11 février 2017

Civilization and Collapse

Conférence de David Korowicz, 19 janvier 2017

We have entered a period where the risks we face as a species are becoming potentially far more extreme in their impacts, more probable in their likelihood, and potentially irreversible in their duration. These risks are being manifested now and will increasingly be part of our lived experience. This transformation of risk has arisen due to a confluence of several general factors. I argue for and develop a systems perspective of this transformation of risk and point to some implications. I will discuss the limitations of risk management, but then also offer some pointers of where ameliorating action might be undertaken now, an issue of critical importance given the stakes involved.

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  1. Complexity

We have normalized what is extraordinary (= the Great Acceleration). And this extraordinary change since a few decades is linked to energy and energy flows.

For millennia, life was food insecure, with low surpluses and low population density. But nowadays, there are far more people, who buy their daily bread in supermarkets, with trucks, energy, packaging, etc. We don’t know every connection of the highly complex and interdependent system which is behind. This system is very opaque, and fast speed, with very high level of coordination.

My view is that civilization is a natural system.

Now let’s think about what has been happening for a few years in Europe, North Africa and Syria. Why did this happen? Some say it’s linked to climate change. There was also a violent food crisis before the Arab springs. Those countries were food independent back in the 1950s, but now they are importing ¾ of their food. This means they have to export a lot of other things at the same time to pay it. At that time, there was a peaking in the word oil production, and weak wheat production in Russia: so there were violent variations in world food and energy crises. And the US were trying to tackle their financial crisis in priority. EU had to face a terrible financial crisis too, with a weak growth for several years.

This means that, when the Syrian refugees arrived, Europe had already lost a part of its resilience, and this is still the case. And we have now reached a plateau in world oil production. But economy can’t pay anymore for more expensive energy. So we have very strong variations in energy prices, rising and falling, because global oil production can’t grow anymore (economic peak oil).

We do have now a global credit bubble, and if we don’t believe in it anymore it can just collapse.

There is a link between food prices and social unrest: when food prices rise, first you cut on some leisure expanses (movies, etc.); but as they keep rising you cut on core goods, such as medicine. And in a poor country, a food crisis can rapidly have terrible results.

In a complex and interdependent economy, such crises can have global impacts. The global system can increase local resilience, through financial supports, supply chain supports, operational supports, etc. But this global ability to increase local resilience depends on global vulnerability to local crisis. There has to be global surpluses to increase local resilience.

Our problem today is that we have to face several problems: our ability to face climate change depends on global energy, which depends on the global energy crisis, etc. If we keep adding stresses, the system can’t recover anymore.

Why did EU need so much time to recover a little bit after the 2008 financial crisis? Well, the whole world was facing a major financial crisis, which means that there could not be a significant global support.

  1. Trap system

The transformation of risk (= impact x probability). There is an increasing probability of system breakdown. The longer the system is going, the stronger the impact.

Characterized: growing range of economics, financial, social, environmental, infrastructural stress, volatility, shrinking time and trust horizons. Growing sense of ‘permanent crisis.’

Tension between maintaining existing systems that we depend upon and engaging in costly or time-shifted benefits.

Growing loss of system coordination.

As systems become more vulnerable, danger of doing major ‘surgery’ on critical systems becomes risky.

  1. Large-scale breakdown

The global economy is a metabolism. It consumes energy to maintain itself and it produces waste.

Complexity and risk: because of speed processes (just-in-time logistics), a local disruption can very quickly have major, global impacts. (Cf. UK fuel blockades, 2000).

Cascade and Contagion. Shock => initial impact => multi-system contagion => national production drops => monetary and financial systems destabilized => =>…

Actually, when we had the major 2008 financial crisis, we indeed stopped a major catastrophe, a large-scale breakdown.

Another initial shock could be a major epidemic disease: Black Plague took months and months to travel through Europe, but nowadays it would be very quick because of transportation; and there would be major economic consequences because of absenteeism.

  1. Conclusion : a predicament !

So this is a predicament. According to William Catton, a problem has a solution; whereas a predicament does not. You can’t solve it, you can just react to it, bring a response. You have to answer a predicament with wisdom, but you can’t put an end to it.

We are a resilient species and, even faced to a predicament, there are always options.

We need plans for what might happen, not what you hope to happen.

Anger and blame are a decadent luxury: we need to cooperate. And we need to enjoy life, this is not a despair message.

  1. Questions

Agnès Sinaï: Do you think there may be a tipping point, or rather a catabolic change? We had a shock, many shocks, but not a true tipping point for the moment.

DK: We are in a stress phase. There can be a tipping point linked to a pandemic or a new financial crisis for example. But for now, there is not. There’s just an erosion of our resilience. All we can say is that there is a growing risk of reaching a tipping point.

Cyprien Tasset: What are the strongest objections you have met and what do you think about them?

DK: In Europe, even since 2008 crisis, the number of people living in poverty has been declining. So some people say we are just focusing on the bad things without seeing what’s going better. And some people say there is no risk of catastrophic collapse; the true risk would rather be a catabolic change. And another thing: a lot of people don’t see the interdependence between ecological problems, and just consider climate change (for example).

Yves Cochet: what about the speed of collapse? In your book, you talk about months or years, not decades.

DK: We need to be cautious with definitions here. In reality, we won’t fall to zero once for all; we still have oil reserves for quite along time, but just not as many as before. Collapse is just a major failure of complex system, but it does not mean that everything stops at once and forever.

Mathilde Szuba: What about the quote of Gordon Brown you talked about?

DK: It is a quote by one of his advisers, Damian McBride in 2008. It shows that Brown was truly afraid that everything might collapse.

Alain Gras: You explained how a global system can collapse. But what would be the part of science and technology about it? Would technology collapse too, how?

DK: High-tech needs high levels of complexity, so there are the more vulnerable technologies to a major system breakdown. Chips factories would be highly vulnerable. I suspect that, like in Asimov’s novels Foundation, we will lose a lot of knowledge in the coming times. So we may need some kind of Foundation for the future. (Yves Cochet: Bihouix wrote a book about Low techs.)

Someone: We take collapse here as something that will happen, but one can also look at it as a hypothesis. So could we do something to avoid collapse, by making our societies less complex and taking back control on them? Find a way to redirect things the way we want. Investing in agroecology instead of high-tech things.

Cyril Le Roy: But the billionaires are investing in geo-engineering and not in agroecology, aren’t they?

DK: I do believe that those who have a plan of what might be coming, within civil society, might make the difference. Good seeds. But of course the system keeps trying its old methods as a response to the growing stresses.

Someone: [a question about people being afraid].

DK: the military is quite used to deal with frightening things. They do not panic, they just deal with it, that’s their job. And there’s reflexivity: if people in charge say they are afraid of a major crisis, it will launch a panic; so they have to lie. In Germany, government said that every family should have a two-week food reserve because of terrorism: this is strange, because it is highly unlikely that a terrorist attack has such a consequence. So it may not be because of terrorism, but rather because of major, global risks.

Alice Le Roy: How do you prepare?

DK: I’m fishing, because I live near a river. And I try to engage with my local government. But we need to do it in a pro-social way, not in a kind of survivalist delirium. If there is a crisis, don’t ask how you will survive, but how you can help.