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Decadence and collapse in a changing climate

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In aliis linguis

(Originally published at the author’s blog.)

I start this post by referring to the IPCC report published past August. There were very important sentences, by which my friend Ferran Puig talks about in his blog. It should be noted here that what was published this past August is only the first part of the total report, which corresponds to the so called working group one (WGI). The reports of working group two (WGII, impacts) and working group three (WGIII, adaptation) are expected to be published next year. From this report we are informed about the scientific literature state of the art but (also, indirectly) about how the political side is very worried. I want to remind you that this is not just a scientific report, because the review from the scientists is softened by the administrative bodies of countries through their representatives at the United Nations. Compared to the previous reports, it is clear and it calls for decisive action now and in the coming years: the option of procastrinating is no longer valid. From this report, beyond what has already been said, I would point out that this message indicates that everyone is very scared by the current situation. People do not see a valid option (within the current socio-economic paradigm) for short-term implementation.

Current situation

At this point it seems that we don’t move, as the latest report from the IPCC (AR5, the framework in which Paris agreements were approved) already warned of the risks of doing nothing. Instead, regardless the countles promisses, emissions have continued to rise and it does not seem that in the short term this increase can be stopped. Given this scenario, there are already articles that analyze which areas of the planet are most resilient to maintain a certain level of social complexity in a context of climate crisis, we will talk about this in a future post. Now though, let’s see why emissions continue to rise and nothing is being done (for now) to stop this collective suicide attempt. In short: why, despite the warnings, we do not react collectively? The answer to this question is complex but it should be noted that in the collective perception or awareness of what climate change is and what it entails, is the keystone of the problem. To simplify, we are in a situation where a serious problem is perceived, but there is the belief (I would say even religious by some) that outside the current socio-economic system there is only barbarism, chaos and destruction. Therefore, attitudes are to ignore the problem and/or try to distract or to resignate and frustrate. This connects directly to the view of collapse as a time of decadence. It should be keep in mind that, from my point of view, the word decadence has no useful meaning. Decadence is rather a use that lends itself to populist and conservative theories, because it implies the existence of a social zenith, of a golden age and happy times: nothing is further from the truth, the material zenith of one society is the originary cause for its collapse.

To get out of this attitude, one must first demystify collapse as an unprecedented or fundamentally negative process. According to various works, all complex societies follow cycles of ascent and descent, you can find references in J. Tainter himself, J. Diamond, P. Turchin or Seneca Cliff of U. Bardi. In particular, there is an analysis approach called collapsology, which we will talk about in the future.

But besides these more modern and academic analysis, in each era of decline it has been intended to explain the situation by giving reasons from different perspectives: the ineptitude of politicians, the obsolescence of the socio-economic system or the degradation of moral and values ​​that conducted to the decline of the collapsing society. Thus, current explanations about the global issues are not new, as most coincide with those given historically to explain the decline or collapse of earlier societies. Let’s take the best-known case of the collapse of a civilization that is still considered the mother of ours: Rome. I did already an old post about the collapse of the Roman Empire, I will now rescue some of what I said then to make analogies between Rome and the current situation, but from a different perspective. This vision wants to situate the collapse as a transition, a change and an adaptation to a new situation or environment of the society that lives it. Again, this idea is not new, it has also been raised by J. Tainter in his reference book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

In fact, if we want to make a comparison (see table) it is very interesting that two societies so distant in time and so different on many levels (technological, extension, understanding of the world, and social organization) are engaged to do almost the same to manage the storms associated with the collapse.

Correspondence table Rome-globalization:

Economy Society Resources Politics
Rome
  • Retreat of trade by the excess of taxes that had to pay the traders and craftsmen.
  • Progressive devaluation of the currency (reduction of the amount of precious metal in each piece).
  • Progressive lack of revenue for the state.
  • Increase in public debt.
  • Corruption of high-ranking officials of the Administration.
  • Passivity of the citizen before problems and obligations.
  • Crisi de la classe mitjana, aclaparada per les pressions fiscals.
  • Middle class crisis, overwhelmed by fiscal pressures.
  • Deterioration of cities, abandoned by the upper classes, installed in their recreational villages.
  • Decrease in recruitment for legions among the peasantry.
  • Disminució de la producció agrícola.
  • Disminució de la mineria i la producció de metalls.
  • Plagues.
  • Disminució dels excedents.
  • Decrease in agricultural production.
  • Decrease in mining and metal production.
  • Pests.
  • Decrease in surpluses.
  • Increase in the number of legions (military spending).
  • Increase in administration.
  • More insecurity (increased piracy and crime).
  • More social instability: riots.
  • Impossibility to maintain the expansionist policy of colonization.
  • Difficulty managing crises for an economy based on agriculture (90%).
Globalization
  • Devaluation of the international currency (dollar) by printing more banknotes.
  • Increased fiscal pressure.
  • Increase in state debt.
  • The crisis of the first world middle class.
  • Deterioration of cities.
  • Passivity of the citizen in the face of the most serious problems (climate, lack of resources).
  • Stagnation of oil production.
  • Stagnation of production of other necessary minerals and metals..
  • Pandemic.
  • Risks for global food security.
  • Increase in military spending.
  • Impossibility to maintain the colonizing policy by the arrival to the planetary limits and by the degradation of the global periphery (3rd world).
  • Difficulty managing crises due to the need for the economy to expand.

