Civilization will contract, the question is, how far?

Civilization will contract, the question is, how far?

Postby rossz » Tue Apr 01, 2014 12:33 am

Here's part of my note to Lewis that he asked me to post to the discussion forum. When I talk about preferring to build websites, I'm mostly referencing, which I set up to help people think about healthy nutrition.

I wanted to challenge you with the idea that the civilization we know is about to change, hugely, but not for the reasons most people think about. Your book could be relevant to thinking about those changes. People often have trouble distinguishing symptoms from underlying causation. Right now there’s a tendency to focus on the environmental degradation symptom instead of asking “why" at a fundamental level. That relates to the typical limits of the mental modeling facility we evolved which let us second guess the large herbivores we chased for 1.8 million years until their extinction. The extinction may have been due in part to our being the most effective predator this planet has ever known, eating a high fat diet which results in a metabolic shift to ketone metabolism. Loss of the good food forced us to find new food sources; scratching the ground and eating more carbohydrates. Our cousins the Neanderthals and remnant Homo erectus may have gone extinct because they weren’t as adaptable to alternate foods.

The anthropological record shows when agriculture began we got smaller, less healthy, but way more numerous. Staying in one spot and growing lots of low quality calories did allow the development of civilization as we conceive it. The actual pathology I describe in Nutrition Equation didn’t appear until we started to use technology to refine sugars into an easily consumed toxic substance. Once agrarian societies started, there’s been a pattern of population cycles, what Turchin and Nefedov call Secular Cycles (

Societies learn the technologies to exploit a resource or set of resources, grow lots of food, then grow lots of people. The carrying capacity of the region is reached, often tied to environmental degradation or change. There’s a greater or lesser phase of reformation, typically associated with population collapse. One way to look at this is as a repeated pattern of harnessing energy sources that fuel the expansion until those energy sources are exhausted. People aren’t well wired to extend their mental models to envision resource exhaustion, not even well-educated academics. Notice that conventional economists have great difficulty discussing energy intelligently. There’s an odd paradigm dominating economics, the demand driven models. This seems to date to the 1940s when energy, specifically petroleum, became so inexpensive that they could start using and teaching mathematical models that ignored the cost of energy. There’s a great, emperor-has-no clothes lecture by deceased physicist Al Bartlett discussing the absurdity of endless growth paradigms— ... nergy.html.

We are at the zenith of the greatest cycle in humanity’s history, fueled by hydrocarbons, in particular oil. Unfortunately, conventional petroleum production peaked in 2005. Not all economists are embedded in the demand paradigm. Jeff Rubin and Steven Kopits are clued-in economists who talk about the implications— -- Jeff’s overview of his latest book, The Big Flatline in this country. ... e-economy/ -Steven talking about the same topics with a bit more rigor ... ey-drivers — Steven debunking the demand-driven models.

James Hamilton at UC San Diego has noticed that when oil gets expensive, the U.S. has recessions—

Gai Tverberg is an actuary who takes a more pessimistic view—

Very soon, perhaps 2-3 years, the large oil producers, in particular Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, will start to have difficulty sustaining production. Economies will begin to contract I suspect. We’re headed into the Crisis Phase of the current Secular Cycle, according to Gail. I’m reasonably confident humans will adapt, assuming we don’t make the world uninhabitable. A good nuclear exchange might do that trick. But the adaptation won’t be pleasant, and is likely to involve a serious population crash.

Your book may be a useful tool in thinking about how to preserve some semblance of a civilization. I’ll look at it when it appears. I do think you should think a bit more about the energy that powers civilizations. Perhaps another book, although I prefer building websites.
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Re: Civilization will contract, the question is, how far?

Postby Dave Z » Thu Feb 02, 2017 10:25 am

Yes, and how fast?

Energy and resource depletion do strike me as significant problems for future industrial society.

We've stripped the easy access fossil fuels and low supply/high demand minerals out of easy, lower tech reach, at least in industrial quantities. Thus, once scavenging is exhausted, a rebuilding civilization will have to somehow obtain vital resources which are even now diminishing in returns... not that they are any less valuable, but that resources required to obtain them are becoming growing in proportion and/or cost.

From the first, their mines and oil wells will have to be deeper than ours. They will have no economic path that allows them to work up to it.

Until recently, our own history of development progressed through a series of relatively small, manageable steps through a world filled with untapped resources. Future rebuilding will have to do largely without those resources.

Because of this, I believe that future industry will look much different than our own, functioning at a much smaller, less resource-intensive scale, and not likely within anything resembling our consumer economy. Everything will have to play out within a solar energy economy.

I'm guessing that organic technologies will play a much larger role, dominating chemical synthesis, solid-body fabrication and 'customization' of animal stock. If this is the case, genetic manipulation - whether through selection or GMO tech - will likely be the foundation of industry. This time around, we'll be armed by Darwin.

Oddly enough, I think all this might be an improvement. It sure can't get much worse!

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Re: Civilization will contract, the question is, how far?

Postby Maurice Goldsmith » Sat Feb 25, 2017 8:26 pm

@Dave Z
I totally agree that we've already used up many of the easily available resources that made our own industrial revolution possible, making it harder for another civilisation following us to repeat the developmental stages.

I don't know if there's any theory around this, but I've been toying with the idea that there may be a critical mass of wealth that is required to make certain technological advances. So a single rich businessman could afford to build a blast furnace, but to build a silicon fabrication plant for making solar panels or mobile phones requires vastly more wealth, generated by taking significant sums of money off millions of people. I'm thinking of the billions that the makers of mobile phones and operating systems make by selling to significant fractions of the world's population. Without these revenues, perhaps there wouldn't be the resources to make the product and get it to the market. And in order to achieve these sales, those organisations need the support of transport systems, telecoms networks, distribution, etc, etc. What I'm questioning here is whether a future civilisation could achieve the critical mass for these technological advances given that we've already had the easily accessible resources.

It seems to me that if there's a pyramid of technologies, biotechnology sits somewhere near the top, requiring powerful computers, the cracking of the genetic code, and numerous other scientific discoveries to get started. I guess if future civilisations had our knowledge preserved and available to them they might be able to leapfrog some stages, but only up to a point. There's still a big gap between having knowledge (eg of how to make a locomotive or an aeroplane) and having a fully functional, efficient transport network.
I am the author of a post-apocalyptic novel - The Lucifer Bug
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Re: Civilization will contract, the question is, how far?

Postby Dave Z » Thu Mar 02, 2017 2:23 am

@Maurice Goldsmith

RE Biotechnology

I agree that genetic engineering at the level of editing is pretty far up the pyramid, but biotechnology goes way back... likely prior to the development of agriculture. But a considerable amount is possible simply using petri dishes.

In the broad sense, I'd say that all of agriculture and animal husbandry is the very stuff of biotechnology. Selective breeding and culling are foundational techniques, as are seed propagation, cloning, grafting and coppicing, companion planting, rotational cycles, hybridization, nutrition, etc..

The big theoretical advances from the industrial era are those of evolution (especially as extended by gene theory), ecosystems and germ theory (including aerobic and anaerobic compost). Probably others. Tools abound, but the microscope and centrifuge extend traditional means.

Altogether, it makes for a powerful suite of technologies united in a theoretical framework!

So lets say we wanted to 'fabricate' insulating panels which are mildew resistant. We now have a much better knowledge base for breeding strains with properties we desire, beginning with some near, natural candidate, using very accessible technologies.

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