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  • Writer's pictureDr Louis

Dynamics of collapse and how to address them

The Energy Seneca threatens to be a globally terminal event, but is it just a cultural aspect of our collective psyche that has made us the architects of our own demise?

Reproduced in part from Dr Louis Arnoux's entry on July 23rd 2021

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge" - Daniel J Boorstin

These days there is ample talk of external, planetary limits and “tipping points”… However, civilisations do not collapse because they bang into such limits or pass over tipping points, although these, of course, are important aspects of the matter.

Fundamentally civilisations collapse because the accumulated energy costs of the relentless growth of their complexity have become much more than the net energy that they can muster on the bases of the knowledge their elites have been able to bring to bear. As they evolve, societies and civilisations encounter problems out of their own making (e.g., population growth versus food supplies) or due to ecological fluctuations (e.g., natural, transient, climate fluctuations, a sudden plague, etc.).

As noted earlier, each problem solving entails an energy cost. Usually also each problem solving tends to engender further problems down the line, resulting in ever growing complexity and thus energy costs. There comes a time when that civilisation has become “top heavy” and it “keels over”. This is where the actual tipping points and limits are to be found. Professor Joseph Tainter pioneered this kind of analysis in the 1980s. Since then, ample research has corroborated his initial insights and refined them. Yet, most of current decision-making remains entirely oblivious of what we now know about civilisation collapse dynamics. This is yet another aspect of prevailing cognitive failure.

To stress this matter further, let’s recall that there has never been any energy scarcity. When collapse occurs due to the energy cost of a civilisation’s ever-growing complexity, it is never because of any absolute, "natural” energy scarcity. Each year, the Earth is bathed in a flux of some 23,000 TWyear (or 201,480,00 TWh) of solar energy, that is, orders of magnitude more than projections of human requirements (28TWy by about 2050 according to some estimates), orders of magnitude more than so-called “renewable” sources (about 72TWy) that, as we have seen earlier, cannot scale safely, and still orders of magnitude more than fossil and nuclear reserves (about 1,555TWy) that can be used only once and that we can no longer use safely with current technologies. So, there is no natural scarcity.

Mostly, humans, in their ignorance and greed, artificially create scarcity in the hope of benefiting from it. Yet, this “game” is now over. Instead, what matters is the knowledge we can bring to bear to access and use abundant solar energy safely and sustainably to solve the myriad problems tumbling through as part of the Energy Seneca.

Developing that kind of knowledge raises further questions. As we’ve covered in other blogs, the present situation is much more and much worse than mere civilisation collapse. It’s the end of the road, globally, for the whole of humankind after 3 million years of development through three previous Transitions, and potentially for many other life forms on Earth besides. Will we manage a fourth? What does it take in the midst of cognitive failure?

To address those questions, one must go further than Tainter.

In the light of the sheer abundance of solar energy, the amazing complexity of our global civilisation is not an issue per se. In terms of physics and engineering, it is perfectly possible to power our world well beyond current levels, safely and sustainably, without recourse to delusional decarbonising renewables. The ”top heavy — keel over” dynamics analysed by Tainter are not an absolute fatality. The fundamental problem is elsewhere.

Recall Albert Einstein’s famous aphorism: We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Global collapse threatens because the ever more complex Industrial Hegemon has been developed to date with a mode of thinking that is the very antithesis of what is required to evolve a civilisation able to access and use energy intelligently. The fundamental challenge is the development of the kind of mind that is required to extricate ourselves from the Seneca’s downside, while there is still a sliver of time.

The prevailing psyche, i.e., mode of experiencing, thinking, decision-making, and acting, at the heart of the Industrial Hegemon is dualistic, hierarchical, anthropocentric (e.g., “man”, in sexist fashion, over nature), and hyper-predatory. Notwithstanding the amazing development of scientific endeavours for over four centuries, the contemporary mind remains steeped in magical thinking, believing in myths and associated rituals, and sacrificial practices, including murderous ones (I do not know of one economic development process in the Industrial Hegemon that is not sacrificial in some ways, generally involving some random sacrificial deaths).

