so huge a part of American pop culture between 1890 and 1929. Other movements fill the void when the ones just named head for the fringes; from the 1930s to the 1970s, liberal Christian churches were a dominant force in American religion, and there’s some reason to think that the pendulum is headed the same way again as fundamentalism sunsets out a second time.

If human beings were rational actors, as economists like to imagine, they wouldn’t respond to the disconfirmation of their beliefs by postulating world-wrecking catastrophes. Here as elsewhere, though, the fond fantasies of economists stand up poorly as models for predicting events in the real world. If you haven’t had the experience of devoting decades of your life to a failed belief system, dear reader, try to put yourself into such a person’s shoes.  It would take a degree of equanimity rare even among saints to look back on such an experience without harvesting a bumper crop of resentment, grief and guilt—and if fantasies of apocalyptic destruction play any role at all in your belief system, one way to deal with those difficult emotions in their first and rawest forms is to pour them into a belief in some cataclysm big enough to punish the world and everyone in it for their failure to live up to your hopes.

The environmental movement is not a religion, but its course in America in recent decades followed the pattern I’ve just outlined. Like fundamentalism and the New Age movement, it came in from the fringe in the 1970s with the same sense of imminent triumph that guided the other movements I’ve named. Its transformation from a charismatic movement of outsiders to a set of bureaucratic institutions closely intertwined with the existing order of society followed the same trajectory as fundamentalist churches, and its sense of triumphant expectancy faded out at roughly the same pace, replaced by the same struggle against evil that brought fundamentalist Christians into their devil’s pact with the GOP and inspired New Age believers to embrace conspiracy theories and the paranoid fantasies of David Icke.

At this point, roughly in parallel with fundamentalism and the New Age, the environmental movement is having to come face to face with the total failure of its hopes. Back in the heady days of its early successes, the vision that guided it saw environmental protection as the next step forward in the same trajectory of social progress that included the civil rights movement and second wave feminism; it was in this spirit, for example, that environmental lawyers proposed that trees be given legal standing. The hope all along was that industrial civilization could achieve a permanent peace with the world of nature and continue up the infinite road of progress without leaving a scorched and looted planet in its wake.

That hope is dead. If there was ever a chance to achieve it, it went whistling down the wind decades ago, and at this point the jaws of resource depletion and environmental degradation are tightening around the collective throat of the world’s industrial societies, in exactly the fashion predicted in detail forty years ago in the pages of The Limits to Growth. Even if the green technologies promoted by an increasingly frantic minority of environmentalists could support something like today’s rates of energy use, which they can’t, we can no longer afford the sort of massive buildout of those technologies that would be necessary to supplant even a significant part of our current fossil fuel consumption. If what’s left of the environmental movement managed to overcome its own internal dysfunctions and the formidable opposition of its foes, and became a mass movement again, the most it could accomplish at this point would be the protection of some of the most vulnerable ecosystems as industrial society stumbles down the first bitter steps of the long descent into the deindustrial future.

That’s still a goal worth achieving, but it’s not the goal to which the environmental mainstream committed itself when it embraced a role among the socially acceptable institutions of American public life, with the perks and salaries that this status involves.  This explains, I suggest, the way that certain mainstream environmentalists have turned to proselytizing for nuclear power and other frankly ecocidal technologies, under the curious delusion that "possibly a little better than the worst" somehow amounts to "good."  The desperation in such rhetoric is palpable, and signals the end of the road—an end that, in this case as in the others I’ve cited, involves a good many fantasies of total destruction.

Still, there’s another factor here, and it unfolds from one of the least creditable aspects of the way that the environmental movement has evolved over time. It has become increasingly clear that the perks, the salaries, and the comfortable middle class lifestyles embraced so enthusiastically by so many people in the movement are themselves part of the problem. I was intrigued to read earlier this month a thoughtful essay by leading British climate scientist Kevin Anderson arguing, in terms that will sound very familiar to regular readers of The Archdruid Report, that the failure of climate change activism to make any headway in changing people’s behavior may have more than a little to do with the fact that the people who are urging such changes aren’t making them themselves.

I have no reason to think that Anderson reads my blog or, for that matter, knows me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox, but then you don’t need to wear an archdruid’s funny hat to notice that people these days are acutely sensitive to signs of hypocrisy, or to grasp that even the most vital changes aren’t going to happen if even the people who are most aware of their importance aren’t willing to start making them in their own lives.  For reasons a post last year discussed at some length, those who have built their lives on the fantasy that it’s possible to have their planet and eat it too are not going to find such reflections welcome, or even bearable.

Fantasies of imminent human extinction are one comforting if futile response to this ugly predicament. If you want a justification for living as though there’s no tomorrow, insisting that in fact, there’s no tomorrow is certainly one option. If I’m right, the pleasures of believing in near-term human extinction are likely to appeal to a very large and well-heeled audience in the years immediately ahead, and those of my readers interested in cashing in on the next 2012-style bonanza should probably take note.

240 comments:

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Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Great post. Years back I used to work in a transport company. The guys worked in the yard were by and large exceptionally polite and pleasant to deal with. The guys in the office on the other hand were so insecure about their masculinity that there was constant chest beating and general silly alpha male stuff. Needless to say I didn't waste much time there...

I won’t even make jokes about why some guys need such large vehicles to drive around, as those jokes are probably inappropriate for this forum.

I was saddened to read of people like Sir James Lovelock and George Monbiot (to name a few that quickly came to mind, but for no particular reason) of their support for nuclear energy. You know the other day, I was hassled again by collectors for an environmental organisation. They didn’t like the hard questions I posed to them and it got kind of uncomfortable. Oh well.

I planted out about 200 cuttings of comfrey today. It is worth noting that fruit trees with comfrey as a support species performed better this summer than any other. A truly amazing plant.

Regards

Chris

PRiZM said...

It's not only Americans who can respond en masse to naive insistence from popular people, government, or scientists.. During the Fukishima disaster, someone in China mentioned how iodized salt would help protect people from nuclear radiation. Where I live, there wasn't a store around who had iodized salt on hand for a week. In the face of adversity, people are too happy to hope in easy solutions. Even if the easy way out involves dying.

Mister Roboto said...

Well, it has been difficult not to notice Guy McPherson doing his demented Paul Revere thing on various and sundry doomer-blogs of late.

PRiZM said...

Thanks for providing another example of morphological thinking. I think this time I was able to apply it myself in some context with the thinking you've provided. Using America as an example again, I can see how capitalism has Biblical parallels, with paradise having a select few (those who work hard, even if from humble origins) can reach their paradise (being rich). The classic American dream therefore would be a product of the Augustinian shape of time.

JMG, even with all your pointing out of the ignorance and stupidity in America, I've been very grateful for this blog during my past three years in China. It's actually given me a greater appreciation for my country origin, in fact, even a greater love.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, it's common knowledge among young women in the Pacific Northwest (several of whom mentioned this to me) that the bigger a truck a young man drives, the less he has to drive with in a certain other sense. I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that a similar rule applies on your side of the planet -- and it's interesting to speculate what that says about those of us who don't feel the need to own a motor vehicle at all. ;-)

PRiZM, yes, I read about that!

Mister R., funny. I'd wondered if there was one person primarily pushing the meme, or if it had a broader base; I still expect to see it become a cause celebre in the next few years -- and come 2030, there'll doubtless be some other excuse for inaction.

PRiZM, thank you; that's high praise. It seems very unfortunate to me that in the US, patriotism has been redefined as a bizarre sort of collective egotism; just as you can love your family while remaining aware of its failings, scandals, and ongoing problems, and without deluding yourself into thinking that it's the best family in the world, you can love your country while remaining fully aware of its checkered history, its serious current problems, and the mess of trouble waiting for it in the not too distant future, and without mindlessly shouting "We're number one!" any time anybody else points out one of the places where it's fallen short of its ideals.

Gary Shannon said...

As uncomfortable as it is to have my fantasy of NTE questioned (and yes, you have brought me to the point of seriously questioning that possible future) why should I be convinced that your own fantasy of "the long descent into the deindustrial future." is any more likely. It seems to me that climate change could plausibly undergo a sudden state transition that would make our way of life unworkable, and that such a transition could happen in decades if not in years.

I have no doubt our future will be deindustrial. That much is a no-brainer. I'm just not convinced that the planet will continue to be able to support the human species. I hope that some of us make it through the bottleneck. But I certainly won't be one of them. And I'm old enough that whatever happens will take place after I'm gone, so I have no personal skin in the game. I still think NTE is a possibility.

Ruben said...

Pfft. Near Term Extinction is crap! Mid-term Radical Depopulation is clearly where it is at!

John Michael Greer said...

Gary, I've detailed here and in my books the reasons why I consider a ragged, stairstep process of decline to be the most likely future ahead of us. You're free to disagree with that thesis, of course. As for skin in the game, that depends on your own ethics and concern for future generations, I suppose.

Ruben, no argument with your latter point. Seven billion people on a planet that can support maybe one billion indefinitely is not a recipe for population stability.

Nathan said...

JMG,

Just yesterday I was greedily drinking in Guy McPherson talks on Near-Term Extinction - aka. NTE. (It's rather cavalier to turn a phrase so existential into an acronym!) I really appreciate the perspective.

I'm an environmentalist. By that I mean someone who's internalized that humans are animals wholly dependent and limited by natural systems. As a result I've gone the path of small-scale organic farmer; resiliency and community building being my chosen preoccupations.

It's taken me a while to get to that place though and it doesn't take much to be drawn into a frenzy about something like near-term extinction. The work of daily life and the slow, non-digital pace of real world accomplishment cannot compete with the instant flash, bang and excitement of all the ideas flowing from the internet into my brain.

Thank-you for the timely whiplash.

I'd like to bring up your point about the hypocrisy of those who challenge the status-quo. By many people's measure I've chosen a life that's closer to living within Nature's limits than some. I still have a car, still eat chocolate, still participate in the global economy. Each year I do better, each year I'm able to create more behavior that is healthy and more exciting than the deleterious ones associated with the consumer economy. Eating locally and in-season is the only option for me, not because of some ideological stance but because local, in-season food is just SO MUCH better than the alternative provided by the industrial economy. When I ask myself, "what more can I do? What is right?" The answer is invariably - "Quit and create something better." Meaning: quit your job, quit money, quit 'consuming,' quit industrial economy. "...And create," meaning: create community events, create music, create food with integrity, create debt strike, create a new possible way of being for those around you.

My internal answer seems impossible to live up to and I feel this is the same problem that everyone living INSIDE industrial civilization comes to. "It's too hard." "I can't. I have X responsibility." Industrial civilization is killing our future off and yet we cannot walk away, like addicts in full knowledge of their addiction, still helpless.

I have compassion for the hypocrites because I'm one too. Degrees of difference in our choices do matter in a tangible way for the planet - biking is better than driving for instance. But we will never "arrive" at "perfection." We are like fish in water, we swim in our culture, our context and even when we realize it's all around us, all an illusion we cannot extricate ourselves from it. We become Cassandras, lamenting and being derided for moral imperfection.

All I am left with is my daily choices: Can I drive? Can I walk? Do I need this purchase? Do I WANT it and damn the consequence? Sometimes I choose well, sometimes I fail but I also choose to have compassion for myself. Tying your personal choices to the broader choices of society as a whole is an awful burden, maybe a trap.

I'm not sure what my point is but I know there's something important for me to explore here. Thanks for the space to share.

PRiZM said...

Nathan,

I think you make a great point that many people probably have in common. Living in this globalized world while trying not to connect with it and drink in some of its cancerous elixir. My wife, being a Russian, is constantly telling me about the writings of Vadim Zeland. She managed to find one in English for me and in it he made some interesting points, and an analogy to this globalized world, with the constant barrage of media, advertising, news, etc being a machine, a machine that has evolved into an artificial intelligence and now is continuing deeper into this downward spiral. He likens it to the Matrix.

One way to get out is through community. Whether that community be a spiritual community, or what-not is your choice. The important thing is having the discipline to wake up every morning and realize what your value, and try to analyze everything we take in during the day and compare it with our values.

Snoqualman said...

Having been a "treehugger" for decades now, I can report that IMHO the worst thing to happen to the enviro movement is its "professionalization," i.e., the fact that foundations and their money have turned it into a giant bureaucracy that depends on ever more money coming in and spends most of its time and effort making sure that happens.

They are not necessarily bad people, but they are bureaucratized, with all that implies, mostly for bad. I will admit that, as a volunteer, I don't much like them. What I find hardest to forgive is that they have managed to take most of the fun out of something that was quite enjoyable for many of us.

I would venture to say it's almost a law of nature, the effectiveness of any enviro organization is inversely proportional to the amount of money they bring in.

Leo said...

Going over failed predictions is something too rarely done.

I've never heard anyone actually justify the NTE idea, sea level rise is only 2-3 metres over the next century and 6 metres over the next two under the IPCC's report. Since they don't take into account fuel depletion, the figures could easily be a bit high.

Not a big deal when compared to the 10-15 metres I normally hear quoted. Still not good.

And then there's the temperature rise, a few degrees over a century. Compared to over changes its quite a small one that's quite spread out. Damaging, painful, destructive but not apocalyptic.

Robert Martini said...

John Michael Greer,

I feel at this point I have arrived comfortably at your conclusion that the future will follow a catabolic collapse. Many sudden shocks will happen but overall we will see as we have seen throughout history. One civilization will feed off the others remains just as a honey fungus feeds off the decaying colossus of an old oak tree. If other readers need any clue that this is more likely than a quick die off scenario, one only need realize our food production is less than 1% of our energy usage. We have a lot of purse factories, container ships and other nonsensical widget energy expenditures to cut before we die off in some ridiculous zombie filled tragedy. Look to history rather than fantasy for examples of catabolic collapse.

While my logical understanding of likely future outcomes seems solid, my value based interpretation has been skinned and gutted by your recent posting. How does a catabolic collpase play out with how I myself interact with this world? I used to take to the indulgence of waiting for a grand schism which would leave the world silent with mouths open in awe at the events unfolding on tvs and radios around the world. After this event, the world would have a paradigm shift in which "moral progress" could be made to a more community based environmentally friendly future under which ecosystems could begin to heal. This is falling for the anti-progress view of a hopeful apocalypse, followed by the gradual return to Eden. This is ironically, a story of anti-progress followed by "moral progress" I realize is a fantastical mental hallucination. I know you are going to get at the reasons we humans devise grand narratives with which to ascribe time, history and our lives, which should be a lovely series of post!
A while back you talked about how the view of suffering in Christianity in Medieval Europe seemed to keep violence much lower than it would have been. This got me thinking with an infectious idea, one that I couldn't shake. Once I worked through some of the mental valleys and jungles, I realized. We are forsaken to always see the world through gods, stories of our ancestors and abstract association whether through the eyes of science, progress, Christianity or Islam. If you should choose a value based philosophy, civil religion or purpose of life? Why not choose, the only value based system which is actually sustainable? The only way we humans can keep from destroying nature and our own livelihoods in the process is by holding sacred our own lifeblood. Nature in the form of the; pines, oaks, the black bears, the trout, the birds, the insects, all of it. I have a feeling you will go more into this, but there is a very different mechanism involved in holding something sacred, rather than economically regulating it? I think that is why you worship nature because it is the only way to keep the lifeless deserts consuming all that is human? I mean, Ozymandias King of King's worshiped power and all it got him was a broken statue in the middle of a desert, depending on your view of time.

irishwildeye said...

Thanks for the link to Kevin Anderson’s blog. As someone who no longer drives a car and does long journeys on a bicycle (I cycled 640 miles from my home in Ireland to the East of England and back last Sepember to do a bicycle mechanic course) I really enjoyed Anderson’s post. It’s easy to jump in a car and do 100 miles without thinking, but doing 100 miles on a bicycle requires some thought and planning, like asking do I really need to do this journey.

Your point about "the comfortable middle class lifestyles embraced so enthusiastically by so many people in the movement" really resonated with me. I have a relation who fits this description exactly, he believes he is saving the world by driving a 2 ton car because it is a new "low emissions" model and because he has energy saving light bulbs in his 4000 square foot house.

shands said...

Hi John

Am a long time absorber of your posts but a first time responder this week.
I have been tracking the path of Industrial decline for many years through such elegant writers as yourself, Dmitry Orlov, JH Kunsler, Mike Ruppert, Guy McPherson to name drop a few.

As a direct result of this, I gave up my long time career as a firefighter in the UK to live a simpler (but much harder)life managing a small plot of land in northern France (with my brother, his wife and their two year old daughter)along permaculture principles.

Where possible, I have decoupled from industrial society (with the small caveat that i still use the internet, a computer and have access to; but rarely used; motor transport).

My process has been to tread as lightly as possible on the land, using only hand tools for such tasks as cultivation, woodland management and hard landscaping.

I have been hoping, if that is the right term, for a slow descent so that we can adapt to the ongoing changes to our biosphere and learn the mitigation strategies for a post industrial existence.

Recent information coming from various sources sadly paints an even worse short term scenario which ties in nicely with this weeks post.

The date for near term human extinction at or around 2030, probably comes from this study; http://arctic-news.blogspot.fr/p/global-extinction-within-one-human.html
It postulates extinction in the northern hemisphere for 2031 and the southern hemisphere for 2047.

The above paper is pretty heavy reading.

We will probably not have to wait for 17 years to experience rapid, non linear, unpredictable feedbacks to the climate system. The Arctic Methane Emergency Group; hardly a "doomer" site; suggests an ice free arctic by 2015, perhaps as early as this year.http://www.ameg.me/

Methane release from clathrate decomposition has already gone exponential.

From my many years working as a firefighter i have become accustomed to crisis management and consideration towards Worst Case Planning Scenarios. This analytical approach certainly kept me alive in many incidents.

I spent so many years agitating, educating and organising within the fire service as a Safety/Union man that, in equal measures, was received very well and/or treated like a Cassandra figure.

Apocalyptic dates aside, when the Arctic sea ice disappears, all bets are off. We truly live in interesting times.....

yours with the greatest respect

Andy

Øyvind Holmstad said...

I first want to thank you for this immensely informative series on civil religion!

It is calculated that humans use of the total amount of the photosynthesis is currently between 30 - 50 percent:

Vitousek, P.M., et al., Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science, 1997. 277(5325): p. 494-499.

With the current trend of human and economic growth humans will in 40 years lay hold on 100 percent of the world's plant production.

Then there will be no food left to other species than homo sapiens, and the world's ecosystems will collapse, and following this humans will go extinct as well.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Hi Gary and Nathan,
One thing I find missing from a lot of environmental discussions is the idea of 'homeostasis.' It is certainly true that industrial civilization has converted kazillions of tons of carbon from inert storage in coal and oil to Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. However, plants are actively using it to create other carbon (cellulose and sugars) and also that highly reactive elemental byproduct that we call 'oxygen.'
Now that we have burned a little more than half of that carbon reserve, and are all being forced to use less and less of it with each passing decade, I get some hope from the idea that the plants will be able to catch up with the oversupply of CO2 and bring everything back to a new homeostatic balance. We might eventually end up with higher oxygen levels in our atmosphere, as well as an environment more friendly to plants! :-)

Of course, this may uncover the _real_ conspiracy; What if the Plants are the actual driving force behind the development of civilization? What if Plants coaxed the development of chimps into oil drillers, using us to recover and burn the vast carbon resources buried in the last couple of meteor strikes? And when we have pulled up the last drop of oil and burned the last lump of coal, what further use will the Plants have for us? Grim questions indeed! 'Cherokee Organics,' watch your back when tending your comfrey--The Plants could turn on you at any time...

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Somebody pointed out that the standard reply from those who acknowledge something of the logic of resource depletion is either: "They'll think of something", or "I will be dead before it happens".
It certainly has been that way for many of my contacts here in Britain.
(There is of course a large elderly brigade here that insists that there is more than enough coal still left under Britain, and we can go back to the old days.)
Climate Change as a subject is not such a big deal here in Britain– we seem to be quite good at ignoring things, or at least not discussing them – but can bring up questions about the evidence having been exaggerated; with the addition of: “We can never predict the future”. For some, the record weather events in their youth prove the point. Almost everybody who might have concern, including climate scientists appear conflicted (very irrational) about what they personally do about it.
That ‘wind power’ cannot ‘solve’ the problem is waved by some triumphantly as victory for the tourist business in rural areas ,or more generally as some kind of affirmation in defence of a fantasy ‘agrarian idyll with modern conveniences’. This is a crowded island with mega cities and metropolitan areas, way above local ‘carrying capacity’.
Phil H

Odin's Raven said...

Considering the cycles of time, although not strictly relevant to this week's post, perhaps one may be permitted to cycle back to an earlier discussion of war-bicycles.

Here's a beautifully illustrated tongue in cheek article about the role of bicycles in medieval chivalry with the heraldry of the Knights of the Sun and of the Moon, and of the 'little known' depictions of bicycles by Renaissance masters.

The account of the discovery and reconstruction of archaeological remains at Chateau Gaillard is also fascinating.

Even if humanity becomes extinct the cycles of time and their traces will remain.

In Velox Libertas

Richard Larson said...

Well, just got an email from an organization asking to join in a protest with the potential to get arrested. Even though I am highly interested in this "defund the oil industry before the Earth dies" movement, I guess the guy in the funny hat might be right about such extreme thinking. The trend is; the population of humans are becoming more addicted to oil and its in doubt whether $200 a barrel, or climactic changes, are going to stop the flow. Not owning any of the oil company shares is a good idea, going to jail isn't.

In vien of your idea about taking advantage, I'll spend more time studying permaculture (instead of arguing with a judge) and become a consultant to that frightened upper middle class that can be convinced they can produce a garden of eden in their backyard. The next best thing to going to heaven!

The beginning of this summer has been very busy already, learning about and planting all types of perennial plants/bushes/trees that bear fruit. I wish you could see the blue and goose berry plants springing its branches upward in loving its place in the balsam fir hugelbed. :-)

Shakya Indrajala said...

This post brings to mind a Tolkien quote:

Morgoth's Ring:

"To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it. Sauron, apparently a defeated rival for world-power, now a mere hostage, can hardly propound himself; but as the former servant and disciple of Melkor, the worship of Melkor will raise him from hostage to high priest."

I wonder if the defeated environmentalists pushing nuclear energy (which is complete opportunism) will obtain for themselves great power and status beyond what they have now by virtue of promoting "sustainable" decadence to a population that wants an excuse for their pillaging of the earth. They can elevate themselves by being the front people saying how "green" it is. Their orthodox sanction of an industry which will make use of them will see that they become that "unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits".

Robo said...

The "Whole Earth Catalog" was my reference book in the pre-internet '70s and '80's. Lately Stewart Brand has been an advocate of nuclear power. Bill McKibbon flies around in airplanes to denounce carbon emissions. Then there's Al Gore..
At least you 'walk the walk' as much as you can. I appreciate the historically tested and detached perspective that your point of view provides. Thanks again.

Stephen Heyer said...

“I’ve also made a certain number of failed predictions over that time. Back in 2007 and 2008, for instance, I insisted that the US government wouldn’t be dumb enough to try to cover its ballooning budget deficits by spinning the printing presses; some idiocies, I thought, were too extreme even for the inmates of the current American political class. As th Fed proceeds merrily through yet another round of quantitative easing, that assumption has proved to be rather too naive.”

