Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The latest from Dmitry Orlov...
Tuesday, February 17, 2015

by Dmitry Orlov

David Herbert
This blog is dedicated to the idea of presenting the big picture—the biggest possible—of what is going on in the world. The abiding areas of interest that make up the big picture have included the following:

1. The terminal decay and eventual collapse of industrial civilization as the fossil fuels that power it become more and more expensive to produce in the needed quantities, of lower and lower resource quality and net energy and, eventually, in ever-shorter supply.

The first guess by Hubbert that the all-time peak of oil production in the US would be back in the 1970s was accurate, but later prediction of a global peak, followed by a swift collapse, around the year 2000 was rather off, because here we are 15 years later and global oil production has never been higher. Oil prices, which were high for a time, have temporarily moderated. However, zooming in on the oil picture just a little bit, we see that conventional oil production peaked in 2005—just 5 years late—and has been declining ever since, and the shortfall has been made up by oil that is difficult and expensive to get at (deep offshore, fracking) and by things that aren't exactly oil (tar sands).

The current low prices are not high enough to sustain this new, expensive production for much longer, and the current glut is starting to look like a feast to be followed by famine. The direct cause of this famine will not be energy but debt, but it can still be traced back to energy: a successful, growing industrial economy requires cheap energy; expensive energy causes it to stop growing and to become mired in debt that can never be repaid. Once the debt bubble pops, there isn't enough capital to invest in another round of expensive energy production, and terminal decay sets in.

2. The very interesting process of the USA becoming its own nemesis: the USSR 2.0, or, as some are calling, the USSA.

The USA is best characterized as a decomposing corpse of a nation lorded over by a tiny clique of oligarchs who control the herd by wielding Orwellian methods of mind control. So far gone is the populace that most of them think that things are just peachy—there is an economic recovery, don't you know—but a few of them do realize that they all have lots of personal issues with things like violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and gluttony. But don't call them a nation of violent, drug-abusing gluttons, because that would be insulting. In any case, you can't call them anything, because they aren't listening, for they are too busy fiddling with their electronic life support units to which they have become addicted. Thanks to Facebook and the like they are now so far inside Plato's cave that even the shadows they see aren't real: they are computer simulations of shadows of other computer simulations.

The signs of this advanced state of decomposition are now unmistakable everywhere you look, be it education, medicine, culture or the general state of American society, where now fully half the working-age men is impaired in their ability to earn a decent living. But it is now particularly obvious in the endless compounding of errors that is the essence of American foreign policy. Some have started calling it “the empire of chaos,” neglecting to mention the fact that an empire of chaos is by definition ungovernable.

A particularly compelling example o failure is the Islamic Caliphate, which now rules large parts of Syria and Iraq. It was initially organized with American help topple the Syrian government, but which now threatens the stability of Saudi Arabia instead. This problem was made much worse by alienating Russia, which, with its long Central Asian border, is the one major nation that is interested in fighting Islamic extremism. The best the Americans have been able to do against the Caliphate is an expensive and ineffectual bombing campaign. Previous ineffectual and expensive bombing campaigns, such as the one in Cambodia, have produced unintended consequences such as the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, but why bother learning from mistakes when you can endlessly compound them?

Another example is the militarized mayhem and full-blown economic collapse that has engulfed the Ukraine in the wake of American-organized violent overthrow of its last-ever constitutional government a year ago. The destruction of the Ukraine was motivated by Zbigniew Brzezinski's simplistic calculus that turning the Ukraine into an anti-Russian NATO-occupied zone would effectively thwart Russian imperial ambitions. A major problem with this calculus is that Russia has no imperial ambitions: Russia has all the territory it could ever want, but to develop it it needs peace and free trade. Another slight problem with Zbiggy's “chessboard” is that Russia does have an overriding concern with protecting the interests of Russians wherever they may live and, for internal political reasons, will always act to protect them, even if such actions are illegal and carry the risk of a larger military conflict. Thus, the American destabilization of the Ukraine has accomplished nothing positive, but did increase the odds of nuclear self-annihilation. But if the USA manages to disappear from the world's political map without triggering a nuclear holocaust, we will still have a problem, which is that...