This helps us to see that what we are currently experiencing is not new, nor is the management of these facts new, although, as we all like to think, we are the most powerful and sophisticated civilization that has been emerged in the world history. A look at the past puts us in our place.

So it is necessary to think of collapse as a natural, biophysical process and not as a problem in itself, collapse occurs because there is a zenith and this is because there is an expansionist and colonizing vision in their different forms. I repeat, it is necessary to demystify the collapse in order to manage it. The problem is that we necessarily associate collapse with suffering and destruction, when in reality this destruction and suffering was already there, but on the periphery of the current globalized empire.

Of course, we have an advantage over earlier times: more knowledge about, compared on what the Romans had. But we have a drawback, the Romans had to manage only the resource crisis, we have to adapt, in addition, to a future with dwindling resources, with an environment and a climate that will be increasingly hostile to us.

Options/strategies

To design strategies and create options in today’s climate, ecological, and resource emergency, we need to have a vision of what caused the problem and why. To make a first analysis, I will follow the concepts of Tainter. According to him, the collapse occurs because the expansion triangle formed by the level of accessible energy, social organization and energy flow ceases to be functional and begins to deteriorate. If we compare the socio-economic and biophysical system with a metabolism, we could say that in the early stages of the collapse (the ones we are already suffering from nowadays) functionalities are being lost, at the same time that geographical scope is being lost. In this sense, the system, which is centralized not only geographically, but also in its distribution of resources (elites vs. population) is dropping peripheral parts that do not affect the functioning of the central nodes of the network: elites and rich geographical areas. We must understand this geographical deterioration not only as leaving behind the poorest countries of the planet but also it is happening within the countries, so the concept of country or geographical region as a whole, when we talk about collapse, must be taken with great care. Thus, strategies go through a social reorganization that can adapt to new emergencies. We know how to adapt to specific emergencies: temporary wheather events, catastrophes, war situations. However, now we will have, more frequent and more sustained extreme situations over time, added to more social instability due to widespread impoverishment. The strategy must go through the motto that has now become popular: the “just transition” and “leave no one behind”, but without assuming that the resources we have now will be the same in the future (which is what Europe does) .

The social reorganization we need must be based on two axes: decentralization (administrative, economic and informative) and democracy (of social, knowledge and educational aspects). We need to rethink all the tools we currently have at the social, political and economic level to see what will serve us and what will not, and we need to be very flexible mentally to be able to deal with the unforeseen. It is clear that the current system does not help us to navigate the collapse, but we must do a lot of pedagogy. We must understand that this emergency is not about shelters on distant islands for elites who can afford it: for once in the history of humanity either we are all saved or no one will be saved. No one can escape the disaster if it comes in its hardest scenarios, but the biosphere will continue, despite we, humans believing to be gods.

Thus I propose a decalogue of measures to deal with the main problems of this collapse we are experiencing. In fact, we can find a different examples of measures taking into account the crises we are in (we have a good recent example in Vicent Cucarella’s article, at page 8). In the decalogue I propose here I include objectives and measures to make the transition. The challenge is huge: the lives of our generation and those of future generations.