Really John, after all the exquisite insights I’ve been treated with from you I didn’t think you would be subject to the intellectual blind spot of thinking that group (company, party, government, nation, planet) welfare was what shaped and limited current decision makers’ decisions. No, ever since it has become possible to rip off more wealth than even your wasteful grandchildren can spend in just a few short years, then be immune to the law as a member of the very powerful, the game has changed.

That’s the blindness ordinary folk are subject to: Because the group is important to them, they think it and its survival is important to the powerful. Even a 65 year old Asperger syndrome enjoyer (not sufferer, I enjoy the different point of view) like me can see how mistaken that is.

I’m old enough to remember when it took a CEO or senior executive of even a major corporation 20+ years to accumulate rather modest wealth for his retirement. Naturally, the long term health of the business was very important to that senior management.

Now, not so much.

No, the powerful are astonishingly careless about group or location welfare, believing (sometimes wrongly) that they can always just move on. There is actually social research on this.

And from an evolutionary sense this is exactly the correct behavior. The evolutionarily right thing to do is almost always to grab wealth and power (if you have the chance) and only care about the short term.

The reason why this is built into humans is brutal - the much, much higher reproductive success of the wealthy and powerful. And built in it is, people’s behavior often completely changes if they have a chance of wealth and power and almost always does once they even start to acquire it.

I’ve been up close and personal to that process several times, hell, nearly did it myself once, would have, but for the differences God has blessed me with.

In short, the people at the top, be it in government, Wall Street or whatever will, when pushed, choose short term fixes irrespective of what medium or long term damage is done for the simple and entirely logical reason that they personally expect to benefit enormously from keeping the system propped up for even another year or three. Then, of course, if things really come apart, they intend to move to that nice little hacienda in Uruguay (a really nice little country by the way) with the couple of hundred million dollars they “acquired” and live happily ever after.

In other words they’ll spin those printing presses.

By the way, this process is particularly noticeable when viewed from countries like Australia where it has not yet progressed as far as in the USA. The terrifying thing is that it is creeping in like a flesh eating bacteria even over here. Perhaps Australians will wake up in time… perhaps.

Stephen Heyer

Avery said...

JMG,
The climate scientist you linked to seemed to have sensed the limits of the movement well enough, but in terms of depth of thought, I was impressed by a eulogy for environmentalism, and a premonition of "dark ecology", published this January. And much of that essay is simply analyzing the Unabomber.

As one plan of action (turn off your lightbulbs when you leave the house) fades away, another (take to the fields!) is rising up from the fringes. It remains to be seen whether this "dark ecology" will be another cry of impotent rage, like Occupy Wall Street and countless protests before it, or a call to begin acquiring really useful knowledge. But I have hope that as America does change, counterproductive narratives will slowly be abandoned. As the economy tightens, people will seek bad habits to get rid of and good habits to adopt, as part of our will to survive. That means that the self-defeating, bizarrely nihilistic belief in human extinction will vanish as quickly as it came.

divelly said...

As to walking away from our culture,
(When exactly did we become known as consumers?)it was tried in the
'70s by back-to-the-landers.
Our culture makes it very difficult.It's Borg-like.
One needs to belong to a coherent group,such as the Amish,Mennonites or the Old Believers to make a go of it.For example,real estate taxes must be paid with cash not potatoes.
If you sell potatoes roadside for the cash, you're messin' with the IRS,the Dept. of Ag.,and if you made jam, the county Health Dept.
Been there ,done that.Even barter is taxable.
Monasticism is an alternative,but who wants to be a monk?Certainly not the commune with which I was a neighbor.
It pooped out because the ladies did all the gardening,etc. and the guys were only interested in sex,drugs and rock and roll(Bluegrass really).


YJV said...

Hi JMG,
I was recently arguing with an American friend of mine here in Australia. He was espousing the view that the primary responsibility of CO2 emissions cuts fell on developing countries such as China & India rather than the affluent countries of Western Europe and of course, the US itself.

I loudly disagreed and proceeded to explain that while I thought that developing countries do have a responsibility to cut emissions, countries like the US whose citizens emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases per capita along with so called 'developed countries' where the government isn't struggling to feed 200 million or so people and has a huge share of the world's wealth, do not have less responsibility because of some raw effect of numbers. That these countries refuse to take the initiative in such actions while trying to arm-wrench poorer countries into cutting down their economic growth for 'emissions offsetting' is a huge injustice, and reflects that they have no intentions of using their huge amounts of perceived wealth and resource to enact any change at all.

The argument went on (and people started leaving the dining table I was on) and I wanted to know why people in rich western societies somehow find it easier to blame middle-class urbanites in cities like Mumbai or Shanghai(who consume less than a thirtieth of what they do) than to question why they need their SUVs.

This to me reeks of a shameless double standard where western society manages to externalise the costs and consequences of its ridiculous levels of consumption onto weaker people - something that won't last long however.

I suspect that citizens in such countries will have to wake up very soon and face the hard realities of the results of their lifestyle.

Regards,
YJV

Paulo said...

Thank you so much for this interesting essay. I have always believed that a stairstep decline is in process and is inevitable. I also believe that the more junk owned and the frantic pace people are forced to live with to purchase and maintain all that they are supposed to have is a tragic waste of human potential and more than a great distraction of what meaning there is in our existence and our eventual death(s). Not that we are to constantly reflect, but that such mindless living is like sleeping out under the stars with the sleeping bag pulled up over our head and itunes blaring 24/7. I think many will be happier living a poorer and simpler life. Some are doing it by choice....now. We need a new bumper sticker..."The man with the most toys does not win"

Regards...Paulo

Yupped said...

There was another round of “peak oil is dead” thinking making its way across the airwaves this week with the publication of the latest IEA report. I listened to a report on NPR that summed it all up: shale and fracking are enabling America to move towards energy independence, so all is well. Boom! No mention of troubling details such as cost, impact on the economy or whether tight oil might just be the stuff at the bottom of the barrel. There wasn’t even the usual NPR nod to the environmental implications of fracking or tar sands. The message was that it’s just better that we’re squeezing a bit more out of the ground, all is well, no need for any changes, move along, etc.

I must confess to having a couple of initial reactions, both of which were emotional and unrealistic. One was “what if they are right”? I know they are not, logically, but the fearful reaction of not wanting to look silly was clearly bubbling away somewhere in my subconscious. Probably picked this up at kindergarten or something. Then that gave way to frustration, of the “why can’t those fools see that we’re getting to the end of an era here and plan responsibly” variety. Planning for de-growth is obviously never going to happen. At least I didn’t get to the “screw us all, I hope the apocalypse comes and wipes us all off the map” stage! So that’s good.

After I had settled down a bit I got back to my usual equilibrium – an acceptance of the slow, messy, bumpy road down. It will be the way it will be, not the way my emotions would like it to be – excessively cornucopian, or disastrous or even logical/controlled/engineered. As individuals we have little control over the big-picture shape of how this all plays out. The only thing we can actually do about the big-picture shape is to tell stories about it, recasting it to be this or that, bargaining with it, tilting at it. Which is why there’s so much of that going on I suppose. So, back to small-picture reality. Time to turn the compost pile.

Greg Knepp said...

"If human beings were rational actors..." That's a big 'if'.

Since the advent of civilization most people have led rather humdrum and difficult lives. That is one reason, I believe, why we like our stories - shared myths if you will - hot and huge: The Epic of Gilgamesh, much of The Old Testament, The Iliad, Shakespeare's tragedies, Planet of the Apes (and everything else Charlton Hestonish) The Apocalypse du jour, and so on.

One of the greatest modern epics is the 1956 motion picture 'Forbidden Planet'. In this tale, the otherwise kind and gentlemanly Professor Mobius inadvertently releases the unbridled power of the Id, which, in turn, proceeds to ravage all vestiges of civilized humanity on the professor's remote planet. The Id is referred to as "the monster from the subconscious" and "the secret devil that lives inside". His final revelation is, "My evil self is at the door and I have no power to stop it!" Meanwhile the protagonist (a Captain Kirk prototype) admonishes "We're all monsters in our subconscious; that's why we have laws and religion."

I can't make this stuff up. 'Forbidden Planet' was hugely popular at its release (I remember it well) and has lost nothing over the decades.

The Wild Man lives on: Enchidu, Samson, Esau, Heracles, Romulus, the Pied Piper, Shane (and his evil twin, Wilson) Heston's Tyler and, yes Professor Mobius' Id. Civilization is but a veneer, and philosophy its ashen and artless apologist; the real action is in religion and popular art.

William Church said...

Excellent post JMG. It was enough to get me off the sidelines after a very long time lurking.

It is a great point that you have brought up regarding the tendency toward fantasies of the righteous remnant being saved while the sinful perish. Man I have seen that in spades from right and left. You tied it together nicely with your previous posts. Doesn't mean it isn't counterproductive and escapism, it is. But it is something else we need to watch for within ourselves and the company we keep.

It is great to see a fellow traveler leave the trestle board and get busy with the hard work of perfecting the ashlars of the world we live in.

Will

Andrew Brown said...

I've known many people who strive to "walk the walk" when it comes to the rejection of our suicidal and ecocidal civilization. Their strategies and compromises are all very different. Of course, one thing they nearly all have in common is that they are far removed from the levers of power in all but the most local sense. And getting farther from them to the extent they hold fast in their embracing of alternatives to the main culture.

Andrew Brown said...

If I had to make a prediction (a fool's game, I know) I'd predict that the next expression of the mythos you describe will be a new asceticism -- a rejection of materialism for which Christianity, environmentalism, and some other isms have shared roots. (And frankly, this would be convenient to certain elites looking to protect their privileges during a contraction - and never bet too strongly against them!) At heart I'm a more earthy-sensualist pagan than that, so I won't be along for all of that renunciation, but I can see the up and coming generation making a break from consumer-capitalism, and from a civilization that no longer bothers to make sense or even pretend to deliver on its empty promises.

Unknown said...

@PRIZM: The iodized salt actually is helpful. Fukushima put out a fair amount of radioactive iodine isotopes. Iodine tends to concentrate in the thyroid gland; the provinces near Fukushima have seen between 40% and 70% incidence of abnormal thyroid growths in children after the accident. Consuming iodized salt flushes out the radioactive iodine. It's not perfect protection, but it helps.

Stu from New Jersey said...

JMG,
Thanks for the essay. I guess I don't get around much, so I was not aware until the past week that NTE is making the rounds. My 11-year-old grandson asked me about it! Fortunately, he was quickly able to understand that there's a big difference between even a major die-off (like the Black Death, for instance) and extinction. 2030?? Give me a break.
Your observation about the rationalization of living like there's no tomorrow is telling, and hopefully my memory's good enough to make it part of my own repertoire.
Chris - thanks for the mention of comfrey. Like I said, I don't get around much and I missed that one somehow.

Bret said...

Hi JMG,

Last post, you mentioned that the key to understanding how the Augustinian and Joachimist chronomythoses impact our world's predicament is to understand that progress and decline are subjective concepts.

This post, you present NTE as one in a chain of apocalyptic fads, in a context of late-stage environmentalism following a common pattern-with-variations also seen in other movements, such as Christian fundamentalism and New Age-ism. There's an expansive, hypocritical triumphalism at first, which decays into a cynical, apocalyptic rage as disillusionment sets in.

Assuming all of this is summarized correctly, can you help me crystallize the takeaway of this post in terms of the coming attractions previewed in the prior post?

In particular, how is the dysfunctional pattern-with-variations you articulate in this post implied by the subjectivity of progress and decline you mention in the prior post?

And how does the dysfuntionality of the patterns square with their parentage in the Augustinian construct, which was adaptive in its time? I assume it's about the fact we happen to inhabit a world at an inflection point that moves from past bonanza to future decay, whereas Augustine inhabited a world of prolonged past decay -- but how exactly?

Thanks!

Kuanyin said...

Hey JMG,
I read your title today with relief because I'd been really hoping you'd wade into this NTE mess. I have to admit, despite having been in the long-term decline/ slow collapse camp for some time, it was freaking me out last week. I appreciate your philosophical and psychological arguments about why this stance has a seductive (and counter-productive) appeal at this stage in the game. I wonder if you could do me (and perhaps other readers) a favor, however, and give us a brief overview of why you think this outcome is unlikely based on the climate science, i.e. in terms of degrees the average temp is likely to rise/how long ago in the earth's history we have sustained such temperatures. I did some web-searching on this topic to try to disconfirm some of the NTE scare-mongering, but I came up with such a confusing, contradictory collection of numbers, I didn't know what to think. I believe you addressed this in an entry a couple years ago, but I couldn't seem to locate it in the archives. If you could at any rate let me know what entry that was, that'd be great, and if you had any new thoughts, for instance about why this temporary up-swing in the overall decline curve of petroleum provided by fracking/tar sands etc. combined with positive climate feedback loops ISN'T afterall going to bump us into a temperature range that can't sustain human life--well, that'd be more than great. You know, in terms of ability to sleep at night and wake up ready to keep preparing for collapse in a meaningful way/edge in a debate with NTE true believers;)
Thanks in advance!

Rita Narayanan said...

Rita from Mumbai, India

it isn't just the environmental movements, all the movements against imperialism, ideas for social justice have under the "cause" had a shrewd well connected elite.

In India all the upper class anti-capitalistic liberal crowd have gone to elite schools, colleges and are better networked than the old Maharajahs.

The libraries, museums and cosmopolitan literature that have molded them are not available in a poor country like India even to the middle class. Thanks again for all your posts!

Maria said...

I laughed out loud when I saw the topic of this post, JMG. Yesterday afternoon, I had my car radio tuned to The Home of Rock and Roll (every middle-aged cat lady needs a little metal in her life) when the guy who hosts the evening commute started talking about "an asteroid that could obliterate all life on earth in 2029." Only at the end, after suggesting that people start spending their retirement money, did he mention that the chances of this happening are around 3% (according to the astronomers he was quoting).

My first thought was that this is the guy who hosts the "4:20 Club" every afternoon, so his reliability is questionable, but a little light Googling shows that the asteroid is already being called The Doomsday Asteroid by the media: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2013/01/09/doomsday-asteroid-bigger-than-expected/ .

My second thought was that 5 months is a respectable time between breaking up with one apocalypse and starting to date the next one -- short enough to stay in the game and long enough to make it look like they know what they're doing.

I wondered if you'd have anything to say about the next apocalypse, and I was not disappointed!

Cathy McGuire said...

Good post! I’ve been reading, but not responding lately – too many spring tasks and my strength still isn’t quite up to it. And I’ve been trying to use the leftover hours to write fiction – I truly do not know how you do it all, JMG!!

I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that this was largely a product of an odd and very American habit I’ve termed "apocalypse machismo."

And/or of the very American impatience to wait for results! LOL! We are known for our desire to just “cut to the chase”. And the people I talk to are so stressed by this transition from comfortable middle class to… whatever (everyone I know refused to be sharks, so they are suffering as chum) that they simply want the pain to be over with. That’s a human and animal response. If someone’s comfortable, they probably don’t want it to end. And few have your ability to acknowledge that reality has little to do with our desires one way or the other.

Slight off-topic, but still concerning how people rationalize (and/or how power systems manipulate) is this article today in BBC: Retirement 'harmful to health', study says: The study, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank, found that retirement results in a "drastic decline in health" in the medium and long term. These are supposedly scientists! And they haven’t heard of “old age”?? "drastic decline in health"? DUH!! It made me want to despair… and whether innocently or not, the article goes on to mention that the government is already planning to raise the retirement age – so now they can say it’s “for your own good.” And yet, I’ve been musing on the fact that without the central governments, there is no retirement unless you’ve raised a big family or managed to find some adoptive family – you can’t rest if you’re feeding and housing yourself! I’ve been re-reading the FoxFire books (for material for my fiction) and musing on how 90-somethings seemed to be able to live without power or running water, and I’m wiped out every day! ;-} The best you can hope for is a quick heart attack at the end, I guess.


@Cherokee Organics
It is worth noting that fruit trees with comfrey as a support species performed better this summer than any other. A truly amazing plant.
Thanks for the hint! I have several saplings and lots of volunteer comfrey! I will pair them up.

Steve Morgan said...

NTE is a new one for me. I've seen the random rumblings before in a few interviews or blog posts about how we'd render the Earth uninhabitable for ourselves, but nothing quite so concrete. It'll be interesting to watch that develop in the alternative scene, especially.

Kevin Anderson's piece was a breath of fresh air from the climate science perspective. Having given up flying about 7 years ago, I usually just let people think I'm afraid of planes or something, because it's much easier than watching them get defensive about why they fly so often. Perhaps this will provide a new option for suggested reading, especially for all of the "sustainability" experts I know who regularly rack up frequent flyer miles.

In the meantime, though, I'm almost afraid of the "truck size" joke thread. As a car-owning bus rider, I tremble to think what my preferred 15-ton chauffeured vehicle would say about me!

--

@Nathan:

I think that you're on to something with that thread, too, and I hope you stick with it. It reminds me of holding an image in mind of the world as it is and the world as I'd like it to be, and my efforts through daily choices to build a bridge between the two. Living wholly in either one leaves me feeling incomplete (jaded and bitter or broke and over-stressed), while being able to support myself in the world as-is and draw inspiration and creativity from the world as-I'd-like-it feels like a good balance. Thanks for sharing.

vera said...

Thank you, JMG, for poking a stick at this rotten tomato. I left Guy McPherson's blog when he prophesied that there would be no cars on the roads by the end of 2012, and back to the stone age by 2018.

When I spoke about the irresponsibility of such blather by a scientist (or is it ex-scientist by now, seeing he's gotten even more shrill and irresponsible?) I got attacked by the gaggle of true believers and cultists that nowadays populates his blog. It must be a sign, though, that his "apocalyptic machismo" draws crowds, when the Age of Limits conference has given him prominent billing.

Discouraging. Esp. since he has tried to live differently, and does not fall into that category of environmentalists who fail to do what they preach. Perhaps ... hell hath no fury like a prophet spurned?

Recently, someone else was beating the NTE horse on the Energy Bulletin. So it's not McPherson alone. I too expect to see more and more of this in the years ahead, as things continue to bump down the staircase. It's far easier to imagine our extinction nowadays than to imagine a future with sane humans in it, it seems...

Cathy McGuire said...

PS - I realized after I sent that, that I just proved your point by wishing for a "mini-apocalypse"! ;-)

Ah, well - I just did Tai Chi again, for the first time since the hip operation. That's sure to help ground me.

Christopher Loring Knowles said...

Very interesting article but do you really think the pendulum will swing back to liberal Christianity? Those churches are dead, they just haven't been buried yet. And given the zeal for atheism among those raised in these churches, the people historically drawn to them will genetically erase themselves as well. As tempting as it is to see historical pendulums swinging, we could be in a situation more akin to 4th Century Rome, where the educated and erudite can longer find a reason to reproduce themselves while extremists zealously seek to outbreed them. As soon as middle class liberals awaken from their Obamanosis and realize that the people who run the world economy are working overtime to eliminate their occupations, things could change very, very quickly. You could see an unplanned "New Awakening" as atheists die off and the former middle class huddles in very, very conservative denominations as a measure of self-preservation. John, you know better than anyone that Pre-Christian Rome was the apotheosis of cosmopolitanism with science and philosophy and yes, Atheism, seen as the badges of sophistication and refinement among the smart set. And they all refined themselves into extinction. Mainstream culture is stupider than I've ever seen it (go look at a 70s issue of Newsweek or Playboy to see how desperately far we've fallen), the middle class is being sent to the slaughterhouse and the ultra-religious are having lots and lots of children while the people who sneer at them are having none. The world will not end, but a world anyone might want to live in certainly could, sooner than we dream possible.

Thomas Daulton said...

Greetings JMG,
Am I right in thinking this week's column was kind-of an ad hoc response to a resurgence of apocalyptomania that you noted recently from McPherson and others? The ending teaser from last week implied you'd be discussing how one philosophy's catastrophe can be somebody else's ecstatic Rapture, and I don't really get that from the column today. Certainly a worthwhile column today, but in our pluralistic and diverse country, where everybody seems to be going crazy in a hundred different ways, the point about one mans meat vs. another's philosophical poison seems like it would be a fascinating discussion.

Goldmund said...

John, your current post certainly brought back memories for me, as someone brought up in a fundamentalist church and in the shadow of "the bomb" (most kids I knew in school assumed we'd all be wiped out by a nuclear war in our lifetimes, while at church we were told of the imminent apocalypse and second coming or Jesus, which many believed would occur in our lifetimes as well. Curiously, this never stopped anyone from purchasing insurance policies.) Anyway, I just wanted to say that I wonder if some of this "apocalyptic thinking" is just human nature. I remember reading a book in college called "Man's search for Meaning". In that book Victor Frankl recounted his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. He noticed that those who survived that brutal experience tended to have some belief, however irrational, that gave their lives meaning. It had nothing to do with reason; just some conviction they held that somehow they would pull through this horrible time and the future would be brighter. Maybe it was a loved one they hoped to see again and this made them determined to survive. The ones who gave up hope were the ones who died. This quality of vascillating between hope and despair seems to be unique to our species, the only species, as far as I know, that knows that it will die someday and has to come to terms with that one way or another.

Doc said...

Nathan's comment above is interesting - to 'drop out' of this society entirely is impossible because of the need to meet the expectation values of daily life. We are extremely limited by giving up money - cannot get gas or food by barter in this system and if you try - others have disparaging words. To go your own weigh takes time and effort and you still have to interact with this society.

I took you up on a prior proposal to start explaining science concepts in realistic blogging terms. I used my blog (howdt.blogspot.com) to begin investigating the nature of water and have since been writing up a storm. I have not been posting all that i have been writing, but I do believe that if we change our approach to the perspective, we can see things in a different light. It becomes a matter of questioning ingrained beliefs, which is what we should do when dealing with the modern mythology.

Thanks for being - will be back next Thursday morning.

beneaththesurface said...

Thank you for this post. I too notice the mention of near-term extinction popping up in the peak oil blogosphere a lot more during the last several months. This concerns me, along with other absolute predictions (that usually note a specific year that something is certain to happen by) so many others have made in the environmental / peak oil camps. There are so many variables in the world, that I think it's best to stick with general processes that are likely in the future, without getting one's focus stuck on the exact when, what, where. If people framed their predictions more in terms of probabilities, I might be more willing to consider their viewpoint.

There are a whole list of environmentalists who have made absolute predictions (with no admittance of their uncertainty) which turned out to be wrong (such as Paul Ehrlich and predictions he made in his book The Population Bomb in 1968) even though their general assessment and grasp of the situation -- be it overpopulation, climate change, etc. -- is much more informed than the general population. I find it actually helps the climate change/peak oil/overpopulation/etc deniers who can use the failed prediction as a case in point of why the entire climate change and environmental movement is out of whack.

I am just starting to see critiques of NTE popping up, such as: http://www.culturechange.org/cms/content/view/880/1/
Nicole Foss mentioned in the comments section there that she is planning on writing her own long critique of NTE once she gets back from her overseas tour.

