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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 10:28 AM
Original message
Thinking about a thousand-year depression
Edited on Fri Dec-05-08 10:34 AM by GliderGuider
A comment by a reader at The Automatic Earth has me ruminating this morning:

Cyclical terms like recession and depression are looking less appropriate by the day. Its like calling the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance a depression.

I know the our situation is vastly different from the state of the world in Roman times, but the idea that we could be on the brink of a fundamental reset of civilization is intriguing, to say the least.

I've been convinced for several years that we are looking at the convergence of a set of wicked interlocking global problems -- ecological problems (climate chaos, the death of the oceans, fresh water shortages etc.), energy shortages due to fossil fuel depletion, and overpopulation with the resulting pressure on the global food supply. This convergence is happening under the umbrella of the current global financial collapse that constrains our ability to respond to any of these problems individually, let alone any further problems that might emerge from interactions between them.

This unfortunate collision makes the future of our civilization very murky indeed. Writers like James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer, Carolyn Baker and Sharon Astyk (along with people like Stoneleigh and Ilargi at The Automatic Earth) have been warning about the possibility of a generalized, unrecoverable collapse of modern civilization for a while now. They have generally been derided by the mainstream as millennialist prophets of doom -- driven more by their own subconscious fears and dark desires, their research full of confirmation bias.

The events unfolding around us now, however, cast their optimistic mainstream critics in a somewhat different light. None of them -- even the Roubinis and Krugmans have fully appreciated the severity of the worlds financial predicament. Their comforting bromides (and even their more pessimistic utterances) have been overwhelmed by events on a weekly basis. It has become clear that for all their careful analysis of trunks and tails, nobody truly understood the shape of the entire elephant.

This evident failure of comprehension brings their entire analysis into disrepute. And that should make us ask if they failed to comprehend the underpinnings of a calamity in their own domain, what does that say about the possibility that they also failed to understand the dangers being trumpeted by the doomers they have derided?

After all, we are seeing the same outcome in the climate crisis as in the financial one the trends are uniformly negative, and are unfolding much faster than the professionals in either field predicted. There are new signs from world bodies like the International Energy Agency that the same situation is developing with respect to the worlds oil supply the more pessimistic members of the Peak Oil crowd appear to be heading for vindication.

So, following a major, rapid contraction (aka collapse), could our civilization end up staying on the mat, unable to rise from the ashes of our former glory? Thats unknowable of course, but hardly inconceivable. Several factors give that speculation some foundation.

The first confounding factor is the spectre of irreversible climate change. That could irreparably damage the worlds food production capacity through shifts in rainfall and the reduction of snow and glacial cover that supplies much of the worlds fresh water for agriculture.

The second factor is the permanent depletion of the compact, high-density, transportable energy supply represented by fossil fuels. Were putting a lot of effort into developing electrical alternatives, of course. There are two major challenges in the way, though. The first is the relative infancy of the industry, and the fact that it will require both capital and fossil fuels to enable its continued growth. The second longer term problem is that the use of electricity requires a higher level of technology in the infrastructure needed to manufacture, distribute, store and convert it into work. This may not seem like much of a a problem today, but if our global industrial civilization goes into a decline, growing parts of the world may find the maintenance of such infrastructure increasingly difficult.

A third factor that may get in the way of recovery is the depletion of easily-recoverable resources such as metals. The decline in the average quality of various ores being mined today is well documented, and is likely to continue. While recycling can recover much of the metal currently discarded as waste, recycling facilities capable of producing enough output to feed our civilizations needs do not yet exist. They would face the same hurdles as the build-out of electrical supplies I described above.

You might think that such a situation will take so long to develop that we will be able to address the situation before it gets quite that dire.

One consideration that works against that hope is that human beings are not, for all their cleverness, fully rational creatures. Research has shown that most of our rational decisions are made at a deeply unconscious level, to be dressed up with rational justifications only upon their emergence into the conscious mind some time later. The truth of this proposition can be seen all around us in the competition between environmental remediation and economic imperatives, in the obstruction of alternative energy development, in our repeated creation of financial bubbles -- in all the myriad ways in which we as a society work tirelessly against our own best interests as individuals and as a species.

