Wednesday, 1 August 2012

a potential future

A Potential Future
The effects of Catabolic Collapse on Australia and how Australian policies can affect the outcome.
        History has cycles; an important one is the rise and falls of the civilizations such as the Romans, Mayans or Easter Islanders. Today’s Global Industrial Civilisation (Global civilisation) which had its beginnings in the industrial revolution of Europe, spread to the rest of the world during European colonization of Australia, Africa, Asia and the Americas. With the advance of globalization into all aspects of trade, culture and communication, it has reached the zenith of its power. For every rise, there is a fall. History’s wheel is now turning and Australia’s society will revolve with it. The collapse of a complex civilisation, such as ours is not a simple process. Many thinkers have tried to model collapse, defined here as a large drop in resource usage and social complexity, eg. Joseph Tainter proposed a model that said that a society collapses when it becomes too complex and is no longer able to support itself with a diminishing resource base. Jared Diamond’s model for the collapse of a society is based on the accumulating degradation of the society’s environment to such a point that the resource base is exhausted. These are not mutually exclusive models and I believe that John Michael Greer’s theory of Catabolic collapse, which shares many similarities with the models of Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter will provide a more accurate model of the collapse of the Global Industrial civilization.

An overview of Catabolic Collapse      
      Catabolic collapse is a stair-step down process as periods of collapse are interspersed with periods of recovery and stability until a much lower, stable, equilibrium point is reached. the four variables of the catabolic collapse model are: resources, capital, production and waste. Resources are the naturally occuring factors of the enviroment available to a society. they include such diverse things as unused labour, undiscovered scientific advances, metal ores, trees or soil fertility. Capital is all the factors incorporated into a society's flow of energy, matter and information; this includes tools, skilled labour, market systems or technical skills. Waste is all the factors that have been rendered useless by time or use, this includes ; pollution, retired workers, garbled information or excessive bureaucracy and drains capital. Production is the creation of new capital from resources and capital to either maintain or grow levels of capital. Production depends on both resources and capital, which are interchangeable but at diminishing rates. For the global civilisation, the major forms of Waste are global warming and destruction of the environment (during the extraction of resources) while depletion of resources includes loss of soil fertility, rare earth shortages, depletion of fossil fuels and, fitting with Joseph Tainter’s model, the diminishing returns of scientific research. In creating his theory of evolution-one of the most important discoveries of man- Darwin’s major tool was observation. Today, however, major scientific advances rely on expensive equipment like the Large Hadron Collider. This shows that science has begun to run into the law of diminishing returns. Catabolic collapse is calculated to occur when maintenance can no longer keep existing capital levels and in response, capital levels drop in society. Simply put, once production levels drop due to lack of resources, capital levels drop also reducing production levels until responses by the affected society solve the short-term crisis. The dividing of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in CE 395 is a good example of this collapse and response model. The Eastern half of the empire produced most of the wealth but had only 1/3 of the border of the whole Roman Empire. Splitting allowed the Eastern Empire to stabilize; however, the collapse continued, creating a pattern of crises punctuated by periods of stability and recovery because the underlining problem of unsustainability was not resolved. 

     Barring an unpredictable event the Global civilisation will go through catabolic collapse as a result of the exhaustion of vital non-renewable resources e.g. oil, coal, gas etc and the overusage of renewable resources such as fish stocks (North atlantic cod), forests, soil fertility and others

How will catabolic collapse affect Australia?

        Australia is not a single entity, but is made up of various states and territories who themselves are made up of many cities, towns and communities. Australia is not isolated; it is a part of the global civilisation. The Global Civilisation is not a coherent entity, but a collection of highly complex systems, ideologies and at least four core cultures (European, American, Chinese and Indian) that are themselves made up of complex systems and factors. In the Global Civilisation the flow of energy, matter and information is on a global scale, e.g. a pipeline moves oil across continents according to market demand.

       Australia is dependent on the global system for both resources and capital. Catabolic collapse in other areas of the world will affect Australia. When Australia suffers catabolic collapse other countries that are dependent on us for resources suffer, sending waves of damage through the global system that can rebound back on us. Due to the interlinkedness of global society only a small disruption is necessary to start a positive feedback loop that resonates throughout the global civilisation leaving only wreckage in its wake until a response by the global system restore equilibrium.