I notice that Guy McPherson will be coming to this year's Age of Limits Conference. It will be interesting to see you two debate your ideas in-person. While I'm open to hearing views different than my own, which can spark good debate and discussion, I hope Guy's voice remains just one of many viewpoints there, and doesn't change the overall focus of Age of Limits. If the NTE belief becomes popular in certain peak oil circles, I worry that it will distract focus on the important work that needs to be done to benefit people who will be alive centuries into the future. If one believes in NTE, what's the point in concerning oneself with the hard work that needs to be done?

mczilla said...

"Aiee, Gunga!" as Rama used to exclaim more than half a century ago on the old Andy's Gang segments.

Near-Term Extinction has quickly and certainly replaced the Mayan Calendar meme around the web these days, with true believers arguing the details endlessly, as they apparently spend their last days hammering away on the keyboard. Near-Term Serious Difficulties is more like what we're actually facing, and while scaling back will in some way inevitably include populations numbers, I doubt all traces of humanity are going to disappear from planet earth. But the necessary adaptations are hard and unappealing, especially from our relatively comfortable Western Modernity point of view.

I'm one of those who has seen the writing on the wall for at least the past 40 years, and even so, I have to admit my own lack of real success in somehow extricating myself from the dominant destructive paradigm. There seems to be something about learning our lessons the hard way that is almost hard-wired into the human psyche. But, at least collectively, mere survival is not the same as healthy flourishing, which is still somewhere off in the distant future, and we still have a rough and rocky road to travel. And I've been around long enough to know that no matter how cogent our projections, the universe can always serve up a surprise, good or bad.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

Interesting that you bring up NTE now, a week before the Age of Limits conference where you and Guy will be presenting.

Barb and I are looking forward to participating in the discussion. Sounds like it will be lively.

gaias daughter said...

In defense of McPherson -- yes, he is pushing the meme of near- term extinction, and for that reason, I quit reading his posts, but he is also one of the least hypocritical people out there. He quit his job, left a wife who was unwilling to walk away from her accustomed lifestyle, and built himself a small homestead that is largely self- sufficient. He also says that we have a moral obligation to live in a way that minimizes our impact on the earth regardless of what the future may bring. He does not use NTE as an excuse for profligate living. Now, none of that makes his message valid, but I do give great credit to the man for his integrity.

lunab777 said...

Present day CO2 levels are consistent with a time period when temperatures were much higher, and the high temperatures we are moving toward are not compatible with human life. We aren't there yet even though CO2 is - apparently there is a a lag time for the Earth to catch up to this reality.
Do you believe that CO2 levels this high (and higher) will not eventually increase temperature, or do you believe that the increase in temperature won't be a problem, or do you believe the lag time is so exceedingly long that we will have colonies developed in another solar system by then?
I'm sorry but I find this article bizarre - how does focusing on religious fantatics who fantasized about the end of time throughout the millenia have anything to do with the situation we are in today?

Odin's Raven said...

Oh no! Surely Gaia won't allow humans to become extinct just when they've learned that tree hugging really works, and that plants can make music by themselves and with humans? That would be such a waste. Maybe the trees would miss us. If there's a niche in the spiritual ecology perhaps some other species would have to evolve to fill it.

scientific tree hugging and plant music

Nano said...

I for one look forward to the I.H.E (imminent human extinction) survival kits, popping up on amazon and all other online retailers. This should go well with the whole Zombie bit.

Look for my book, escaping extinction 101

That has all sorts of Erisian logic built into it! Kallisti!

morenewyorknews said...

stellar essay archdruid...
i was just going through another training program about how to write books by using latex..and i was thinking today,instead of focusing on computers,why nobody focuses on real training...
I find current education taught in colleges worthless in post oil world..The students,teachers,politicians,bureaucrats are focused on immediate goals than future..
This year India is going to graduate 1.5 million engineers and more than 5 million other college graduates...where will be jobs for them?
If India manages to produce same number of engineers for next 10 yrs,most of the new engineering colleges will have to close..that is my prediction...

PRiZM said...

JMG, it seems to me that perhaps patriotism has become one of the possible end results of the Augustine time theory evolving in the USA, into the chest thumping male egotism. Granted, it is an unfortunate way to view the world, but I think it's perhaps not out of context with the history of a great many other empires.

St. Roy said...

JMG
I have read all your books and I am a regular reader of your blog. I much admire your interdisciplinary thinking and engaging writing style. Today's post, however, was a little surprising. The current popular discussions about NTE seem to be based on the accumulating scientific evidence of a rapid and major increase in the average temperature of the planet. Isn't this much different than the apocalyptic predictions of Christian Rapturists and radical environmentalists?

St. Roy

Jon said...

Unless we do something sufficiently horrific to render every habitat uninhabitable, some of something will survive. That’s how nature and evolution are: Very messy and they follow no rules. I can imagine some scenarios, such as scattered tribes from the upper Andes managing to hang on, thanks to a horticultural lifestyle. Then; one, two or three hundred years later; venturing down to the plains, costs and rivers and gradually spreading out, north and south, and eventually finding their way into Siberia and Eurasia, maybe encountering other humans on the Steppes. I hope that goes well. Someday there may be an ‘Out of South America’ theory. Evolution selects those who survive, for whatever reason. Hiding under a rock or at the top of a mountain is as good a reason as any.

This brings to mind another religious meme: The Faithful Remnant. A few are allowed to survive the apocalypse, flood, rain of fire, plague of locusts, choose your favorite atrocity; and repopulate the earth. Of course, calling yourself ‘Chosen People’ is much preferred to ‘Those who, by chance, survived by hiding under a rock or at the top of a mountain.’ It sounds more poetic, less pathetic.

Jon.


Jon.

vinoshon said...

JMG: "those who have built their lives on the fantasy that it’s possible to have their planet and eat it too are not going to find such reflections welcome, or even bearable." I think many if not all have their planet before they eat it but few if any can eat it and still have it.

squashpractice said...

That hope is dead, says it all. The grieving process is working its way along. Are we past Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and finally at Depression with these predictions of humanities’ early demise? We had hope when we could bargain with the technologists to bring us more cheap food and energy at no cost. But they haven’t been able to deliver. With hope we could abdicate responsibility. Without hope we are depressed, but we will get over it, and then we can get down to work and do what has to be done.

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

The Federal Reserve did not "turn on the printing presses". The Federal Reserve only creates excess reserves for banks. This improves banks ability to lend profitably at low interest rates.

So, in reality you were right after all...

SLClaire said...

For awhile in the 1990s I was on the board of a statewide environmental organization whose purpose was to raise money for a coalition of small environmental organizations in the same state through a United Way-type collection of a percentage of members' paychecks each pay period. After a couple of years it occurred to me that for the funding organization to be successful (to take in more money), more people would need to be working within the various companies that offered the checkoff. That meant the companies themselves would have to be more successful and/or more companies would need to start offering the checkoff. Since those companies did nothing positive, and mostly did quite a bit negative, for the environment, the ironic reality was that the more money the funding organization took in, the worse the environment got. Not long after that I resigned from the board. The organization still exists, however, and I don't think anyone active in it has figured out its futility.

I admit to succumbing to the total-nuclear-war variety of the extinction meme for quite a few years. When the meme had me the worst, I'd fall into a depressive state for weeks. After enough such states, I did finally see that it was my own twisted thought processes that put me there. It took a lot of changes to make me resistant to the meme, but it's now been 10 years since I quit trucking with the extinction meme. Besides being happier, I see evidence that I am more useful to other people without the meme messing me up. A fine reason to abandon it in my opinion.

tristan said...

Wait... you have a funny hat? Pictures or it does not exist.

Andrea Muhrrteyn said...

Wow. I've always enjoyed reading this blog. This post however is so toxic, I feel I need a shower.

Have you forgotten to focus on the essence of a man's argument?

McPherson's NTE argument (a) very ardently argues that people should act, and not simply in lifestyle changes, but in acts of resistance; and (b) I have not seen anyone who vilifies him, dispute any of his arguments.

Guy's essay: “Climate-change summary and update” is updated regularly, and describes why near-term human extinction, by 2060, is guaranteed; in the absence of ending industrial civilization by 2015.

What climate science are you basing your conclusions upon? Do you think humans can survive at +6C? How many scientists agree with you?

sgage said...

@ lunab777,

"...do you believe that the increase in temperature won't be a problem..."

There's a difference between being a problem, and extinction of life on Earth.

sgage said...

@ mczilla said...

' "Aiee, Gunga!" as Rama used to exclaim more than half a century ago on the old Andy's Gang segments.'

You have no idea the chain of memories that comment brought back. Gunga Din!

To this day, 'Aiee, Gunga!' is used as an expression of alarm among my brothers and sisters.

Don't get me started on Froggy the Gremlin... plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!

fromorctohuman said...

I am puzzling over why you say that Augustine was the first to sketch out this shape of time. The bible teaches the same. Why don't you source it from the advent of Christianity?

???

Glenn said...

Seems like a variant on the fast apocalypse theme. Again, an excuse not to change the way one lives. And may wind up being just as self-fulfilling a prophesy.

Glenn
Marrowstone Island

Odin's Raven said...

2030? That's a long way away. Here's someone preparing for a catastrophe as imminent as next week.

Clif High's Global Coastal Event

With any luck, and if the earthquakes, tsunamis, leaking nuclear reactors, failing internet and general collapse of society don't get us, we can look forward to reading next week's installment from the Archdruid.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all,

Perhaps the word environmentalist should be put in scare quotes when talking about the particular, corporatist variety mentioned in this post? What should those of us who work hard every day at--in fact who have centered our lives around--earthcare call ourselves?

And, I guess I'm not very up on things--never heard of NTE until today. I found this post interesting in its analysis, but now, since I see evidence of catabolic collapse all around, and read and bought into Limits to Growth awhile ago, I think I'll go back to working on my various urban sustainability projects and wait for more on the main topic. The wild strawberries are in bloom.

Maybe everyone is a hypocrite, one way or another, or from one or another vantage points. And even if we are persons of integrity, we still make mistakes and do harm without intending to. Are those of us who try to live low carbon, light-on-the earth lives really so pure? That way lies fundamentalism, I fear.

JMG, you wrote awhile ago that we become like that which we hate.(If I recall correctly.)Very wise words, I think.

John Michael Greer said...

Nathan, glad to be of assistance. As for "hypocrisy," that's a harsh term for the simple reality of being human, and having to deal -- as all human beings must -- with the hard realities of existence in a flawed and troubled society.

Snoqualman, no argument there. The transformation of the environmental movement into a collection of fundraising bureaucracies closely tied to the status quo was the opposite of a good thing.

Leo, exactly. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see sea levels jump higher than predicted, but even if they go up 10-15 meters, how's that going to exterminate the population of, say, Switzerland? We're facing a harsh future; no need to exaggerate it.

Robert, excellent! You get today's gold star for asking the hard questions. For what it's worth, I worship nature because I believe it's worthy of reverence, not because of any potential cultural side effects that worship might have, but I'll be talking toward the end of this sequence -- when I get into the difficult topic of my own religious beliefs -- about why reverence for nature is certainly one of the better options we've got just now.

Irishwildeye, that must have been a delightful bike trip! I'm sorry to say that I know a lot of people who are into the same kind of green tokenism as your relation.

Shands, the Arctic has been ice free for most of Earth's history; it was ice free when our hominid ancestors were first trotting around the eastern African savannahs, for example. There have also been any number of methane releases in Earth's history -- you might check out the paleoclimatology of the end of the last ice age, when very large methane releases were part of the very rapid temperature increases of that time; our ancestors survived that, too. Despair may be easy, but it's not useful...

Øyvind, any exponential trend taken far enough results in absurdity. You might want to look into the law of diminishing returns and the concept of homeostasis, and apply them to the simplistic model you've proposed here.

Phil H., for what it's worth, my take is that Britain is going to be in a world of hurt as the industrial age spirals down, and the serene British assurance that nothing can go wrong -- which I've encountered vicariously -- is going to make matters a whale of a lot worse than they would otherwise be.

Raven, thank you! It may be off topic for this post, but it's on topic for this blog, and it would not surprise me if warriors mounted on bicycles were in fact a major feature of the dark ages ahead of us.

Richard, good for you. I wish the protesters well, but I've already discussed the futility of existing methods of protest in today's political climate -- the only thing that would make that protest work is if the protesters were willing to vote against the next Democratic candidate for president if Obama keeps selling out, and of course they'll do no such thing, so their protest is empty wind. Planting hugelbeds is a good deal more likely to have an effect.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Hi JMG

Walked the dogs today across barren fields which should now be solid yellow, but the oilseed rape crop has partly failed. Apparently due to the very cold March which we endured here in the UK. So I guess that's less biofuel as another consequence of global weirding and steady decline.

Mustard

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Couldn't have stated it better. hehe!

Regards

Chris

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG: regarding use of the word "hypocrisy," I'd like to remind you of your own excellent post from 2007, on seral succession:

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/09/civilization-and-succession.html

People who today explore "sustainable living" and walk the talk, are themselves a hardy pioneer species -- let's call them dandelions -- that currently grow on the fringes of the burned-over region overrun by industrial thistles.

Dandelions are not the prototype of the future. As the thistles die back, they'll be replaced, not by dandeliions, but by a scavenger culture -- let's call it bindweed -- that grows upon the dying stalks of the thistles. Bindweed will continue to keep dandelions on the fringe.

After the bindweed dies back, dandelions may have a brief role to play in preparing the ground. But after that (assuming climate and stray asteroids accommodate us), as K-selection begins to predominate, we'll see a human culture rise that is intensely interdependent in complex ways, meaning that it will regulate by some means every use of water and energy, all trade, when and whom individuals marry, when and what to plant, when and how to take a dump. Tradition will rule. Attempts to innovate will be viewed with suspicion; if sufficiently disruptive, they will provoke a lethal immune response: e.g. accusations of "witchcraft" or "technology" that will put the innovators to death and scare the bejesus out of everyone else.

We’ve seen these kinds of cultures. Tibet. Thailand. Rural China. Small-town Kansas.

Dandelions — the isolated tinkerers in “sustainable living” — will be forced back to the fringe.

I'm a thistle. I've thrived in the industrial world, where I'd have had little luck elsewhere. I can't see squat without glasses: outside the brief period from, say, 1400 to the near future, I'd have been a blind man, with all that implies. I'm an indifferent gardener. I'm an aggressive innovator, and have always been: it's partly why I call myself Pagan, and a Druid.

As a human thistle, I have some small capacity to see outside my own circle of prejudice. It's obvious to that wider vision that thistles are dying out, may even be going extinct. I might have the temerity to write a little about the subject, perhaps even praise the dandelion or the bindweed or the mighty oak yet to come. Were I an activist, I might push for legislation that would help prepare ground for something other than thistles.

Yet I am myself a thistle: not a dandelion, nor a bindweed, nor a mighty oak.

Hypocrisy is to pretend otherwise.

The word “hypocrite” has become bread and butter of the politics of dismissal. An environmental attorney working out of an air-conditioned high-rise office is a “hypocrite,” so his efforts can be dismissed. You yourself are a “hypocrite” for using the Internet, so your views can be dismissed. It’s a form of effortless ad hominem that plays well among modern democratic masses, and in the media.

But I don’t think it’s the reason for anything. It’s a rationalization, like any other logical fallacy.

The reason the environmental movement has failed is because it’s been promoted as all broccoli and no dessert. Classifying and separating our garbage, using inferior lighting, flushing our toilet less frequently, stinting on showers, giving up meat, giving up sugar, giving up television, giving up, giving up, giving up. It has never inspired the masses, and understandably. If sound ecology, it is terribly unsound psychology.

Contrast that to Augustine’s accomplishment. What did he place in front of the masses? A long descent into night? A handbook of better ways to compost your own excrement? How to make armor and defend your family against the Hun?

No: he placed the shining image of the City of God.

It worked pretty well.

People need a story to carry them through the long descent. Even we thistles need a story.

Leo said...

The main problem with the exaggeration is it makes the actual problem seem insignificant.

You hear every one saying 10-15 metres in short order (so less than 50 years). Then your going to ignore the 2 metres over a century even if it does substantial damage. According to the difference is between abandoning the city or simply losing the current shoreline and suffering more tidal damage.

John Michael Greer said...

Shakya, nuclear power makes a decent stand-in for Morgoth, but I just can't see George Monbiot or Stewart Brand as Sauron -- they aren't that impressive. Wormtongue, now that's another matter!

Robo, thank you.

Stephen, I did say that that was a prediction I'd made quite a while ago, and I've long since noted the mistake involved.

Avery, I hope you're right! My guess is that a great many people in America will cling to their counterproductive narratives like grim death, until the deathgrip becomes mutual. I wouldn't be surprised to see "extinction parties" in which middle-aged yuppies reminisce about the good times and then tie plastic bags over their heads.

Divelly, I remember it well! That's why I keep on saying that running off to a lifeboat ecovillage (that's what they call "Drop City" these days) is not a viable response to the crisis of our age. We face the harder challenge of extracting ourselves mentally and spiritually from a dying culture, adapting in place, and learning to live with the real community around us.

YJV, good. I discussed the use of climate rhetoric as a tool for maintaining US hegemony in a post last year. Don't expect to hear Americans admit that any time soon, though!

Paulo, good! I saw a T-shirt a while back with the slogan, "he who dies with the most toys, still dies." A worthwhile reminder!

Yupped, I find it useful to balance the cornucopians and the apocalyptics against each other. Read them in close succession, and it becomes pretty obvious that both sides are smoking their shorts.

Greg, my point exactly. Nor is it necessary to summon an "id monster" to demonstrate that; watch supposedly rational human beings convince themselves of something they want to believe, and your faith in the triumph of human reason probably won't survive the experience.

Bro. Will, thank you for the vote of confidence!

Andrew, asceticism is a considerably more flexible concept than you may realize. More on this as we proceed!

Stu, oh bright gods. I'm glad you were able to clear things up for your grandson. I wonder if the people who are marketing this fantasy have stopped to consider what kind of impact this sort of thing will have on children.

Unknown said...

Personally, I'm 40 years old, so whether or not the economy winds down over the next few decades (and I agree that it probably will), it's certain that I myself will wind down over that time. Personally, my ability to adapt to new stresses isn't what it used to be and is trending down. This fact puts limits on what sorts of adaptations are possible for me (and for many others).

BTW, my name is Jay, and I don't know why it usually doesn't show up above.

sgage said...

@ JMG

"I just can't see George Monbiot or Stewart Brand as Sauron -- they aren't that impressive. Wormtongue, now that's another matter!"

Stewart Brand as Wormtongue... works on many levels.

John Michael Greer said...

Bret, as I've mentioned before, I don't always write the post I intend to write. I'll be going on with the previous discussion in next week's post -- or at least that's the current plan.

Kuanyin, I'll consider a post on that. Several other peak oil authors with more background in the relevant sciences are also preparing posts, though, and theirs might be worth your while; my interest, as a historian of ideas, is primarily in how the same old apocalyptic tropes get recycled in new packaging.

Rita, it's pretty much the same here in America; the only difference between our caste system and yours is that we like to pretend that ours doesn't exist.

Maria, I bet the asteroid finds its way into NTE rhetoric any day now. Do you remember how the 2012 people used to lump together every imaginable cause of cataclysm, even those that were mutually contradictory, to bolster the fantasy that something or other would happen last December?

Cathy, glad to hear you're able to do t'ai chi again! As for the retirement study, it occurs to me that sooner or later the scientific professions are going to discover the hard way that they've thrown away the last of their former prestige by shilling once too often for political or corporate interests.

Steve, I was delighted to see Anderson's piece, for obvious reasons; it'll be interesting to see what kind of long-term response he gets.

Vera, I expect NTE to become an industry as big and lucrative as the 2012 business was; it's hard to think of an ideology that does a better job of justifying inaction while claiming to be deeply concerned.

Christopher, in 1960 nearly everyone assumed that the few surviving fundamentalist churches were relics soon to be extinct. Linear extrapolation is perhaps the least accurate way of predicting the future. That is to say, I stand by my prediction.

Thomas, as I mentioned to Bret, this was a bit of an unplanned divagation. The current plan is to return to the core discussion next week.

Goldmund, some form of belief is necessary for human life, but the belief in an apocalyptic finale certainly isn't -- there have been plenty of cultures and ages that got by perfectly well without that particular fantasy.

Doc, thanks for the link -- keep writing!

Beneath, exactly! It seems to me that the whole point of NTE is justifying inaction -- why bother to change your life when we're all just going to die anyway?

Leo said...

Hyperlinks not showing up for some reason.

http://www.ozcoasts.gov.au/climate/sd_visual.jsp

Basic map of sea level rise's effect on the major Australian cities based of the IPCC's report.

John Michael Greer said...

McZilla, something was going to replace 2012 once that set of prophecies flopped. I suppose we should be grateful that the apocalypse lobby isn't busy insisting that Earth is about to be devoured by a gigantic space walrus with photon flippers.

Harry, it was mostly an accident -- I've been getting pelted with questions about my opinion about the whole NTE hoopla, and decided to write about it.

Daughter, that's good to hear. It'll be interesting to see how things shape up as the NTE fad really gets going.

Lunab777, "x is a problem" does not mean "x will exterminate all of humanity." For most of this planet's long history, it's been a lot warmer than it is now, and the relatively slow pace of climate change means that there's time for biological adaptation through natural selection -- not to mention what could be done by cultural adaptation. As for the religious beliefs I've discussed, if you don't see the resemblance, you're not going to get it whatever explanation I offer.

Raven, funny.

Nano, go thee henceforth and make thee a bundle hawking apocalypse kits to the true believers! Someone's going to do it -- might as well be you.

News, I have to admit that when you mentioned writing books using latex, the first thing that came to mind wasn't a computer program. ;-) That said, your broader point is a good one -- we're facing a massive crash in higher education here in the US, probably within a decade or so.

PRiZM, I wish I could disagree.

St. Roy, no, it's not. A lot of people, including a lot of scientists, look at the same science and manage not to end up believing in imminent human extinction; I suggest that the science is an excuse for the belief, not the cause of it.

Jon, exactly. I get skeptical any time somebody dusts off one of the old tropes from the myth of apocalypse and applies it to current affairs, precisely because there's normally a lot of cutting and stretching of current affairs to make the thing fit.

Vinoshon, true enough.

John Michael Greer said...

Squashpractice, I hope so. It would be nice if the current NTE fad was simply a sign that a lot of people have hit the stage of depression, and will soon move on to the fifth stage of peak oil -- getting off your backside and doing something.

Jon, er, it was a metaphor, you know.

SLClaire, having been through something like the same experience, I agree -- the most important argument against despair is that it's so useless.

Tristan, you can see a picture of me in my work clothes here/

Andrea, then go take a shower. The science isn't the essence of the argument; the science is window dressing for a preexisting narrative -- the same narrative we saw built up around 2012, Y2K, etc., etc. Rather than debating yet another round of cherrypicked factoids, I suggest it's time to address the narrative itself.

Orc, the narratives in the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways. It's only because the Augustinian interpretation has become so hardwired into our culture, and is taught to each generation as the truth, that most people can't read the Bible without automatically imposing an Augustinian interpretation on it.

Glenn, exactly. How many more claims of imminent apocalypse do we have to hear before we grasp that it's all basically twaddle?