This form of the human mind is comparatively recent. It emerged about 3000 years ago, under sheer duress, in the aftermath of the collapse of Bronze Age civilisations. Worldwide, people have moved from preindustrial to industrial societies while largely retaining this kind of peculiar mind, that is now lethal. It is in that sense that I have stressed at the beginning of this letter that humankind has reached the end of the road it has been on over some 3 Million years of development of the human psyche.

Considering the present situation globally, it is not hard to see why a different kind of mind is urgently required. The thousands of problems tumbling through the Industrial Hegemon all codependently arise with each other and with the whole Energy Seneca dynamic. They form a self-organising system, known as a self-organising criticality (a simple example of which is an avalanche) of enormous complexity.

It is obvious that the kind of mind prevailing among global elites is no match for this kind of phenomenon. The current approach, largely tackling problems individually and separately from each other, mostly focusing on symptoms and missing the causes, mostly results in endlessly engendering many more problems, each inflating further overall energy costs, well beyond what the Industrial Hegemon can ever muster — the current “decarbonising” drive is a case in point. The only thing this kind of mind can achieve is accelerating further the slide towards the cliff edge and beyond — splat is the prospect.

It is vital to come to terms with this matter. The Energy Seneca absolutely has to be dealt with systemically in ways that tackle simultaneously the whole dynamic and the individual problems in their co-dependent character. Only a form of the human psyche able to encompass the Energy Seneca, as is, in its whole complexity and co-dependent dynamics, strictly with no fantasies, no belief, can possibly deal with it.

There is no absolute genetic determinism about the form of the psyche that led to this situation. It is a fundamentally cultural matter. There is now an urgent necessity to shift to a non-anthropocentric, non-hierarchical, non-dualistic form of the human mind, wholly outside any form of magical thinking, belief and sacrificial practices. There is nothing radically new here.

The kind of mind required to address effectively the Energy Seneca has been in development for some 2500 years, in round numbers, albeit among a tiny minority of people. It is also at the heart of the most advanced scientific endeavours of our times, e.g., in physics, biology, evolution theory, neurology, ecology, Earth System science, and of course, the critical social sciences. This is the kind of mind required to bring to bear currently available knowledge to power our world safely and sustainably and address the Seneca’s avalanche of problems.

The challenge here, is how to shift to such a mind in record time, beyond the current small minority of people, towards involving as much as possible of the whole of humankind?

The trait that in my view most differentiates humans from other life forms, is that humans do not need thousands of years to evolve genetically. In the main humans evolve at speed, sometimes in the course of one or two generations, thanks to the plasticity and creativity of the human psyche. The same human species, biologically speaking, has colonised every corner of the planet, thousands of widely different ecological niches, from the Arctic to Antarctica, specifically thanks to this psyche or ours.

For having followed blindly its fantasising elites for so long, humankind now finds itself by the edge of that cliff under huge selection pressure, culturally speaking. It has no other option but to evolve its psyche, in record time, along the lines pioneered by a few for some 2500 years. Based on historical observations, it can be done. The parts of humankind that stick to the prevailing Industrial Hegemon mind stand to go splat at the bottom of the cliff. The parts that manage to make the shift stand to survive to tell the tale, as the expression goes. We all stand at this juncture.

Hence, I asked myself the question: How with this kind of non-dualistic mind could it be possible to tackle the Energy Seneca over some 20 years when the immense majority of people seems unable to shift mind (metanoia, in Greek) over such a short period of time? Or have we wholly run short of time?

This is indeed where history becomes of great help. Major Transitions have never been achieved by elites, nor by painstakingly educating masses of people. They have always happened through radical technological innovations or revolutions that embodied new modes of thinking and new related modes of social organisation. At the outset, these kinds of Transition-inducing disruptive innovations have always been initiated by small numbers of pioneers who were thinking differently from the majority. In this respect, there is mounting evidence that people with atypical minds played significant roles in pioneering the innovations at the heart of each of humankind’s Transitions.

The newly demonstrated ways were then taken up by masses of people once they had had a chance of experiencing their merits. Major Transitions occur through demonstrative processes. Once they have begun to take up the innovations, people can then learn by doing, they can experiment, and contribute to the ongoing transformation through new series of innovations of their own that embody new modes of thinking and new related modes of social organisation, as well as new technological developments.