3. The climate of Earth, our home planet, is, to put it as politely as possible, completely fucked. Now, there are quite a few people who think that radically altering the planet's atmospheric and ocean chemistry and physics by burning just over half the fossilized hydrocarbons that could possibly be dug up using industrial means nothing, and that what we are observing is just natural climate variability. These people are morons. I will delete every single one of the comments they submit in response to this post, but in spite of my promise to do so, I assure you that they will still submit them... because they are morons.

What we are looking at is a human-triggered extinction episode that will certainly be beyond anything in human experience, and which may rival the great Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago. There is even the possibility of Earth becoming completely sterilized, with an atmosphere as overheated and toxic as that of Venus. That these changes are happening does not require prediction, just observation. The only parameters that remain to be determined are these:

1. How far will this process run? Will there still be a habitat where humans can survive? Humans cannot survive without plenty of fresh water and sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all of which require functioning ecosystems. Humans can survive on almost any kind of diet—even tree bark and insects—but if all vegetation is dead, then so are we. Also, we cannot survive in an environment where the wet bulb temperature (which takes into account our ability to cool ourselves by sweating) exceeds our body temperature: whenever that happens, we die of heat stroke. Lastly, we need air that we can actually breathe: if the atmosphere becomes too low in oxygen (because the vegetation has died out) and too high in carbon dioxide and methane (because the dead vegetation has burned off, the permafrost has melted, and the methane currently trapped in oceanic clathrates has been released) then we all die.

We already know that the increase in average global temperature has exceeded 1C since pre-industrial times, and, based on the altered atmospheric chemistry, is predicted to eventually exceed 2C. We also know that industrial activity, thanks to the aerosols it puts into the atmosphere, produces an effect known as global dimming. Once it's gone, the average temperature will jump by at least another 1.1C. This would put us within striking range of 3.5C, and no humans have ever been alive with Earth more than 3.5C above baseline. But, you know, there is a first time for everything. Maybe we can invent some gizmo... Maybe if we all put on air-conditioned sombreros or something... (Design contest, anyone?)

2. How fast will this process happen?

The thermal mass of the planet is such that there is a 40-year lag between when atmospheric chemistry is changed and its effects on average temperature are felt. So far we have been shielded from some of the effects by two things: the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice and permafrost, and the ocean's ability to absorb heat. Your iced drink remains pleasant until the last ice cube is gone, but then it becomes tepid and distasteful rather quickly. Some scientists say that, on the outside, it will take 5000 years for us to run out of ice cubes, causing the party to end, but then the dynamics of the huge glaciers that supply the ice cubes are not understood all that well, and there have been constant surprises in terms of how quickly they can slough off icebergs, which then drift into warmer waters and melt quickly.

But the biggest surprise of the last few years has been the rate of arctic methane release. Perhaps you haven't, but I've found it impossible to ignore all the scientists who have been ringing alarm bells on Arctic methane release. What they are calling the clathrate gun—which can release some 50 gigatons of methane in as little as a couple of decades—appears to have been fired in 2007 and now, just a few years later, the trend line in Arctic methane concentrations has become alarming. But we will need to wait for at least another two years to get an authoritative answer. Overall, the methane held in the clathrates is enough to exceed the global warming potential of all fossil fuels burned to date by a factor of between 4 and 40. The upper end of that range does seem to put us quite far towards a Venus-type atmosphere, and the surviving species may be limited to exotic thermophilic bacteria, if that, and certainly will not include any of the species we like to eat, nor any of us.

Looking at such numbers has caused quite a few researchers to propose the possibility of near-term human extinction. Estimates vary, but, in general, if the clathrate gun has indeed gone off, then most of us shouldn't be planning to be around beyond mid-century. But the funny thing is (humor is never in poor taste, no matter how dire the situation) that most of us shouldn't be planning on sticking around beyond mid-century in any case. The current oversized human population is a product of fossil fuel-burning, and once that's over, human population will crash. This is called a die-off, and it's something that happens all the time: a population (say, of yeast in a vat of sugary liquid) consumes its food, and then dies off. A few hardy individuals linger on, and if you throw in a lump of sugar, they spring to life, start reproducing and the process takes off again.

Read the rest here...

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