Raven, my money's on the giant space walrus with photon flippers, who will devour the earth in 2008.

Adrian, there's no way any of us alive today can have clean hands. That's simply one of the cards we've all been dealt; the question that follows is what we choose to do about it. Getting to work on those sustainability projects seems like a good response to me.

John Michael Greer said...

Mustard, when the death certificate for industrial civilization gets filled out, the cause of death will certainly be given as "died of unintended consequences."

Joseph, a fascinating way of looking at it. There was a time when the green movement did have a story to offer, or a vision, but that got lost when the mainstream organizations sold out to the existing order and redefined their work as trying to defend a few charismatic biosystems rather than trying to build a new and greener world. That story is long buried; still, stay tuned...

Leo, and even if cities have to be abandoned, it's not the end of the world. Exactly.

Unknown Jay, granted -- I'm ten years older than you are, and am at the point where I can feel my age on cold nights! Still, there's a lot that can still be done, for those willing to do it.

Sgage, I wish I could disagree.

Repent said...

You've probally seen this essay published last week to considerable fanfare; but I don't see it mentioned in the reply's above:

http://guymcpherson.com/2013/04/the-irreconcilable-acceptance-of-near-term-extinction/

The author openly and repeatly mentions suidide as the acceptable responce to NTE. Thank you for your rebuttal of this position; it's a dangerous conclusion that suicide is the rational responce to anticpating the end.

Guy McPherson is no monster either. As others have confirmed above; he gave up teaching, and now raises goats. He gave this excellent video lecture, 'the twin sides of the fossil fuel coin' on this matter at the end of 2012:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ina16XSJQvM

My teenage daughter recently remarked to me 'Maybe humanity is only meant to last so long and then vanish', after I had a frank discussion with her about the challenges ahead. I don't think she quite understands yet though; she also recently told me 'why can't I drive a convertable, with the wind blowing though my hair while I cruise down the highway when I become an adult; the oil won't be gone until I'm in my 50's!'

I worry about my kids future's as the principal reason that I read your posts and follow the peak oil movement.

I look forward to your 'difficult' blog entry about your own religion. I've often wondered while reading your posts, what is it to be a modern age druid? Did you start from childhood as a member of a druid family or did you become dissastified with another religion and convert?

On a side note, I found your previous posted remark about the person who said 'why do we have to bear with this' extremely funny. I've heard that the othordox establishmentments actually pay people to study peak oil, and other fringe movements. That poor fellow likely did have a gun to his head forcing him to read your blog. (Funny nonetheless)

lucas said...

An interesting work on apocalyptic thinking in the radical environmental movement is Martha F. Lee's "Earth First! Environmental Apocalypse". As the title suggests, Lee has written a sociologically informed history, of the radical underground environmental movement, EARTH FIRST! founded by Dave Foreman and small group of like-minded friends in 1980.

Lee's work really excels at examining the trigger events that turned Foreman towards apocalyptic thinking. Lee, in part, bases her interpretation of EARTH FIRST!'s history on Michael Barkun's explanation for the development of millenarian ideologies found in his "Disaster and the Millennium". For Barkun the individual's "true society" or meaningful community must be directly threatened by severe changes or disruptions {"a disaster"}.

I think the advantage of an analysis of millenarianism such as Barkun's is that we clearly live in an era of disasters -- big and small. We are all being primed for the Apocalypse one way or the other. These are times that certainly try humanity's frail rationality.

Joseph Nemeth said...

"Glenn, exactly. How many more claims of imminent apocalypse do we have to hear before we grasp that it's all basically twaddle?"

I doubt you can count that high without losing patience and throwing something at the wall.

I certainly can't.

M said...

Thanks for taking a slight sidestep here and addressing this NTE, which I just recently came upon myself. Unlike various other apocalyptic fantasies, I'm a little worried that this one could be less benign, due to its proximity to more reasoned viewpoints as to where we are all headed. For instance, having this kind of thing enter the discussion at Age of Limits could be a distraction, in that serious thoughts and ideas get tainted with this brush, making it easier for people who might otherwise lend an ear to dismiss the whole kit and kaboodle. "Are you an Extincter or a Descenter? Ah, what's the difference, you're all a bunch of end of the world doomers." Whatever, I guess.

I find this NTE scenario to be repulsive. I mean come on, man up. (And I don't mean to imply that the opposite of manliness is feminine or gay, but simply the abdication of those qualities that make a man a man. Okay, I'm opening up a can of worms--hopefully my meaning will be clear and no one will be offended by my culturally based generality.) No doubt the person who came up with this nonsense believes contemplating the ethics and morals of suicide in the face of their self-concocted extinction scenario is quite macho. In fact, it's the height of hysterical egotism, on both an individual and species scale. Besides that, if you knew the world was going to end next week, would you dream up a handy acronym and become the Chicken Little of the internet, or would you go out to the yard and help your wife plant some kale in the warm spring sun? As the shepherds say, TTFU --Toughen The Flock Up.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Andrea -- is that really the NTE thesis? That if we don't shut down industrial society within two years we needn't bother, because the game is over?

Surely you understand that shutting down industrial society within the next two years is impossible?

Our so-called leadership in Washington has a majority (or a substantial minority) of people who still don't even believe in global warming. A substantial fraction of those don't care, anyway, because they believe that Jesus will return to fix everything, and will even praise them for their "faithfulness" (which they've somehow confused with "pig-headed obstinacy.") They'll continue to deny that sea-levels are rising even as they drown.

Outside Washington, most US Americans aren't even aware of peak oil or global warming.

So who is going to pull the switch and turn out the lights? Not Government. Not The People.

The comment about "acts of resistance" sound a little like small groups of committed ecoterrorists?

But that will have the opposite effect. Our industrial society is built around war, and attacking the system will only kick the industries of war into high gear to protect themselves: it will be like throwing gasoline on a fire, or injecting pure adrenaline into a strung-out junkie. It would guarantee years of extra life to industrial society.

So realistically, NTE is saying it's already way too late. They're just saying it a way that promotes as much anxiety as possible.

So JMG -- this strikes me as an interesting twist on the old apocalypse meme.

Most of them have salvation and judgement bound up in the same moment: you can repent right up to the moment the Rapture occurs; you can stock your Zombie shelter up to the moment they start roaming the streets; you can buy up reflective aluminum suits up to the second the Giant Space Walrus swipes at us with a photon flipper. When the date comes and nothing happens, they have to recalculate in the face of a crushing embarrassment.

This one has a forty-five year "nag margin" built into it.

Current prediction is for 2015. We'll miss that one, and nothing will happen, but that's just what they predicted. Next, they'll sharpen their pencils, and decide that, well, maybe there's a chance for some people to survive if we destroy industrial civilization by, say, 2018. We'll miss that one, too. Thank God we're entering a region of galactic dark matter at that point, which will lower (or raise) the neutrino emissions of the sun, and buy us a little more time. Maybe 2022. Etc.

It's an apocalypse franchise. Like the Harry Potter series.

Dang. Talk about American ingenuity.

Bill Carson said...

It's hard for me to imagine a scenario where any natural process could cause extinction. Collapse of civilization? Maybe. Massive die off? Perhaps. But extinction? Humans are incredibly adaptable, they've lived (and thrived) in areas as challenging as the Kalahari and the high arctic. The Inuit survived arctic winters without even having wood for crying out loud.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

In Soviet Russia:
You dont destroy planet... planet destroys you

John Michael Greer said...

Repent, I know precisely nothing about Guy McPherson, and I certainly wouldn't deny him the right to speak his piece; I think what he's saying is mistaken and actively harmful, but then there are plenty of people who think that about me, too. It's the sudden spread of the extinction fad into the wider culture that has me watching with a frown. As for Druidry, no, I wasn't raised in a Druid family; I grew up in a nonreligious family, and found my way to Druidry after a fairly long pilgrimage through the odd corners of American alternative spirituality. More on this as we proceed.

Lucas, thank you for the tip! It's been way too long since I read Barkun -- I'll have to fix that as time permits.

Joseph, oh, granted. I'm sure it's counted in exponential powers of googolplexes.

M, nicely phrased! Still, it probably can't be helped. The NTE thing, as I commented in the post, is simply the latest rehash of the overnight apocalypse fantasy that the peak oil scene has replayed more times than a bad sitcom. The deeper we get into decline, the more often and the more passionately that fantasy is going to be rehashed, because the alternative is admitting that the game is over and we're heading into the one future most people fear more than extinction. Yes, that's spelled "decline," and it's more frightening because it's not all over in a bang and a flash. You have to live with it, and so do your grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren.

Joseph, endless recalculation of dates is a feature of a lot of apocalypse franchises. It'll be interesting to see how many cycles this one goes through before the believers get bored and head for some more alluring doomsday prophecy.

Bill, exactly. Human beings are right up there with rats and cockroaches in our ability to adapt to different environments, a classic generalist species well adapted to sudden change and disruption. Given the geographic spread and the diversity of environments currently inhabited by Homo sap., too, we're an exterminator's nightmare. I expect global population to bottom out in two centuries or so at well under half a billion people, but that's an ample breeding population for long term survival, to say nothing of the impact of all that Darwinian selection.

Compound F said...

Your recent book NTFWO is remarkably well done; I'm reading it a second time; and the paraphrase, "you never realize an impeccably well-dressed man within the the first five minutes," or something like that.

The first time I read it, I thought, this was what I expected from Greer, as level-headed as a haunting explanation can be. The disparity between the level-headed explanation and reality gripped me further on the second reading.

Intellectually, it's a pleasure to read. If you follow the intellectual argument, it's an emotional creeper, both the book and the overall story described therein.

I used to do experiments training rats to develop an energy expectancy, then thwarted that expectancy in order to observe their incredulity and recovery. Their reflex took only days to play out. Human reflexes of that sort can last years.

Your discussion of the mythy-minded humans was also whetting my appetites.

Anyway, great book. Understated, reverberating writing. Impeccably well-dressed.

Marcello said...

"one only need realize our food production is less than 1% of our energy usage. We have a lot of purse factories, container ships and other nonsensical widget energy expenditures to cut before we die off in some ridiculous zombie filled tragedy."

We live in a capitalist system. There is no benevolent central planner that decides that luxury items must be cut first so that people basic necessities can be met; no more that nobody decided that flour powdered wigs were moronic at a time when malnutrition was widespread.
Nor are people rational in general.
There is no telling of how people might react in western countries where the only prospect for an ever increasing percentage of the population will be a bag of charity food and no heating in winter (if not a cardboard box), while others will still be comfortable or live in luxury.
To say nothing of third world countries like Egypt with expanding populations with nowhere to turn into. I would not rule out people lashing out at the system starting civil wars and such, resulting at the least in the more marginal countries in mass famines and the like as transportation, energy etc. break down and nobody rides to the rescue with humanitarian aid.
We are a lot more dependent on frail, easy to sabotage infrastructure than we have ever been in history. We have generated a lot more expectations than previous societies.
It could get really ugly.
I doubt humanity going extinct is in the cards, but a massive culling lasting few decades is a possibility.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Glad you have not lost your touch with your reading of the runes: a wry pleasure for your readers as well, if I may say so! And a timely reminder from the climate scientist Kevin Anderson - thanks for a good link!

Meanwhile...
The plutocratic tendency, the corporate decision hierarchies, the political strategists and other high-level feeders will not bat an eyelid. They might just draw their PR people attention to the NTE fuss to have a bit of fun with and to check out the opportunities. Hollywood could maybe let a few contracts.

Meanwhile ... BAU ... yes?

On a more serious note: I am reminded recently to think more deeply about rapid acidification of the stratified ocean (CO2 & all that). This one does seem a good reason for industrial humanity to reduce the rate of carbon burning and have a bit more fuel leftover for 'the future'.

best
Phil H


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Emmanuel,

Haha! Beware the triffids...

Hi Stu,

Thanks. It really does work and is amazingly easy to cultivate. All it requires is to have a single chunk of root and it will take from that.

During the past summer I had several well established trial patches of comfrey and they all did well (both edible in small quantities and medicinal too).

If the summer is wet and humid (unlike the past one here), you can cut them back to the ground as mulch and they'll feed the soil and earthworms without causing undue fungal problems on the trunks of the fruit trees. On dry years leave them in place to shade the soil. You just have to adapt to the conditions as they occur.

I have a young grapefruit tree which has comfrey as a companion and it is surprisingly producing heaps of fruit without showing any signs of heat stress and loss of foliage like some other citrus. It was on the recent YouTube update.

It is the very deep and thick root systems of the comfrey plant which give other plants the advantage as they draw both water and nutrients back to the top soil and the leaves rot easily and feed the topsoil. Go hard! I'm taking more cuttings over the next few days as I was about 100 short.

Hi Cathy,

Glad to hear that you are feeling better / stronger. I'm finding more volunteer plants as the diversity increases here. I came across a self-seeded flat leaf parsley today in an unexpected place and the vegetables are heading into the orchard (rocket, mustard and nasturtiums are some of those paving the way). The local council made the job of collecting the volunteer comfrey easier because for some strange reason, they ran a grader blade through the middle of an established comfrey patch and turned a few tens of plants into hundreds of cuttings. Well done, council taxes at work. At least it is better than their blackberry spraying which leaves dry canes (another name for kindling)! Watch out for the triffids though.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Steve,

Yikes! I was on the country train yesterday. What does that mean?

Regards

Chris

Michael Sosebee said...

JMG: "something was going to replace 2012 once that set of prophecies flopped. I suppose we should be grateful that the apocalypse lobby isn't busy insisting that Earth is about to be devoured by a gigantic space walrus with photon flippers."

To equate the findings of the AMEG (Arctic Methane Emergency Group)with Mayan 2012 predictions is a hyperbolic, ad-hominem attack that is typical of most climate denier groups. Disappointed to see that here. From what I understand the earth is shifting to a "new state" and whether that state will continue to support higher life forms, needless to say industrial societies, seems doubtful.

It also seems logical to assume that liberating 400 billion tons of CO-2 into the atmosphere in 150 years, with approx. 50% of that carbon burned in the last 20, may have extreme consequences.

The United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases states: "Beyond 1 degree C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damages." Sobering!

The sweep of changes occurring in earth systems is proceeding at such a rapid clip that there will be little time for speciation or adaptation for most non-generalist species. If we're losing somewhere on the order of 200 species per day our survival is not guaranteed.

What about the Oceans? AT 450 ppm CO-2, most plankton, the basis of the food web as well as the source for 1/2 the earth oxygen will be extinct. The oceans won't be dead as Jeremy Jackson pointed out but rather "de-evolved". The jellies and algaes will proliferate but the species that we love (and have use for) will be gone.

In the long run the earth is going to be fine. The notion that humans won't be around concerns no-one but ourselves.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

The Grima wormtongue analogy was a good one. As a mage in the employ of Saruman, it was a very apt comparison.

Regards

Chris

mkroberts said...

I was disappointed in your answer to Andrea. As she pointed out, you didn't address Guy's points at all other than the conclusion itself.

Guy links to all the science he's used to come to his conclusion, so others can determine for themselves whether he has a case.

He hasn't always had that conclusion but certainly the science seems to paint a worse picture with every research paper.

I, too, admire Guy for walking away from Empire, though I must correct an earlier commenter who thinks Guy's wife left him. She certainly didn't embrace the new lifestyle with glee and often stayed away but I understand that she has now joined him full time. He's done a remarkable thing and is very giving of his time, for free.

Of course, that he seems to be a good guy doesn't validate his conclusion about human extinction. He does mischaracterise bits of the science sometimes and, like most bloggers and educators, is slow to retract, when these mistakes are pointed out. I've tried to say that the future cannot be known for certain and that all sorts of unknowable events may cause the time line to change or the effects to vary from the certainty he portrays.

The environmental problems we've inflicted are serious and science is showing us that we are already having a very significant impact on biodiversity. It's certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that near term human extinction will happen but, at the moment, I'm keeping my fingers crossed (yes, that's all it amounts to).

Finally, just to mention that Guy does not advocate giving up, in the way that some commenters (and yourself) have mentioned. I can see why some would view it that way but Guy has answered that question many times and shouldn't be represented as advocating giving up.

Meanwhile, we've put the levels of carbon in the atmosphere that may not have been "seen" for 3 million years, when temperatures were 3 degrees warmer and seas were much higher (levels were on the way down then and not all the warming for the current level has worked its way through). And we're not going to stop there, no sir. We're aiming for the all time record.

ando said...

JMG wrote:

Tristan, you can see a picture of me in my work clothes here/

JMG, I bet it is hard to rake and hoe in those clothes.

Mac

John Michael Greer said...

Compound F, thank you! It's all the more ironic that one of the core themes the book addresses is being hashed out in the comments right now.

Marcello, some of us currently live in a capitalist system. Very large sections of the planet don't face that hindrance, and it's not exactly hard to see situations in which either populist or elite dictatorships could emerge here and elsewhere, focused on such issues as getting food produced and distributed. Of course you're right that there's every reason to expect sudden disruptions, but there's also every reason to expect drastic measures to be taken in response.

Phil H, yes, in the meantime, BAU. Agreed that ocean acidification is a real issue in the short to middle term -- for that matter, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see deep water anoxia as a major issue soon, if only because that's one of the standard ways the planet sucks excess carbon out of the atmosphere. As I've been saying all along, we're in for a rough ride.

Michael, equating what I'm doing with the behavior of "climate denial groups" could equally well be labeled a hyperbolic ad hominem attack, you know. The point that I'm making and you're missing is that the apocalypse myth hardwired into our culture can and does draw raw material from a dizzying array of sources, including the sciences, to fill slots in a preexisting narrative. In the runup to Y2K, the raw material came from worst-case scenarios taken from computer science; in the runup to 2012, it came from worst-case scenarios peddled by the New Age; in this case, it comes from worst-case scenarios proposed by some climate scientists. The narrative remains the same, and deserves to be discussed and critiqued on its own grounds.

Cherokee, thank you.

Mkroberts, you're missing my point, which is that the facts and factoids used to fill out the standard apocalyptic narrative are no more relevant to the narrative itself than the facts and factoids used to fill out any given speculative bubble are relevant to the trajectory of the bubble. Unless something derails it, the next few years will most likely see NTE turn into a full-blown millenarian frenzy, and become one of the standard excuses used by middle class people across the industrial world for not doing anything about the environment -- after all, if we're all going to die, why bother? I have no reason to think that this is what McPherson has in mind -- in fact, I suspect he'll be horrified as it happens. Still, I don't see much hope of preventing it at this point.

Mac, you'd be surprised. The robe would get a little muddy, is all.

John Michael Greer said...

Andrea (offlist), please read the text above the comment box regarding long screeds and abusive language. If you want to try again, you might consider being civil, and concise.

Raymond Duckling said...

I was just curious about how mainstream this NTE meme has gone so far. So I asked demigod Google for an answer.

1. Search for 'NTE' turns over 21 million hits, but the front page seems dominated by NTE Electronics company.

2. Same story for 'NTE environment'. It turns about 1.3 million hits, but the front page is shared between NTE, the environmental policy, and NTE, the computer administration tool.

3. Surely 'NTE environment' shold be more relevant, but not quite so. It turns 841 thousand hits, and our subject of interest makes it to the front page, but the first few places seems dominated by apocalyptic videogames.

My (admitedly obvious) conclusion is that NTE has not gone mainstream just yet, and it is more the product of the doomer echo-chamber our tribe is so fond of.

The question for JMG would be: How you came to the conclusion that this particular story is going to drive the next apocalyptic bubble?

Unknown said...

I'm alive today because of my body's negative feedback loops that keep my bodily systems from catastrophically running wild. I understand the argument supporting NTE to be that our world ecosystems may have tipped over into a number of positive feedback loops that may make human life on our planet impossible. These positive feedback loops include:
* arctic warming->melting sea ice->greater sun absorption->more warming->more melting->warmer arctic->disruption of the jet stream->severe weather changes
*arctic warming->methane release->increased green house gases->more warming->more methane release
*increased CO2->ocean acidification->reefs and plankton die->decreased sequester of CO2 by these organisms->more CO2->collapse of the oceanic food chain
*warming->weather changes->drought->forest fires->more carbon and less sequestration->more warming
*warmer winters->more insects->dead trees->fires->more carbon and less sequestration->more warming
I observe this last process in the forests that surround me. It is progressing across the west. The others process are in fact happening. We've lost 50% of the world's reefs for instance. There may be other processes we can't see.
It is impossible to put some date on human extinction. It is quite realistic to understand that these big brains of ours, the resultant disconnect from nature and destruction of our ecosystems, might be an evolutionary dead end achieved sooner rather than later.

onething said...

NH Peter,

I made a reply to you on the blog two weeks back. Didn't want to be off topic here.

St. Roy said...

mkroberts:

I am with you in your defense of Guy M. As a fellow scientist, I have exchanged some emails with him and admire his courage to live for what he believes, even if it will only allow him to live a bit longer than the rest of our species. Extinction is normal for all life on planet Earth. It will happen and probably in this century. I like Ernst Mayr: “Humans seem to be intent on confirming the argument that higher intelligence is a lethal mutation”.

jean-vivien said...

Hi John,
I dont know if there is Augustinian or Joachimist elements in that, but I regularly read about recent articles on Slashdot, by university profs who claim that basically the amount of work "available for humans to perform" will decrease per capita.
Some believe it will lead to a Star Trek-like cornucopia, others that it will lead to a large tract of populations unemployed without purpose and all the trouble that arises from this. Not mentionning the dystopian visions of a future totally controlled by machines...
I, for one, do believe that since our models of society are based upon human labour for distribution of wealth, the human labour becoming a scarcer resource will totally upheave the economy, and incidentally screw us in the process :)
I would love to have the insights of an archdruid trained in avoiding the traps of binary thinking. On this subject... hopefully more interesting to you than the sex life of sea slugs. How would the trend of labour scarcity play out compared to the trend of increasing natural resource scarcity - among other things, the so-called Rare Earth Materials, the size of capital R getting bigger over time

A recent example :
http://slashdot.org/story/13/05/16/2122212/rice-professor-predicts-humans-out-of-work-in-30-years
Some actual evidence :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FKMniE_q1Q

BlueTemplar said...

There's a possibility that the current warming would drive Earth into a Venus-like state : http://arctic-news.blogspot.fr/2013/04/earth-is-on-the-edge-of-runaway-warming.html
It still seems quite unlikely, but so was until recently an ice-free summer Arctic before 2050.

What if this is what was going to happen, or even only a warming that made latitudes over 30° unsuitable for complex life-forms (as has already happened in the past)? Wouldn't pre-empting decline in our own little corner not be sufficient to insure survival then? Shouldn't we instead "embrace" NTE as a "hope for the best, plan for the worst" strategy and get out there and fight?

DeAnander said...

They say that species on average live about 100,000 years... if so, H Sap's number may be nearly up :-) maybe it's time to speciate further.

But I agree with JMG and other voices here: we are highly adaptible and hard to kill. I think that some of the NTE handwaving represents a desperate attempt to Wake Up the Masses -- but another chunk of it amounts to an inability to imagine life at any "lower" level of technology or centralisation as livable, or to imagine it at all. The only alternative is mass suicide; which reminds me of J Diamond's haunting anecdote about the Norse colony in Greenland, so determined not to "go native" and adopt the foodstuffs and lifeways of the locals that they perished. Suicide by pig (or in this case cow) headedness.