  1. Criminal legislation: Climate change and the ecological crisis must be framed in a problem that affects the whole humanity, in this sense, we must be very rigorous in what we do and how we do it. It is necessary to provide an international criminal legal framework that includes environmental crimes on the same level as crimes against humanity. In this sense, those who have carried out disinformation campaigns for economic interests in previous years must assume their responsibilities. If we don’t, the generation that will suffer the hardest effects of the emergencies will do it and accuse us of not doing justice (and maybe they will apply it late and badly).
  2. Politics: The political responsibility in this matter is capital, the political parties, all, must have it as priority number one in their agenda. Those that do not have it then: either they do not understand the problem or they understand it and they do not care (in this case point 1 must be applied). Given the evidence we have and how long it has been there, it seems to me that the first option (lack of information or understanding of the extent of the problem) is becoming less and less justifiable.
  3. Management: If we take the first two points seriously, it is necessary that the action plans of the administrations and civil society go through to make this issue, its information and its implications an informative priority. The information should start to focus mainly on physical variables: emissions and energy, making references (and reaching a consensus) of what is the basic level of consumption needed in terms of these amounts to be able to adapt and manage the climate and environmental crisis. I take the Covid-19 pandemic as an example: suddenly, all the mass media talked about it at all hours in order to raise awareness, it was justified by the emergency and the urgency of health. No one complained about not to create panic or alarm. Panic arises when there are no options, when people are not told how to deal with a danger in an ordered and collective manner. If the current problem is postponed and not explained in all its serious consequences, the lack of trust in the bodies that were to guide and coordinate the necessary collective actions will increase. Therefore, not only will panic be created when the situation worsens, but the chances of management will be reduced. In this sense, it is necessary to avoid and penalize all strategies of misinformation and money laundring initiatives in divergent or opposite directions to adaptation and the fight against climate change and the ecological and resource crisis.
  4. Consumerism: Plans to fight against over-consumption and waste, and awareness of the population of the need to reduce and reuse. It should be made clear that consumption and its derivatives (increase in production of goods and expenditure) framed in an expansionist/growthist model, are what has led us to the current impasse. Therefore, any action that is effective involves rethinking this need to increase (or maintain) the consumerism system, which, in turn, does not provide any long-term well-being.
  5. Propaganda: Progressive reduction of advertising strategies and marketing of products, lifestyles or actions that are highly polluting or that involve attacks on biodiversity and/or the health of ecosystems. In this sense I am thinking of moratoriums that, when they expire, in the case of not having adapted, point 1 applies. In this first phase a clear example is what is known as green washing that many companies do, pretending being and doing what they don’t do and that what they aren’t.
  6. Internet adaptation: Information on the cost of energy and emissions (in addition to the price) of maintaining a volume of purely leisure information accessible on the network. Society needs to start deciding what to keep and what to drop on the web. That is, the maximum amount of information held in the cloud and its cost in terms of energy and emissions.
  7. Climate (injustice): transition plans that leave (implicitly or explicitly) population behind must be penalized following point 1. Right now there is no international agreement on what to do and how to do it (beyond the Paris agreements that have already become obsolete and have not served to reduce emissions). The main stumbling block is who pays, a meaningless argument, because the so-called third world has been always paid (historical debt) so that, in the first world, we can swim in material abundance and in the moral misery of tolerating hunger in the world with the excuse of better hypothetical futures. It pays who can pay (who has more, pays more) and, in this case, the first world countries, the main beneficiaries of the last decades of environmental destruction, are the ones who have to pay. It should be noted that those who can pay, must pay now, without complaining, or in twenty years (at most), there will be nothing left to pay or whom to pay (collapse of the system). It is necessary to force large corporations and multinationals to start taxing the volume of destruction created (historical debt) and redirect profits to plans to adapt and fight climate change. Taxes must be progressive towards the structures that will sooner or later disappear in a de-globalized society like the one that awaits us. By that I do not mean that there should be no international trade or people-to-people exchanges, but their volume will be different.
  8. Transport: Reduction of air and sea transport and transport in general. This will involve rethinking leisure and tourism: it is necessary to redesign the current leisure system, more designed to create uncritical, distracted and constantly dissatisfied people, and move to a different system that serves to stimulate social and human values, empathy and social cohesion. In the (very conservative) calculations we have made in the MEDEAS project regarding transport (you can see the publications here and here) in order to have fully renewable transport fleets, these modes of transport (air and sea) must be reduced by half. Trade and economic adjustment plans must therefore be designed in accordance with this reduction in the volume of goods and passengers. (Note: what are we doing with the extension of El Prat airport?)
  9. Natural spaces: Preservation and expansion of nature reserves and protected areas. Non-industrialized or weakly man-made natural spaces act as protection and facilitate adaptation to climate change and reduce the impact on the deterioration of ecosystems. There is also a need for a lot of pedagogy here in the use and mass invasion of protected areas and rural areas. The mantra “I pay taxes so I have the right to use any public place” is of a short-term view. This view is very scary as it involves not understanding that paying taxes is not enough to get rid of of social and civic responsibilities. Protected natural spaces are designed to preserve biodiversity and compensate for the strong anthropization of the natural environment we have in our country. In this sense, the dominant urban vision usually considers the rural world and protected areas as simple thematic parks made for the amusement of the population. This fact is based on the utilitarian/mercantilist vision of our society that sees everything as monetizable objects (things) that can be bought/sold or rented.
  10. Agriculture and water: The uses of the land and agricultural products must change radically, moving from agriculture and industrial livestock to one without the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels and more adapted to local needs. The agricultural and livestock sector needs to be reconverted to supply locally and reduce long-distance exports. In this sense, the current diet (too focused on animal protein) and the requirements for agricultural luxury products (off-season fruit and vegetables, imports of meat and fish from distant areas, etc.) should also be rethought. It is also necessary to take into account and evaluate the impacts of climate change on agricultural and livestock production that will make its management more difficult. In this sense, medium- to long-term action plans are needed, coordinated with land use planning. Connected with agriculture we have access to and use of water resources, which in the future will suffer a strong decrease added to the increase in their need for the expansion of renewable energy.

Finally, we will need to consider some progress indicators in the implementation of this decalogue or, if you want, some signals that gives an idea that something is moving. From my point of view, and to give an example, we will see that, in our country, the environmental and resource crisis is beginning to be taken seriously when the Ministry of the Environment depends directly to the Presidency. Also when government management starts with environmental, resource and climate criteria and is not based on the current criteria of short-term economy, based on growth indicators that we are still reluctant to accept that they are totally useless for dealing with the most serious problem humanity has ever faced.

Ilustración de Txus Cuende
Txus Cuende
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Profesor en el Departament d'Enginyeria Mecànica de la Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona. Coordinador del proyecto Europeo MEDEAS. Miembro del Oil Crash Observatory. Co-autor del libro Por qué la crisis no acabará nunca.

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