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  • Writer's pictureDr Louis

Right on the cliff's edge - the impending "Energy Seneca"

A broad brush introduction to the cliff edge of thermodynamically driven system collapse a.k.a. the "Energy Seneca"

For some years now, millions of young ones, kids, teenagers, young adults have been marching, protesting, demanding action in the face of the Climate Emergency, the 6th mass extinction, and countless other ecological and social causes… They keep demanding action, they are not getting it, and they won’t get it. In what follows we will explore how and why, and what other avenues may be open.

"It is interesting that not one analyst has yet come to the very obvious conclusion that it requires oil to produce oil. Perhaps they think it is delivered by the Tooth Fairy?” - BW Hill

We now find ourselves at the edge of a precipitous thermodynamic cliff. This is unprecedented. Numerous individual civilisations have collapsed before, regionally. This is the first time it is happening for the whole of humankind at once however, so failure to understand it this time will be terminal. In what follows I explain more about key aspects of the present global situation.

No civilisation can exist without a self-powered energy supply system. The energy system powering the globalised industrial world has been degrading since the early 1970s. It is now in its final decline, no longer fully self-powered, and will have disintegrated most probably before 2030. Although the evidence for this is now massive, most people seem so hypnotised by the Climate Emergency that, like the proverbial “possum in the head lights” (or rabbit, or deer, etc.), they remain blind to this much more drastic situation — hence the thermodynamic cliff metaphor.

Greta Thunberg has been adamant and she is correct: “The climate crisis is just one symptom of a much larger crisis, [including] the loss of biodiversity, the loss of fertile soil but also including inequality and threats to democracy… These are symptoms that we are not living sustainably: we have reached the end of the road.” Bar a few exceptions I will come to in a moment, this kind of awareness has not yet filtered significantly among global decision-making elites.

The COVID-19 pandemic did slow down and constrain protests, which has also impeded getting that message across. Meanwhile, we keep hearing plenty of good words on the part of global elites attending endless meetings yet we see no significant action to date. The lack of action shows clearly in the statistics. We recently learned that fossil fuel use merely dropped from 80.3% in 2009 to 80.2% in 2019.

All the talking, all the massive investment in using “renewables” to “decarbonise”, aka photovoltaics and wind turbines, plus Li batteries, electric vehicles and all the focus on ESG (environmental, social and governance) over the last ten years amount to a 0.1% drop in fossil fuel use.

Young ones are getting acutely aware that their life expectancy is now less than half that of their parents. The leaked IPCC draft report (that was due to be released early 2022) sadly confirms their concerns and sets matters in bluntly clear terms: “Life on Earth can recover from major climate change by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems, Humanity cannot… We need a radical transformation of processes and behaviours at all levels: individuals, communities, companies, institutions and government… We need to redefine our way of life and consumption.

The practical remaining timeframe for taking a drastic emergency turn away from the edge of the cliff at the end of the road, as I have stressed in other essays, is a mere 20 years. A child born now is unlikely to make it much beyond 20… unless radical transformations are set in train, which presently they are not.

In reaction to the leaked report, Sir Nicholas Stern, known worldwide for his 2006 Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change and not involved in the leaked IPCC report, commented: “The world faces complex interwoven challenges… Unless we face them at the same time, we will not meet any.”

At about the same time, William Ripple and colleagues issued yet another warning, updating their 2019-20 warning with an added sense of even greater urgency that recoups the CCAG findings:“There is… mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed tipping points associated with critical parts of the Earth system, including the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, and the Amazon rainforest…”

They conclude: “On the basis of recent trends in planetary vital signs, we reaffirm the climate emergency declaration and again call for transformative change, which is needed now more than ever to protect life on Earth and remain within as many planetary boundaries as possible. The speed of change is essential, and new climate policies should be part of COVID-19 recovery plans. We must now join together as a global community with a shared sense of urgency, cooperation, and equity.”

Almost in parallel with the IPCC leak and the renewed warning of William J Ripple et al., Sir David King launched the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), involving 14 scientists from 10 countries. CCAG has already released a report analysing the avalanche of extremes events that occurred in the wake of the unprecedented Pacific North West Heat Dome extreme heat event and its successor over mush of North America, unprecedented heat in the Arctic, mega-fires in North America, the Amazon, Russia, Greece, Turkey, and many other places, flash floods in Europe, the UK, India, China and all the way to New Zealand, and droughts to boot in numerous places. The CCAG report and Sir David King in a number of interviews make bluntly clear that the situation has abruptly changed, corroborating the grim intuitions of millions of young ones::

An Arctic tipping point has passed (quoting Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research);

Climate modelling underestimated climate change events: What is happening today was predicted to happen in about 70 years time;

Greenhouse Gas (GHG) levels are already too high for a manageable future for humanity. We must fast-track the understanding and rapid implementation of safe processes for GHG removal at scale from the atmosphere”.