Some of us will curl up and die rather than live under harsher conditions, give up our cars, learn to walk and row and cycle for transport, eat bugs, grow our own potatoes, chop wood, carry water; and others will do whatever they have to do to stay alive. To tell the truth I'm not entirely sure which I'll be, if indeed the hard choices come w/in my lifetime. But I do think the flexible pragmatists will live to pass on their skills to their kids; so I would expect a much-reduced human population of tough, resourceful, opportunistic gatherer/hunter/gardeners who are really good at exploiting the leftover junk of civilisation for toolage, shelter, etc: H Sap Bricoleur :-) This is, I guess, a completely unacceptable future for many people who imagined their descendants in fancy colour-coded polyester jumpers being beamed about by Scotty and his ilk.

OTOH, to me it's a reassuring future compared to the logical end-state of industrial capitalism: 100 percent Enclosure, 100 percent surveillance, 100 percent monetisation of every possible interaction between people, 100 percent dispossession and deskilling of the general population, 100 percent consumption of all biotic productivity by humans, 100 percent power in the hands of owners/controllers of the money supply, etc. We seem to be at about 75-80 percent on some of these trends right now and frankly, H Sap Bricoleur seems to me a more cheerful future (even in smaller numbers) than H Sap Corporatus Maximus.

I don't really fancy either scenario; for me, the idyllic life was probably an epoch that's already gone by -- like the bucolic backwaters of rural southern England in the 1920s-30s perhaps, or the prosperous 1950's on the remote coast of BC, or perhaps that more distant happy age on the shores of the Black Sea where (per Ascherson in a delightful book) not much of historical interest happened for about 400 years (nice!). But if I had any g-g-grandkids in prospect, I would prefer to see them free-range, roaming, improvising, practising permaculture and foraging and bricolage in small Dunbar-sized bands; not RFID chipped, marinated in mandatory advertising and junkfood from birth, and sentenced to 20 years' servitude in a million-hog CAFO for the crime of having saved and planted some seeds that someone at Syngenta claimed copyright on.

Both extrapolations are kind of scary and maybe a bit silly, but frankly, extrapolating BAU seems even scarier to me than extrapolating descent. I just wish that the gd freight train would slow down some instead of this reckless acceleration (Liberals won recent BC election which means official support for the "Gateway" tar sands pipeline, a disaster on so many levels, don't get me started...) -- I'd like to leave a more functional biosphere to those free-range descendants of ours. From where I sit, I'm thinking "descent already! come on, let's start descending before we do too much more damage."

Michael Sosebee said...

Hi JMG: "The point that I'm making and you're missing is that the apocalypse myth hardwired into our culture can and does draw raw material from a dizzying array of sources, including the sciences, to fill slots in a preexisting narrative. In the runup to Y2K, the raw material came from worst-case scenarios taken from computer science; in the runup to 2012, it came from worst-case scenarios peddled by the New Age; in this case, it comes from worst-case scenarios proposed by some climate scientists. The narrative remains the same, and deserves to be discussed and critiqued on its own grounds."

Thank-you for the well-reasoned response.

I get your point that we are selecting data to support a "pre-existing narrative". However I think you're making false equivalents between Y2K (which BTW billions were spent in preparation for that quantified event which according to JHK was why the crisis passed) and 2012 Mayan calendar nonsense associated with healing crystals and new-age malarkey. What we're currently facing is unprecedented and I think you know it. You're attempts to obfuscate the predicaments (with regard to climate change and population) confuses me. Are you denying data that contradicts your notions of catabolic collapse. That would put you in the position of being dogmatic which is what you accuse the NTE group of doing.

Respectfully ~ Mike Sosebee

Robert C. Guy said...

I hope it is all right, that it's not off topic, but I haven't commented in a long time and wanted to say here that I appreciate your long practiced efforts and energies at maintaining civility in the discussions here and in other places. I know that for myself it has been difficult many times to remain civil and polite in discussion of any topics that meandered close to core faiths and myths in my own life even when expressing myself to folks who would likely agree with most of what I might say. Seeing your actions here and in those other places where I've experienced your efforts to support such civility in discussions have been an example that I feel is a positive impact in my life. Thank you for the timely detour from your current topic of discussion to explore this NTE. Reading your posts and observing the conversations that accompany them has given me many resources to use in conversations with family and friends with varying opinions, who I certainly think kindly of, so I can express myself in kinder and more constructive ways. Even if my beliefs and images of the future are considerably different from theirs. I sincerely thank you for your determination to maintain the politeness of conversation, it's been a pleasant opportunity over the years to learn how to really consider the reasons why hose shapes in the stars might not be a gigantic space walrus who just might not have photon flippers, might be other things worth really considering in ways possibly more constructive than "what to do to protect yourself from a blow from a photon flipper"; but even how to discuss such possibilities with firm believers in photon flippers in kind ways. I wonder how much these patterns of yours we observe here are rooted in deeper mental (perhaps I should call them spiritual) practices that echo themselves elsewhere in your interactions with the living world full of interesting people, animals, plants and other curious living things?

Thank You,
Robert C. Guy

KL Cooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert C. Guy said...

I apologize for a second posting so soon behind the last but I meant to say that I have enjoyed the copy of your book "Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth" that my wife and I picked up from our local book store down the street last week. Now, since posting that last comment, I have just read the line "Even the most intensely personal of your decisions, made in the silence of your own heart and never expressed in any intentional action, radiates outward..."

Again, thank you,
Robert C. Guy

John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, try "near term extinction." I got over three million hits. More generally, though, I'm judging by comparing the NTE blogosphere buzz with the equivalent phenomena in previous apocalyptic fads: a qualitative and subjective judgment, I freely admit, but it's worked before.

Unknown, many of the things you've cited have happened before, repeatedly, in Earth's history. Along with those positive feedback loops, you might consider looking into some of the extreme negative-feedback loops that are currently showing signs of cutting in -- for example, the collapse of the thermohaline circulation leading to worldwide deepwater anoxia, leading to the removal of carbon from the biosphere over a geological time frame.

Jean-Vivien, I've addressed those claims -- which have been being made since before I was born, by the way -- in a number of previous posts. The very short version is that those robots can only exist and function given cheap abundant energy and the other conditions of industrial society, which are going away.

BlueTemplar, for the last half century or more we've heard a constant barrage of proclamations from various leftward groups that now's the time to get out and fight, to borrow your words, as often as not using doomsday claims as motivation. How much good has it done? If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten...

DeAnander, understood! For what it's worth, my best guess is that business as usual has precisely no hope of continuing for more than a few more decades; the model sketched out in The Limits to Growth remains the most accurate prediction we've got so far, and given that we're already in the early stages of the Long Descent, the dreams of technological triumphalism are way past their pull date.

Michael, I quite understand that you disagree with my assessment. I disagree with yours. You're insisting that we have to take this version of the same old apocalypse narrative seriously because it draws its raw material from sources you find respectable; I'm saying that it's still the same old narrative, and will fail to predict the future accurately no matter what claims are used to back it.

Robert, thank you. Oddly enough, we'll be getting to that a little later on in the discussion.

MarinGarden said...

"the failure of climate change activism to make any headway in changing people’s behavior may have more than a little to do with the fact that the people who are urging such changes aren’t making them themselves."

Oh, but they are! Where we live in Marin County California, you often see new luxury SUVs and an occasional Porsche proudly bearing this bumper sticker:
"This car's CO2 is balance by Terrapass"...then a URL that leads to all manner of hucksterism and a pay pal account to help save the world by buying a bumper sticker and planting trees allegedly. The fellow that started this hustle has a really nice Maserati to accompany his Terrapass sticker.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Michael Sosebee:

For me, the point is that a myth remains a myth and functions as a myth in our culture whether it is based on malarkey or on science. Not all myths are necessarily false. Some are, perhaps, true, and yet they remain myths, nothing else. Every myth brings with it its own set of blinders, even true myths.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, thank you! A lot of the themes of this blog are anchored in the ideas I discussed in that book, though I don't make a big deal of that connection here.

MarinGarden, my favorite is still the SUV -- one of the big ones, with all the trimmings -- that rolled past me on a Seattle street some years ago; the bumper sticker on its rear end read "Live Simply That Others May Simply Live." I still wonder about the mix of hypocrisy, ignorance, and sheer lack of reflection that put that particular bumper sticker there...

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Andrea Muhrrteyn

Following on to my previous comment, that every myth brings with it its own set of blinders, it follows that true myths are particularly risky. The blinders that come with an obviously false myth are easily removed.

The blinders that come with a true myth are much harder to remove, and it may well seem downright immoral or unethical to remove them. The blinders may even lead one to claim with great passion that "people should act" according to this or that program, and they also provide the specifics for such a program. But this result, like every strong consensus as to necessary action, is pretty much always maladaptive. Dissensus is far more likely to be a successful strategy for survival.

Unknown said...

My dismay with the environmental movement is that individual members are always harping on someone else "to do something" while offering little for the listener to do themselves.

Perhaps there isn't much we can do individually beyond moving to a walkable community, ditching the car, transforming the ground around you from desert to verdant, etc.

At the same time, there are a lot of people who believe our best option is to make the soil vibrant once again--not only because it may be the cheapest way to knock down CO2 levels--but because of all the other benefits that vibrant soil brings (like real food). Maybe the environmentalists' real message needs to be: ditch the restaurant food and instead buy chemical free produce and animal items that were raised with Allan Savory's rotational grazing methods.

On a side note, I'm currently reading "The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability--Designing for Abundance"
by William McDonough & Michael Braungart. I like their concept that a toxin is an element in the wrong place and if the product's production resulted in toxins being created anywhere in its manufacturing process, it is a design problem. Good design means zero toxins, not simply reducing them or mitigating them later.

John Christian said...

I have been looking a bit at Guy McPhersons talks and also noticed the NTE term being used so casually. He seems to base a lot of this on the extremely rapid warming we will experience the coming 100 years, which could be rather fatal for a lot of species.

The wildcard in all of this is the amount of methane that will be released in the coming years. Those can be a game changer if any of the data on the amount of methane stored are really true. I dont know and havent really read any science about the rate of release we might expect in different scenarios.

But I can understand Guy a bit as well, as you can find snippets like this on e.g. ocean acidification, here a quote from wikipedia:

" The current acidification is on a path to reach levels higher than any seen in the last 65 million years, and the rate of increase is about ten times the rate that preceded the Paleocene–Eocene mass extinction."

Its clear that a lot of things in the ecosystems today are happening at rates 10 times previous mass extinctions. Does that necessary lead to NTE? Its a hard call, as the science linking past experiences to the likelyhood of it happening now seems to miss. At least some firm conclusions are missing - but that might also be because geologists and climate scientists cant really use NTE possibility in their language or the majority of people would view them as nuts and not get anywhere.

But I do think that a number of scientists look at the rate of change as alarming. Just CO2 concentrations in the air is rising at 10 times the rate that the earth came out of the past ice age.

James Hansen also say that there is a many decades of delay in the system with regards to how the climate reacts to higher CO2, which is perfectly understandable as the additative heat absorbed by the earth will grow even at stable CO2 levels. So in that sense, the past 30 years of incredible growth in CO2 emissions is something we have barely tasted the consequences of.

Its clear that the earth is trying to find a new equilibrium with the massive deep sea heat increase the past 30 years too. And no doubt this heat will have a major ecosystem impact on the bottom of the food chain. Again the problem is the rate of change which is exceptional in Earths history.

So don't discount Guy's NTE as being just another round of doomer predictions - but rather try to figure out what the science says with regards to the responses on the big rate of change. I seriously think he is worried about this. And to be frank, climate change NTE is far more believing than asteroids, bible or Mayan calendar ragnarok. That said, I am sure Guy is overestimating the time scale on this - but NTE in 300 years time is still NTE.

Somewhatstunned said...

JMG: "Unless something derails it, the next few years will most likely see NTE turn into a full-blown millenarian frenzy"

My personal prediction is that there's going to be a mighty dustup along the lines of

eco-doomsters vs the singularity buffs

(you heard it here first!)

mkroberts said...

St. Roy,

Thanks for the support. I don't really understand JMG's insistence that if the basic narrative is the same (in this case, end of the world), then it must be wrong regardless of the "facts or factoids" used to fill the narrative. That just makes no sense. If your car's accelerator (gas pedal) is stuck and the steering broken, then you are going to go off that cliff, unless you run out of fuel well before hand. That is, the facts actually do make a difference to whether the narrative reflects reality.

Whilst I do agree with him that the future is unknown (which I think is what he's saying) that also applies to his predictions (though I think that's why he prefaced this essay with a prediction of his that turned out more or less right) in general.

I also agree with JMG that the worst predictions of scientists have been used to construct the narrative. However, positive feedbacks would definitely result in the narrative being correct, even if the time-line was wrong. I've read a number of people, who are not prone to wild fantasy, who think the human extinction is on the cards for either this century or next. Looking at the damage we're doing to the environment, in so many ways (the vast majority of the planet's eco-systems show signs of human-induced stress), I don't think it's possible to gain too much insight from past civilisational collapses. Without this environmental damage, I'd be right on board with JMG's long decline. With the environmental damage, I think there is ample reason to suspect that the problem could pile up much more quickly than JMG imagines.

Marcello said...

"it's a dangerous conclusion that suicide is the rational responce to anticpating the end."

Why? If industrial civilization cannot be supported in the long term and world population is way beyond what can be sustained without it then some middle aged urbanite killing himself when things start to go down the tubes is not that irrational or harmful in the greater scheme of things. More scarce land, firewood etc. available for everyone else.It won't be more than a minority anyway, even in famines and the like people don't kill themselves en masse.

onething said...

All broccoli and no desert? Here's some bits from the intro to a book about Irish fairy lore, that tells us what we lost. I've long thought that much of what we think we "enjoy" in modern life doesn't really make us happy:

Within a single lifetime Ireland has changed from a predominantly rural to an urban society. This fact underlies all...the specialized knowledge of hay making, horse lore, hand turf cutting house dances, trades such as smith, shoemaker, tailor, harness maker, weaver, cooper, thatcher...There are no tinkers traveling in the old way any more. Their trade is no longer needed because of the prevalence of plastic.
There are no traveling beggar men or women now, either. These were the people who brought stories and ballads from place to place and entertained in return for their overnight keep.
Cattle fairs are no more, replaced by large, bureaucratic cattle marts. These street fairs attracted all kinds of performers, ballad singers, reciters, musicians, fortune-tellers, etc. All gone!
Poteen making is almost extinct: There's no need for it when everyone can afford whiskey.
The factual has become more pressing (rules, regulations of all kinds) at the expense of the imaginative.
The fields, the roads, aren't being walked nearly as much anymore. One might travel fifty miles at night now in rural Ireland and never meet a single pedestrian. The younger generation knows practically nothing about the personal landscape around them, despite environmental education in school
Cuaird (night visiting) is gone, and with it, storytelling.
Meitheal, (communal farmwork) is gone, with the growth of the money economy and the consequent ability to buy services and machinery.
Most things have become immediate - light, heat, communication, food. This has changed people's perspective on time. Yet, ironically, today people constantly complain of never having enough time.
The invasion of quiet, personal time and places by technology (mobile phones, Walkmans and television) has been relentless.

derekthered said...

"a scorched and looted planet" hmm..
you seem to make fun of the NTE crowd, but then you seem to come to the same conclusion.

i think that we as a species are in for some rough sledding, there's no question of that, stands to reason, total extinction? dunno, it would have to get really bad.

there's a difference between us and other species that have gone extinct, we are smarter, that's it in a nutshell.

we make tools, there are a lot of leaf springs around in junkyards, make a decent makeshift weapon; or shovel for that matter. lot's of car bodies that would really make good frameworks for underground housing.

it will be water that will be the problem, clean water, but then, there will be plenty of charcoal from raging wildfires for use as filters.

look on the bright side, that's what i say.

i do agree that many of these movements, NTE included, follow a similar trajectory, but i wouldn't discount them because of that, could just be our way, doesn't mean they are wrong. i think we tend to over-analyze.

human beings have been running up against what i term "competing imperatives" for quite some time now; w/o going into it i will just say that this condition is readily apparent.

Glenn said...

Too many cars have a "Kyoto, we can't get there by car" bumper sticker. But it doesn't fit it on my bicycle and I don't want to put a bumper sticker on my rowboat. Perhaps embroider it on a backpack...

Glenn
Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, helping soil recover is definitely a good step, but I'd encourage you to start with your own yard: tear out the grass, and put in a vegetable garden and plants that feed native pollinators, and you've made a small but definite contribution right there.

John, an accurate description of the limited and murky knowledge we've got about where the current wave of ecological change is headed amounts to "we just don't know." Does that mean that NTE is possible? Sure. Does it mean that it's certain? Not a chance. It's the claim that it's inevitable, and the implication -- which is already being made -- that this means we might as well just go on consuming, that I object to.

Stunned, I could easily see that.

Marcello, there are historical examples of mass suicides; they're usually driven by the conflict between some culturally important belief system and the facts. I could see a lot of that in the years immediately ahead. Mind you, if people really want to take that way out, I have no complaint; I'd just like to make sure that people realize it's not the only option!

Onething, I'll talk next week about how nostalgia of the kind you've presented ends up supporting the status quo. More on this shortly.

Derek, that phrase was describing the ideas of the environmental movement, not expressing my own views. As for NTE, I spent most of 2011 and 2012 writing about hundreds of previous social movements that made equivalent claims on every imaginable basis, and they all had two things in common. The first is that they all predicted the end of the world; the second is that they were all wrong. If it quacks like a duck...

Glenn, exactly.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Sorry, JMG and others: I now realize I was inaccurate last week, when posting in defence of St Augustine. Augustine's thesis is that the Temporal City must not be taken as of ultimate importance, since our homeland is elsewhere. I inaccurately paraphrased the thesis by comparing the Temporal City to a time-wasting Spielberg film.

On pondering Spielberg at breakfast this morning, I realized that I had been promoting a theologically dubious "contemptus mundi".

Unqualified contempt for the secular world cannot be a position of the best Catholic theologians, even though some in the Church have promoted it, forgetting the Gospel of John ("God so loved the world...").

What I would now suggest as a sound guide, indeed as a sound gloss on John, is some work of Julian of Norwich. This mediaeval anchorite had a vision in which the secular world was a thing the size of hazel nut, held in the palm of the Father. In her vision, Julian says, "But it is so small and weak; is it not simply going to perish?" She thereupon hears a voice telling her that the hazel-nut thingie is loved, and therefore will be conserved.

I would privately speculate that this being-conserved is compatible with the social-breakdown miseries that we narrowly escaped in October of 1962, and again with the miseries plausibly depicted in the JMG new-dark-ages fiction "Star's Reach", and yet is incompatible with NTE. I would also urge that this being-conserved helps make meaningful our own efforts at constructive civic action in the secular realm, for instance when we act civically in JMG's Green Wizardry framework.

Although I have not seriously read St Augustine for years, I cannot believe that he would have forgotten John or would dissent from Julian. It is basically like this, that we have to acknowledge the importance and worth of the visible, secular world (Augustine's
"Temporal City"), and our duty of constructive civic action in that world, even while admitting that our actual homeland (sometimes the Latinists write "Patria") is the Eternal City.

A trained theologian, which I am not, would here add something about the Incarnation and the need to see the Temporal City as somehow not negated, but rather eventually taken up into and fulfilled in, the Eternal City. The best theologians would no doubt say that this is a "mysterium fidei" and that attempts to spell it out as a Tim LaHaye Rapture risk vulgarizing it.

One part of theology probably consists in demonstrating, with logic and with evidence marshalled from Hebrew and Greek philology, Middle-Eastern archaeology, comparative religion, and general anthropology, biology, and physics, that on these-and-these points we cannot in the current state of scholarship and science say more.



(signed)
Toomas (Tom) Karmo
near Toronto, Canada
www dot metascientia dot com

Hal said...

I don't claim to know enough about the many complex regulatory feedback loops that maintain our planetary environmental conditions, but it just seems to me that the probability of total global extinction of such a widespread and imbedded organism as ours has just got to be very, very small. And as dire and absolutely serious as the possible effects on the functions of those material and energy loops must be, bringing extinction into the discussion just strikes me as silly.

There, I said it. Silly. I mean Monty Python silly.

What is serious, and makes the whole discussion stupid, is that there is a LOT of territory between where we are and extinction. Territory occupied by all manner of mass starvation, war, lawlessness, despair, human exploitation, and self-abuse. I'm not knowing enough to predict any of those, either, but it just seems there are a lot more realistic things to worry about, and the probability of any of them have got to be a lot higher than the probability that no reproducing Homo sapiens will be left alive in a few years.

The 1918 Great Influenza was the greatest human disaster to strike in recent times. It was enough to cause widespread panic and temporary loss of civil rights in the US. It killed about 3% of the world's population.

The Romans practiced "decimation" on their own soldiers for discipline. Apparently the threat of killing a tenth was enough to keep them mostly in line.

Again I don't know a lot, but it doesn't take much for me to add up that trying to feed 7 billion on a continually decreasing agricultural product and with the many effects of climate change is going to cause losses higher than either of those. Over a manageable time period it is hoped, but can anyone imagine what it would be like to lose half if the loss occurred over a short period? How about three quarters? 99%? That would still leave millions of humans on Earth, a number that existed for most of human history.

It would probably be described as a living Hell for anyone that lived through it, but it would be far from extinction. Sounds like enough of a threat to my simple mind.


Yes, the NTE crowd seems to have identified a lot of really serious problems that could have dire effects on whole human populations over a fairly short period. But what purpose does arm-waving and shouting about extinction serve?

It occurs to me that the message that the NTE people ought to be putting across given their beliefs ought to be, "You are probably going to die within the next few decades." Again, I don't have enough info to assess that claim, but it really is all they can honestly say, given their conclusions. How is that different from "We're all going to die!" Well, it seems to me that the latter puts it into the realm of fantasy, into the abstract, into the out-of-the-way box of we can't do anything about it. And that's just a recipe for moral cowardice.

Such a silly detour for such a serious subject.

derekthered said...

JMG, OK. no offense.

i read NBL's predictions some months ago, a bit hard to take, hard to confirm until it happens.

i stand by my statement, a massive die-off? i have no problem seeing that. before i ever heard of any of this line of thought i had already thought about it. maybe growing up during duck and cover has a lot to do with it, or i'm just some sort of god-damned genius!

i still say that unless we reach Archean conditions people will survive, some people, somewhere.

every highway overpass is a potential earth-bermed shelter, processed metals are all around us, a person will just have to have the knowledge and ingenuity to use what's available.

what scares me more than climate change is biological experimentation, the possibility that some scientist will splice the wrong genes together and they will get loose.

we really have our choice of apocalypse, now don't we?

another very real danger is simply loss of knowledge, our society is built brick upon brick of knowledge collected over the millennia, if the knowledge base is destroyed it will take equally as long to rebuild.

we can but hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Ruben said...

@somewhatstunned

If the eco-doomsters I know are any indication, we are firmly ignoring the singularity buffs, because they so patently have their head stuck in the wrong end of their digestive passage.

