Civilizations – Part 4


(continued…) The standard view on resources is to treat them as being external to the system. So we perceive the extension of the system of our civilization as growth. But while this system is growing, the resources are shrinking. If growth happens at a constant rate (measured in percent), it is actually exponential, so the system actually grows faster and faster. We are used to perceiving this as something positive, as prosperity. If, however, we treat the resources as being part of the system, a totally different picture emerges: the system is shrinking, and it does so at an ever increasing rate. Collectively, we are getting poorer and poorer.

The total amount of resources of our planet is limited. There is a limited amount of arable land, of fresh water, of ground water. There is a limited amount of forests and of other types of ecosystems. There is a limited amount of species. There is a limited amount of mineral resources. There is a limited amount of fish in the seas. There is a limited amount of fossil fuels. There is a limited capacity of the land, the water and the atmosphere to absorb our solid, liquid and gaseous waste products. All of these resources are shrinking. They are being destructed, and the speed of their destruction is increasing.

If we want to avoid a disaster, we have to start treating the resources as integral parts of the system. We would then realize that there is no net growth. Growth is an illusion. In today’s economy, resources are just taken and used. Being external to the system, they can be taken by whoever claims them.

A sustainable system, on the other hand, would have to treat the resources as part of the managed system, a part that is managed in a non-destructive way.

One way to do this would involve the complete separation of ownership and use. Resources would become unavailable. The owner of the resource would have to be an institution that, by its constitution, has the purpose of preserving the resource. The user of a resource would “rent” it and would have to pay a price that is sufficient for the complete restauration of the resource to its previous state. We could call this the “recycling price” or the “sustainable price” of the resource. Under such a scheme, destructive uses of resources would simply be uneconomical. Only sustainable business models could survive.

A few examples: The prices for raw materials would rise so much that complete recycling is the cheapest option. The burning of fossil fuels would become completely uneconomical because because re-synthesizing the fuel from carbon-dioxide and water effectively takes more energy than you could get out of it in the first place. The price to be paid for extinguishing a species would be ruinous in any case because resurrecting an extinct species is practically impossible due to the loss of genetic information and would, if technically possible, be horrendously expensive. Only modest uses of ecosystems would be possible because beyond a certain level of use, repairing the damage would become so expensive that such a use would be uneconomical.

There are two problems with such a system. In such a system, the resources would artificially be made unavailable. The first problem is that Human creativity might find ways to get at them nevertheless, by means of corruption or violence. To prevent this, one would need education on one side, but also an organization of “rangers” to protect the resources. E.g., in the case of a forest, illegal logging and poaching or mining in the area of the forest must be prevented, and the corruption of the rangers themselves has to be prevented. There must be an organization powerful enough to keep such a system up. The question is if this is feasible.

The other problem is: even if such a system is technically possible, is there any political way to get there? Or will those who are now in the possession of the resources and who use them as a source of their power prevent any attempt into this direction, even if that means their own destruction in the (not so very) long term. Can we force, bribe or buy them out of their power? Maybe a sustainable civilization is possible but practically unreachable. There might be many civilizations in the vast expanses of space and time, but maybe there are only a lucky few who ever make it out of the growth trap in time. At the moment, it does not look like we will be one of those.

If we do not introduce such a system, we are getting things far cheaper than we should, and we are enriching ourselves by not paying the full price. You might buy something and think you have the right to it because you have paid, but actually, you have not paid the full price. The price has been subsidized from the destruction of the resource. The rest of the bill is then paid by the generation that will witness the collapse of civilization then inevitable, a catastrophe that would lead to the death of several billion people in a short time, and by generations following that event, who would find themselves impoverished on a devastated planet. Enriching ourselves and imposing the bill on future people effectively means exploiting them. Everything that is not sustainable is an instance of exploitation. So our economic system is exploitative and destructive. It is criminal.

Profit can only come from three sources: from inflation, i.e. devaluation of money (which is not really a profit), from the losses of others and from economic growth. Economic growth, as we have seen, is, in the end, the destruction of resources. So this type of profit is also an instance of the second case (losses of others) and since these other people are people of the future who had no chance of influencing the deal, it is always an instance of exploitation. In a sustainable civilization, on the other hand, there would be no net profit.

There are two ways to reach such a state: either, we manage to turn our global economy into a sustainable one.

The other way is: our civilization will collapse, and the survivors would then live more or less sustainable on a much lower level. Growth would no longer be possible because most of the easy to get resources would have been used up already. The global civilization would be gone, and the remains of it would fragment into small local groups. A second rise of technological civilization would be impossible because of lack of resources. I don’t know if this would result in an endless state of local war between small groups. If our descendants are lucky enough, they might be too poor to fight. Maybe a relatively peaceful, more or less stable culture could evolve; something akin to the cultures of ancient Australia. Or maybe we would just go extinct completely, like all those species we will have pulled into the abys along with us.

(The picture, from is showing deforestation in Bolivia.

It is an example of how a growing system is using up finite resources. The resource (the forrest) is consumed by the growing agricultural areas.

The resource is treated not as a part of the system, but as external to it. There is no institution maintaining it. The people felling the trees or clearing a patch of land either do not pay for the land and the wood at all, or they do not pay the fair, sustainable price, which would be the price required to return the forest to its previous state. Beyond a certain level, destruction of the resource becomes irreversible.)