Now, in the wake of the above, we also learn corroboration that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), aka Gulf Stream, has not only been slowing down (it was already known to be the slowest it had been for at least 1,600 years), but has experienced “an almost complete loss of stability over the last century” and may be nearing a shutdown. This would cause severe disruptions in rainfalls in India, South America and West Africa, massively disrupting food supplies for billions of people, result in increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe, pushing up the sea level off eastern North America, further damage the Amazon rainforest, and accelerate the breakdown of Antarctic ice sheets. Researchers are adamant the shutdown of the AMOC must not be allowed to happen but remain mute about how stopping it could be done…

What is new in all of the above, IPCC leak, William J Ripple et al., CCAG, AMOC worrying instability, and more, is that the warnings are no longer about a distant future. They are about now. The events of the last four years and much more specifically of 2021 have removed some 70 years from the timelines global decision-making elites believed they still had and annihilated the myth of a remaining “carbon budget” that could still be burned (although that belief still lingers on).

What is also new in all of the above is the mounting awareness of the systemic character of the global situation. This is the kind of awareness that Greta Thunberg and millions of members of Fridays for Future have begun to manifest, now demanding “system change” and “intersectional climate justice”. The kind of awareness that Sir Nicholas Stern has also belatedly begun to manifest. That awareness still escapes global elites. It is core to the present essay.

Even more importantly and tragically at this late hour, what remains missed, regarding the endless protests, and regarding the emerging recognition by youths and climate experts that our world is facing a make-or-break utter emergency of a systemic character… is that current elites are not in a position to do anything about it. Elites simply don’t know how to handle the situation. Financiers may invest trillions in whatever currency to “combat global warming”. They have not achieved anything significant to date and they won’t in the future. Millions upon millions of protesters may well want action now. They are not getting it… And they will not get it, not from any government or established business.

Unfortunately for Greta, she too still stops short of the critical point, which is that using our present technology set, a transition off fossil fuels is mathematically impossible. She does not have the solution any more than those who she has accused of failure.

It is not that elites do not want to act. It is that none of the global decision-making elites are in a position to deal with anything like what Sir Nicholas Stern or Sir David King belatedly recognise – that is, the necessity to shift from piecemeal attempts to find individual solutions to individual problems, to systemic action tackling all the challenges at once. It can be done. The knowledge, experience and expertise to do it is available. It has been available for a very long time. Yet, currently, this is not part of global elites’ cognitive capacities.

Obviously, the above statement is startling. How could that be? And if so, the global situation is even more worrying, if that was ever possible. The startling character of that statement is merely a measure of a large knowledge gap between a tiny minority of specialists from a range of disciplines and the majority of humans now under threat. It is also a consequence of deep compartmentalisation within science and a lack of transdisciplinary expertise. The fundamental matters in play have been known for a long while. The core aim of our blogs are to explain, in as a lay language as possible, the how and why of this cognitive failure, what are the implications and what are potential alternative avenues, if any.

Current elites have never sought to acquire the kind of knowledge and experience now required. They lack them and are not accessing them. Instead, they manifest a profound disconnect between their beliefs and reality, often commingled with some mindless, consummate arrogance. In recent years, many members of the global elites have finally integrated the view that our world is reaching or has already reached “limits”, and is crossing or has already passed “tipping points” – often with references to the seminal 1972 Limits to Growth work of the Meadows, work that world elites of the time had (un)gloriously ignored or disparaged. However, they do so in mythical fashions that largely miss the core matters:

"At heart, a society or civilisation does not collapse because it bangs into limits or breaches them. It collapses because its elites are no longer able to solve the avalanche of problems that they have created for themselves by abiding blindly to their beliefs.The fundamental tragedy of our time is a massive, global, case of cognitive failure."

Anyone thinking that my diagnostic concerning world elites is too harsh, please recall that the first well documented warnings about the present situation were made over 50 years ago. They were largely ignored until the COP25 in Paris in 2015, and, as stressed earlier, over the last 10 years, progress towards reducing fossil fuel use has remained limited to approximately 0.1%. Cognitive failure is a sufficient reason why the Conference of Parties No. 26 (COP26) is bound to fail, why all subsequent COPs are also bound to fail, and why all of the present efforts to address the Climate Emergency are bound to fail.

I have characterised as the "Energy Seneca" the systemic challenges that Sir Nicholas Stern now acknowledges, that is, a long process of growth having reached a peak and now breaking into an abrupt fall down a thermodynamic cliff. Energy, or more accurately thermodynamic developments, altogether form the main driver of the now catastrophic global situation, hence the Energy Seneca label. I have also shown that under this Seneca dynamic the industrial world has reached at once the end of the road it has been on since the very early days of the first industrial revolution, some 270 years ago, and the end of the road concerning some 10,000 years of agricultural and urbanisation developments, and the end of the road for some 3 million years of development of what, over the last 3,000 years, became the prevailing modern psyche.

As one of my colleagues so succinctly put it:

"It is interesting that not one analyst has yet come to the very obvious conclusion that it requires oil to produce oil. Perhaps they think it is delivered by the Tooth Fairy?” (B.W. Hill, 9-3-15).

The“End of the road” means that survival now rests on re-inventing everything we are familiar with and first and foremost how we think, make decisions, organise socially, and act on this planet – all within some 20 years, globally, at least for initiating the core radical changes required for survival, which has never been done before.

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