Phil Harris said...

About Ireland and thoughts about coming times see Colin Campbell the old geologist who rang a bell on Peak Oil. (Great pics BTW of crashed out parts of British urban landscapes.)
http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5315
QUOTE “I am too old to do much, but live modestly in an Irish village. My wife however is actively trying to introduce allotments here by which people can feed themselves. We do have a solar panel on the roof, providing hot water from about May to October. If the sun doesn't shine I don't wash.”

Tracy G said...

Concerning men and their vehicles...

I'm remembering the very first date with my husband. We met on our bicycles, taking off together on a most pleasant ride. Even leaving aside what a taut pair of cycling tights might reveal, the sight of a man's legs pumping the pedals, with his cardiovascular system plainly and cheerfully keeping apace, can certainly stir the imagination of even the most innocent young woman. ;-) Speaking from experience.

On the actual topic at hand...

I hadn't heard of the NTE phenomenon prior to reading about it here. Since then, for the past few days, I've been asking myself, "Regardless of all his successful past predictions, what if JMG is totally wrong about this one?" So, I've been imagining my dying: dying within the upcoming decade in a horrible conflagration of out-of-control environmental feedback loops, dying unmolested in my sleep at the venerable age of 100, dying of cancer three years hence at the same age my mother succumbed, dying less than an hour from now in a freakish accident, and so on.

What I find is that changing the scenario doesn't change what I want in the end. When I let go in that final moment, what I most want to feel is a sense of peace that I lived my life with a respectable degree of integrity. I want a sense that I came to know myself really well, that I was of good service to others, and that I was and will always be part of the Whole.

The strategies for achieving that, and the attitudes I need to cultivate and the tasks I need to work on each day toward those aims, remain essentially the same regardless of the details surrounding the cause of my death.

John Michael Greer said...

Toomas, my read of Augustine is that he was a little too prone to the contemptus mundi you've quite rightly criticized here; it's one of the things that makes Augustinian thought, especially in fractured and rewritten forms, so tempting to those who hate the status quo.

Hal, that seems quite reasonable to me. To judge by historical examples, the decline and fall of a civilization is a brutal experience; it's entirely possible, for example, that twenty years from now a quarter of the world's human population could be dead, amid scenes of a kind very few people alive today have ever witnessed. I'll talk about that as we proceed.

Derek, seven billion people on a planet that can probably support one billion permanently pretty much guarantees dieoff, and lots of it. There are plenty of ways that it could happen, but my bet is still on those four guys on horses.

Phil H., thanks for the link!

Tracy, true enough. Death is the one inevitable event in all our lives; the only uncertainties are the timing and the method. Wasn't it Socrates who said that philosophy was the art of learning how to die? As for bicycles, there's a meme I'd like to see get more circulation!

BlueTemplar said...

Sure, environmental groups often failed by trying to scare others into changing... but have their arguments ever been as compelling as the threat of runaway global warming is now? Superstorm Sandy is still fresh in the minds of many Americans and I would bet these kinds of events only will get worse from here. 350.org seems to be getting more successful by the day. And the stakes have never been higher.

mkroberts said...

A few of the criticisms here, of NTE, seems to amount to incredulity. Things aren't too bad, at the moment, are they? So 2-3 decades seems like it's too close for human extinction. There are a lot of us and we're smart so human extinction seems unlikely.

They're the kinds of arguments I used to use against AGW, back in the days when I was a fervent denier. But they aren't arguments. Even JMG's argument that the final chapter is the same as those other failed predictions so this one has to fail too, is almost the same type of argument.

I don't believe it either. NTE seems too far fetched. But when just about every piece of scientific research about our environment shows it heading downwards, I've got to say that NTE doesn't seem completely unlikely. Even with climate change, the most recent research suggests that total planet warming (including the oceans) has accelerated, though we've been lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that surface warming has slowed markedly over the last 15 years.

I don't think NTE is something to be dismissed. Someone asked what the point of presenting it is. Well, it certainly marks a very likely outcome of following our current living arrangements and so should be a powerful driver for changing them.

pansceptic said...

NTE came onto my radar just last week, so I apprecieate JMG providing a forum for curteous and intelligent disscussion of the topic.

I'll note that JMG started his essay by establishing his predictive credibility, so I'll do the same. I considered it unlikely that I would get nuked in the 60s (MAD is a valid concept), didn't buy into the Y2K excitement, nor the 2012 hoopla. That said, about 1971, while a geology major in college, I read a research piece on the increase in atmospheric CO2 to that time, and possible implications. It took me just a few days to think it through, that it would probably result in humanity pretty quickly reversing the environmental conditions that permitted our evolution.

JMG mentioned homeostasis; that is exactly the mechanism I projected out. The deposition of the coal and petroleum/natural gas was due to planetary conditions that favored carbon removal from the biospere and atmosphere; if humans put the bulk of that carbon back into the atmsophere, it will cause a return of the conditions that favored their original deposition. Those conditions are not favorable for humans.

Emmanuel Goldstein-
You are quite correct; photosynthetic organisms have changed the environment on a plantary scale. The Earth's early atmosphere was high in methane and ammonia; photosynthetic plants removed the ammonia and replaced the CO2 with biomass and oxygen. This permitted the rise of oxygen-using animals.

Phil Harris-
"Climate Change as a subject is not such a big deal here in Britain." As it turns out, one of the possible early climatic disruptions may be thermohaline circulation. If the Gulf Stream diminishes, changes course, or stops flowing, Britain is in a WORLD of hurt.

Vera, beneaththesurface-
I will aknowledge tha Guy McPherson seems to be very pessimistic, or should I say, way to early in his time lines. As a scientist I am uncomfortable with his certainty and short timeframe, but I appreciate that he is inspiring conversation.

Mean Mr Mustard-
Your comment on the partial failure of the rapeseed crop touches on one of McPherson's arguments: relatively small perturbations of atmospheric (in this case, the jet stream) or oceanic circulation can have immediate dire effects on food production in an overpopulated world.

JMG-
"Human beings are right up there with rats and cockroaches in our ability to adapt to different environments, a classic generalist species well adapted to sudden change and disruption. Given the geographic spread and the diversity of environments currently inhabited by Homo sap., too, we're an exterminator's nightmare. I expect global population to bottom out in two centuries or so at well under half a billion people, but that's an ample breeding population for long term survival, to say nothing of the impact of all that Darwinian selection." That is all true, but as I understand him, one of McPherson's arguments is that most of the other species that humans depend on for their survival are not such adaptable generalists.

For what it's worth, a slow decline and a Green Wizard future seems like the virtuous triumphing after a purifying ordeal...a utopian Golden Age if you will. We all need a measure of myth and denial in order to keep going in the face of mortality.

DeAnander said...

This discussion of societal collapse vs NTE suddenly lit up a big bright flashbulb for me. Maybe I'm out to lunch here, but it occurred to me that NTE is one way of avoiding the two wretched alternatives of Survivor Guilt and Personal Persecution.

It allows us to believe that if we personally are going to perish from the side effects of empire and industrialism (all blended and spiced up with a truly OCD worship of notional money!), well, at least everyone else is too -- it'll be *fair.* I won't be "unlucky" or singled out in any way, because everyone's going with me. There will be no one to envy, and no point in trying to strategise or plan.

Or, conversely, it allows us not to worry about our own present and near-term privilege, our consumption, the bennies of being on the right end of the wealth pump, all the people who are being exploited so that we can wallow in panem et circenses: hey, "we will all go together when we go" so I don't have to feel any of the guilt associated with present injustice.

NTE renders us all equal in a weird way, which imho lazily evades many pressing moral issues. "The ship is sinking and we're all gonna drown, so who cares if I'm picking your pocket [or worse]?"

DeAnander said...

Re: Terrapass

CheatNeutral.Com

I can say no more.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

It's a curious feature of industrial civilisation and the marketplace of ideologies that it is able to host that it can support so many world-views predicated on the feeling of "I told you so". This is what always strikes me about millenarian groups—their hopes are not so much directed toward the future life of bliss itself, as they are to a day when they will have an opportunity to say "I told you so". Ostensibly the ideology is about being good, but it's really about being right.

This is not a feature that, say, Austro-aboriginal Dreamtime "ideology" can afford to exemplify. The Dreaming can assume that it is unchallenged, and thus the whole balance of its significance is swung into making life as it is lived now—in this particular place and time—possible, enjoyable, and meaningful. Generally speaking, it seems unwise to anchor your identity on a tangible prediction, and make your self-worth rise and fall on whether or not you have been right.

That's how I am taking this week's post at any rate, since I just wrote a long post for my own blog on the Western commitment to the Uniformity of Truth and the Adequacy of Language, since it seems that this is the only context in which religious worldviews anchored so completely in "I told you so" make all that much sense.

http://thesacrificinganimal.blogspot.com

This is the essay.

Adam Names a Sparrow

In which my sister's friends grow tired of labels, India is partitioned, Aristotle conquers the world, a madman relieves the siege of Fort Stanwix, John Dee is cuckolded in pursuit of Adamic language, a sparrow is named, and I try to explain why I have some culpable sympathy for postmodernism

Props to you, JMG for continually emphasising—(as Beowulf might have it)—the great abyss between words and deeds. We are so wrapped up in whether we are right or wrong, and so committed to the thesis that our own true self has no relation to what we actually DO, that we forget: All the best arguments come from people who wake up one day and start living differently.

Lidia17 said...

JM, you said "It seems to me that the whole point of NTE is justifying inaction -- why bother to change your life when we're all just going to die anyway?"

Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? McPherson went the sustainability route a good while until he saw that the scientific evidence had become overwhelming that there’d be no chance of sustaining human civilization, nor would there be much of what remains of the rest of the biosphere as we currently know it.

Your objection seems to be teleological in that you reject the science because you don't like the story that it tells, preferring your own story. Furthermore, your comment seems to imply that it's appropriate for scientific information to have a political or sociological "point".

I simply find that bizarre.

Humans will, or will not, survive a minimum 4-to-6-degree-C rise in overall temperature within the current century and the concomitant acidification of the oceans, increase in ozone and methane, and so forth. I think they will not. The fact that there were forests in the Artic and Antarctic at one point in the past does not mean that these ecosystems will have the chance to develop given the extremely short artificial shifts in temperature that we have perpetrated. The BBC wrote, ridiculously, about how—if carbon constraints could be implemented—plants and animals would gain “four more decades” in which to “adapt” (i.e, evolve). A bacterium can undergo meaningful evolution in four decades. A tree or a mammal, not so much…

Sea level rise (singled out by several commenters here) is really the least of our worries, except for the many nuclear power plants which will Fukushimize in short order.

None of this negates catabolic collapse, mind you.
More than one process can express itself at a given time.

In closing, I don’t like the story that NTE tells either. I’ve been following your blog for many years, I respect your grasp of history and your attempts to explicate this crisis. I certainly prefer your story. However, as a trained scientist, I know that my druthers don’t count and that I have to follow the evidence where it leads, despite more appealing social narratives, especially those where humans remain the protagonists.

Diane said...

Thanks JMG your a good man.

I think perhaps discernment is one of the first things we should perhaps pop into our tucker bag, as we begin our journey down the long descent.

I am getting old, I may one day just get up and walk out into my beloved bush until I find my final resting place, or I may hang around to give a helping hand to those around me for as long as I can, both I see as viable choices but as i said i am getting old.

My concern is that we need to listen very carefully to what is being said, to not allow or fears and emotions drive our judgement and be very aware of our audience. In the last century we saw how listening to closely to the siren song of a madman, led to an orgy of mass destruction
Many of the audience for NTE are young males, who are beautiful, sensitive beings, who can take what is being said to heart, and unfortunately often act on literally, in a way that those of us who are little older are able to stand back from, to be a little more discerning and see a few more options.
I am not suggesting we mask the truth, just wait until it actually happens before suggesting dire solutions.
Diane

Lidia17 said...

JMG:"Michael, I quite understand that you disagree with my assessment. I disagree with yours. …it's still the same old narrative, and will fail to predict the future accurately no matter what claims are used to back it."

Again, you are putting the cart (the NARRATIVE) before the horse (the facts on the ground). And besides, isn't your intransigence a violation of the sort of mental triangulation you seem to encourage in your Druidical adepts as well as others who would practice such enhanced forms of mental hygiene?

Sosebee and McPherson posit "abrupt collapse" and you say, no: slower, stair-step catabolic collapse. Is there a different, third, option or not? The possibility of a third option does not obviate either the first or the second options, N.B. I would maintain, as I pointed out earlier, that the third option is that processes can be taking place in parallel;: one process need not exclude another. More than one story can be revealing itself at a given time.

Lidia17 said...

@Diane: "Many of the audience for NTE are young males, who are beautiful, sensitive beings…"

Diane, peace be with you, but that really swears with my experience in following Prof. McPherson's blog, where at least half of the most important and active commenters are older women, who contribute greatly given their varied life experiences. I am talking in particular about Gail, Kathy C and Erin/BCNurseProf. Male commenters are equally experienced in life's vagaries: Daniel, ulvfugl, dairymandave, Paul Chefurka, The Real Dr. House, etc. I'm sure I am leaving many out, especially commenters from the past. None of them are youngsters. I really don't know where you get the basis for your opinion as I don't see many young people at all commenting on the Nature Bats Last blog.

P.S. In my neighborhood the young males tend to be thugs, not "beautiful sensitive beings". YMMV.

PhysicsDoc said...

A quick glance at a plot of human population versus time for the last 10,000 years or so, or some other correlated metric of change, (e.g. CO2 concentration)should convince anyone that we are living in a time that is unique and unprecedented. Comparing the current situation with past civilizations like Rome is not valid. I am not drinking the NTE cool aid with gusto yet, but I also think that a rapid collapse/change is not ruled out. I don't think anyone really knows what will happen in the next 50 to 100 years, but sticking with science and objective analysis is our best hope.

John Michael Greer said...

BlueTemplar, in my lifetime, every single campaign to scare people into following some political agenda has insisted "the stakes have never been higher." If you always do what you've always done...

Mkroberts, er, you may want to reread my post. I started out by agreeing that humanity will go extinct someday, and could possibly do so soon. It's when people start insisting that it will inevitably go extinct by 2030 that science has been replaced by an overfamiliar myth, because that statement cannot be justified by any current scientific knowledge.

Panskeptic, human beings can eat a remarkable range of things; there are several countries in the world in which rat is a major protein source, and insects are very nourishing as well. If you want to say that modern industrial civilization won't survive a significant environmental change, I'm not arguing -- in fact, I've been saying that all along. By the way, you might want to take a closer look at research into the deposition of fossil carbon; the deepwater anoxic event we're well on the way to causing in the oceans generally is a major carbon sink (anoxic events triggered by greenhouse effects are where most of today's oil reserves come from) and it's not inimical to vertebrate life on land, as any brontosaur could tell you.

DeAnander, hmm! You may be right. As for CheatNeutral, very funny!

Heraclitus, thank you. A solid essay, btw.

Lidia, you've done an extraordinary job of standing what I've said on its head. Is extinction possible? Of course, and I said so in my post. The point with which I take issue, as I said in very clear terms, is whether it's inevitable. The knowledge we presently have cannot justify that claim, and those who are making it are thus clearly following the lead of something other than objective scientific knowledge. I've suggested that the "something other" is a mythic narrative hardwired into our culture, which has popped up at regular intervals for a couple of thousand years and used every imaginable set of claims as raw material. If you want to argue with that claim, by all means, but evading the claim and trying to insist I've said something I haven't is not exactly a convincing form of argument, you know.

Diane, exactly. Say "we might go extinct" and you may be able to motivate constructive action. Say "we will inevitably go extinct" and you guarantee that nothing good will come out of it.

Lidia, since the facts on the ground do not justify the claim of inevitable extinction, the question of where that narrative comes from is obviously worth raising. As for third options, er, have you forgotten all those people out there who insist that we can fix it all with geoengineering, or what have you? It's the same old "progress or catastrophe" narrative, to which I'm trying to present an alternative -- and it's par for the course that those who, like you, are rehashing a familiar trope would accuse me of "intransigence" for not meekly falling into line behind the same old myth in its latest dress.

PhysicsDoc, good heavens -- you of all people should know that a difference in scale is not necessarily a difference in kind, especially when you haven't shown that the process under discussion (e.g., the fall of a civilization) are influenced by the variable whose change in scale you've noted. To say "X is happening at the same time as Y, and X is unprecedented" proves nothing about Y. Are you sure you haven't sipped that koolaid?

Lidia17 said...

JMG:"The knowledge we presently have cannot justify that claim, and those who are making it are thus clearly following the lead of something other than objective scientific knowledge."

How can you make this far-flung absolutist claim? There is ample evidence (and a 97+% concurrence among scientists) that current global warming is man-made. That it threatens human existence as well as the existence of most other species is not really in question, is it? What is your competing evidence that the threat to the biota we depend on is purely political or ideological? What's the "something other" that you perceive as a nefarious force behind the current science?

========
I see you calling the possibility of human extinction, "the latest apocalyptic fad” and that, were it to come about, it would be most likely through a “stray asteroid with enough mass, or a few rearranged codons in some virus nobody’s heard about yet, could do the job quite readily”, not anything within our current ecological or energy-assessment purview. Why not, though? Why do you rule that out?

You say “the arguments used to defend that claim amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome.” What the Sam Hill does that even mean? The scientific reports are either valid or invalid, If you feel they are invalid, please mount a contrary explanation. Your statement that “claim[s] amount to nothing more than an insistence that worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcome” is tendentious and tautological, saying that, seeing as bad news only tends to promulgate bad news, we must reject bad news out of hand as being suspect of being bad news.

"[T]he facts on the ground do not justify the claim of inevitable extinction," Here we must definitively part ways, as I see ample indications that human life will be hard-pressed to survive the ecological and climactic shifts in our future. Again, I WANT to believe in a future where humans survive and maintain an active and engaged civilization. I just find the possibility increasingly unlikely in the face of sheer facts (as opposed to wishful thinking).

Lidia17 said...

"…evading the claim and trying to insist I've said something I haven't is not exactly a convincing form of argument, you know. "

I'm evading a claim? I've only ever cited what you yourself have written and responded to it, if you were to be fair about things.

I don't really know what your "claim" is, other than "human extinction is unlikely because I'm not convinced of it."

JMG: "the facts on the ground do not justify the claim of inevitable extinction." Please elaborate, do.

GuRan said...

I feel compelled to weigh in here on the NTE thing: mkroberts and lunab777 in particular.

Yes, climate change is really bad, and likely to be worse than we imagine. But as others have said, it's a huge leap to the conclusion that human extinction will happen as a result.

I believe JMG's point is that the NTE narrative doesn't deserve consideration, not because the climate change case is overstated (it's probably understated, at least the IPCC has consistently understated it so far), but because
a) there is no basis for the conclusion that "therefore human life will be impossible and we will become extinct", and
b) in a lot of people's minds, the extinction concusion is a reason to give up and do nothing, ie, very maladaptive.

Just because humans haven't lived on a planet that warm doesn't mean we can't it only means it hasn't been tried (because the planet hasn't been that warm since we evolved). As others have noted, we're very adaptable and there will be a lot of new ecosystems.

The extinction of industrial civilisation should not be conflated with the extinction of the species, or taken as "there's no reason to live then".

That feeling in the pit of your stomach is a crisis of faith.

Cheers,
Graeme

Phil Harris said...

@pansceptic
Sorry you misunderstood my point about "climate change not being such a big deal here in Britain". I was not clear enough. I should have said "the debate about climate change is not such a big deal here in Britain compared with say USA". I think there is more acceptance here that climate change is a reality, but the implications are still not addressed. Britain of course is affected, but any regional results are hard to predict in any detail.
best
Phil H

mkroberts said...

JMG, I reread the piece of your post that you referred to. yes, you did say that humans will go extinct someday and it could even happen quite soon. However, this latter statement then talked about asteroid strikes and the like. What Guy McPherson and Dr Malcolm Light are talking about is that extinction is all but assured in "short order" due to human induced climate change. Whilst I agree that exact timing of that extinction unknowable (even though Malcolm Light appears to get it down to decimal places, that is just an average across the globe and hemispheres), it seems as though you were dismissing the notion simply because of the ending being seen as fairly close (within 2-4 decades). If I'm still alive in 15 years, I'd be surprised to see extinction looming within a couple of years (I'm in the southern hemisphere, so would be able to observe the northern hemisphere extinction, assuming there was some way of seeing what was going on then). But, given the contents of the narrative, not the ending only, this won't be a December 21st, 2012 type of prediction. It would be fairly obvious well before extinction that we're in that kind of situation.

So I don't think NTE can be simply lumped together with those failed apocalyptic prophecies; it is, I think, of a very different kind of prediction - one that we would be able to see unfolding well before the supposed date of extinction.

It's easy to dismiss it, I suppose, but what I'd prefer to see is a science based (or, at least, rationally based) argument that shows the science behind the prediction is wrong.

TIAA said...

Oh, I can fill in your wonderment over the sticker and the SUV. Take George Soule, Mayflower compact signer, fast forward through a string of his ancestry crawling west across the prairies, brushing natives aside as you go, fourteen short generations later. Ever heard of Soule Steel? Now take my mother, his great some descendant, raised red blooded and ranch style, before indoor plumbing was an easy way of life. Comes of age in the sixties, SF Haight Ashbury. Now fast back and downward through counter culture rebellion, seeking natives out southwest to revive something lost inside. Go primitive or at least try, but after failing, fall lock step back into the mainstream lie.

The child of that end journey some two hundred plus years later will put that sticker on her SUV and pay the price demanded to live both the truth and the lie.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

The light bulb went on today and it seems to me that from the dialogue with you last week about the monetary system that perhaps your example is one mechanism through which that monetary system comes back into balance with the natural (ecological) systems? There is no escape!

It makes a great deal of sense too and I think people are confused about this issue in general because they invest magical value in the monetary system when in fact it's value is transitory and depends heavily on what others will exchange for real products and/or services?

This forum certainly keeps the brain working!

A month or so ago I mentioned that we were making scrumpy here from wild apples. It is interesting stuff as it is not dissimilar from the methodology behind apple cider vinegar with the exception that it also contains ginger. It still has another month or so to mature, but it is getting there. Some may find it to be an unusual taste, but it definitely now has strong apple overtones. I've added it this weekend to some pickled onions and Sauerkraut (both red and green cabbages in different batches), so it will be interesting to see how it all turns out. There is a lot of history behind fermented foods and it is an interesting method of food preservation.

The wind turbine mast is progressing too. I spent most of the day drilling into the very heavy duty steel, but it is now mostly done and tomorrow should see a bit of arc welding and then onto the paint phase. The low sun plus cloudy and rainy weather in he past week here is starting to lower the battery storage. It's a bit like death by a thousand cuts!

Regards

Chris

JP said...

What all of the proponents of extinction forget is that when faced with starvation, people often resort to an excellent source of nourishment than is normally overlooked in modern society.

Long pig.

See recent research on Jamestown for details.

David Myer-Seaman said...