Even worse, events have recently shown a terrifying ability to outstrip our expectations, in both speed and severity. We may not have nearly as much time left as we think. A lack of time coupled with an inability to respond rationally (or even to accept the evidence of our eyes) does not bode well for the future of this civilization.

Its conceivable that our current civilization will never regain its feet after this storm has burst upon us. We will endure as a species no matter what happens, of course, and its even probable that we will rise to new heights. Its also quite possible that the rebirth of this Phoenix will take a long, long time and that those new heights will be unrecognizable to someone raised in todays world of 401(k)s, Credit Default Swaps, automobiles and gigantic concrete cities.
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Jackpine Radical Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 10:43 AM
Response to Original message
1. I pretty much see things as you do. We are headed for major and, for
all practical purposes, irreversible change. We can either approach our problems as rational beings--as a rational species--or we can continue on our merry way over the cliff. With foresight, with a vision of a new world, we can make the transition in such a way as to minimize the suffering. If we remain blind to reality, we will have a much harder time of it than we might otherwise.

I often think of society as a gigantic organism. Parts that are growing in uncontrolled, unsustainable ways are like cancers. We have sense organs, but all too often ignore or distort their input, usually in the short-term interest of some segment of the organism, and always to the detriment of the whole. Uneven concentrations of wealth, if small, may direct us into more productive and fruitful actions, but if these disparities in concentration are too large, they distort our ability to perceive reality and function appropriately, and will finally either kill us or make the social organism damn sick.
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indepat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 10:59 AM
Response to Reply #1
3. The vast further distortions in wealth created by the Gipper's voodoo economics and continued by
GHWB and junior are the gifts that just keep on giving: today's calamitous economic and financial meltdown is but a culmination of the handiwork of 'puke rule for twenty of the last 28 years and its effect will bear heavily of our economy and standard of living for generations to come, it not a thousand years. :D
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DemReadingDU Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 10:49 AM
Response to Original message
2. I think it depends on which bubble is bursting

From what I know of bubbles, for as long as it took the bubble to rise, it takes that long for the bubble to deflate. So...

If people believe the credit bubble began in the 1970's early 1980's, then it will be appx 25 years before people would believe in credit again.

If people believe the bubble began with freedom and democracy and constitution of the U.S., then it would be appx 200 years to get another form of government.

I'm having a hard enough time comprehending the credit bubble bursting and how it's going to affect me and my family and close friends, rather than a depression of 1000 years.

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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 11:10 AM
Response to Reply #2
4. I tend to see modern civilization itself as the uber-bubble
That means it's been building for at least 200 years, and possibly for as much as 1000 years, depending on where you set your boundaries.

My biggest concern is that the two sides of that bubble will be utterly asymmetrical due to resource depletion and climate change. This financial crisis may just the apogee event that triggers the inflection.
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screembloodymurder Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 11:21 AM
Response to Original message
5. K&R
It's a scary scenario, but even on a microscopic level, exponential growth can't be supported for long. On the bright side, the fall off in demand for oil will buy us time and we're likely to need all the time we can buy.
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Bigmack Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 11:56 AM
Response to Original message
6. The OTHER PROBLEM I'd throw
into this interlocking mix of global problems is the economic ideology to which too much of the world is currently yoked - the ideology that says that infinite growth in a finite system is a logical, necessary possibility! 'Splain me THAT one, Lucy.....
Ms Bigmack
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Warpy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 12:31 PM
Response to Original message
7. It won't last 1000 years like the GOP majority didn't last 100.
It will probably feel like it, just like it did when the GOP was on top and Delay was crowing, but it really won't last forever.

What emerges will be radically different from what we've known for the past 40 years. I'm sure to some people, it will feel like a continuation of a depression. To others, it will be a welcome relief from a bad economic system with failure built into it.