The sequence transistor, PC, Internet, smartphones is the last case in point within the Industrial Hegemon, before it plunged on the Seneca’s downside. It deeply transformed our world, modes of social organisation, people’s modes of thinking and socialising as well as ways of developing knowledge and ways of developing technologically. However, unfortunately, the Information and Communications Technology revolution (ICT) occurred in a dualistic mode. It must be considered in all its negatives impacts as well as the positive ones.

One major negative is that ICT has amounted to a large net energy drain. As such it probably contributed significantly to the plunge on the Seneca’s downside. Indeed, ICT is the sole major industrial revolution not associated with accessing a new, large energy pool in thermodynamically viable, self-powered ways. It is also probably the last to take place in the Industrial Hegemon.

Instead, at this juncture, by the very edge of the thermodynamic cliff, there remains the opportunity to demonstrate how a Fourth Transition can be catalysed, grounded in a non-dualistic, non-anthropocentric mind. This is what a few of us, scientists, engineers, marketing and finance specialists, who do not think like the mainstream, are seeking to achieve. To demonstrate that instead of delusional fossil-fuelled “business-as-usual” and instead of equally delusional “decarbonising renewables”, a Middle Way is feasible that leads to unprecedented sustainable prosperity and restoring the health of the whole planet, at once.

We have “done the maths” and established that entirely using existing knowledge and proven technological components, albeit integrated in novel, non-dualistic fashion, it is feasible to achieve over about 20 years what is summarised in the following slide. This can be accomplished by emulating some 3.8 billion years of life’s evolution. Where humankind wastes some 88% of the primary energy it currently uses, Earth-Life uses productively over 80% of the solar energy influx. It does so, non-dualistically, non-hierarchically, as a self-organising, self-regulating, self-perpetuating, complex system operating far from thermodynamic equilibrium.

Instead of the present, 19 Terawatts, fossil fuelled in appallingly inefficient fashion or the 100 Terawatts required to “decarbonise with renewables” in equally appallingly inefficient fashion (and push the world catastrophically way above 2 deg. C warming), we could achieve so much more, safely, affordably, sustainably by thinking in another way.

In May 1968, in France, millions of students and workers were demonstrating and had gone on strike. Views and aims ranged wildly. In the midst of all this, some of us were becoming aware of the dangers in the making, dangers that are now with us globally. In the months and years that followed, most of the demonstrators got absorbed relentlessly in the Industrial Hegemon. A few of us, especially some with an atypical mind, did not. I am part of the latter. Over the years, I have become acutely aware that people of my generation, that is, people who entered professional or working life around 1970, are the last generation to have grown up supported, consciously or not, by the intense feeling of the continuity, the ongoingness and richness of life on this planet. Tragically, whether they realised this or not, people born later did not have this privilege.

There is now considerable grieving. This morning I read what ecologist, Prof. Diana Six, says about what she observes in her work: “I had actually hit my own tipping point. Somewhere along the way, I had gone from being an ecologist to a coroner. I am no longer documenting life. I’m describing loss, decline, death. And that is what is accounting for my kind of overwhelming sense of grief… This is what really brought home to me that my entire job has changed. I don’t like my new job, but I can’t quit. Even if I quit being a professor and doing research, I’m always going to be a coroner now.

So, fifty-three years after May 1968, through a great deal of grieving, with an other kind of mind, this is how, with colleagues, I have been able to think through what I have summarised in this letter and how together we are boldly attempting a Fourth Transition. As you will have guessed, we are no longer so young… In the face of the Emergency, now is the time for younger ones to rally and go beyond in their pointing that “the show is over”.

There is an urgent need to uncompromisingly point out in what specific ways it’s over, to cut through the massive ignorance and delusions, and to get involved in creating a new world.

The matters I am raising in this blog are not the kind of matters decision-makers even remotely consider when addressing the Climate Emergency, energy, transport or communications infrastructures, or any of the myriad issues and problems they increasingly have to face. The matters I raise are fundamental, key to our survival, and yet remain the proverbial “herd-of-elephants-in-the-room”.

Obviously, I stress it again, much of what I have discussed will sound outrageous to many who may be prompted to react unthinkingly on the bases of their pet beliefs, regardless of the fact that what I am pointing out it is strictly grounded in a huge amount of evidence and painstakingly rigorous research work… It is up to them and at their peril.

On the Seneca’s downside, it is high time to talk straight, let go of delusions and face our actual predicament.

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