JMG, while it may be possible that the NTE version of climate change is not going to happen, I think it is foolish of you to dismiss it as unlikely, seeing that the warnings come from climate scientists and not apocalypse junkies. You are talking about how it works as cultural narrative, but this isn't a culturally-derived theory, is it? It's based on the realization by climate scientists that the original climate science and models were too optimistic, as judged by actual measurements of actual weather. And by the way, "the earth has been warm before" is a pretty poor rebuttal - actually right out of the standard anti-science handbook. It looks a heck of a lot more like your narrative is the one being threatened by the evidence, cultural insights and peak oil wisdom notwithstanding.

JP said...

Here's a peak oil link for you, JMG.

Regarding a recent peak oil conference in the Middle East:

http://fabiusmaximus.com/2013/04/11/hirsch-peak-oil-49874/#more-49874

(I don't really know what that blog is about, but it sometimes has entertaining articles)

Steve Morgan said...

So out of curiosity I went to Guy M's site and read through his distractingly hyperlinked text on the state of the science. I actually followed many of the hyperlinks to try to find out if they said what he said they said. Based on my reading, it's an awful lot of mental acrobatics to draw the conclusions he does from the sources he cites. Besides which, many of the links in his piece simply refer to other blogs, most of which don't show their work on how they got from A to B. It's one thing to say "The IEA predicts we'll burn enough carbon to reach 450 ppm CO2e by 2030." It's an entirely different animal to jump from there to "That means we're back at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum by 2030, in which WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!" (emphasis in original, of course)

The most fascinating thing about this whole phenomenon is when the defenders of the faith come here and accuse JMG and the rest of us who are rightfully skeptical, of exactly the sort of mental gymnastics needed to reach the conclusions in Guy M's piece. I read through the source material, and it's just not as definitively saying what they think it is. Are we in for an uncomfortable future? That's highly likely. Are many people going to die younger than they would have 20 years ago? Probably. But beyond that, the narrative of apocalypse is obviously coloring the reading of a lot of true believers on this one.

There's a lot of hyperbole about nuclear power plants in that narrative as well. Yes, of course it's not a good thing if they melt down, but it's also not some apocalyptic event, either. Specifically look at Chernobyl, where there are all kinds of mammals and other vertebrates living in a highly contaminated landscape. I'm not saying we should take nuclear power lightly or build more of it (I'd prefer if we began shutting down the plants 20 years ago or more), but even that is not a trump card in the game of human extinction. For all of our faults, we are still among the most widely adaptable species on the planet, and if there's one thing likely to cause our extinction in the near term, it's probably our willingness to believe that our extinction is inevitably imminent and a good excuse for us not to change our behavior.

PhysicsDoc said...

Thanks JMG for shaking things up a bit. You are right about the comment about scale and form. A classic example is simple exponential growth (a kind of form). In this case the population depends exponentially on time which means that the rate of population change is proportional to the population. If you scale the population then the rate of change of population also scales by the same amount. Things scale if the same form applies or scaling things does not change the form. I have not analyzed the human population as a function of time but it appears to me that there has been a change of form that has occurred relatively recently (last 200-300 years say). Either the exponential constant has significantly changed or we have gone from a near linear function to an exponential function. Something like that. Basically the form has changed. This means we are in dangerous territory if we try too model the future by the past. Another thing to notice is that the earth is not an infinite reservoir and that the population has scaled significantly and the earth has not. You know all this so I apologize for sounding like I am assuming you do not. My gut tells me you may be closer to right prediction but that is not science just my preference or intuition.

John Michael Greer said...

Lidia, you're still missing or misstating my argument. Given the current state of climate science, it's reasonable to say that human extinction is possible, but the knowledge we currently have does not justify the claim that it's inevitable. That is, we can't yet predict with 100% accuracy that 100% of all human beings will be dead by 2030, or any other date in the next century or so you care to choose. We don't know what the climate will do; all we have are models subject to error, and trying to claim absolute certainty on the basis of an uncertain model is not justified.

This is what I've been saying all along, and the fact that an intelligent and literate person like you can't or won't hear that is among the things that have convinced me that something profoundly nonrational is shaping the rise of belief in near-term extinction.

GuRan, thank you for getting it. For what it's worth, I expect climate change to be a good deal more traumatic than the current mainstream models predict -- one more data point that's gotten lost in the yelling.

Mkroberts, the hypothesis McPherson and Light have proposed is worth consideration on its own merits. The uncritical acceptance of that hypothesis by a sizable and growing number of people who are treating it not as a hypothesis to be tested, but as a truth to be proclaimed, is another matter -- and it's the latter that interests me. As far as I know, most climate scientists do not agree with McPherson and Light; it'll be interesting to see the critical reviews of their work by those who have the background necessary to assess it. In the meantime, there's what looks like a world-class apocalyptic frenzy shaping up around that as yet untested hypothesis.

TIAA, nicely summarized. Yes, I've met the close equivalent.

David, I didn't dismiss the extinction scenario as unlikely; I pointed out that it's unfounded at this point to claim that it's inevitable. One of the most fascinating things about this whole debate is the extent to which people seem to be unable to hear what critics of the NTE hypothesis are saying. As I mentioned to Lidia, it's one of the things that convinces me that what's happening has very little to do with science.

JP, thanks for the link!

Steve, that was certainly my impression.

PhysicsDoc, thank you for a cogent response! Of course the differences of scale will have an impact on those aspects of our predicament that are scale-dependent; compare the collapse of Neolithic regional civilizations to continental empires with advanced metallurgical technology and complex market economies, and you also see plenty of scale-dependent factors. The interesting thing is that the process of collapse appears to be scale-invariant across this very broad continuum; my hypothesis is that important aspects of that same process will also appear in the collapse process of industrial civilization.

TIAA said...

I just have to say that whike I was listening to Guy McPherson in an interview about a month ago, my respect for him did a nose dive when I observed him brush aside the work of Allan Savory who advocates, with great success, using grazing animals to restore grassland ecosystems and habitat. Prior to reading up on Mr. Savory's work, I was put ill at ease by the obvious need in Guy to dismiss out of hand another leading scientist. It is clear that Guy has prescribed to his own extremist position and pigeon holed himself into an apparent fatalistic dead end. NTE which I initially took to mean we are putting ourselves near extinction, but which I now get means total human extinction is near, is another indicator that Guy is sinking under his own fatalistic stance. He needs to be helped out if this trap and I admire John for offering him a way to get the help.

Locking ourselves off from the world and it's humanity, though I get the pressures that would drive a person away, is not truly what will contribute to helping mitigate the crash landing. Fighting to the end in the melee of incertatude which most of us are left behind to do, is the hardest work. I think Guy should change his stance and use science to help us live rather than condem us to uncertain death.

Renaissance Man said...

Well, as much as I appreciate Canada Bill Jones motto ("it is morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep his money"), I just can't quite suppress my moral sensibilities and muster up the chutzpa necessary to find a way to fleece these fools, as, say, the guys were were selling old Y2K emergency kits to the 2012 believers.
I guess I'll just keep on perfecting my compost production for all my gardiner friends & neighbours.

Leo said...

Thinking about the accuracy of the various models.

Since they keep revising upwards a variety of bad things (like sea level rise) that means many of the models could easily be very optimistic.

On the other hand the IPCC's report ignores fossil fuel depletion so if its otherwise assumed to be accurate, it paints a pessimistic picture (from a climate point of view).

So the IPCC's report could easily be the most accurate of the lot since it already in a fashion has worse problems, due to the CO2 level rise being higher.

Orren Whiddon said...

Hi John

In the end, we all bet on our favorite horse, if for no other reason than as primates we enjoy the chatter.

Whether predicting Near Term Extinction, Stair-step Decline, Olduvai Gorge, Shark Fin or a slow graceful transition into a rose colored egalitarian future; in order to plan, mitigate or adapt to collapse, we all must choose for ourselves a knowable outcome we can grasp in the present, from the un-knowable future complex of possibilities.

To my mind, after taking a long hard stare into the abyss, the only knowable future that can be stated for a certainty is that we are entering a period of un-knowable and unspeakable human suffering. That prediction is sufficient.

I invited Guy McPherson to participate in this years Age of Limits conversations, not because I agree with his position, but because his particular knowable outcome of choice is argued from the science and can be examined in the light of that science.

It is also clear to me that Guy has made hard and difficult personal choices in order to come into accommodation with his own sense of ethics, and that his personal process of examining those choices and ethics is ongoing. These are things I respect in anyone.

As you and I have discussed, at some point the science of collapse becomes as well understood as it can be and we within the "doom-o-sphere" are left with little more to say of substance. And it is as that point that the real spiritual journey begins. And that spiritual journey is the only path we can follow through the bottleneck that we all now face.

best wishes
Orren Whiddon
Age of Limits

John Michael Greer said...

TIAA, interesting. Despite the assumptions being made just now by a lot of my critics, this post isn't aimed at McPherson -- it's aimed at the remarkably large number of people who've taken NTE as gospel truth, rather than as an unproven scientific hypothesis, and are pretty clearly using it as a replacement for the late lamented 2012 hysteria.

Renaissance, understood -- it's a real limitation to have to look oneself in the face each morning.

Leo, that's an interesting way of splitting the difference! My assumption all along has been that the IPCC is too optimistic in the short term and too pessimistic (because of the inattention to peak fossil fuels) in the long term. Still, we'll see.

Orren, the ironic thing is that I didn't know that McPherson was promoting the NTE thing when I wrote this post. I don't read a lot of blogs, other than a few peak oil and ecology news aggregator sites; I was responding to a flurry of comments and emails I'd received on the order of "well, we're all going to be extinct anyway, so why bother making preparations?" As for Age of Limits, one of the things I appreciate about the event is that it's got a wide range of different viewpoints among its presenters -- Dmitry's a fast-crash partisan, for example, and iirc Albert Bates thinks that with enough biochar we can fix things and not crash at all, though I haven't read his recent work and will have to ask him. Having an extinctionist as one of the speakers is another step in the direction of dissensus, and thus a good thing.

Leo said...

The time difference is properly close.

If you plotted the IPCC's report and what actually happens, with the x-axis being how bad it is. The area under the curves is properly pretty close but the shape won't be.

So what actually happens is plotted as a distorted version of IPCC's plot. Raise the first half and lower the second half.

KL Cooke said...

"...the deepwater anoxic event we're well on the way to causing in the oceans generally is a major carbon sink (anoxic events triggered by greenhouse effects are where most of today's oil reserves come from..."

Perhaps we're aiding in laying down the next petroleum bonanza. Not to be enjoyed by us, we'll be long extinct, but by the next species to evolve sentience; perhaps one of the cephalopods. That would put a new spin on Frank Norris' octopus. Hey, who needs galactic walruses?

John said...

Enjoying the current theme - just wondering if you have read John Gray's new book - 'The Silence of Animals'? He deals with the myth of progress in no uncertain terms.

mkroberts said...

Graeme,

You state that there is no basis for concluding that human life will become impossible. However, Malcolm Light has provided an analysis which counters that. I don't, at the moment, go along with it, but he at least provides a basis for his opinion. (Actually, he states that all life, not just human life, will go extinct by mid century.

It's certainly a difficult thought to go along with but then so is the notion that fossil fuels will decline soon or that economic growth is now just a pipe-dream or that 90% of the big ocean fish have gone.

mkroberts said...

JMG, thanks for the reply. Now that makes a lot more sense than what I took from your post.

Yes, even though there may or may not be merit in the arguments provided by McPherson and Light, I'm sure you're right that many will jump on board the NTE bus simply because it offers some final transition or rids the planet of a terrible plague. If the planet isn't already fast deteriorating by 2031.3 (or whatever the decimal point is before Light's predicted average date), there will still be groups who expect it all to happen at once.

Thanks, again.

lunab777 said...

JMG Said:
"One of the most fascinating things about this whole debate is the extent to which people seem to be unable to hear what critics of the NTE hypothesis are saying. As I mentioned to Lidia, it's one of the things that convinces me that what's happening has very little to do with science."

JMG, the reason they can't hear you might have something with the title of your article where you say people who believe in NTE derive some kind of pleasure from it. You have basically equated people who believe in NTE to all sorts of either mislead and/or nutjobs who drank the koolaid and went on an 'end of the world' frenzy. How can you then not expect them to get defensive?

It just doesn't work to title something in such an inflammatory manner and then come in all rational on your blog and explain away the insult.

Of course this scenario of half-crazed frightened people is something to be avoided, but I don't see this meme occurring with those who are looking at the facts lately and coming to a different conclusion than you are.

Most importantly, believing that extinction is likely very near does not necessarily cause someone to not keep trying to the end. If anything it does the opposite for me - I'm going to take that trip to see my beloved landscapes, and I'm going to make sure I spend more time with my daughter this year. And by reading Guy's blog and learning where the first blast of heat is likely to come first (central part of a continent) I am getting out of here asap.

PhysicsDoc said...

JMG, I am intrigued by the scale invariant collapse processes or features you mentioned in your reply to my comment. Do you have any references either to your own work or others that talk more about this? Is the collapse of the Easter Island population an outlier, or does it share similar processes/patterns with other civilizations that have declined or collapsed? The collapse of the Easter Island population has been used as a metaphor for our current global situation which is why I am interested in this example.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, that seems reasonable enough. Either way, add it to the other pressures bearing down, and it's more than enough to crush industrial civilization with the force of a boot descending on an eggshell -- but then I've been saying that for years now.

KL Cooke, quite possibly -- if we get CO2 levels high enough to trigger an oceanic anoxic event, there's going to be a lot of carbon-rich sediment put down over the next few millennia, and fifty million years later a good bit of it'll be black gold. No use to us, or to any hominids, but the distant descendants of chipmunks may find it useful.

John, I haven't -- thanks for the tip.

Mkroberts, thank you for a thoughtful response! Any set of ideas, whatever their source, can have a second life as a trope in pop culture, and that second life very often has nothing to do with the original meaning and purpose of the ideas.

Lunab777, and yet you've just demonstrated one of the pleasures of extinction -- you're going to go and play tourist rather than, say, doing something to contribute to the future you no longer believe in. By all means enjoy your trip; the rest of us have work to do.

PhysicsDoc, have you read Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" and the two-volume abridgment of Arnold Toynbee's "A Study of History"? Those might be good places to start, along with my paper "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse," which can be found on the internet. As for Easter Island, if Jared Diamond's theories about the speed and severity of the collapse are correct, it's an outlier, but there's some debate about the validity of Diamond's analysis.

John Michael Greer said...

Queeniemusic (offlist), I can't edit comments -- all I can do is accept 'em or reject 'em. Thank you, and if you want to repost the first part of your comment, I'll put that through pronto.

Ruben said...

The problem with Near Term Extinction is that extinction is like pregnancy—you either are or you aren't.

So, if even a small village survives, then we are not extinct. Splitting hairs, I know, but that is the first thing done with strong claims.

Given that even a stark raving doomer, in the guise of widely respected scientist James LoveLock, thinks humanity will end up at half a billion people living near the poles, extinction is a big claim.

As far as methane firestorms killing all life...have you looked at all life recently? It grows in astonishing places. Including deep valleys in Switzerland that would certainly be sheltered from fire.

Now, the radical disruption of all major planetary systems such that seven billion humans cannot find enough grain, fish and meat to survive, and thus suffer very high death rates—well, that is what this blog has been saying all along. Much less sexy though.

Not extinction so much as being starved back into the Stone Age.

PhysicsDoc, if you are as you sound, you may find JMG's thesis paper on Catabolic Collapse to be a good read. As befits a thesis, it is academic. For everybody else in the world, I think the theory is presented very well in his book The Long Descent. I think it is truly foundational reading for anybody who is interested in this sort of stuff.

David Myer-Seaman said...

"David, I didn't dismiss the extinction scenario as unlikely; I pointed out that it's unfounded at this point to claim that it's inevitable. One of the most fascinating things about this whole debate is the extent to which people seem to be unable to hear what critics of the NTE hypothesis are saying. As I mentioned to Lidia, it's one of the things that convinces me that what's happening has very little to do with science."

Yes, you did say that inevitability is going too far. But you also say you are convinced it has very little to do with science. How is this different than saying you reject a scientific theory based on cultural narrative? Do the critics of NTE have objections based on scientific measurements and models, or does the literal end of humanity feel too much like the narrative one? Are the proponents of NTE not embattled climate scientists who are ignored at every turn because what they have to say is unpleasant?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Lidia17,

Whilst I appreciate some of the points that you raised, you were completely wrong on one point:

Quote: "A bacterium can undergo meaningful evolution in four decades. A tree or a mammal, not so much…"

Trees and mammals don't have to evolve to survive climate change. They simply get up and walk to a new spot that is more conducive to their special requirements.

Now before you start dismissing that point, I'll tell you a little story about the Australian bush. Many tens of thousands of years ago before the presence of man, the forest here in this mountain range would have been dominated by the Blackwood tree (acacia melanoxylon). A really drought, heat, cold hardy and long lived over storey nitrogen fixing tree. In slightly wetter areas the dominant tree was Myrtle Beech (nothofagus cunninghamii) and it too is another beautiful tree. It is interesting to note just how drought hardy our rainforest trees actually are.

What the two trees don't have in common with the now dominant eucalypts is that they don't hybridise readily and they don't recover well from fire (although the Blackwood is more resistant and adaptable than the beech).

With man, came fire.

The trees however had other survival plans and simply moved upwards to higher elevations with cooler, moister climates where it was hard to burn them out.

We tend to think of forests as being fixed in place as boundaries are a manmade concept. However, they are happily moving randomly in all directions - some of which may provide suitable sites.

Much further north of my location in a warmer climate at elevation there are remnant patches of Antarctic Beech. What about the fascinating story of the woollemi pine?

The animals adapt too by moving around or changing their diets.

I spend a fair amount of time in nature and it always amazes me how plants spread from one area to another. Even the wallaby took up eating my citrus trees this year after many years of abstinence.

You may find that it is actually people that are the ones that fail or are afraid to adapt!

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

The story of the Woollemi Pine is actually genuinely fascinating (look under the Discovery section) as it is a living fossil which can now be purchased commonly in plant nurseries.

Regards

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Please forgive the length of this 2 part comment

Part One
Important points are being raised about the predictability of a changed climate over the next century, and then longer term (over millennia) for the carbon cycle.

Industrial civilisations (and any remaining agrarian-based people e.g. Bangladesh) are going to have a lot of big problems with climate over the next century. Beyond that, a seriously disordered carbon-cycle developing over millennia would have serious results for all biological evolution. The later result would curtail any thoughts of post-industrial civilisation – ‘post’ that is the coming, indeed present failure of industry as we know it based on fossil fuel.

Several factors are in play.

We are approaching rapid extra ‘feedback’ factors in the North Polar Region (e.g. a smaller area of ‘white’ means more sun’s heat absorbed) when, already, temperatures have increased very rapidly this last century from a low point in 1900.

CO2 levels are still rising rapidly and are already higher than they have been since 2.5 to 6My years ago. (Methane levels have risen 2.5-fold from 'normal' background levels seen before industry kicked in. Methane has contributed about 20% of total ‘man-made’ forcing over that same recent time span).

Carbon ‘out gassing’ is part of the normal carbon cycle, as is the converse - carbon uptake by vegetation, but there has been net sequestration (more uptake) of ‘carbon in the air’ over the last 2 million years – mostly by carbon ‘dropping out’ of the cycle via the ocean. (Carbon ‘in the air’ has oscillated between ‘normal’ limits during the last million years – lower in glacial times, higher in inter-glacials but the overall picture has been ‘down’.)

Industrial civilisation at an increasing rate has ‘out gassed’ a lot of stored ancient carbon over a century and half. But not all of it is in the air. Quote: “ Nature 2012 … Although approximately one-half of total CO2 emissions is at present taken up by combined land and ocean carbon reservoirs, models predict a decline in future carbon uptake by these reservoirs, resulting in a positive carbon–climate feedback. This continuing ‘service’ by ‘nature’ for industrial civilisation is looking very unpredictable.


Here we get to another uncertainty. We expect a finite amount of fossil fuel will be drawn from the ground and burned. (Recent estimates by the Energy Watch Group indicate a major curtailment of ‘energy’ available for industry in the next decades.)

There are good arguments in favour of very soon slowing down carbon burning and leaving a little bit for the future. One extra argument is that such a ‘saving’ could help safeguard the present ocean carbon reservoir. (Cont … Part 2)

Phil Harris said...

Part 2 … slowing down carbon burn safeguards ocean life?

Because of the very rapid recent carbon ‘out gassing’, the surface layers of the ocean have rapidly absorbed carbon as carbonic acid and have not yet distributed much of it ‘in the depths’. The oceans have become more acid in the layers where most of phytoplankton ‘vegetation’ and ‘grazers’ live. There is a question over whether the biota will collapse. At the moment they seem to continue to provide the service.

If the ocean biota collapse it is likely to be essentially irreversible on time scales that matter to us. The immediate results sound pretty devastating. It could also mean we will have overstepped the mark, and serious carbon cycle disorder is on its way a millennia or so hence. (Something like this appears to have happened back 55 million years ago at the PETM because of a series of ‘natural’ sudden ‘carbon out gassings’.)

This is more reason to slow down our carbon burn and save a bit for a ‘moderated’ decline in industrial civilisation? The danger of immediate effects from‘ocean-collapse’ is within present lifetimes of persons and businesses and more important in my view than, for example slowly rising sea-level. It seems unlikely that history works or has ever worked this way, but, hey, give it a try?

best
Phil H

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Small typo error in my recent two-part comment.
"This continuing ‘service’ by ‘nature’ for industrial civilisation is looking very unpredictable." is my opinion not a quote from the Journal Nature.

Phil H

lunab777 said...

JMG said:
"Lunab777, and yet you've just demonstrated one of the pleasures of extinction -- you're going to go and play tourist rather than, say, doing something to contribute to the future you no longer believe in. By all means enjoy your trip; the rest of us have work to do. "

JMG, I earn my living as an artist who tries to show the beauty of landscapes in hopes that others might love nature and want to protect Her too, so my "pleasurable trip" that, in your mind, shows I am one of these addicted pleasure-seeking nutjobs who do odd things under the knowledge of NTE is invalid. It is no more valid than me labeling your 'trip' to the upcoming debates in PA as such.

But even if it were just "a trip", to appreciate nature is something bad in your mind and evidence of someone adhering to this 'pleasure of extinction' problem? Really? I can think of nothing better to do in this crazy world at this point in time than to love the world.

I would appreciate your getting back to the points I was making before you attacked me - I think you are labeling people who believe in NTE in an unfair way that is inflammatory. You are lumping everyone into this category when many simply see the unfolding facts of late and are concerned. When you do this kind of labeling it influences people to believe that the possibility of NTE is some crazy "tin foil hat" meme. It takes away their ability to prioritize whatever precious days they have remaining if they are certain the end could not happen quickly.

Juhana said...

In environmental movement, there is lots of valid information about escalating problems looming ahead mankind. Unfortunately, after digesting valid information into their world view, environmental doomsters got it all wrong. They start to sell Hollywood catastrophe movie version about problems ahead. It is hard to make accurate statistics about environmental disaster we are living through. Unknown variables are many, there is no way to make exact predictions. Environmental doomsters take easy path. They assume darkest possible statistics are accurate. Then they make darkest possible conclusions based to already distorted data. By doing this, they alienate themselves from so called "average people", whom they ridicule mercilessly without seeing their own errors... Overtly politicized science is no science at all.