     One of the most important commodities we derive from the Global civilisation is crude oil, which we then refine into petroleum, and various products. Most of our transport infrastructure is directly dependent on oil and so is the growing, processing and transport of food. Our ability to access electricity is also dependent on oil supplies, since coal-mining equipment is normally oil driven. A prime target for collapse is the global oil markets, which could easily be jeopardised by instability in the Middle East, say by an American war with Iran, or the eventual decline in availability, predicted by the theory of peak oil. Oil is non-renewable so a decline in availability is a certainty. Our access to oil would drop quite rapidly if either scenario occurred. If unprepared, the effects would leave us noticeably poorer than before the collapse, even if we have adapted to a shortage of oil.

     However, Australia also supplies commodities, such as food and minerals, to the rest of the World, so problems here can be magnified. Let us say due to global warming or loss of soil fertility our agriculture’s productivity fell. While it is unlikely that we would starve, we would lose the resources (such as oil) and capital we exchange the food we grow. Currently we export wheat to many countries. If the world supply of wheat were disrupted as the result of our lost agricultural productivity, this would lead to social unrest in some of these countries, some of whom produce oil. This would then cycle back to cause further problems for Australia.

    These are only two components of the many forms collapse could take, the scenario that happen will be far more complex and mixed with other factors, Joseph Tainters diminishing returns of social complexity will almost certainly appear, but the basic shape and effects can be seen. People and nations, such as Australia, are not passive actors in the world, though it can feel like they are passive actors, who are at the mercy of History and Nature’s power but active players who have their own powers, will and desires. While we have to work within the constraints of nature, we have to ability to plan and act for the future.

What can be done to minimise the effects of catabolic collapse?
     One of the most powerful tools available to governments is policy. Before we consider what policies would benefit Australia an important point must be stressed, Collapse is a reduction in resources availability and our collapse due to lowered resource levels is inevitable. What matters is how the collapse affects our society. The spectrum of policies that can help Australia prepare for catabolic collapse and allow it to thrive during the collapse include; food policy, trade, taxation, industry, subsidies and energy. As such the most useful polices are those that reduce energy and material usage
  • Primarily energy conservation.
  • Decreasing reliance on oil in transport and food production.
  • Shift to a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing system.
  •  Stabilising population levels.

    Changing the context in which everything else functions will also aid the situation immeasurably. An example is taxation. As the economist, Herman Daly (CASSE) said ‘we want to tax what we don’t want or wish to minimise’, the idea behind the Mining and Carbon tax is a good example of this approach. We want to minimise pollution and resource extraction, but this policy needs to be expanded to include more tariffs and trade barriers to compensate for the increased price of resources and manufacturing while still achieving the goals of self-sufficiency. This approach, coupled with a reduction in income tax among the lower income earners, increased grants to help business and industry adapt to the changes caused by this policy, would help Australia prepare for catabolic collapse. Added benefits would be increased wealth equality and increased independence from the global political and economic system.

    As the Global Financial Crisis shows, the financial system needs to be reformed. This vital system has been allowed to grow brittle and too pervasive in our civilisation. Various reforms have been expounded on by Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) and include;
  • A gradual increase to 100% in the reserve requirement of banks to increase stability.
  • Definancialization of core systems such as basic infrastructure and agriculture to reduce the likelihood of systematic shock.
  • Change our financial system from a growth dependent to a steady state model.
  • Implement mechanisms to reduce build up of wealth in the richest portion of Australian society since this takes resources away from the poorer sections.

     If the constraints of catabolic collapse are acknowledged then the challenges catabolic collapse poses are not insurmountable. Today we have a clear sense of history and its cycles and if we decide to listen to history, it will tell us what to expect. The knowledge and scientific advances we have made could allow us to successfully retreat from unsustainability to sustainability without going through major disruptions providing the collective will allow society to use these advances. We could then allow the intellectual and cultural legacy of the last 300 years to survive the coming Dark Age and enrich the societies that will emerge from the wreckage of the collapse of the Global civilisation. As history has shown, the death of a civilisation is also the birth of new one, which shall begin the cycles again. Australians should aim to be survivors of the current cycle and use the changes that will occur to evolve our society instead of revolutionising it. Evolution is a less destructive process and takes into account that human societies are akin to organic entities, they grow and evolve rather than being built and designed and all we can do is direct it and steer it down certain paths.

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