  1. Reblogged this on The Asifoscope and commented:

    The last part of the Civilizations-Series

  2. luke610 · · Reply

    “Collectively, we are getting poorer and poorer” … there you have it in a nutshell. I will try and read through this series of posts when I’m away next week. Great work.

    1. I am also going to integrate all 4 parts into one article because somebody wanted to reblog it once it is finished. I amplanning
      to do that tomorrow.

  3. Richard W. Posner · · Reply

    Bravo nannus, bravo.

    Though your assessment of “civilisation” is a good deal less caustic than my own, we certainly reach similar conclusions. I particularly like your treatment of “profit” here.

    The one point where our thinking might diverge significantly is on whether a sustainable version of industrial civilisation is possible at all. In my opinion, at our present stage of evolution, it is not. I’ve gone into this at great length in my own writing and won’t leave a lengthy disquisition here.

    Industrial civilisation, confined to a closed system [a single planet for instance] is unconditionally unsustainable and irredeemable. Direct action is needed to tear it down ASAP. The longer the collapse is delayed, the worse things will be for who and whatever survives through and after it.

    The sooner this civilisation is deconstructed, the more viable ecosystems there will be, the more resources will remain, the more species will survive and the sooner Earth may begin the process of recovery.

    We will go over the cliff. There are only two options. Climb down as slowly and carefully as possible or leap blindly over the edge and plunge headlong onto the jagged boulders waiting below.

    Just my opinion

    I’ll look for the integrated version. I definitely feel it will be right at home at The Rise and Fall of the Human Empire.

    1. Thank you.

      I decided to put these thoughts into a factual tone. A very “caustic” tone might cause people not to read it. The content is caustic enough by itself.

      I am not talking explicitly about industry. I don’t think very much of it would remain if we could make our economy sustainable. The scheme I am proposing would raise the price for many raw materials to levels at which a lot of applications would become uneconomical. Consumerism would disappear. Wasteful practices like nonreturnable packaging etc. would disappear. We would have to use things that last for several generations and are shared among people. Many core parts of industry would disappear. If all materials are recycled, there will be no mining. There would be no use of fossil fuels. There would be no nuclear energy. People would produce most of what they need in their local communities, so there would not be much use for traffic, so no airplanes, no cars etc. etc. Indeed, a large part of the industry we are having now would disappear. Some might remain, e.g. to produce certain tools. It might be more efficient in terms of energy to produce certain things in a more centralized (although not globalized) way and then distribute them instead of making them locally everywhere. If prices for resources go up enough, the most economic mix would develop automatically. In any case, the amount of industry would be dramatically lower. I do not think that agriculture would disappear, at least not as long as we are so many. It is simply not possible to produce enough food for several billion people in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

      Just a very rough calculation: there is an estimate that the current (actual: 2012) global economy has an ecological footprint of about 2.7 earths. The ecological footprint is not a very exact measure, it does not take industrial stuff into account properly, but lets use it. There where a bit over 6 Billion people on the planet in that year. The global income is estimated at 70 Trillion dollars. The footprint number means that the economy must shrink at least by that factor (probably more) to become economical. That means the global income must not exceed about 26 Trillion dollars. Now, I divide that by the number of people to get the fair share per person. That is about 4500 dollars per person per year or something in the order of 10 to 12 dollars a day (gross income). You will not be able to afford much industrial stuff from that level of money. There are a lot of inaccuracies in this calculation, e.g. the numbers you get for the global income normally do not include subsistence farming the poorest people often do. But it gives you a rough estimate by what factor we are too rich.

      If civilization collapses, it depends on how many people survive and in what condition the remaining ecosphere will be. In any case, if there is a collapse, there will be no industry again. I don’t know what will eventually trigger the last phase of the collapse, maybe a war. Maybe economies will just get shakier and shakier until they have difficulties to produce spare parts for basic infrastructure. Maybe a natural disaster will hit. Whatever the case, at some point, electricity supplies are going to fail. No electricity means no electronics, no internet, no phone, no automatic control systems for infrastructure. Water pumps will stop, so no fresh water. Cooling will stop, so no fresh food. Gas pumps will stop, so no gas and hence no transportation. People will then die from hunger, thirst, cold, diseases and eventually violence. The best option might be to kill yourself. Different parts of the world are highly interdependent nowadays. Certain key components of technology are only being made in a few factories. If collapse sets in in one area, it will probably reach other areas as well, in a kind of domino effect.

      1. Richard W. Posner · · Reply

        I may be misunderstanding you but I get the impression you feel that humans, at the present stage of evolution, could maintain functional societies with large populations given the conditions you present. You should definitely take a look at The Venus Project. Very attractive but equally unrealistic.

        Actually it’s my opinion that your third paragraph above, replacing the word “If” with “When”, is inevitable. Billions will die. Those who survive will be plunged into unimaginably hostile conditions. They will face circumstances for which their “civilised lives have left them woefully unprepared.

        I think this is the only point where our views diverge significantly. IMHO, unless and until the psychopathic minority of our species can be either isolated and controlled or eliminated, Homo sapiens can not escape the conditions we now face. No matter how many times the majority may rise up and “overthrow” the psychopathic minority, the cycle of ponerogenesis will continue. Our species simply can’t escape the cycle of empire as long as both essential psychopaths and large population centers coexist.

        I don’t want to post another thousand word comment here. I have written extensively on this subject and provided ample documentation.

        Anyway, reblogged as promised. It’s my feeling that our points of divergence aren’t really worth debating. We’ll probably both be “extinct” before either can be validated.

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