This must have something to do with more general "doomsday zeitgeist" of Western culture; people in other parts of the world do not share this apocalyptic worldview, even when they are well-informed. Everybody who does not close his/her eyes knows by now hard days are ahead, but this "end of the mankind" attitude is absent in most parts of the world.

West is facing multiple crisis at the same time. Subconscious reflections of fears which cannot be said aloud gets expression through what can be said aloud (environmental fears) in politically correct world of Western bourgeois.

JMG's model of slowly eroding quality of life combined to haphazard, but mounting problems with ecosystems is probably closest to accurate prediction we will get. It sounds plausible exactly because you cannot make blockbuster movie out of it.

No space aliens. No sudden near extinction. No heroic struggle against hostile powers. Just everyday poverty. Everyday cruelty, that is not exciting or mysterious as movie villains always are.

Demographic decline can be silent one, like it was in former Soviet Union right after dissolution, without ANY outwardly dramatic events.

Hunger, real hunger has come back to Europe also after being absent so long current generation does not know what to do with it.

What we need instead movie aesthetics is old-school conservatism (not religious nutcases) with fiscal, environmental and social caution. Leaders who treat societies as organisms, not machines, and acknowledge mounting environmental and energy limitations. Unfortunately this kind of leaders of movements are nowhere to be seen. That other path is...well, little bit more bloody.

All those revolutionary wannabes with university degree but no weapon familiarity at all should remember that there are those OTHER revolutionaries too, who do not share same presumptions as you do. Without common ground to treat and without boringly cautious conservatives keeping balance there is high probability two extremes, who acknowledge same problems but offer totally different package of solutions shall meet in near future - on streets of Europe.

Know problems in Greece? Place that is prototype for European future? There is some footage of those OTHER revolutionaries of Greece... Nothing, NOTHING is as pro-status quo as being vaguely leftist, feminist, minority-rights, no-borders "rebel" in current West. Unfortunately cosy position of quota rebels makes people forget that violence actually IS an option that has been used with frightening frequency during human history. That we really should try to find out some plausible solutions, before SHTF-event happens and extremes become only options left.

Third video link leads to charming music video by band of European neopagan and Greek Member of Parliament Giorgos Germenis...

I wonder if he would like to sit down and drink cup of tea with, let's say, liberal leftist with university degree from women's studies and share some opinions..?

Could be interesting conversation to watch.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQStwKFeUxM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmKETVPf36o

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uc1-BfZ7Jnc

Adrian Skilling said...

Wow. A lot of NTE fans out there.

Its very interesting to read all the pro NTE comments, some of them are quite convincing in themselves. I'm well aware of the positive feedback events, like methane release for example and I am quite worried for the future of my children and life on this planet.

However, while the NTE theories are dressed up in scientific respectability, they use cherry picked science to bolster the theory rather than the other way around, they are predictions, and only that, and if anyone claims them understand all the myriad of interactions between our complex oceans, atmosphere and biosystems then they are lying. The NTE predictions are clearly on the extreme pessimism side, people have incredibly survived extremely harsh conditions in the past, and other lifeforms continue to surprise us in the extreme places they inhabit.

But ultimately I think the big questions are moral ones we must decide ourselves. Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Will you live the rest of your life waiting for the end, or make the best of it, for yourselves and for others?

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, that's a good summary of one set of objections.

David, once again, you're misstating what I've said. I have no objection to the hypothesis of NTE, as a hypothesis; it deserves to be assessed by qualified specialists on whatever its merits may turn out to be. It's the enthusiastic acceptance of that hypothesis as though it were irrefutably proven, the insistence on certainty in a situation where the science can't be made to justify more than cautious guesses, and the cherrypicking of studies to support the NTE claim -- out of the tens of thousands of climate predictions coming out of reputable labs, only a few back the NTE hypothesis, you know -- that has me thinking that what's going on has nothing to do with science and everything to do with the contemporary obsession with apocalyptic fantasies.

Cherokee, I've occasionally wished I had the acreage to plant Woollemi pine, dawn redwood, and ginkgo trees to make a dinosaur garden.

Phil H., it's quite possible that we may see some massive oceanic changes -- we'd have to get up to 1100 ppm or so of CO2 to get an oceanic anoxic event, but there are plenty of messes this side of that. Still, yelling "sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia" hasn't worked for decades now, and changing the details of the fire and brimstone isn't going to change that.

Lunab777, the fact that pursuing your own enjoyment is the only thing you can think of to do is precisely the issue I was trying to raise; for those of us who believe in a future, there are other things on the to-do list. As for characterizing belief in NTE as a tinfoil hat meme, well, the phrasing is yours, but I won't disagree; I think you're deluding yourself in exactly the same way as the true believers in 2012.

Juhana, welcome back! I'm sorry to say I suspect you're right -- it's stunning to me how the current European political class is busy making all the same mistakes their equivalents made in the 1920s and 1930s, and thus guaranteeing the rise of a new European fascism. I'll be doing a post on that down the road a bit.

Adrian, true, and you'll notice that none of the NTE people are willing to talk about the known negative feedback processes, or the evidence from paleoclimatology that kicks holes in their claims.

Joseph Nemeth said...

This discussion made me curious enough to Kindle Guy McPherson's "Walking Away from Empire." I found it to be unreadable.

As he says of himself, his friends call him Dr. Doomsday, and the essays I forced myself to plow through were unfocused and unrelieved Jeremiads.

His first chapter, on Reason, is a typical screed on the contemporary version of the Mythology of Progress, man's rise from Unthinking Slime to Religion to Reason. In the process, he uses this as a platform to air his personal grudges against the academic community, religions and religious people, politicians, the military, bankers, and fools. Here's a fairly typical quote:

"In short, the pillars of social justice and environmental protection rose from the cesspool of ignorance to become shining lights for an entire generation. And then we let them fall back into the swamp."

When he wandered off into the Federal Reserve, the Bilderbergers, the Rothschilds, and started referring to corporate Amerika [sic], still in the chapter on Reason, I simply lost interest. That's only 15% of the way into the book, according to my Kindle.

He may be right about NTE, he may be wrong, but he's unreadable, so far as I'm concerned.

He's also clearly hooked into, and hooking into, some of the persistent memes of the conspiracy crowd, such as the Bilderbergers and the Fed. This has absolutely nothing to do with science, but will attract him an immediate and very loyal "support group" and audience.

I also see a man who was groomed into and sheltered by the academic community until he turned his back on it in his forties, and is now severely shell-shocked by the messy, dirty, unmanageable complexity of the "bazaar of the bizarre" that is our modern world. I sympathize: I bailed at twenty-five, not forty, and I still find the real world daunting.

Maybe his science is more sound than his philosophy. I'm not willing to dredge through his writing for pearls.

Jeremy Sandrik said...

Hi John Michael. Long time reader, first time commenter here. After reading a bit of Joseph Campbell, Charles Eisenstein, Jim Kunstler, The Dark Mountain Project, and yourself, I've been feeling a pull toward creating, or at least sharing stories that are appropriate for the predicament of peak oil and the expectations of the likely future, as opposed to the future of fantasy. I'd like to help write and tell what I call the mythology of resilience.

Now, I've taken your words to heart and have set about getting my own house in order by tending a garden, feeding the soil, building a scrap greenhouse, insulating and caulking the house, etc. in line with the green wizardry posts here. I'm also trained as a chemist and am saving for glassware to begin distilling essential oils and preparing various traditional herbal remedies.

I say all that not to boast, because I've got a long way to go toward living in accord with the way of nature. I say all that because I feel it's time to push some of the lessons I've learned out into wider circles, and despise the hypocrisy you've cited frequently in the environmental movement and elsewhere. To some extent, I do push out my personal stories. I trade veggies for snow plowing and borrowed tools. I shared my greenhouse project with a local high school that's looking to put in a school garden and greenhouse. However, the mythology of resilience is an itch in the back of my mind I haven't scratched. I'm not looking to just relate my first-hand experiences in the dirt, but to tell stories and myths that reach down into the subconscious. To borrow Campbell's phrasing, I want to tell stories in the language of dreams. I've found Kunstler's vision set forth in his World Made by Hand novels close to what I'm looking for, and while they're great reads, they're a little more focused on the practical and less on the spiritual for what I want to accomplish. I've yet to read The Ecotechnic Future, which I imagine will contain plenty of nourishment for inspiration. From a couple posts back, it sounds as though Hesiod may be a good place to look, too. I wonder what else you might recommend, fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or ancient, and anything in between, that is situated in a shape of time defined by decline, but is hopeful with regard to the enduring human spirit in the face of diminished expectations.

I may be a bit off topic and long-winded, so I won't take any offense if you keep this off the comment page. However, I do respect your breadth and depth of knowledge of mythology and literature, and would appreciate a response in whatever form you like. Thanks for your good work.

sgage said...

Welcome to the Rorschach Test, er, I mean the Archdruid Report.

People are responding emotionally to all sorts of things this week, but most of it nothing that JMG has ever stated. But people will say their piece, regardless. This week has been a strange one on the ADR - more than the usual number of people with enormous chips on their shoulders. Look, JMG has gored my sacred ox once or twice over the years - the effect was to make me slow down, think, and to read more closely. Sometimes I come round to his point of view, sometimes I realize that I had a blind spot that I never knew I had, and sometimes I just agree to disagree. But some of the belligerent fulminating this week has only served to prove the point that I believe JMG was trying to make in the first place.

I would suggest to the folks who are feeling "attacked" that they examine what JMG has actually said, what they themselves have written, and what JMG has said in reply, and try not to leap to conclusions. Take a deep breath, slow down, think about the meaning of words.

Now let's see if I can overcome the dreaded Captcha... looks an awful lot like 'ayligar ftages'.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Extinction of our species does not equate to extinction of all life on earth (except subjectively). Given the ubiquity of bacteria, their adaptability to extreme environments, their rapid breeding cycles, and their history, I'm betting that single cell organisms will outlast the insects.

Marcello said...


"All those revolutionary wannabes with university degree but no weapon familiarity at all should remember that there are those OTHER revolutionaries too, who do not share same presumptions as you do."

The left as a revolutionary force has been dead for decades in western Europe. In fact probably it was never particularly strong even in the aftermath of WW1, and it has been downhill ever since.
The "liberal leftist with university degree from women's studies" bogeyman isn't particularly relevant in southern Europe and certainly no revolutionary material.
An escape into the irrationality of a far right movement is certainly a realistic possibility, with all the unpleasant consequences this might entail, but that aside I don't see politics being of much help in general: decline is something individuals might be forced to adapt to by circumstances (or die trying), not an exciting vision politicians can sell to the public. Scapegoating will probably dominate the public discourse.

lunab777 said...

JMG said:
Lunab777, the fact that pursuing your own enjoyment is the only thing you can think of to do is precisely the issue I was trying to raise; for those of us who believe in a future, there are other things on the to-do list. As for characterizing belief in NTE as a tinfoil hat meme, well, the phrasing is yours, but I won't disagree; I think you're deluding yourself in exactly the same way as the true believers in 2012.

JMG, really you are too much! As an artist doing landscapes I have to take trips and enjoy them...nature is where I get my inspiration. I'm so sorry I enjoy something, please forgive me :) I guess I should only try and create what is out my back door, but even this takes time away from your sanctioned modes of activism (even though it does pay my bills) But wait..creating is very hard work and often leaves me feeling as if I want to tear my hair out, so am I legitimate and not just a horrid pleasure seeker?
Or perhaps artists are not valuable contributors to the world and I should give lectures like you do in order to be a legitimate activist? Yes, I should be out there telling people how stupid they are for believing the end might be nearer rather than further away as you do. Just shove realizing beauty and trying to show it to the rest of the world so they might also believe or feel uplifted.
And spending more time with my daughter and moving to a more suitable location (the other 2 things I thought to mention I wanted to improve since realizing NTE is likely), well I don't want to be a pleasure glutton so I'll just ignore my child and we can fry here on the plains as the temperatures and drought keep increasing. I would not want to do anything enjoyable like moving away from a place where heat stroke is a likely possibility and the locals are now joking about how the river needs mowing.

Joking aside, you have created a false dichotomy here. You are saying that those who believe extinction is sooner rather than later will only be motivated by selfish, pleasure-seeking goals because there is no future. This just isn't true, or it doesn't have to be. In fact it can actually make people behave in more noble, less-selfish ways.
What was that Native American saying where someone says we should always live as if the bird of death is sitting on our shoulder. It's like that. I'm not saying my consciousness is always in that mode, but I wish it were. And the initial realization of NTE does cause a lot of uncomfortable emotions (yes selfish ones, and ones that immobilize). Not everyone looks a difficult reality in the face and gives up or goes on a pleasure-binge. The fact that you believe they do might say something about yourself - perhaps it is only what YOU would do if you believed in NTE.

Joseph Nemeth said...

"...it's stunning to me how the current European political class is busy making all the same mistakes their equivalents made in the 1920s and 1930s, and thus guaranteeing the rise of a new European fascism."

You say that like fascism is a bad thing.

I strongly suspect that a substantial number of people, particularly wealthy, well-connected people, think fascism is a pretty good idea.

That was certainly the case throughout Europe and the US in the 1930's, and while the word "fascism" has lost its cachet since then, I rather doubt that has actually changed anyone's mind on such matters. They just don't use the word any more.

I doubt that these people would see what Europe is doing as a "mistake" at all. It's rather an opportunity for them to restore the "natural order" of the strong over the weak.

russell1200 said...

I noticed a comment up the way that made mention of the fact that food production is less than 1% of our energy usage. There ~may be a way to slice the numbers so that that works, but this study from 2008 (pdf link below)has us using 2,000l/year (~528 gallons) per capita which they sate as being 19% of total energy usage in the U.S. 14% is in production, processing, packaging, and the remaining 5% is in transport and preparation.

Maybe 1% is intended only in the most narrowest sense, or as a goal, but I think it is important to realize that fuel costs will have a serious direct impact on food pricing beyond simple transportation issues.

http://phobos.ramapo.edu/~vasishth/Energy/Pimentel-Energy%2BFood_Systems.pdf

Steve Morgan said...

@mkroberts:

Thanks for the link to Light's hypothesis about runaway arctic methane and extinction. That made it pretty easy to find where this whole train started running off the rails. It starts with his Figure 1, for those who are curious. Compare his chart using (ahem) preliminary data from late 2010 to the chart available online at NOAA(http://1.usa.gov/17UJiYk
Barrow, Alaska: http://1.usa.gov/tETfXM This site is directly downwind of the eastern Siberian continental shelf, where the big plumes of methane have been seen in recent summers.
Summit, Greenland: http://1.usa.gov/9arFcw
Pallas-Sammaltunturi, Finland: http://1.usa.gov/17UMT8X

Yes, there are occasional "flyers" with short-term high regional concentration as there have been for years, but by and large the "exponentially" increasing trend on which he's basing his predictions isn't there. Instead, we see typical seasonal variability in concentration and d13C of methane, both with a slight trend showing an increase in methane that looks to be of relatively typical global origin. If and when something projecting such a trend stands up to a peer review process, then it will be worth paying closer attention. Until then, this looks like someone insisting on worst-case scenarios as the only possible outcome of complex processes.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, well, that would explain why several of the people who've tried to post long screeds here have been ranting about black-helicopter theories of various kinds.

Jeremy, send in a comment marked "not for posting" with your email address and I'll get back to you as time permits. There's quite a bit of the sort of literature you've asked about; I should probably do a post on that someday, but in the meantime, I can make some suggestions.

Sgage, thank you for getting it.

Unknown Deborah, chemosynthetic bacteria were the first life on earth and they'll probably be the last, too.

Lunab777, let me know when you've finished flying off the handle and misrepresenting what I've said; we might be able to have a conversation at that point.

Joseph, fascism in the 1920s and 1930s drew most of its support from the lower middle classes -- it was at least as much a populist movement as an elite one -- and the governing classes of Europe then and now considered the fascists to be lowbrow parvenus. I really should do a post on the history of fascism one of these days.

Russell1200, thanks for the data point.

Rita said...

Some of the estimates of die off among Native Americans post contact range from 25-90? Some small groups completely wiped out. Doesn't mean every individual died, survivors may have been adsorbed into neighboring groups. We do know that entire villages were abandoned,with food stores left behind. The major difference I see between high death rates in a horticultural/hunting society such as the Eastern Native Americans and our own is that in these less complex groups every adult would have knowledge of most of the essentials of the culture. So you can lose a lot of people without losing the entire culture. We are in the opposite position. No single person in this culture has complete knowledge even of our own specialty. So the loss of a large percentage of the population would leave the survivors really bereft of knowledge. On the other hand, we do have books and other ways of preserving and transmitting knowledge.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

That would be good to see.

In the odd assortment of trees here is a gingko and it is incredibly hardy to all sorts of extreme conditions. They're real survivors.

On an interesting side note some of the Australian evolved trees I grow here are deciduous too. There's a Nothofagus gunnii which is a deciduous beech now found only in the alpine areas in Tasmania. There's also a Melia azedarach white cedar which is now an invasive species in southern USA.

By and large the native plants are evergreen so it is always surprising to come across some that are. Plants tell a tale of adaption to harsh and changing climates.

Regards

Chris

Ruben said...

@Jeremy Sandrik

Good on you for starting on the path. I am also very interested in the stories you are talking about, not in writing them, but in reading them and sharing them. Please keep us posted with your progress.

And JMG, I would also be interested in a list of some of the writing that exists. If you could do a post, that would be fantastic. Or, if you could CC me on a note, I would appreciate it.

Best,

Ruben.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- now that is interesting. I'd love to see you do that post (history of fascism).

Since my knowledge of the subject is minimal, let me rephrase: you make it sound like the European governing classes are idiots.

Based on our governing classes here in the US, I'll accept that without much argument.

But I'd like to raise the idea that maybe they aren't idiots at all: that they are pushing in the directions that they push because they actually want the outcome you are describing, whether we call it fascism or something else.

Remember that most people don't (or can't) think morphologically: if you glue a curly-fry to the backside of a duck and call it a pig, people will insist to the death that it may be a weird pig, but it is certainly NOT a duck.

The world will never again see "fascism." But it may see movements that look an awful lot like fascism with a curly-fry glued to its backside.

I'm curious how much of that is going on in Europe.

Steve Morgan said...

Apologies.

Poor hyperlinking lost half my comment about Light's hypothesis. FWIW, the Svalbard link is:
http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/dv/iadv/graph.php?code=ZEP&program=ccgg&type=ts

The methane concentration and d13C numbers don't suggest the kind of large and increasing release of seabed hydrates in his blog. Specifically, the complete data set that contradicts Figure 1 on his post is an apparent correction of the methane concentrations at Svalbard, which are lower and seasonably variable compared to his extrapolation based on the preliminary data. The other arctic sites listed above also don't show large increases in methane or a significant drop in d13C, which would be expected to accompany an extinction-trend release of methane. That's not to say it's impossible, simply that it's hard to get the conclusions he does from the data. Perhaps some of the other forthcoming analyses will provide more info.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

lunab777, I rarely respond to other readers’ comments, but for once I will address the title of the post. I thought it very apropos. Ever looked after a dying family member? I did, my grandmother back in the 80s, when we looked after our families at home instead of putting them into care. Her mind and body deteriorated and she eventually slipped away one morning. We waited for long, long seconds for another breath to be drawn, but none came; my mother folded the sheet over her mother’s face and left the room.

For years I felt guilty for feeling relieved that she had passed. The family had struggled to give her hospice-level support while taking care of everything else, and it had taken its toll. I’ve also spoken with friends who were in the final stages of life, and some of those have communicated a certain pleasure when you accept that you can put down the burdens and accept the inevitable. We will all face it one day. There is pleasure in knowing the burdens, the pains, the fears and the hopes will soon no longer be a bother. There is pleasure in laying your head down from a rest and if you’ve been fighting the insane system of planetary destruction for a while, that is a tempting respite.

While people’s response to the data has the hallmarks of a “fundamentalist” approach –fundamentalist in that the literal interpretation of the data according to a specific dogmatic interpretation –I don’t think Guy is a willing John Darby. He does not seem to be savoring the news he’s delivering in a perverse “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Planet” sort of way.

I’m looking forward to discussing the future with these two speakers at Age of Limits, who both have walked away current society and embraced the change we often criticize others for not making. I suspect they will have far more in common than many of their readers seem to think.

Lidia17 said...

@David Meyer-Seaman “Do the critics of NTE have objections based on scientific measurements and models, or does the literal end of humanity feel too much like the narrative one?”

Indeed, JMG keeps using the word “narrative’. As far as I am concerned, a narrative is a story told by a story-teller, and JM being a story-teller (hammerer), everything is going to look like a story (nail) with an interested Creator. I don’t believe that I process things that way.

@Cherokee Organics, I’m much more of a visual thinker, so when I see young trees all around me snapped in half at the trunk (something I have never seen in all my born days), when I see that during a sunny May week with thousands of dandelions and other wildflower and a giant blooming crabapple and lilacs in my half-acre yard, yet I have seen exactly two bees and maybe 3-5 small outdoor flies and that’s it, when I read that bird populations are down due to lack of insect fodder, when I pick up a rock and find no insect life underneath… These instances are not just a matter of these species having moved house. It must be ten years since I have seen a clothes moth or a Daddy Longlegs. My old VT farmhouse has no spiders to speak of. No spiders because, well, there’s apparently nothing for spiders to eat here any longer. We do have ants by the bucketload, so maybe they’ll inherit the place for a time. Ants and knotweed.

Some species might move and thrive (cough-knotweed), but most won’t because few of them are as generalist as humans or even trees. The changes you mention having taken place over “tens of thousands of years” simply cannot occur within a few decades or even a century, although that’s what many people seems to be imagining. I simply find their “Narrative” less plausible than that of Prof. McPherson et al., and based on pleasurable wishful thinking to a far greater extent.

@lunab777, good comment. N.B., I’m not a “half-crazed frightened person”. I’ve generally reached a form of equanimity about the whole thing. I’m building my raised beds, and shifting my shopping from the grocery store to the CSAs and farmers markets. I’ve joined the Garden Club and some rural agriculture activist groups. The only thing that has changed in my life from before-NTE to after-NTE-awareness (8-9 months ago) is that I feel less desperate to be doing all-out “prepping” by buying a lot of tools and raw materials. (I’m rather mystified by JM’s catty remark -projection, lunab777?- that there is money to be made out of NTE; rather, the opposite.) I feel more forgiving toward fellow humans, rather than in a race to outwit them and be the Survivor on the Island.

@TracyG, I appreciated your valuable comment: “the attitudes I need to cultivate and the tasks I need to work on each day toward those aims, remain essentially the same regardless of the details”. I feel this way also.

@DeAnander: “"The ship is sinking and we're all gonna drown, so who cares if I'm picking your pocket [or worse]?" All I can say is that those who are pickpockets are out there pickpocketing both in good times and in bad, just as those who tend to share (studies show the poor are more generous than the rich) will tend to share. There are always going to be sociopathic people who are just “wired differently”. They don’t need NTE as an excuse: if they’re going to die also, their “winning” in the short term would be pointless anyway.

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