People who fear Apocalypse are generally rigid sorts who don't do well when conditions change. Embrace change, go with the flow, don't dwell on how things are supposed to be, and you'll do well.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 12:59 PM
Response to Reply #7
8. I agree about embracing change -- it's the only constant, after all.
Edited on Fri Dec-05-08 01:00 PM by GliderGuider
And once we're a generation or two into the new state of affairs it will simply be accepted as the way things are now.

This was a thought experiment to draw out some reasons why our expectations of recovery may be dashed, and to prompt people to think more along the lines of, "What should we do differently if this is going to become the "new normal" rather than the temporary aberration so many assume it is?" Something tells me that our assessment of the best course of action -- even in the short term -- differs dramatically depending on whether you think we're going to recover or not.
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HillbillyBob Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 01:04 PM
Response to Original message
9. Some of us have been derided as doom and gloom. In my personal life
Edited on Fri Dec-05-08 01:45 PM by HillbillyBob
has seen the downfall coming from having a decent job to having messed up health etc.
I have seen since child hood that our gluttonous over use of everything resource wise could not be sustainable in a closed cycle environment.
When I was a kid in the 60s the idea of mining asteroids seemed like it could happen.
Instead of investing in space to build up things we have greedy and selfish grabbers using up even more resources from earth instead of reaching out to the asteroids and moon to build up space stations that could help feed us, provide raw materials, instead everyone uses up those energy and metal ores for hummmers and cheap jewelry and other short lived useless junk.
so sorry you cannot reach for the stars when you are hiding underground and using up everything.
Our Earths resources should have been used as investment rather than end product.
We have tried to set up to get through, we don't have a bomb shelter and tons of food.
Things are too tight financially for us. What we have done is move to the country where we can grow our own food, there is water on site, that is if the climate does not go totally out the window.
on edit, I meant to hit preview not post
We are developing an ecofarm to use little or no fossil fuels, it is slow going. We are still in the making every bit go further stages. We cannot afford solar panels etc yet, but are adding inulation of various kinds and ways. Growing heirloom crops that need less water and no fertilizers except manure etc. It would take too long to list all we have done, most of it is cheap or free to do like gaskets in the light switches, outlets and fixtures is reused foam packaging material that is not really recyclable or bio degradeble, soaps made from plants etc.
Using CFLs and going to LEDs, lower powered appliances, I am not physically able to wash clothes by hand, and the stream on the property runs through a cow pasture upstream.
Planting giant sequoia, while they do take a lot of water they also cool the immediate area around them by transpiration, are fire and insect resistant.
Ultimate goals are indpendent of outside fuels especially fossil fuels.
Would that our near sighted government would legalize hemp for it grows with no fertilizer and would need very little water to produce fabric similar go cotton which needs monoculture and intense fossil inputs.
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Warpy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 02:30 PM
Response to Reply #9
12. I've been rich and I've been poor
and rich is more comfortable--but poor is a hell of a lot less complicated.

Apologies to Sophie Tucker.
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lumberjack_jeff Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 01:57 PM
Response to Original message
10. What we're seeing is underappreciation.
The vast bulk of people underappreciate how this is going to play out. The collapsing economy won't be an inconvenience, it will become a survival issue for many.

On the other hand, people like Illargi and Stoneleigh don't appreciate how adaptable humankind is. We exploit (in the biological sense) every ecological niche on the planet. We get by.
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Hydra Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 02:19 PM
Response to Original message
11. Like almost every probem
It looks huge and unfixable until you look at the root cause.

The root cause in this case is artificial growth. There is no good reason to build things with components designed to break after X years. There is no reason we all need to work endlessly and consume endlessly for the benefit of a few people at the top. There is no reason to pollute our environment and strip it bare for "profit." There is no reason to interfere with birth control and family planning- in places where it is easy and available, population growth often becomes negative.

Our "system" is what's killing us and our world. It could be so easy to stop all of this, if we had the will.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 02:33 PM
Response to Reply #11
13. "If we had the will"
Edited on Fri Dec-05-08 03:08 PM by GliderGuider
The reason we can't summon the will to stop our behaviour is in turn the true root cause of the problem.

The core reason for our predicament is that humanity sees itself as separate from nature -- above it, apart from it rather than a part of it. As a result we feel we're not subject to petty natural constraints like biophysical limits or the properties of exponential curves. Until we heal this toxic sense of separation no act of will can pull us off our two-thousand-year trajectory. On the other hand, if we can heal that dualism it will take no effort at all.

Is there such a healer in the house?

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Hydra Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 03:26 PM
Response to Reply #13
16. Several, I would bet
We've been told to shut up and stop acting like children. A funny projection, if you ask me.
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westerebus Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Dec-06-08 08:54 AM
Response to Reply #13
19. Man is not awake. n/t
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Dec-06-08 09:46 AM
Response to Reply #19
20. I agree. Some individuals are, though. And that leads to my main interest these days:
Is it possible to catalyze a global awakening by the gradual awakening of individuals?

Is it possible that such a process could bear a metaphorical similarity to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar?

In that process, the caterpillar first spends its life merely consuming. As its time grows short, cells called imaginal cells begin to appear mysteriously in its body, and cluster together in structures called imaginal discs. At first these cells are seen as invaders by the caterpillar's immune system, and are ruthlessly attacked. Despite this, they continue to appear, though their total mass never amounts to more than a tiny fraction of the caterpillar's body weight. When they reach some critical mass, they somehow trigger the process of pupation. During that process the caterpillar's body is dissolved entirely, and a butterfly is somehow constituted from the goo.

I see in that process a poetic metaphor for our current experience. Humanity has spent its time consuming and growing. The part of imaginal cells in the pupation metaphor is being played by the minority of individuals who are spontaneously awakening around the world in response to various stressors our civilization has created. These imaginal individuals cluster together in a growing number (over two million at last count) of small, independent, local grassroots groups devoted to environmental, social justice and spiritual concerns. These groups -- which are a global phenomenon and may be the largest social movement that has ever existed -- are loosely analogous to the "imaginal discs" in the caterpillar's body. The part of the immune system is being played by our civilization's guardian institutions that see these groups and individuals as dangerous and attack their ideas. These groups do not constitute more than a tiny fraction of the planet's population, but are proving impossible to eradicate and are already having a disproportionate influence on our self-perceptions and actions.

Will we complete the metaphor and enter some kind of pupation phase as the body of our civilization dissolves into goo? Will we emerge as an unpredictable butterfly? It's a comforting dream, and can ease the fear of the possibility of our imminent dissolution, as well as giving that dissolution some meaning. Is it true? What is truth?
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westerebus Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Dec-06-08 10:26 AM
Response to Reply #20
21. Yes.
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 03:14 PM
Response to Original message
14. The blog you were looking for cannot be found
Better link, please?
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 03:18 PM
Response to Reply #14
15. Sorry, here you go
It looks like the original has an extra space in it. /
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Odin2005 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-05-08 09:23 PM
Response to Original message
17. People were saying the same sort of prophecies of doom in 1932.
Edited on Fri Dec-05-08 09:26 PM by Odin2005
And the next few years will, again, be like the 1930s, not the 400s. In fact, I dare say we are on the brink of a new renaissance, not a new dark age.

My own thinking is similar to that of this site.

'We want to save the Earth's biosphere, settle the oceans and space, end hunger and poverty, utilize alternative sources of energy, bring about a better democracy and economy to the world, and generally provide a standard of living and quality of life far beyond anything mankind has ever experienced."
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Dec-06-08 08:47 AM
Response to Reply #17
18. The future contains a spectrum of probabilities
We cannot know which one will be realized until it happens (i.e. until we observe it and the wave function collapses, in quantum-physics-speak). In our Newtonian billiard-ball world, however, some outcomes can be seen to have much higher probability than others, especially as they draw closer and their surrounding context is better understood.

My own hope for the future is rather esoteric as well. It involves a spontaneous metamorphosis of the human world-view, catalyzed by a change in the global noetic milieu as the crisis changes our physical environment (I know, most people say "What?"). Such dreams are deeply personal, though, and rarely transfer well to the broader public. Good luck with yours, I hope at least some aspects of it are realized.
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